Attachment theory: 6 ways to help your baby form secure attachments

6 steps to build a bond to help your baby thrive.

Attachment theory: 6 ways to help your baby form secure attachments

These days, most mamas have heard of the concept of “attachment parenting,” and many are enthusiastically embracing this warmhearted philosophy.

So what is it?

Attachment parenting promotes the idea that you, as a caregiver, can build a strong bond with baby by maintaining closeness and relying on your intuition to respond to baby’s needs.

The benefits

A healthy bond between you and baby is related to countless positive outcomes for your tot, including benefits in later academic achievement, mental health, self-esteem and romantic outcomes as an adult.

At the heart of attachment parenting is one of the most enduring theories in developmental psychology: attachment theory.

Attachment theory

According to attachment theory, almost all infants develop an attachment to their caregiver during their first year. The type of attachment your baby develops will greatly depend on daily interactions between you and baby, and range from the secure to the insecure:


Secure attachment

Mamas who try their best to respond to baby’s needs quickly and accurately are likely to have securely attached infants. These tots seem to know that their caregiver will respond when they are feeling insecure. Secure attachment is related to positive social and emotional outcomes later in life.

Avoidant attachment

Mamas who are indifferent to baby’s needs or reject baby’s attempts at closeness may foster avoidant attachment. Avoidant infants often seem to know that their caregiver is not likely to respond to their needs.

Ambivalent attachment

Mamas who respond to baby’s needs inconsistently may foster ambivalent attachment. Ambivalent infants are often unsure about whether their caregiver will respond to their needs.

Disorganized attachment

A small number of infants develop disorganized attachment, exhibiting confusion over their caregivers’ availability. Researchers aren’t 100% sure why some infants show disorganized attachment, but abusive behaviors may play a role.

6 best strategies

So, what can a mama do to promote a healthy, secure attachment relationship with baby? According to a slew of studies on infant attachment, these are the six best strategies for bringing up a secure tot:

1. Be sensitive to baby’s needs.

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This is arguably the most important determinant of secure attachment. Try to read baby’s signals accurately and respond quickly as often as you can. This is not always easy, especially before baby learns how to effectively communicate.

If the answer is not obvious, try to put yourself in baby’s tiny shoes. If something bothers you, it is likely to bother your little one, too!

The first few times I took my son swimming, he couldn’t seem to sleep afterwards. A few days later, my husband noted that he hated the feeling of chlorine on his skin after swimming and had trouble sleeping. Of course!

A quick splash in the tub after a swim session, et voilà! Trying to decipher baby’s cries can quickly become an exercise in frustration, but a little—er, a lot of—practice will have you reading baby’s mind in no time!

2. Follow your baby’s interests.

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It’s important to engage in positive exchanges with baby in which you both attend to the same thing. For instance, if baby wants to work on a less-than-interesting farm animal puzzle, try to make the puzzle more entertaining by adding a narrative. “Look at the chicken piece! What sound does the chicken make?”

This indicates to baby that you want to be involved in the activities they find interesting, and makes for a less frustrating experience than trying unsuccessfully to re-direct their attention to a different activity. Plus, there’s no better way to bond than laughing together over activities you both find fun!

3. Be in sync with each other.

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When engaging in back-and-forth activities, keep an eye on baby’s changing needs as the interaction progresses. In order to maintain a mutually rewarding interaction with baby, you will need to adapt to the changing situation with baby.

Tickling is a great example. Try to be in tune with baby’s enjoyment of being tickled. What can begin as a hilarious way to entertain baby and yourself can quickly become intrusive if baby grows overstimulated by the activity.

4. Bring on the positive.

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So, you didn’t get any sleep for the third night in a row. Your left eye is twitching and the coffee is still brewing. Baby is shrilly demanding a second breakfast because the cheese and avocado omelet you painstakingly crafted has been tossed on the floor. It can be tough to keep your cool in situations like this. (I know I don’t always succeed!)

But before you blow a gasket, fake it ‘til you make it! Take a deep breath, smile, and address baby with a positive attitude. Whether you plan to sell baby on another “Mmm… yummy” omelet or start slicing up a fruit salad, be as happy as you can be while doing it.

If you just can’t muster up any good will, try a little sarcasm to get you through the moment. “Oh, my darling child, I would love to prepare a second breakfast for your discerning palate. Would you like me to peel those grapes for you?”

Expressing positive emotions to baby instills confidence that you are happy taking care of their needs and will always be around to do so. As a bonus, research shows that even faking positive emotions can help you feel truly happier, too!

5. Offer a variety of stimulation.

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Stimulate baby using the “ABC’s” of child development.

A is for affect

Elicit positive affect with giggle-inducing activities such as bear hugs, blowing raspberries, or making silly sounds.

B is for behavior

Stimulate baby’s behavior with physical activities such as splish-splashing in the pool or tub, or running amok at the playground.

C is for cognition

Challenge baby’s cognition with thinking activities, such as reading a book, experimenting with sidewalk chalk, or singing a round of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Just remember to pay attention to baby’s cues. Don’t force little one to participate if they aren’t feeling up to the task. If the playground swing is a little too daunting, try the slide instead. If little one isn’t in the mood to linger in the bath tub, bring on story time.

6. Provide emotional support.

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Be attentive to baby’s emotions and support their efforts to express themselves. If little one is trying to communicate their feelings (typically through laughing, screaming or crying), don’t downplay their feelings. Let baby know that you understand why they feel that way.

For instance, if baby takes a spill, wait for baby’s emotional reaction and respond accordingly. If little one is really upset, don’t hold back the hugs, cuddles and sympathy that will help your tot to bounce back.

Most importantly, provide a secure base from which your tiny tot feels safe to explore. If baby looks cautious before joining friends at a play date, make it known that you are nearby and it’s okay to boogie down with those buddies!

7. Know it’s a lifelong process.

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Worried it might be too late to establish a secure bond between you and baby? Fear not! Many tots can develop secure attachment bonds later in childhood given the right environment.

Just remember, maintaining secure attachment between you and your child is a lifelong process that doesn’t end when your little one outgrows teddy bears and training wheels. Here’s to hoping for many blissful shared moments between you and your little love!

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