What is Attachment – Part 2

Part 2 – What is Attachment

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”.

The other extremely important part of this process is the development of 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, 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 quality is learned from/received from the caregiver.  When left to calm on their own baby’s brain releases chemicals to do the calming. These chemicals 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 chemicals, like 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 it 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.  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 and we have to go back and re-create a repairative experience to make new pathways and reset 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 stress.  As important as it is to be soothed, is to learn to experience and tolerate the stress.  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.

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, forget to 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. 

Next week we will finish with part 3 – Attachment and the 2nd year. If you would like to read part 1 of this article please click on the link.

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