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Myths About Infant Bonding and Attachment

Originally posted February 27, 2017.

Being a new parent was one of the most confusing times in my life. Everything changes: the way that you feel about yourself, the way your marriage functions, and the way that you care for your child(ren) can turn your world upside down. To make it worse, everyone (loads of parenting experts, doctors, friends, relatives, etc.) believe that their advice will make your parenting experience easier.

Almost all of this parenting advice is well-intended, but more often than not you’ll hear confusing and contradictory claims about parenting that can make your job even more difficult than nature made it to begin with!

The terms “bonding” and “attachment” are often used interchangeably. Bonding actually refers to a parent’s tie to the infant, and attachment is the biologically based, psychological and emotional relational process created between an infant and her primary caregiver(s), which develops over time.

Human attachment promotes the safety and survival of helpless offspring by keeping a protective adult close by. Once established over a period of time, the human attachment bond transcends distance and time.

Stability of the caregiver is the most important factor to developing healthy human attachment. In order to develop a stable psychology, a secure emotional base and grow physically healthy, an infant must be able to spend time and interact positively with her primary caregiver. Attachment is necessary for the physical survival and for psychological and emotional well-being of the child (Karen, 1998).

Attachment develops between an infant and her mother (or caregiver) as a result of repeated, mutual interactions requiring accessibility and responsiveness on a daily basis with the primary caregiver. It is this pattern of need-gratification repeated frequently over a long period of time that is the foundation of secure attachment. This interactive pattern includes mirroring behavior on the part of the caregiver. Mirroring behavior on the part of the caregiver creates in the infant both the ability to eventually self- regulate and the foundation of a sense of self. This earliest pattern of need-gratification also forms the beginning blueprint for the infant’s emotional perception of what a human relationship feels like.

Many of the myths about human bonding and attachment were developed based on Marshall Klaus and John Kennell’s 1976 early research into human bonding. The research was done with a very small sample size of moms and newborns. Klaus & Kennell said to have found a “critical period,” the hour after birth, where mom and baby could optimally bond, such as can be found in the animal world. For years, researchers tried to replicate this finding, but have never been able to do so. In 1984, Klaus and Kennell themselves re-evaluated their conclusions and stated “It seems unlikely that such a life-sustaining relationship depends on one single process. There are many fail-safe routes to (human) attachment.”

In fact, current attachment research indicates that the human attachment bond forms over a lifetime and that human infants can attach to multiple caregivers. Human attachment follows a different process than animal imprinting/attachment. It’s made up of thousands o beautiful reciprocal interactions over time.

The good thing about the Klaus & Kennell research on early mama-baby bonding is that hospital policies were modified based on this information. Mamas, babies and families can now room together if they wish, in many hospitals, helping to foster emotional growth as a family.

Myth 1: Parents will (and must) instantly bond with their baby.

This is one of the most harmful myths that mothers hear. Often, women feel instant love and attachment for their child, but often enough, this is not the case. This myth has caused thousands of women to internalize feelings of shame and guilt for “failing” as a mother for not properly bonding with their child. Giving birth is overwhelming! In reality, the relationship between any parent and child develops over time. The idea that early skin to skin contact is necessary to bond between parent and child is another variation of this myth. If a Mom had a cesarean section or a traumatic birth, or if a Dad is ill when their baby is born, they don’t need to feel anxious and guilty about failing as a parent, if they weren’t able to hold their baby right away; they will still be able to form a securely attached relationship with their baby.

Myth 2: Only biological parents can truly bond with children.

This simply isn’t true. Thousands of children are adopted every day, and strong bonds can be formed over time as a parent cares for and attends to their adopted child. Bonding might be simpler on some level for biological mothers, who have shared space with their children, but adoptive children and parents can create the same bonds.

Myth 3: You have to be with your son or daughter all day every day in order to bond properly.

Is every child raised by working parents irreversibly scarred? Research shows that parents don’t need to be with their children 24/7 in order to raise a securely attached and secure individual and to create a strong parent-child relationship. The reality is that there is a wide range of safe parenting practices that produce securely attached human beings. The important thing is to ensure that the care in your child’s life is regular, consistent, safe, warm and loving. And it’s important to feel that parents, as individuals, are finding their way to their own own beliefs, realistically based on the needs of everyone in the family.

Myth 4: Nothing matters after early bonding.

This is another myth that might be floating about a new mama’s emotional space. Bonding with your child right after birth is a beautiful experience, if you’re willing and able to do it. But, if you are ill or incapacitated in some way or if your son or daughter is in the NICU, your whole relationship isn’t ruined. The years that follow the first couple of weeks are just as important- what you need to do is work to create a strong relationship based on reciprocity and communication with your son or daughter. Below are some more in-depth books about parenting the infant and the attachment process.

The book by Robert Karen, Ph.D. is my all-time favorite, about the history of the research about the attachment process and how it unfolds.

And Bright From the Start is a lovely book about parenting and infant development.

The Bonding is the seminal book by Klaus and Kennell.



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