Thursday, January 14, 2016

Promoting Attachment and Early Development

The power of moment-to-moment interactions between caregivers and infants

Early relationships

Practitioners and researchers agree that early caregiving relationships form the basis of children’s growth and learning during the early childhood years. From the earliest moments when infants experience the warmth and security of a caregiver’s touch, the interplay of relationships and development begins. The relationships formed with significant primary caregivers, including early childhood care and education providers, become the core context for the child’s development-- the “nurture” part of the nature/nurture balance. The quality of an infant's caregiving relationship shapes all domains of development, from social-emotional to cognitive to language. 

Serve and return

Research on early brain development has confirmed that newborns come into the world biologically pre-wired to seek interaction, and infant development has been described as a “serve and return” process. In other words, the interactions between infant and caregiver are recognized to have a significant influence on the developmental course of the child. When an infant smiles and his caregiver smiles back in return, that infant has received a contingent response, and will smile again, inviting additional nurturing responses from her caregiver. In such interactions, both the child and caregiver are seen as active partners in the exchange, much like in a game of tennis. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences. Over time, these experiences offer comfort and predictability for both caregiver and child, forming the basis of a nurturing, reciprocal relationship.


Attachment is a term used to describe the emotional bond 
that develops over time as the infant and primary caregiver interact. Through repeated serve-and-return moments, infants learn to trust caregivers and learn to use the caregiver as a provider of a “secure base.” In other words, the caregiver provides the “home base” from which a child ventures out and explores new environments. This secure base enables the child to feel confident and ready to explore. And, when infants become afraid or distressed or uncertain, they know that they can return to their caregivers and receive the warmth and support needed to feel ready to explore the world again. There is evidence that a secure attachment/relationship with a caregiver (even a child care provider or early childhood teacher) supports children’s development across domains. 

Everyday Ways to Promote Attachment

Below are some ideas for routine activities that can help strengthen the bond between caregiver and child. Most of these activities are things that caregivers do instinctively, but caring for a baby is hard work, and sometimes we need reminders of just how important these moment-moment interactions can be.

Did you know? Oxytocin, sometimes called the "cuddle hormone,"
is released during times of close physical contact
and helps promote bonding between caregiver and child.
A baby’s first experience with the surrounding environment occurs through touch. Holding your baby close to you helps him feel safe and protected, and physical contact has countless benefits for caregiver and baby, including forming a stronger bond. So snuggle your baby throughout the day: while feeding, playing, putting to sleep, etc. Remember, you can’t spoil a newborn!

Bonus tip: Try skin-to-skin contact. Take some time each day to hold your baby close to your bare skin. Your baby will enjoy the warmth of your body and the sound of your heartbeat, and you'll love the sensation of contact with your baby.

Face-to-face time

Research has shown that babies prefer to look at faces over anything else, and spending time face-to-face with your baby is a fun and simple activity that promotes early attachment. Be sure to make eye contact with your baby. Smile at your baby, does he smile back? Even young babies can mimic facial expressions. See if you can get him to imitate other facial expressions that you make. 

Talking with baby 

Your baby loves listening to the sound of your voice, and talking with your baby is an important way to encourage early language skills. Imitate your baby’s sounds: when she coos, coo back! Ask your baby a question: “What should we do today?” and be sure to pause and give your baby an opportunity to respond. This “turn taking” makes your baby feel important and teaches her the basics of back-and-forth communication.

Bonus tip: Don’t be afraid to use “baby talk” with your baby. Research has found that babies prefer this high-pitched and melodic “infant-directed speech,” and using it actually promotes language development.

Be affectionate and nurturing, even when your baby is fussy

Caring for an infant can be difficult. Crying is a baby’s primary way of communicating, and it’s normal for infants to cry up to 3 hours per day! But it’s important to be patient during the tough times. When you support your baby when he’s fussy or crying a lot, you are letting him know that he can trust and rely on you no matter what. This support makes him feel safe and helps him learn to calm himself as he grows.

Bonus tip: If your baby is crying a lot, ask for help. Let your partner or another loved one take over while you take a break. Use the time to take a nap or simply relax. If you’re worried about your ability to cope with a crying baby, contact a family member or friend, your health care provider, a local crisis intervention service, or a mental health help line for support.

Additional Resources:

Read more about how Serve and Return interactions shape brain development from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Have a fussy baby? The Fussy Baby Network can help. If you are struggling to care for a baby who is fussy, crying excessively, or has difficulties with sleeping or feeding, call the warmline at 1-888-431-BABY 

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