By Nettie Becker
She was only four months old but a problem was already apparent – one that would probably have consequences as she grew into adulthood.
Susan and her mother were in an infant and parent session in one of the Family Place programs I conduct at local public libraries in Nassau County, New York. Unlike most parents, Susan’s mother did not give her daughter eye contact. In fact, she didn’t look at her baby most of the time. And the baby responded similarly, turning her face away whenever her mother tried to engage her, which was not very often. As part of the infant program, I led the mothers in dancing around the room to music with their babies. When they danced, Susan’s mother, whose face was usually sad, held her baby facing away from her and away from her own body.
What was obvious to any experienced therapist was that Susan was not getting an essential ingredient that all infants need – almost as much as food – communication in the form of eye contact and a friendly, comforting, smiling face with her closest adult, most often her mother. About fifty years ago, the British psychologist John Bowlby wrote about the essential nature of this communication, the attachment between parent and child and this theory of attachment is now widely accepted by most professionals who work with children. When a child like Susan does not have the benefit of the mother’s attachment to her, it can result in serious consequences for her later on in her life.
Early Infant Attachments Influence Adult Behavior
This problem was recently explored in a Jan. 8 article in the NY Times. “The quality of our early attachments profoundly influences how we behave as adults,” writes the article’s author, journalist Kate Murphy and this “has special resonance in an era when people seem more attached to their smartphones than to each other.”
Maternal sensitivity has been shown to support children’s health, well-being, growth and learning, in part by signaling to the child that an adult is available and dedicated to buffering them from external threats. “If you’re securely attached, that’s great, because you have the expectation that if you are distressed you will be able to turn to someone for help and feel you can be there for others,” declares Miriam Steele, co-director of the Center for Attachment Research at the New School for Social Research, in the same NY Times article. The infant forms an attachment to his/her mother in order to feel safe. One of the central ideas of attachment theory is that a mother’s sensitive response behavior is a key contributor to the quality of the infant’s attachment to her.
By the same token, adversity in infancy and early childhood can lead to mental and physical illness in adulthood. If an infant is one of 40 or 50 percent of babies who do not have a secure attachment early in life, the result is often felt later in life. Adversity in infancy and early childhood can lead to mental and physical illness in adulthood. “Harsh, rejecting or, aggressive parenting has been associated with a broad range of developmental problems, including aggressive, anti-social or delinquent behaviors in children and later adoption of a similarly harsh parenting style toward one’s own children,” a truism reiterated in an article, The Public Health Burden of Early Adversity, in the January 2017 issue of Zero to Three Journal. The treatment of children, therefore, should be a public health concern at the level of legislation and policy making.
Need for Well-Trained Child Care Personnel
This is particularly true these days when so many women with young children are in the work force since two incomes are necessary for many families to survive. It therefore becomes necessary for caregivers and child care center personnel to be adequately trained in the skill of infant-caregiver attachment. From their earliest development children are reliant on their caregivers for both physical and emotional needs. Young children experience stress in situations that many adults do not realize.
Some are minor, like a change in routine such as the first day in a child care center. Some are more serious. A more serious or toxic stress is defined as chronic and severe stress resulting from significant, prolonged adversity in the absence of a supportive caregiver, emotional abuse, or neglect by a caregiver. Chronic activation of the stress system can interfere with the development of emerging brain architecture and emotion regulation in children and disrupt growth and repair processes.
Susan’s case was not the severe kind and could be more easily addressed. I modeled how to make contact with the baby by talking to her. She then used a toy and her voice to try to stimulate her. Susan looked at her briefly and then turned away. During the session, I discussed with the parents about the importance of making eye contact. I was able to start a relationship with the mother and spoke to her about how beautiful her baby was, how her baby showed engagement with other people and how important eye contact and a smiling face was to her baby. As Susan’s mother spoke to me and the other mothers about her baby her expression changed. She will obviously need more help with her baby to fulfill Susan’s deep need for attachment to her mother.
In addition to working with parents like Susan’s mother, the three part infant/parent sessions encourage parents to sit on the floor with their babies, engage with them and socialize with each other. There are usually eight parents with their babies between the ages of three months and twelve months. I discuss topics that they choose and cover topics that pertain to adult and children’s mental health. I usually find that the parents have similar interests in topics that are discussed and enjoy talking about them with me and with each other.
There are stimulating toys that are chosen for developmental purposes that are placed on a blanket along with the infants. The babies play with the toys and relate to the other babies on the blanket with them. I observe the parents as they play with their babies. They are always amazed at how the babies themselves relate to each other, touch each other and laugh. I also provide printed handouts from various sources about handling everyday problems they may face with their children and answer questions they may have.
Attachment and warm, sensitive caregiving can make the difference for children to be able to cope with the stress a person faces in infancy and childhood and this can carry over in later life.
The need for so many families to have both mother and father work and the shortage of trained personnel and affordable child care is now a national problem and needs national involvement. Virtually all available data demonstrates the need for a child to have the protective power of a reliable, consistent and invested adult in a child’s life. But, too many children today are facing the lack of this, a factor that has serious consequences for the individual and for society.
As a nation, we must make it one of our first priorities to see that families and caregivers are able to do what is needed so that all children can grow up in a society that cares what happens to them.