After giving birth the first time, I stayed home for three months, and then began leaving my son with a babysitter for a few hours a day so I could get a break from his colic and ease back into work.
When my second son came along, I had a demanding job I loved and didn’t want to lose. So I went back to it full time after just a month, only to find myself so exhausted and alienated from my role as a mother (now with two children under six) that I quit my job, took my 8-week-old out of full-time day care and basically did the same thing with him I’d done with his older brother. According to attachment theory, by staying away from my newborn for up to eight or ten hours a day, I was pushing against instinct, and that’s exactly how it felt.
By observing new mothers interact with their babies, and then revisiting these children a few years later, and again as young adults, psychological researchers can say with certainty that a solid parental attachment increases a child’s sense of security, as well as his self-esteem and self-control. But the impact of attachment goes far beyond the child’s emotions. This research shows that the quality of his first human bond also affects how well he’ll remember and learn in school, and his ability to get along with others. Yes, attachment is that big of a deal.
What Attachment Is and Isn’t
It’s unfortunate that this science has recently become synonymous with one particular parenting philosophy, specifically the school of thought that says (or has been interpreted as saying) that mothers must abdicate their need for alone time and do absolutely everything — including sleep — with their child or children in order to form and maintain a secure attachment with them.
Attachment cannot be reduced to constant togetherness. In fact, the research tells us that too much of a good thing can be harmful for mom and baby. On the other hand, even if we buy the core of attachment theory, as working mothers (and obviously I speak from personal experience on this) we sometimes avoid the less convenient implications of this psychological research—most notably the need for one person to be there for the first six months. No matter where we come down on the hot-button issue when or whether mothers of young children should work outside the home, it’s important to know the facts. From there, theory and practice must fit the particulars of you and your situation. So what can you do to make sure yours is a tightly knitted parent-child connection from the get-go?
1. Have a single primary, regular caregiver for the baby’s first six months. Although mom is usually the primary object of baby’s attachment, the likelihood of a secure attachment happening is equally strong with whoever provides consistent and affectionate care of a baby, whether father, grandparent, or an adoptive parent. One caregiver produces a more securely attached child than a patchwork of people consisting of half of mom, some of dad and a series of babysitters to fill in the gaps.
2. Keep synchronized routines for eating, sleeping, and stimulation, especially during a baby’s first few months. Adjust baby’s feeding and sleeping schedules according to the baby’s rhythms, especially in the first few months. After six months, a good night’s sleep for all should regain its status as a household priority.
3. Regularly smile, touch, and show affection to baby. As Harry Harlow’s famous Rhesus monkey experiments (when baby monkeys chose a soft mother surrogate over a wire mother figure even if the latter offered food) demonstrated in the 1950s nothing, not even food and shelter, is more important than the touch of comfort between mother, or a mother figure, and baby.
4. Act consistently in response to your baby’s distress with comfort, warmth, and competency. But this tip comes with a caveat: research shows that when super-attentive mothers responded instantly to their baby’s every gurgle, cry, and hiccup, their children became less securely attached. The lesson: children react poorly to smothering. It hampers their independence and inhibits the process of learning to self-soothe.
5. Have a two-way, mutual relationship with your baby; not one dominated by your needs and moods. Go along with the interactions and games that are initiated by baby.
The most important thing you can do as a parent is be aware of the significance of touch, attention, consistency and your own physical and mental health, especially during your child’s first year. This doesn’t mean constant 24/7 togetherness, or an abdication of all of a mother’s need to nurture herself in favor of baby’s needs. To the contrary, your baby needs you to be emotionally and physically sound now and in the vital years ahead. Find the balance that’s right for you and your baby, and get support and time out for mom from your spouse, family and friends. It really does take a village, if only to support a mother or father to be there and fully present during the first vital months of their baby’s life. That doesn’t necessarily mean mother has to give up her job and stay home full time, but a newborn baby thrives best (now and later) when someone, ideally a parent—and not a series of “someones”—devotes those first six months to being a primary caregiver. It may not be the message that every working mother wants to hear, but it’s what over a half century of studying children has shown us.