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Attachment, Babies and Carrying

18/07/2016 16:20 | Updated 18 July 2016

Did you know that one in four children lacks secure attachment?

This is a big statement. It is based on research from the Sutton Trust who say: "While the majority of children are securely attached, 40 per cent are insecurely attached." This lack of secure attachment will have a major impact on future lives of these children.

What is attachment?

This often gets mixed up with the "attachment parenting" movement. Attachment (in the evolutionary sense) is the deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space; a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby).

There is a growing body of convincing observational and neurobiological evidence that attachment really matters; it is the bedrock for emotional and physical health, and for children, it is the springboard to confident independence later in life. Having a strong, reliable, trustworthy set of loving, intimate relationships allows human beings to thrive; when this is missing, problems arise that have an impact on the wider society. Attachment is biological, and measurable. It is vital to human health; we are not just bodies, we are people who need to be connected to each other.

There are genetic and environmental factors that play a part in the development of attachment (such as stress during pregnancy, the parents' own experience of childhood nurturing and the current family economic and social situation), but largely, current scientific belief is that attachment is created and maintained via biological and physiological means, namely the oxytocinergic and dopaminergic neuroendocrine systems.

Soft loving touch stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin which appears to exert long-term anxiolytic and bonding effects through changes in specific brain regions. It is important in the formation of social and spatial memories, enhancing emotional regulation and encouraging group cohesion. Dopamine is the hormone involved in reinforcing behaviour that brings reward or pleasure and promotes decision-making based on expected positive outcomes. (For example, when you raise your arms, your parent picks you up and rocks you. This rocking makes you feel calm and you learn that this action brings a positive "reward" so you choose to repeat it when distressed.)

Studies show that securely attached children are more resilient and can thrive despite economic disadvantage, and are more likely to have fewer behavioural issues and more positive adult relationships. Secure attachment matters.

Attachment Parenting

Attachment parenting is a philosophy of parenting that was popularised by Dr Sears with the seven Baby B's.

"Birth bonding" (immediate skin to skin after an unmedicated labour)
"Breastfeeding"
"Babywearing" (using a soft carrier to hold your baby close and only putting baby down for brief moments or to sleep)
"Bedding close to baby" (ie bedsharing)
"Belief in the language value of your baby's cry" (your baby's cry is a means of communication not manipulation)
"Beware of baby trainers" (ie not practising extinction sleep training, etc)
"Balance" (ensuring that parents do not suffer burnout and are well supported by their local networks)

Commonly, people think that in order to create healthy attachment, this model of parenting needs to be followed. While it is true that following these principles will indeed facilitate the formation of close relationships simply due to the fact that baby spends a lot of time close to the parents, they are not essential.

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Attachment is about responsiveness; not about how you choose to feed or where babies sleep. Attachment is about building bonds through loving contact and close interaction.

The skin is the largest and most sensitive organ in the body; it provides an enormous amount of sensory information to the growing brain. The sense of touch is the most powerful of the six senses, and loving touch is vital to healthy growth. Babies deprived of touch and emotional support fail to thrive.

Carrying a baby provides this loving touch; a great sense of familiarity and normality for a newborn. Being able to hear the muffled thump of a heartbeat and the rhythm of regular breathing, gentle pressure from arms that means secure rest and peaceful sleep, a scent that means safety and nourishment all help to activate the parasympathetic system and create calm, which facilitates the building of bonds.

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Babies are dependent little souls who rely on their caregivers for their every need and are not designed to be separated from those who love them. Their means of communication are limited; they can only utter noises and cries to tell us what they need; and mostly, their needs are simple; to be close, to be loved, to be fed, to be warm, clean and dry, to be listened to, to be valued.

Carrying your child as they grow, interacting deeply with them, being in tune with them and responsive to their expressed needs is vital. It gives a sense of belonging, of being rooted, of having a place in the world. Such a strong foundation allows human infants to grow into securely attached, confident children and loving, caring adults with positive relationships; which leads to a more stable society. Carrying matters!

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