In the best circumstances, early attachment is how babies optimally survive, emotionally and physically. Most mothers are wired to protect, love and provide security to their newborn. Babies are innately wired to seek out and stay connected to their mothers. Without this kind of connection, babies can struggle and fail to thrive. Ideally, this natural attachment works well early on, but can become a challenge later on.
When a baby looks at her mother’s face, she sees her expressions. More importantly, she feels her moods. What a child experiences in her mother’s arms are nonverbal messages of what is safe, acceptable, and, therefore, lovable. We feel at ease and secure when we are fed, warm, clean and connected to a loving caregiver. In other words, when our needs are met. Not having these basic needs met is uncomfortable, and can be disruptive, to a baby.
On the other hand, if that safety is provided while the mother is tense, distracted, withdrawn, depressed, anxious, or any other strong negative emotion, a baby can feel disconnected. A sense of discomfort, dread, disconnection is introduced in response to the mother’s negative mood. When the mother is at ease, the baby also tends to be at ease.
So, what do babies do to get their loving mother’s attention back, so they feel safe and shielded from discomfort and disconnection? First they’ll cry, which is nature’s way of sounding the alarm that something is wrong. If crying doesn’t work, babies have few other resources. Sometimes to defend against the feeling of disconnection, they will go to sleep. We all innately possess the basic coping skills for combating stress: fight, flight, or freeze.
As we grow day by day, we become more capable and, so, become more challenging for our caregivers. We demand attention because we still need help to live, and guidance to learn. We need our caregiver to be present for us, but we also need to grow by venturing away and experimenting. Just watch a 12-month-old who feels safe sitting on mommies lap, but can’t help scooting away to find discoveries under the dining room table.
How each stage of our development is welcomed by our caregiver determines how well we integrate it. For some mothers, babbling or screeching strange sounds is not comfortable, so mommy may ‘shush’ us, or ignore us, or worse. The same is true of crawling, touching things, walking, talking and other things that signal our development.
As we grow older, we interact with more caretakers within the family, as well as baby sitters, daycare attendants, teachers, coaches and others. These interpersonal experiences also contribute to shaping our sense of self, helping us to further grow. To the extent that mom welcomes theses others and is open to us having new people and experiences in our lives, they also help us grow. If mom is not so welcoming, we may restrict how much these new relationships mean to us, stifling our own growth.
By the time we’re about 7 years old, our self is fairly well-formed. Our first attachment experience shaped our sense of self, we’ve learned what is allowable, or lovable, and what is met with disdain, or not lovable. If we were ignored a lot we may have a weak sense of self. If we were encouraged to babble away, we may be more outgoing. If we only got negative attention, we’re more likely to get in trouble, because we perceive negative attention as love. Whatever worked for us to feel connected remains in our deepest conditioning, and this leads us in later life to be attracted to someone similar to our first caregiver. At the same time, our need to grow and make up for missed experiences pushes us toward someone unlike our first attachment experience.
The way we attach as an infant informs our later relationships, how we give and receive affection, what we experience in terms of our feeling and what works and does not work for us in our adult relationships. Exploring those early attachment and how they inform your current relationships can help you better understand your sense of self and place in the world.
We will be exploring how our early attachments feed into our adult relationship in an upcoming blog post.
If you’d like to learn more, feel free to reach our to us here at West Hartford Holistic Counseling to set up an appointment.