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What is attachment and bonding?

Attachment is the relationship between an infant and their primary caregiver. It is instinctive for an infant of any animal species to form this relationship and become ‘attached’ to their caregiver (s). Forming such a relationship is essential to development. It provides safety and feedback through which babies learn about themselves and their environment.

Bonding is the feeling one person has for another, thus the mother may feel ‘bonded’ to her baby. The process of becoming bonded to their baby usually begins for mothers in pregnancy when baby's movements can be felt

Patterns of attachment develop between a baby/infant and their caregiver(s). The caregivers can be mother, father or anyone who plays a major part in caring for the child.Babies can form attachments to more than one person and this can help if one of their main caregivers is sick or away.

Why is attachment important?

  • Too many caregivers or changes in caregiver is confusing for an infant and they don’t get to know and feel safe with any one person.
  • Problems with attachment have been seen in babies and children in orphanages in Romania. Many of these children have had multiple care givers, no prolonged time with any one person and often very little time with care givers overall.
  • It is essential for babies to have this connection to understand themselves and how to relate to others. A baby who knows that their distress will be comforted and their needs met will feel secure and safe. They will trust other people and they will learn to trust their own body signals.
  • Imagine a pathway between a mother and her infant. The path may be narrow or hard to walk across because of bumps and obstacles on the way. On the other hand it might be smooth going and easy to get across. Children travel this path emotionally, coming and going from their caregiver, all the time.
  • Leaving a young baby alone does not teach it independence.
  • If a baby is ignored it is like putting a full road block on the path and they remain alone and unhelped. They learn to rely on themselves or they ‘shut down’ (give up trying to get past the road block).
  • If they are not allowed to walk in their own way because the parent is always taking over or intruding, then the child doesn’t learn how to travel confidently. For example the parent who always picks the toy for the child to play and ignores what the child is interested in. Later on the child can have trouble being alone.
  • If a child is pushed too fast in a direction they are afraid of, they will become more afraid, not brave. For example if they are made to ride a horse before they are ready to they may develop a lasting fear of horses. If they are force fed when they are not hungry they may develop a phobia of some feature of the mealtime.
  • When a child is uncertain or in need they signal to their parents. This might just be to connect to another person, a simple but important need.

Baby Signals

Babies might signal by:

  • A cry (this is the main way a very young baby communicates).
  • A body gesture eg rubs their eyes when tired.
  • A look with the eyes.
  • A smile.
  • A frown or other facial gesture.
  • Looking away (babies need to do this after interacting to give themselves, and you, a break from a time of intense connecting)

Watch your baby closely and see if you can see their signals

To go at the pace of a baby requires many people to slow down and observe more. Think about pace and timing with your baby.

“I wasn’t used to stopping and, as they say, smelling the flowers, but when I consciously tried to do this around my baby it did help. I felt nervous to start with (how stupid is that!) and I wanted to fix every little grizzle but as I relaxed he relaxed. I actually started to watch him – he was the flower so to speak and I was smelling him - wow”.
– Maree (32)


Good parenting does not necessarily come naturally - what comes naturally is to repeat what you have experienced. If you have had sensitive parenting it is easier to be a sensitive parent yourself. Many people feel very embarrassed about asking for help to understand their baby – they feel that they should know all about their own baby.

Getting help might simply be your partner, or mother or mother-in-law, being supportive of you, or it might come from a well child nurse such as a Plunket nurse, an early childhood worker, some other relative or a friend.

Parents can learn how to become more sensitive to their baby; to read the baby’s way of communicating and knowing what state s/he is in.

“The intense emotions were really overwhelming. I couldn't understand why I wasn't handling it. You expect that being a mother comes naturally and you will know what to do. I always thought before having children, it was going to be easy”.
– Karen (26)

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