The study of love – Introducing Attachment Theory

When a baby cries, that is an attachment behaviour. When a parent has a pattern of responding to that cry, the baby knows that he is safe. But when a parent has a pattern of responding differently, such as not coming, or coming inconsistently, then the baby knows that his survival may be on the line. It is at this point that a baby knows he must either increase or change the signal to get help.

You can see that the way in which the parent responds to their baby will create the pattern that the child must match in order to ensure his survival.

If you are a new parent of a little baby you may hear the advice,

Thats no way to stop him crying, youre just rewarding him by picking him up. And the advice sounds convincing, but not if you are using the attachment perspective and empathising with your baby.

What you can say is, Lets look at this from the babys perspective.

He cant meet his own needs and needs me to do things for him. Even if I dont pick him up, he is still going to be needing me. So to get my attention hes going to have to get more and more upset, and eventually I will pick him up.

So if I dont pick him up Im training him to get very upset immediately because nothing else works to get my attention. If he cant trust me to fulfil his needs, then hell stick close to me because he wont trust me when Im out of his sight. That means hell explore less and wont develop so many skills. And my baby will turn into a whingeing, clingy preschooler.

Or perhaps I could follow your advice and not pick him up at all when he cries. How would that turn out? Looking at it from my babys perspective, he still needs me but obviously, his cries disturb me so much that I cant respond. To make me feel safe hell have to pretend that he has no emotional needs. Hell learn to switch them off. And then he wont be able to recognise them in other people either. My baby will turn into a preschooler who wont have the empathic skills needed to make friends.

But if I do pick him up, he learns that empathy is seeing how someone feels and valuing that in your actions. Hell know that Im always going to be there to meet his needs and he will soon discover that it isnt necessary to get upset and cry to get his needs met. So, eventually, when he wants me, hell just call out once and wait. Because he trusts me hell turn into a happy little explorer because he knows Mum will be there watching and protecting. He will develop lots of the skills needed for independence. And my baby will grow into an independent, sociable and cheerful preschooler.

Parents also often hear statements like there is no such thing as a naughty child and just ignore undesirable behaviours. Again, attachment theory provides a childs perspective on this kind of parenting practice – because the other great finding of attachment theory is that children need to feel safe, and that part of making them feel safe is having clear, enforced rules for behaviour. The great flaw in the parenting strategy of only noticing positive behaviours – is that it makes children feel less safe.

Attachment theory makes explicit something that we intuitively know: our children respond to our emotional patterns. Rather than offering strategies for parenting, it offers us the chance to look at our emotions, how those emotions affect the way we respond to our children, and how that in turn shapes our childrens characters.

This is contrary to what I was taught while studying at university. At that time researchers believed that the active, the magic, ingredient for child development was stimulation. Is your baby getting enough stimulation? was the question you were likely to be asked by the health professionals. But it was the wrong question.

We were doing all the right things with our babies by playing, touching, kissing, holding, singing to, talking to and cuddling them, but the most important thing in doing all this was not stimulation. It was the fact that this playful interaction built the knowledge that mother and child had of each other and strengthened the emotional connection – the attachment – between them.

Why attachment is the real active ingredient

The most powerful forces in a childs development are his emotional states. These states are so powerful because emotion is the language the brain/body speaks to itself. The message is carried in chemicals – neurotransmitters, hormones – but the messages carried are emotional ones: fear, longing, discomfort, pain, sadness, despair, excitement, curiosity, exhilaration, confusion … All of these different emotions drive or hinder brain/body growth throughout our lives.

Will your childs main emotion be a feeling of love? Then it is oxytocin, the love and learning hormone that causes brain cells to grow and interconnect, that will prevail. Or will his main emotion be fear? Then it is cortisol and the catecholamines, the stress hormones that, in sufficient quantities, destroy neural connections, that will dominate.

And what creates these emotional states in a child? A childs emotional states are mostly (but not totally, because temperament is a factor) created by the quality of his relationship with you. It is the way you respond, the pattern of your response to him, that creates the feelings he has.

If a distressed baby is immediately comforted, he will spend less time in that distressed state. If he turns to share something with you, and you respond with delight straightaway, his happy feeling is going to be strengthened. The phrase in the literature on attachment theory and the interlinked neuroscience is, states become traits – in other words, the feelings a baby has more of now are going to shape his character down the track.

The skills of self-regulation start here, in infancy, based in the quality of the attachment relationship – but there is no aspect of development untouched by this. Not even movement or thinking or language skills, even though they seem so far removed from the ambit of emotion.

You will perhaps be wondering why I havent written love here – why, in fact, love is not the magic ingredient. It would be a much nicer sentiment!

All parents love their babies and children. But it is how we respond to them that is the way our love is expressed, and there are ways of responding that are not going to help a child to that best possible self. No matter how much we love our children, it is how that love is expressed that counts.


This article is an extract from Raising the Best Possible Child by Jo Jackson King.