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You've probably seen this interaction play out in your home many times: You're playing with your baby (about a year old) on the floor and then realize you need to get up and do something in another room. You leave the room briefly and your baby starts to cry—she's missing you.

You may be slightly surprised (or maybe a bit annoyed) that they're so dependent on you. You hurry back to them and all is well within their world once again.

This simple interaction may seem inconsequential to us today, but 50 years ago researchers used a similar scenario (in a lab) to develop what at the time was considered a somewhat revolutionary psychological idea—attachment theory. Attachment theory forever changed how we understand the parent-child relationship.

What founders John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth came to understand that previous behavioral psychologists had not, was that attachment is developed in the context of a responsive relationship, not just through feeding.

Previously, psychologists had thought that as long as a baby's physical needs were met, they would thrive. After seeing the damaging emotional effects of children being separated during hospitalizations and war, Bowlby and Ainsworth began to more closely examine how the psychological bond develops between babies and caregivers in the early years of life.

At its essence, attachment theory focuses on the emotional bond between caregiver and baby, not just the physical interaction that occurs through feeding, changing diapers, etc. Ainsworth concluded that the interaction between the parent and child is key to determining what type of attachment is formed.

If the parent is responsive to the child's emotional need for security and safety, the child learns that the parent can be relied upon. In contrast, if the child's needs are met with unresponsiveness from the parent, the child learns that the parent cannot be relied upon and the child may develop means of coping with this such as becoming overly clingy or avoiding the parent.

The subtle interplay of attunement

All this discussion of attachment and responsiveness may have you wondering about your own mothering experience. Am I responsive enough to my baby? What about that time my baby had to wait to be fed because we were driving home?

We've all had experiences in motherhood where we realize our attunement with our baby was a little off. That day you were SO exhausted you could hardly function during the day. That time you misread you baby's signals about being tired and kept them up too long. The beauty of attachment theory is that it allows room for missteps. The research behind it does not presume that mothers are perfect. As preeminent British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggests in his description of motherhood:

"The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure..."

In other words, the "good enough mother" is one who establishes an attachment with her baby early on by attending to her every need, even at the sacrifice of her own needs. This establishes a relationship in which the baby knows they are cared for and the parent can be trusted to meet their needs.

However, this level of constant attention and self-sacrifice cannot be continued indefinitely.

At some point, the mother will "fail" in little ways that require the baby to adapt or cope with stress. Here, of course, I am not implying instances of negligence or abuse. Those circumstances fall into a whole other category. The little "failures" are the little instances when mother and baby are not completely attuned—the misread signal of hunger, the delayed nap.

Intrinsic to attachment theory is the idea that these little "failures" or breaks in attunement are actually important to the developing child. Those times when you felt like you "missed the mark" in understanding your baby's needs, are the times that help your child grow in crucial skills.

These little disruptions in attunement, if resolved, help your child slowly learn about coping with stress, and lead to independence. As the years pass, these "failures" help children understand how conflicts in relationships can be resolved peacefully and build trust. Trust, of course, is one foundation of a healthy relationship. Children who have a deep-seated trust are more likely to accept your guidance (even discipline).

Can a baby be too attached?

If you've spent time around folks of an older generation lately, you may have heard a well-meaning elder comment that you "don't need to hold that baby all the time. It will make them spoiled." Now, most of us in this generation of parents know that you really cannot "spoil" a baby. Babies' only means of communicating their needs is through crying and holding a baby a lot is no longer thought to be linked to any later behavioral issues.

However, this does bring up the issue of whether parent and baby can be "too attached." We have all seen the kids who cling to mom or dad's leg in social situations, well beyond the age when they could walk on their own or the baby that fusses anytime anyone but mom holds them. While onlookers often chide the parents that these children are "mama's boys" or "spoiled," research might look at this in another light.

As we have seen, attachment is really about responsiveness—responding to a need, not predicting a need or ensuring that a child never experiences a need. This is where a key distinction comes into play.

If a parent is genuinely responding to a child's need, the likelihood of becoming "overly attached" is usually not an issue. However, there are rare occasions where a parent is preemptively responding to a child out of their need.

This situation becomes one less about attachment and more about over-parenting. If parents are actively interfering with a child's normal desire for exploration or independence (with the exception of safety concerns), then the relationship is no longer a responsive one.

At that point, the parent is not responding to the child's inherent need for exploration. As we saw in the discussion of attunement, if there are never any breakdowns in attunement, a child may not learn the coping skills needed to ultimately face the world.

In an atmosphere of strong attachment, most children will feel safe and secure enough in their parents' care that they will eventually explore on their own. However, that exploration comes on their schedule, not based on other's expectations.

It's important to remember here that we in American culture really value independence. As soon as our toddlers can toddle, many folks expect them to be off and running with the 5-year-olds, playing independently. This is a cultural expectation, but not necessarily a developmental one. Most kids inherently stay fairly close to their parents until their early elementary years.

The role of temperament in attachment

Another key piece is the child's temperament. We are just now beginning to understand the complex interaction between a child's temperament and their attachment style. Temperament is that collection on inherent tendencies your child has toward the world. These tendencies have to do with areas such as activity level, persistence, adaptability or intensity.

If you've been a parent for any length of time, you realize how different kids can be in terms of temperament and it often emerges in infancy. Some babies are "laid back" and do not respond strongly to changes in routine or environment, while others react much more easily.

These normal differences in temperament might influence the attachment of parent and child if the parent comes to interpret the child's behavior as problematic or inconsistent with the family's values.

For example, consider a child who has a more introverted, cautious temperament with a parent who has a more extroverted, outgoing temperament. The parent might interpret the child's cautious behavior as difficult or burdensome due to the fact that it is so different from her own tendency to be outgoing. If the parent starts to encourage the child to be overly friendly or outgoing in situations where the child is uncomfortable doing that, a breakdown in responsiveness could result.

In other words, the role of responsiveness in building attachment has to come from a place of understanding that particular child's needs, not a presumptive understanding of need based on the parent's desires.

In our modern parenting world dominated by tidbits of advice, collections of strategies and no shortage of labels, attachment theory reminds us of one important truth: Parenting is a relationship. It's not a job or a collection of techniques or even something to be mastered.

Parenting, in its best form, is the process of forming a lifelong relationship with your child. Like all relationships, each parent-child attachment relationship is as unique and nuanced as your child.

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When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

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The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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My husband and I always talked about starting a family a few years after we were married so we could truly enjoy the “newlywed” phase. But that was over before it started. I was pregnant on our wedding day. Surprise!

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