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The complex relationship of attachment between parents and baby

A new mother and father play with their young babyThe word attachment can mean one of two things in the world of babies.

One use of the word describes the connection between a baby and a breast, the other use describes the connection between a baby and his parents.

Both are incredibly complex in the ways they start and develop, mostly occurring without our knowledge or understanding.

Attachment, as a relationship between a baby and his parents, is often experienced from the parents’ perspective as feelings of love, awe and overwhelming protectiveness. For the baby, who has no language or even conscious thought, it is experienced as safety, security and consistency.

In the language of attachment, and there is a great deal of knowledge and theory, the baby’s relationship with his parents is the earliest social experience and can set the scene for ongoing social attachments, relationships and development.

How quickly and consistently his needs are met also conveys many complex messages about his value to his parents, his safety and how trustworthy other people are.

Touch, voice and eye contact take the place of language for the baby and convey many important messages – the human face is his anchor point for the first few months of life and the primary way that a baby begins to learn about himself. He looks at his mother and father and sees himself, and in turn his development will be determined by how his parents respond and how he feels others view him.

Eye contact is one way that a baby can control his environment. For example, if he looks away he can avoid making contact with his parent as a means of disengaging from her, to allow a break in their communication, or he can choose to engage by making eye contact. For a baby whose parent is reading this visual engaging and disengaging and responding appropriately, he will come back to her when he is ready, and she will wait for him. It is a form of unspoken early turn taking and tells the baby many things.

The intimate, loving touch that happens between a baby and his parents is a part of this early attachment relationship. This isn’t the touch involved in changing nappies, washing, drying and clothing a baby – it is the languishing, stroking and nurturing touch that tells the baby that his parent is delighting in his body and wanting him to be soothed and at peace with his world. A baby’s response to such touch, while not always positive, can tell the parent a great deal too. She will experience her own capacity to soothe her baby and create that special closeness and intimacy with her baby. There is no better way to build her confidence and assuredness as a mother with her baby.

It is a blessed parent for whom these sophisticated interactions of attachment evolve seamlessly. Love for her baby may not happen at first sight for the new parent but if she has the listening ears and watching eyes that allow her to be truly present, reading her baby, then her love will grow very quickly in the first weeks of life together, creating this safe and special bond.

The parent as a child

One of the less obvious aspects of attachment is what the new mother and father bring to the relationship with their baby.

Each parent will have had their own experiences, some being dealt difficult early relationships or experiences in their own childhood that were not able to provide them with messages of safety or security, or of their special, unique and loved place in the lives of their parents.

This may explain why a new parent might find their new baby to be frightening and overwhelming. Not just because the baby has demands and needs that are hard to understand and to meet, but because the baby is expecting so much more from the new parent than they have ever experienced being able to give. It can be hard to provide this for a baby if it was never provided to the new parent.

The adult becomes a parent

When a woman becomes a mother and a man becomes a father the transition to parenthood can be difficult, more so because of past experiences. Some of these are the identified risk factors for distress, anxiety or depression after the birth of a baby (postnatal depression). Others may be less obvious such as the experiences and remembered sense of a new parent’s childhood and their place in their family. These can resurface with the birth of a baby, particularly if there is ‘unfinished business’ attached to them.

It is not uncommon to hear a new mother need to speak at length about the stories of her earlier life, after the birth of her baby. This focus can surprise her, not anticipating the emergence of what she saw as long forgotten experiences, conversations and relationships. Sometimes the new parent can spend significant amounts of time and energy immersed in her memories and reflecting on her feelings so that she can come to a position of acceptance about old issues or memories now that she is a mother. This may pass quietly and without notice but for some mothers it may interrupt her presence with her baby and reading him as she needs to within the developing attachment relationship.

Postnatal depression

Postnatal depression can wreak havoc within a new family, for either of the new parents. One in 7 new mothers and one in 20 new fathers will be diagnosed with postnatal depression. So many elements can contribute to its development, there is always a combination that is unique to each person.

Babies and their early attachment relationships can be impacted upon by postnatal depression in either parent. While this is not always the case for all parents and their baby, we must always keep the baby in mind and the family supported.

Parent and child become family

These early and vital relationships of new families must be held within wider families and protected by society and community. There is nothing more important for us to do. Anything less may leave new parents vulnerable to major stressors, isolation and depression at a time when they need to be present for their baby and holding up half of this early and complex relationship of attachment.

We need to encourage new parents to talk, talk and talk about their own lives as they prepare for their baby and to know the importance of their baby having a relationship with consistent, ‘good enough’ parents. Because that is all it takes.

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