Secure attachment is the foundation of resilience throughout a person’s life. By secure attachment, I mean having at least one person who is consistently there for us, so we feel safe, soothed and seen. In the early part of life, this means having an adult who is available 24/7 (not necessarily the same adult all of the time!). Because babies are born helpless. We need someone to take care of our physical, mental and emotional needs. The shift from someone else regulating and taking care of a child to them doing it independently is a very gradual one, and it is important to be aware of this in creating the basis for secure attachment.
Previous generations thought that leaving a baby to cry meant it would eventually soothe itself to sleep. This was a very sad mistake. Actually, children are unable to self soothe until they are about 12 years old, and then only if they have been given the right tools and foundations to do so. When you leave a baby to cry, their brain becomes flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. If this happens repeatedly the neural pathway associated with the stress response becomes stronger, making the person more fearful and anxious: They are no longer able to trust the adults around them to soothe and care for them when they need it.
Take time to tune in
During the first twelve weeks of my son’s life, I remember spending many hours a day feeding him as well as doing the important work of gazing at him, learning his cues, singing soothing lullabies. I was lucky to have my ex partner around for support, and also found carrying my son around in a sling incredibly helpful, so that I could enjoy long walks in nature or do chores while feeding him. I hugely advocate new parents and caregivers having lots of support around to help them practically and emotionally, while they are doing the important work of raising well-loved children. If you are not supported, it is hard to be there for another without cost to yourself, either physically or emotionally.
Our need for love
I find it interesting that our attachment needs do not go away when we become adults. In our evolutionary past, humans were fairly vulnerable to predators – it is only our ability to make tools, build, farm and so on which have allowed us to move higher up the food chain. We have evolved to need each other, and our sense of well-being is intimately linked to being part of a network of high quality connections. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett describes, we can regulate our own emotions, but that comes at a metabolic cost: This is linked to why married people, on average, live longer – feeling loved and supported is actually good for our immune system. Ultimately, it is not marriage itself which creates longevity, but having a person or people who we can have committed relationships of interdependence with.
Attachment needs – those for dependable others who accept and understand us are important from the day we are born until we die. They improve the quality of our lives in so many ways, including giving us immunity to illness, reducing anxiety and depression and giving us the resilience to withstand life’s challenges. Strong relationships take time, energy and effort to build and maintain, but the benefits are plentiful.