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Reflections on the Attachment Relationship Between an Infant and Caregiver

A mother kissing her toddler on the cheek, showing a secure attachment relationship.

This article is adapted from the IECMH Learn & Chat Holding the Baby in Mind” Series: IECMH Guiding Principles in Practice featuring Maria Ogunye and hosted by Noelle Hause.  

Formation of the Attachment Relationship

One of the underlying principles of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) is that babies are by nature social creatures.

They actively seek out the human face as well as interaction and communication with other people. The role of parents and caregivers is so important because during infancy babies form an attachment relationshipa deep emotional bond in which the infant seeks and maintains closeness with a specific person.  

In a recent ZERO TO THREE IECMH Learn & Chat webinar, Maria Ogunye reflected on the attachment relationship that developed after her son was born. She noted some of his first social behaviors, which included the need to be held and feel warmth and closeness. She also noticed that in the delivery room her son briefly stopped crying when his dad spoke to him. Just hearing Dad’s voice made a big difference for him.” It wasn’t long before he knew which parent met specific needs.

Within the first few days of life an infant can show preference for a caregiver.

  • By 1 month, infants know what characteristics (voice, touch) go with each caregiver. 
  • By 3 months, infants can even show preferences for certain voices.  
  • By 4 months, infants begin to form expectations of what their caregivers will be like — will they be gentle, will they be attentive, or will they be upsetting? 

This means that babies can form attachments with more than one caregiver, but may have different expectations for each caregiver. 

Nurturing the Attachment Relationship

Attachment is a unique emotional relationship that requires the full participation of baby and caregiver.

The attachment bond does not happen suddenly; it develops through a give and take process of interaction and connection. This requires sensitivity to the baby’s cues. Being aware of and in sync with a baby’s signals is known as attunement. This includes picking up on signals before they get distressed.

In the Learn & Chat, Maria discussed how during a trip to visit family, she could tell her son was starting to get overwhelmed with too many new faces and hands holding him. “He made his need of needing to be settled, needing to be with a familiar face and voice…he made it known by his fussiness, his crying and uncomfortable stretching or leaning.” These cues showed Maria that he wasn’t ready to be held by others. 

Being aware of and in sync with a baby’s signals is known as attunement. This includes picking up on signals before they get distressed.

Why is secure attachment so important during infancy?

Researchers in the field of secure attachment theory believe that infants show social behaviors so early on in part because they are dependent on their relationships with caregivers for survival. Caregivers not only provide nourishment and shelter, but also help babies learn to adapt to their environments.

An infant with a healthy attachment to a caregiver will have positive outcomes in the areas of: 

  • Trusting 
  • Learning 
  • Thinking 
  • Coping 
  • Developing conscience 
  • Modulating emotions 
  • Becoming self-reliant 
  • Developing future relationships 

Infants can develop an attachment relationship with more than one caregiver. It’s important that parents as well as early childhood professionals develop these responsive relationships with the young children in their care. If you’re an early childhood education or mental health professional, you can explore more about IECMH guiding principles — and how your own beliefs, feelings, and behaviors impact caregiving — by listening to the full Learn & Chat episode.      

Lifting Parent Voices to Nurture Early Connections

Almost 70% of parents say they would use more positive parenting strategies if only they knew them
ZERO TO THREE’s Early Connections provides early childhood professionals with all the resources they’ll need to center parent voices and spark meaningful learning. 

Cover Image for Early Connections, a Parent Cafe Curriculum, featuring a mother holding an infant.
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