National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter
Dave Riley, Ph.D.
Child Development Specialist
University of Wisconsin-Madison Cooperative Extension
Why do some infants form a secure attachment with adults, while others don't? Researchers believe that how easily an infant becomes attached depends on both the infant and the adults around her.
Some infants are better able to elicit good parenting from the adults around them. These babies are usually happy and easy to care for. They smile when adults play with them. They usually sleep and eat at regular times. These babies are good at "teaching" adults how to be a good parent or caregiver: when we care for them competently, they reward us with quick smiles.
Of course, caregivers differ too. Some are very skilled at meeting the physical and social needs of babies, while other people are not so competent. What exactly is it that highly-skilled caregivers do that helps the infant form a trusting and secure attachment?
Being sensitive and responsive to infants seems to be the key. This means you are there when the infant needs you and that you can be counted on to meet his or her needs, especially social needs. Even very young babies need much more than physical caretaking (food, warmth, dry bedding, safe conditions, etc.). Babies also need sensitive, loving responses from the people around them. If they don't get this, the development of social and thinking skills may suffer.
Parents and caregivers who are responsive to young children respond quickly to their needs, and they respond in a way that is in tune to the baby. For example, they respond differently depending on how a baby is crying. If the cry says the baby is hungry, the caregiver feeds the baby. But if the cry says the baby is lonely, the caregiver plays with the baby. The adults who develop secure attachments with their very young infants respond to crying more quickly. They are also more affectionate when they respond than caregivers who have infants that are not attached. Secure infants know that adults will take care of them. This makes them easier to be around and they are easier to comfort.
Sensitive caregivers are also careful not to overstimulate babies. Infants need lots of loving. And they usually enjoy playing with adults. But it is easy for them to get overexcited. Babies can't walk away from you when they have had enough. But they do give signals. If the baby looks down or won't look at you, it usually means that he or she is tired and wants to be left alone. A sensitive caregiver understands this. The caregiver leaves the baby alone for a while to let him calm down.
A sensitive caregiver reacts to the baby's signals. The interaction has turn-taking, like a game of ping-pong. First the baby sends a signal. This may be a sound or a look or a movement. The adult notices and signals back - by imitating the sound, touching the foot that moved, or simply telling the baby what she or he just did. Then the baby responds again, and the adult responds back again. The baby and the adult carefully react to each other. Babies who receive this high quality interaction are more likely to develop a secure attachment. This type of interaction also helps develop children's thinking skills.
Watch yourself the next time you are feeding or diapering a young infant. Are you talking and playing with the baby while also tending to her needs? If the answer is yes, then you know that you are doing much more than simply meeting the child's physical needs. You are also helping the child learn to trust adults and to feel safe and secure. In contrast, changing a child's diaper quickly and efficiently, like washing dishes or changing a tire, does not provide the emotional support the child needs. Taking the time to "connect" with the child is vitally important.
Centers should also assign primary responsibility for each infant to a single caregiver. This should be a person that the infant can count on to be there for most of each day. While the infant may have other caregivers as well, having a primary caregiver will provide the continuity that infants need to form strong attachments to the important adults around them.
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