Category Archives: Attachment

Parenting Is Like Oxygen

Holding a baby feels powerful. We feel it, and at some level we know that the infant experiences it too. Our heart warms. Our belly fills with butterflies. Stress melts away. The skin tingles. We know something important is happening and that there are physical implications, for us and for the child. It feels healthy. For a parent, there may be no words for what is happening, though science is increasingly able to provide words for those who want them.

From a story on NPR, new evidence that a lack of parenting and attachment effects the growth of the brain. We know that a lack of attachment to a parent or parent-figure can lead to several problems, including under-functioning immune systems, emotional disorders, and difficulties with relationships. In the worst cases, neglected children can fail to thrive, experiencing severely inhibited growth, unable even to take advantage of calories when there is enough food. Now, researchers are discovering that the physical structure of the brain is effected by the level of care a child receives in the early years. While it is not irreversible, a child with no parent-figure to bond with may have significantly lower growth in several areas of the brain.

While the science is encouraging and provides for deeper understanding, most parents we know are way ahead of the game. The expert’s findings add little to what we know when we hold a baby in our hands: our children need us. We know this at a deep level, even though we don’t have the x-ray vision to track brain development. To hold a child is to know, for all the miraculous insight that technology provides, that scientists have probably only just begun to scratch the surface of what is made possible by a parent’s love.

“Parents are playing a really big role in shaping children’s brain development. Parenting … is a bit like oxygen. It’s easy to take for granted until you see someone who isn’t getting enough.” –Nim Tottenham, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Failure has its benefits

Babies and parents form a perfect teaching and learning environment, one in which perfection is not required. After birth, the natural connectedness and comfort of the womb gives way to an environment where connection and comfort must be actively provided by a parent — it takes more effort. Usually the joy that attends the arrival of the child is enough to keep parents close and attentive, and that bond will grow with the healthy parent, who responds quickly and easily to the child’s cries. But this easy connection does not last.

Around the time that a mom and dad start to return ‘to the real world’ and begin to try to balance parenthood with their other adult responsibilities, everybody’s patience will be tested–especially baby. They’ll cry a little bit longer … and mom or dad will be a bit slower to respond. This will feel like failure. Yet, as long as these failures aren’t catastrophic or capricious, but come gradually as the child and parents acclimate to the developing family situation, then these failures have their purpose.

When we fail as parents, new perspectives are allowed to grow in the infant: trust, patience, self-confidence, and other self-sustaining strategies. And in a healthy rhythm of family life, these new perspectives will always be balanced with knowledge that one is cared for and loved, that connection and comfort will come. Imperfections in the family help a child learn important lessons about their own resources, and how to endure life outside of paradise.  The gradual but inevitable distancing, the inevitable testing separation, is a part of being human, and should not be feared. In fact, parents ought to get used to it, as this is the one constant in parenting. It ends only when your child becomes an adult.

Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t encouraging parents to quickly teach infants the cold, hard facts of a solitary life. Parents should respond appropriately to whatever needs their infant communicates: for holding, for feeding, for quiet solitude, for play. But given that most parents will do this to the best of their ability, we think it’s worth remembering that failure is normal, and the experience of it is an important part of a child’s development.

Screen Time

The people who study development in young children admit that we don’t yet know the effect of video screens on the brains of the very young. However, we hear a common warning from these same camps: children under the age of three should not be pacified with video screens. This includes phones, tablets, computers, and TVs. Ok, we know: this is hard. Recommendations for the later years vary, but some say that an hour a day should be the max for kids up to age nine.

If we don’t yet know what effect a video screen has on a young brain, we do know that what young children need is physical human interaction and engagement, balanced with times of quiescence. Quiescence is unstimulated inactivity, and is the soil out of which grows creative and imaginative play. No matter how interactive an app is, there is a serious limit to how creative you can be within the fixed boundaries of a glass screen.

Any repetitive stimulation effects brain wiring. That is, you train a brain to depend on a source of stimulation. Too much exposure to limitless visual excess can wire a child to expect instant gratification (and not just of a visual nature) and become intolerant of any environment where they cannot have what they want when they want it.

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(Image from eBay user l8ouise, who will sell you an iPad mount for your baby’s car seat … if you are determined to do your own research on these matters.)

Attachment 101-What Infants Want To Know

There is a moment repeated hundreds of times in the first months of life, each a connection between mother and child, each one a building block adding up to a child’s sense of self. This is attachment Attachment is an infant’s emotional connection with their principal caretaker that is the basis for the capacity to love and live together. It’s essential.

In the middle of last century, a psychologist named John Bowlby proposed the theory that attachment is not a way to get other essential needs met: attachment is a need all its own. Infants need to eat, we know this: an early view of attachment was that bonding with mother ensured survival by making sure a child was fed and cared for. Bowlby’s insight was that an infant may be fed and cared for by anyone, no attachment required. Children who left London during the bombing raids of WWII were fed and cared for by extended family members in the countryside, but often became severely depressed and unwell. Babies raised in orphanages who are fed and have their basic needs met may nevertheless fail to thrive and sometimes simply perish for lack of meaningful attachment to a caretaker. The need for attachment is as essential to survival as food.

Why is attachment so essential? Althea Horner, in her way-cool book, Being and Loving, notes five questions that need answering in the earliest season of life. The answers to these questions are provided by parents, depend on the nature of the attachment, and become the basis for essential belief systems about the child’s self:

  1. What am I like? … Am I worthy of love and care?
  2. What are others like? … Are people for me? Are people caring and safe?
  3. What are relationships like? … Can relationships be sources of good?
  4. What do I have to do to be safe? … Is it safe to cry out? Is it safer to be invisible?
  5. What do I have to do to feel good about myself? … Will soothing come from outside of me, or am I responsible for my own comfort?

Attachment is the process by which we form mental models that remain our primary way of seeing ourselves and others. These early ‘models’ stay with us and influence a lifetime of decision making.

Attachment 101

Attachment Parenting

When we set out on the parenting journey in the early 90’s, Anghelika was studying early childhood education at Pasadena City College, and we read books like William Sears’ excellent Nighttime Parenting. We learned about “attachment parenting”, though we did not have nearly the understanding of it that we do now. We might have summed up this approach by describing our family bed. … We knew that it had to do with allowing our child to decide when she needed to be near us, and then responding according to her needs (young children are selfish, and appropriately so). Allowing our child to come to us on her schedule would ultimately encourage her to explore ‘separateness’ with more confidence and courage.

In subsequent years, we’ve seen lots of parents raise lots of kids, and while attachment parenting is now widely practiced, we have at times seen a kind of reduced version of attachment at work: as practiced it can look more like ‘possession’ or ‘unfailing provision”. The mother that thinks attachment means ‘keeping their child close’, or that they must ‘meet all their child’s needs’, even before the child asks, is misunderstanding how attachment really works, and risks short-circuiting a child’s healthy development.

We have a lot to say about this subject and will cover the topic in subsequent posts, but today we want to say one important thing about attachment: attachment and separateness go together.

Good attachment doesn’t just lead to good separation, it requires it. How a parent allows their child to be apart from them is a critical part of healthy attachment. A child has periods of drawing close and seeking attention, and also has periods of drawing apart and …seeking nothing. These quiet times, or empty times, are necessary for a child to learn the boundaries of their own experience as an individual. When a parent interrupts such quiet times, it’s often to meet their own needs, not the child’s.

When children are ready to walk, it would be disastrous to carry them everywhere. In the same way, when a child is ready to explore alone, or simply to be alone, it would be a disaster to never let them exercise that muscle … to develop inner responses to the world as themselves. A parent’s intrusion on this process, imposing our meaning instead of letting a child find meaning themselves, can short circuit a child’s development.

… stay tuned for more on attachment.

Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep, by William Sears, MD