Nearly every baby book or article on newborn care talks about infant attachment, the emotional bond between a parent and their child. Skin-to-skin fosters attachment. Eye contact fosters attachment. Talking to baby fosters attachment. Postpartum depression can interfere with attachment. Attachment, attachment, attachment.
It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that attachment is a big deal, and lots of things play into how quickly and securely an infant becomes attached. But there is not nearly as much information about what attachment actually is, and what happens when things don’t go super well.
Before I say anything more about attachment, I want to highlight a very important fact—one that I will return to several times to make sure you don’t miss it. A person’s attachment style can change over time and repair is almost ALWAYS possible.
Understanding attachment styles
There are four general attachment styles:
- Dismissive avoidant
- Fearful avoidant
While I could go on and on for days about attachment theory and the various styles, the one I want to focus most on right now is the dismissive avoidant style. This seems to be the style that I find most often causing stress and worry for the moms I work with in my psychotherapy practice.
What is avoidant attachment, and how does it develop? Avoidant attachment generally stems from a disconnect with your caregiver in early childhood. Mom may have been disinterested or disconnected on a consistent basis. Perhaps this was due to a struggle with mental illness or addiction, or the result of trauma in her life. She herself may have had an avoidant attachment style stemming from her own childhood, which made it difficult for her to connect with you.
Whatever the reason, you learned that she was not going to be a source of care, connection or comfort. And to protect yourself, you stopped seeking her out. Children with avoidant attachment styles appear very independent and self-sufficient for their age. They are not bothered when their caregiver leaves and enjoy playing alone.
As an adult, individuals with avoidant attachments may find that they have a hard time connecting emotionally on a deep level. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have close, intimate relationships, but that there is a certain level of yourself that you don’t share and you don’t fully let your partner in. You may find it very difficult to talk about your feelings and things that would really upset others seem not to bother you. You have a deep independent streak, and someone wanting to get too close emotionally may be very uncomfortable for you.
Parenting with avoidant attachment
What happens when you have a baby?
This is generally where I see many moms with an avoidant attachment style begin to struggle. Your baby needs you on such a close and deep level that it can be frightening, particularly if you haven’t experienced that intensity before. While you love your baby without a doubt, it may be difficult to feel that deep level of attachment that you’ve read about in books or heard your friends describe.
Please note: Regardless of your attachment style, the idea that moms instantaneously bond with baby is a myth. Some moms do—from the moment baby is placed on their chest, they feel completely attached. But for many, many moms, this takes a bit. Your body is exhausted from delivery, the baby may be taken to the nursery or NICU for follow-up care, breastfeeding may be difficult or painful in the beginning, and the sleep deprivation is intense.
For all of these reasons, immediate, deep attachment does not always happen. And that is totally fine. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom, or that you and baby will not have a secure attachment. It just means you’re human and adjusting to a major change.
But for moms with an avoidant attachment style, this initial bonding can be even more difficult, because it’s just not in your nature to let people in on such a deep, emotional level. And with everything we hear about the importance of this early bond, it can be quite scary for moms who struggle here.
You may worry that you’re harming your baby, or that you’re setting them up for relational problems in the future. You may worry that you’re a bad mom, or incapable of doing this whole motherhood thing well. It may bring up lots of feelings about your own relationship with your mom.
These are all normal worries and concerns. Let me reassure you—babies are resilient, and your parenting does not have to be perfect for your baby to develop into an emotionally healthy person.
Infant avoidant attachment: how to break the cycle
What is a mom with an avoidant attachment style to do to make mothering easier and allow that important bond with the baby to form?
First, take a deep breath and remember that our attachment styles can change over the course of our lives. There are lots of things you can do to help you be more emotionally present and available for your baby, including:
1. Spend intentional one-on-one time with your baby
In all of the chaos of motherhood, it is easy to realize that while you’ve spent the day caring for your baby, you haven’t actually spent much time interacting with them. This can be difficult with an avoidant attachment style, so start in small chunks of time.
Maybe just five minutes at first, reading books, singing songs or doing tummy time together. Then expand that time to 10 minutes, or five minutes a few times per day. Over time this will get easier, and it will do wonders for increasing your comfort and bond.
2. Allow others to be close with your baby
Baby’s attachment needs can be met by more than just the primary caregiver. Make sure that you’re allowing others—your partner, grandparents, close friends, etc.—to get in some quality time.
Everyone has unique talents, skills and gifts that they can bring to their relationship with your baby. This also allows you to have some help and the ability to take time and space for yourself. This is important for all moms, but particularly for those who are not used to such closeness all the time.
3. Get active with baby
Check out story time at your local library, sign up for mommy and me yoga, enroll in swimming lessons, or go to a music class together. These are all great activities to promote baby’s development and allow you that one-on-one bonding time in a structured space that may feel less overwhelming.
The physical touch and mirroring that goes on in these classes is phenomenal for bonding and helping you grow closer together. This is also a great strategy to use with older children—special trips to the zoo, the park or even just running errands together. The important thing is shared time, engaging in an activity.
4. Utilize a therapist
A good therapist can do wonders to help you process the experiences that resulted in an avoidant attachment, which can make closer emotional bonds in your current life possible. They can also help you learn ways to cope when the demands of motherhood become overwhelming—because let’s be honest, it gets overwhelming for even the most securely attached moms! Growth and change are always possible.
5. But most importantly, give yourself some grace
The fact that you’re concerned about the development of your attachment to your baby is a clear sign that you are a good mom. No mom is perfect, and we all bring our own history, baggage and struggles to motherhood. Every day is a new chance to learn a different approach and grow as a mom and as a person. You can do this.
A version of this story was originally published on March 20, 2018. It has been updated.