What is attachment? Why is it important?

So much happens in the first three years!

The brain is the least developed organ at birth and with only about 25% of the neural connections in place.  When your baby is born there are about 100 billion neurons in their little brains, most of which are not yet connected.  By the end of the first year, the brain will be at 75% of development.  What does that mean?  The wiring that occurs from 0-1 is a huge part of our development.  The second year is just as important.  And by the end of the third year our brains are at 90% of their total development.  This article will cover both.

Attachment – a natural process

In her book, Bright from the Start, Jill Stamm, talks about how to raise smart kids. She does not teach some revolutionary training we do with our babies, she is simply describing the attachment process.  This process of attachment allows a child’s brain to develop optimally and sets them up for success in every way.  The cool thing about attachment is that it’s a natural occurring process.  It’s something that humans are created to do.  That’s why books that tell you not to listen to your natural instincts are wrong.  We are designed for attachment and bonding.  It is in our DNA.  We are created with specific chemical processes that do what is optimal for humans.  Can things interfere with this process?  Absolutely.  But first, lets talk about how it is supposed to work.

Healthy Attachment Cycle – First Year

healthy attachment

In the first year our babies communicate their distress through crying.  At birth the part of their brain that is wired up is the lower area that is wired up for our survival.  Baby has a need, let’s say hunger, and their brain tells their body, “If I don’t eat, I will die”.  This is why a baby’s cries can go from 0-60 in 3 seconds flat.  Their little bodies really are in a panic because not eating means immanent death.  Then parents come and try to help and comfort baby.  We try everything until we find the problem and then we fix it.  We meet the need and then baby returns to a calm state.   Then a little while later this happens again.  Over the first year this happens thousands and thousands of times….. if it happens each hour over that first year, it would be about 8760 times. 

neural wiring

There is so much wiring happening in the brain during this process.  The above image is the increase in wiring from newborn to the age of two.  Each need that is met is creating a pathway.  Conversely each need that is not met is also creating a pathway.  These pathways become our foundation.  Let’s use the example of hunger as the need.  When mom comes and picks baby up (touch), soothes baby with her voice (sound), provides food (taste, nourishment, comfort), holds baby close (connection, smell), looks into baby’s eyes, (sight).  All of baby’s senses are combined and say “mom equals safety and comfort”.  Obviously this is a super simplified version.  But all of these senses are creating neuropathways in the brain.  When this happens over and over and over, these pathways get stronger/thicker.  Every experience, EVERY experience, becomes a neuropathway, creating our memory network.

What are the needs babies have?  Basic needs for all of us humans are food, water, air, clothing and shelter from the environment.  Research has also shown that included in our basic needs is physical touch/connection.  Babies who have all their other needs met but were deprived of physical touch were unable to grow.  This is called failure to thrive.  In fact, in research by Bowlby of children in orphanages during WWII who had their basic needs met but were not touched, found that they did worse than those who were in families with little means, but who did receive physical touch.  In his book, Born for Love, Bruce Perry states that “neurobiological research is clear that if children do not receive love, there is great insult on their development”. It has become clear how important connection is in the healthy forming of a human.

The other extremely important part of this process is the development of emotional regulation.  Research has shown that most mental disorders are due to a lack of healthy emotional regulation. During this first year the part of the brain that is being developed is our limbic system, which is responsible for emotional regulation.  Every time stress goes up due to a need. When the need is met and the baby is comforted, her stress comes back down.  This up and down practice is what creates the ability for healthy emotional regulation.  Babies do not have the ability to calm themselves on their own.  This ability is learned from/received from the caregiver.  When left to calm on their own, baby’s brain releases cortisol to attempt to calm itself. These chemicals released too often and too long can also damage brain cells and this creates a new baseline stress response.

Disrupted Attachment Cycle – First Year

attachment cycle one year

In the work we do with kiddos from orphanages, it looks like this.  Infant experiences hunger, is wet or cold, is in pain, or needs physical touch or attention……… and then as they are wired to do, they cry to express their need.  Unfortunately in orphanages, there are usually too many children to caregivers and babies are not attended to when they cry.  Instead they may be on a schedule and needs are not met as they are expressed.  So they cry and cry and their body jumps in to help and produces cortisol to help itself calm.  If no one comes enough times, the baby will learn to stop crying.  The baby has learned that crying makes no difference…. And that it doesn’t help to express their need.  Time and time again I hear parents who have received there precious little one from an orphanage and they say something like, “she is the best baby, she never cries”.  And we try to explain to the parents that this is not actually a good thing.  We instead celebrate when this little one begins to cry to express their needs because it shows that he/she is beginning to trust that their needs will be met.

Another thing we often see is if the parent isn’t able to soothe and calm the infant for reasons that are out of their control, such as early medical trauma.  I am working with a sweet client who was born super early and only weighed 2 lbs.  This little one’s first experience of the world was not calming or soothing, it was essentially torture.  The doctor explained to mom and dad that even touching her would be painful to her.  Like this, in many cases it is not possible for the parent to provide what baby needs.  And then their emotional regulation process is affected. Research has also shown us how to help create a reparative experience developing new pathways and reseting their nervous system.

Attachment and Crying 

Another example that I have seen is when a parent is not able to tolerate their infant’s cry’s, due to their own early pain.  It is normal for us to react to the cry of our infant and want to soothe them, but when a parent can’t allow them to cry at all, the infant doesn’t gain the practice of experiencing the small amounts of stress that they need to develop this ability.  As important as it is to be soothed, is to learn to experience and tolerate small amounts of stress in order to build this system.  These children also don’t learn the ability to regulate their emotions.  Then when the smallest stress comes they can’t tolerate it.  In this case a reparative process is also necessary. 

Some things that can cause a disruption to the normal attachment process include neglect, abuse, separation from the primary caregiver, changes in the primary caregiver, frequent moves/placements, traumatic experiences, maternal depression parental drug use or a parent’s own attachment issues, chronic pain such as colic, or a child not being allowed to express their need. Many old parenting ideas include demanding the child soothe themselves so that they become independent. And I’ve also seen parents allowing significant distress thinking this will make them strong. Research is clear that this is not true. Kids who’s needs are met and develop healthy emotional regulation with the parents help, are actually shown to be more independent and healthier adults. Kids must learn to tolerate little bits of stress at a time, stretching and building this remarkable system. Something that is too big for them to handle only creates a massive stress response that is too big for their little developing nervous systems. And although well-meaning, it is experienced just like a trauma. And often has the opposite effect then the parent intended.

There are books and websites that have great information on attachment parenting.  And they do the first year stuff really well.  And some, not all, but some cover the next step, the second year that is equally as important.  Many though, don’t cover how important it is to complete the next level of attachment development which is to help our child learn to tolerate hearing “no” and limiting their wants.  This is as important as the first cycle.

Attachment in the 2nd Year

Healthy Attachment Cycle – Second Year

healthy second year attachment cycle

As you see in this cycle, our goal with attachment in the second year is to continue the development of our child’s limbic (emotional regulation) system by helping them through the stress of not getting what they want.  Remember, little children WILL experience stress or cry over not getting what they want.  It is NORMAL for children to get upset or cry or even have a fit.  They are learning emotional regulation and do not have it internally until they learn it from us.  I can’t say this enough……. THEY LEARN THIS FROM US.  Here’s how it goes.  Child is now aware of differences of things like candy vs. veggies, etc.  Child wants a lollipop before dinner.  As a parent, we know that it’s best that they eat a healthy dinner so we say something like, “Sorry baby, we can’t have it now but we can have that after we eat our dinner.”  Child is pretty upset about this and our job is to have some empathy and understand that as an 18 month old, it feels like the end of the world when we don’t get what we want right when we want it.  So we comfort them.  We don’t give in to their demand, but we do offer comfort and help them calm while still maintaining the limit. 

Here are a few examples of how this can go wrong.  One example is always giving them what they want in the first place.  Another is giving in to their demand when they protest, cry etc. just so that they stop crying.  And another is if we reprimand, shame or have an inconsistent response to them for the expression of their sadness/anger over not getting what they want.  Instead we want to express empathy for their feelings, while still keeping the limit.  In this process we get to help them gain awareness of their feelings and learn to tolerate hearing “no”.  And so much more, such as learning new appropriate ways to express their feelings and learning the difference between needs and wants.

Disrupted Attachment Cycle – Second Year

disrupted attachment cycle

Parents want to do a good job.  Mostly we all want to produce healthy children.  We do not want our kids to be those spoiled brats we have all seen.  We can meet our kids needs, all of their needs, and we can limit their wants and teach them how to tolerate hearing “no”.  We can do both.  I hear confusion a lot on this topic.  Parents fear that if they comfort their child when they don’t get what they want, this is “spoiling” them.  It is imperative that we comfort our children in this process.  Remember they do not have this ability internally until they learn it from us.  The second phase of attachment is to help them learn how to experience and tolerate the stress of not getting what they want and still being able to calm.  And there you have it, you have taught your kids healthy emotional regulation that will serve them the rest of their lives.  I have seen kids who don’t have their needs met (phase 1) who are considered spoiled because they get all of their wants and never learn to hear “no” (phase 2).  And on the contrary, I’ve seen kids who get all of their needs met and are fantastic at handling not getting their way.  And have seen all of the combinations in between.

Hopefully this series of articles has helped to explain the attachment process and some of the essential steps that need to happen for development.  And hopefully it helps distinguish the difference between needs and wants and how to handle both.  Even after the first and second years we are always attempting to meet needs and limit wants and helping our children learn emotional regulation.  And remember, if things happen that disrupt the process, the good news is that we can always go back and repair. 

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