A strong parent-child relationship fosters junior’s physical, emotional and social development. Learn how to nurture the connection.

As a new mum, you can’t wait to form strong bonds with your newborn. After all, you’ve carried him or her in your womb for nine months, so you already have a pretty strong attachment to your little one.

And as it turns out, a secure attachment is pivotal to a baby’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development.

Alison Cheng, a psychologist at National University Hospital’s Child Development Unit, elaborates, “A secure attachment is developed from a caregiver’s responsiveness to a baby’s signals. It provides a sense of security, a source of calm and joy that will soothe distress (that is, emotional regulation) and a secure base from which a child can explore the world.”

In 1982, world-renowned American paediatrician William Sears also coined the term “attachment parenting”. This parenting philosophy advocating the importance of developing healthy emotional bonds between parents and children.

“Practising attachment parenting allows needs to be met in a consistent, loving and timely manner, resulting in a secure attachment between caregivers and children,” Cheng explains. “In the long term, these bonds are believed to provide a lifelong foundation for developing subsequent healthy and enduring relationships.”

Follow these strategies to help your baby form secure bonds that will benefit them well beyond babyhood.

#1. Work as a team and have a support system

“As it’s important for babies to connect with caregivers, mothers, fathers and even extended family members (such as grandparents and relatives), these can work together in caring for the baby,” Cheng suggests.

Sharing the load also provides opportunities for various caregivers to interact with the baby, so mums and dads can take a breather. This is especially important in avoiding parental burnout.

“Practising attachment parenting allows needs to be met in a consistent, loving and timely manner, resulting in a secure attachment between caregivers and children.”

Take turns doing “night duty”, so that you can rest and not become cranky and listless, Cheng advises. Feelings of exhaustion will compromise how you care for your bub, which in turn, affects their ability to form a strong attachment to you.

“Given how babies are particularly sensitive to feelings of anxiety and stress, maintaining a calm and relaxed manner (through sufficient rest and social support) will help your baby feel secure,” she adds.

Aside from family members, other sources of support include a confinement nanny, a domestic helper or even a therapist to work through any emotional issues which may impact your relationship with your baby.

#2. Respond to your baby’s cries

Sears’ attachment parenting theory has been loosely defined by eight principles, one of which is responding with sensitivity when your baby is hurting or expressing strong emotions, as they have yet to learn to control their emotions, Cheng notes.

To understand what your baby’s needs are, look out for and listen to their cues. For example, crying is a way for your baby to inform you that they are either uncomfortable or hungry. Respond to her needs accordingly, be it a diaper change or a quick feed.

Do also check if they’re experiencing any discomfort ― crying may be due to infant colic, uncomfortable clothing or simply being overwhelmed.

“The more responsive you are to your baby’s needs, the more trust is built,” Cheng points out. This trust, in turn, strengthens the sense of attachment your baby has to you. 

#3. Be mindful of how you respond to a difficult baby

“It should also be noted that babies differ from each other in temperament (i.e. easy, difficult or slow-to-warm),” notes Cheng. “This temperament is not fixed but changes with time in response to the child’s experiences.”

She also elaborates how a baby’s temperament may affect how others (especially caregivers) respond to him or her. For example, some parents find it challenging to maintain an affectionate relationship with a baby who has a difficult temperament. Such a baby may be frequently cranky, have irregular sleep or eating patterns or find it tough adjusting to new situations.

With difficult babies, obtain help and support, so that a positive relationship can be maintained. Over time, children with difficult temperaments may soften and become easier to manage.

“However, if parents respond with irritation and intolerance, the child is likely to continue being grouchy and unsatisfied,” Cheng warns. “This may eventually lead to the development of behavioural problems.”



#4. Share happy moments together

Your baby will exhibit numerous signs that they want to interact with you, including looking at you, reaching their arms out, kicking and cooing. When they do this, relax and enjoy playtime with bubba.

“Smile, laugh, make funny faces, speak in a silly voice, sing a catchy tune, play peek-a-boo or simple tickling games,” Cheng says. “Toys and books may also be helpful tools to use when spending time with your baby.”

Whatever activities you engage your bub in, communicate with them through your tone of voice, loving touch and body language. 

“Whilst she may not understand all that you are saying, a calm voice and reassuring touch conveys safety,” Cheng explains. “However, be mindful to stop when your baby appears tired or overstimulated.”

With difficult babies, obtain help and support so that a positive relationship can be maintained. Over time, children with difficult temperaments may soften and become easier to manage.

#5. Give it time

If you don’t find yourself bonding with your baby right away, don't fret! As with all important relationships, secure bonds take time to develop and flourish.

“In fact, it takes an average of six months to fully establish an attachment between a baby and a caregiver,” notes Cheng.

In the first two months, you may notice that babies are rarely fussed about whom responds to their needs. As a mum, it’s easy to assume that your baby isn’t taking to you, but that’s just the way they are at such a young age.

At 3 to 6 months, babies become more particular, preferring to be soothed by a select few, observes Cheng. It’s after 6 to 8 months that an attachment starts to develop. At this stage, babies become way more selective about who responds to their needs or holds them, especially when they are uncomfortable or unhappy.

A look at different attachment theories

Before Sears’ attachment parenting idea, British psychiatrist John Bowlby developed the theory of attachment in the 1950s.

Cheng explains, “He posited that a child has an innate need to attach to a primary caregiver (usually the mother), and that the long-term absence of such an attachment figure often results in negative behaviours, poor psychological health and lower intelligence.”

His theory was later expanded by American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who came up with an assessment method to determine children’s different attachment behaviours and styles:

  Secure Insecure - Avoidant Insecure - Ambivalent
Caregiver’s response to child’s needs Consistent and sensitive Neglectful, often not present in times of emotional distress (that is, emotionally absent) Inconsistent, may or may not respond to the child’s needs
Child’s interpretation Trusts that caregiver will be available to meet his/her needs Caregiver is not likely to fulfil his/her needs Caregiver cannot be relied on for his/her needs to be met; thus insecure
Child’s behaviour Eager to explore in the presence of a caregiver. Although distressed when the caregiver leaves, they are easily soothed and happy when the caregiver returns Emotionally and physically independent of the caregiver, does not care for the presence or absence of the caregiver, and shows no preference between the caregiver and a stranger Very clingy to the caregiver but may also refuse interactions. While child becomes very distressed when the caregiver leaves, the child is not easily soothed and may even reject the caregiver upon his/her return
Possible long-term outcome A well-adjusted adult Possible precursor to difficulties forming long-lasting meaningful relationships later in life Possible precursor to emotional disorders (that is, anxiety, depression) throughout life
Percentage of children with this style of attachment 70 per cent 15 per cent 15 per cent

Photos: iStock

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