The Wonder of Secure Attachments with Babies: What Happens When Connections Go Awry and How to Remedy Insecure Bonds

During the first twelve months—with a lot of play and conversing—You will learn to share affective moments, challenge your baby’s knowledge of cause and effect, and of course, build a special bond.

Your relationship is wondrous, as your baby trusts you to help him, limit him, teach him, hug him, and love him in all your individual, endearing ways!

As you continue to build your trusting relationship, remember that affective sharing (the wonderful sharing of emotions) is as important or more important than your baby’s achievements.

Remarkable longitudinal research on mother-infant attachment

Researchers have become outstanding observers of the quality of a mother and baby’s interactions. From second by second observations, they predict whether an early attachment at four months will be secure or insecure when the baby reaches twelve months.

This research is all about patterns of relating and being intimate with your baby.

Because this is longitudinal research, a fact worth repeating, it is special and extraordinary. Longitudinal research gives us predictions of how the past affects the baby’s future.

My personal experience with infant researchers

It is my pleasure to share this with you because I had the wonderful opportunity to observe interactive videos first-hand in the studio of Dr. Beatrice Beebe with other infant observers like myself.

I want to highlight the findings so you, too, can feel the importance and direct personal relevance of this work for you and your baby’s relationship now and in the future.

How the research was conducted

The researchers observed four-month-old babies that were facing and playing naturally with their mothers while being videoed. The video screen was split so that a frontal view of each mother and baby could be observed closely second by second.

It is outstanding what a mother and baby can communicate through simple and quick facial, vocal, and gestural expressions—some moments of interaction lasting only one-third of a second!

How infant attachment theory was born

The study of these interactions and future outcomes for babies and parents led to the development of attachment theory.

In short, researchers found early interactions impacted future behaviors.
That is, the extraordinary finding that by closely observing the nature of the reunion of twelve-month-old babies separated briefly from their mothers could predict secure or insecure attachments. (More about this in a moment.)

Secure versus insecure attachments

As this research is so important to infant development and play, let’s look at types of secure versus insecure attachments between parent and child and how these concepts are derived.

The “Strange Situation Paradigm”

The differences between insecure and secure attachments can best be described with the “strange situation paradigm.” This paradigm simply examines how infants and mothers reunite after a brief separation.

During the experiment, the baby plays with her mother in a room. Then a researcher comes in to be with the baby, and the mother leaves the room.
When the mother returns, the baby’s reaction is examined to determine what the baby’s attachment to the mother is like.

In other words, a baby’s responses to play, separation, and reunion with the mother are evaluated.

The Strange Situation research protocol

The Strange Situation is conducted between twelve and eighteen months.
It yields four categories of attachment:

  • Avoidant (A)
  • Secure (B)
  • Resistant (C)
  • Disorganized (D)

In the secure (A) pattern, you as the mother are sensitive to your infant’s needs. In turn, your infant tends to use you as a secure base. The mother leaves the room briefly while she is left with a well-trained empathic infant researcher. Then the mother returns.

If your baby is secure, she will react positively after your reunion by actively engaging with you and recovering easily from the separation.

Illustration

I conducted Infant-Parent Psychotherapy sessions with a 21-year-old single mother, Caz, and her baby, Semantha, during the infant’s first year in her home.

I observed over time how Caz did a great mothering job at creating a secure attachment to her baby over many months’ time, even when their lives together got difficult.

For example, Caz had to leave for a few days due to a personal circumstance. She left Semantha with another excellent caretaker and when she returned her baby, Semantha, greeted her, and they played happily together.

Another time, when Semantha had to be hospitalized, a difficult, scary time, her short stay worked out well. Why? Because Semantha’s attachment to Caz was so secure, even this hospital experience was not traumatic for either mother or baby.

Different degrees of insecure attachments

The insecure/avoidant pattern

Another attachment pattern that contains differing degrees of insecure attachment is the insecure/avoidant pattern (A). This occurs when mothers are insensitive to their infants’ needs and may be under-involved or intrusive as they minister to their babies and play with them.

These infants avoid closeness upon reunion during the research trials.
Thus, these babies need more help in gaining a secure feeling with their mother as their home base.

The insecure/resistant pattern

In the insecure/resistant pattern (C), mothers are inconsistent in their responses—sometimes the mothers are non-nurturant, often showing direct interference in the baby’s activities, but at other times they are sensitive and caring.

The result of this inconsistency is that the infants don’t explore their environments much, but instead strongly seek to maintain close proximity with their mothers after reuniting with them.

They show repeated expressions of anger, crying, and petulance.

Because these infants are unable to be separated well from their mothers—they remain unhappy and do not play during the separation when they are with the infant researcher or later when it’s time to resume play when reunited with their mothers.

Illustration

Again, remembering Caz and Semantha, Caz worried that Semantha didn’t sufficiently miss her when she was at daycare. Yet, the baby’s smiling response at the reunion with Caz illustrated well that their attachment was indeed not insecure but secure.

Caz also discovered that when she went out of the room, Semantha stopped playing because she was focused on her mother’s absence and stared at the door.

Thus, secure Semantha had found her own way of coping with the separation without distress, resuming her play when her mother came back into the room.

These are typical examples of mother-baby daily life revealing security.
If, however, the baby got exceptionally fussy and frightened when separated briefly from her mother and didn’t have a coping response of watching the door that the mother went out of, the baby would be demonstrating insecurity.

Disorganized/disoriented infants

Infants who did not fit into the above patterns resulted in an additional classification: disorganized/disoriented (D) infants.

These babies show interrupted movements and expressions. They show both approach and avoidance patterns. They are confused and apprehensive, sometimes resulting in feeling immobilized momentarily.

These are babies we will worry about.

They seem inconsolable in spite of efforts by their mothers to comfort them, and they are unable to separate from their mother and resume play after separation.

How to repair insecure and even disorganized attachment styles

Attachment can be repaired with gentle intervention with a professional who can support the mother in gaining the trust of her baby, turning a disorganized/insecure attachment into a secure one for the future.

When the researchers discovered that patterns of mother-infant interaction and communication could be observed and predictable by four to six months, they learned how mothers and their babies were attached by twelve to eighteen months.

As mentioned, secure babies played happily with their mothers after being reunited with them after separation. But other babies became insecure, avoidant, and distressed, unable to explore their environments, interact well, and play.

The most significant and unlikely distressing classification (D) is disorganized attachment.

Researchers found that infants with this attachment would later struggle to deal with negative emotions because the mother denies the baby’s distress with a controlling style that is not empathic.

Unfortunately, this mother does not understand her baby’s reactions and thus cannot offer a nurturing response. Instead, she may take over the baby’s activity by overdirecting it, which only upsets the baby because they are not in synch.

However, mothers can learn to empathize with their babies even if they have never had that maternal influence themselves.

This is the wonder of infant-parent psychotherapy that I have engaged in.
I’ve had the opportunity to witness mothers who initially didn’t intuitively understand their babies’ communications and emotions. They became able to learn over a reasonable period of time how to connect emotionally with their infants, giving both mothers and babies more joy.

These mothers were able to learn the importance of being attuned to their babies, that is to their emotions. They learned by watching the therapist showing empathy and care during play. Then mother and therapist discussed what occurred.

Illustration

When the therapist and baby were rolling a ball back and forth, the therapist focused on the baby’s intentions. If the baby pushed the ball forward, the therapist smiled and sent it back. That was empathic action.

An inexperienced mother might suggest playing with something else, or look at her phone for a moment, or express worry on her face with a wrinkled brow. These would be instances of not being attuned to the baby’s simple gesture of pushing the ball.

However, when that mother observes how easy it is for the therapist to get a smiling reaction from her baby, the therapist and mother can discuss any actions on the mother’s part that she inadvertently did to interfere with the baby’s intentions.

If the infant-parent guidance begins early, such as by the four-month juncture, the mother will learn how not to compromise the baby’s timing with her own off-track wishes.

The quality of the interaction will improve significantly as the mother learns how to play with empathic interactions, and the mother will be rewarded with smiles and coos from her baby.

The baby reinforces the mother’s new approach, which can grow by leaps and bonds.

What might infants feel in disorganized interactions

To be clearer, here are imagined words the baby might be feeling when the mother is out of synch:

  • “I don’t know what you feel, Mommy. You show me smiling and surprised faces when I am upset. Your face is inscrutable.”
  • “I can’t count on your attention. I don’t know when you are going to loom into my face. I can’t read your intent, and I feel threatened.”
  • “I can’t influence you to follow my facial-visual changes or my touch. I can’t read you or predict you; you are not on my wavelength.”

Not to lose heart, however, these kinds of disconnect between mother and baby can change, as noted above, with effective early intervention with the pair by a well-trained infant-parent psychotherapist.

The mother gains the tools to address infant distress in a playful, loving way.

The importance of play

As you now see, the importance of learning how to play with your infant can have significant results—early play from the start has its effects throughout the baby’s twelve months that are confirmed by their level of attachment at one year!

Related: How to Play With Babies: Newborn to One Year

Mothers who have extreme difficulty having positive interactions should never be blamed or be critical of themselves, however, as they may have long histories of long-term distress of their own that interfere when they become mothers.

A personal note

If this is of concern to you, due to difficulties you may have experienced in your life, you can feel heartened to know this can effectively become a new learning process for you as a mother—one you can undertake successfully over time with guidance.

You can gain an entirely new positive way of interacting and giving and receiving love with your infant.

How to keep a positive feeling as a mother over time

While this research is sometimes daunting, it is essential and important to realize that mismatched states between mother and infant are common but quickly repairable.

It’s just part of everyday life with your baby. Actually, research has shown this over and over. In other words, you don’t have to be perfect!

Secure attachments are easily built through intentional play that takes into consideration the interactions of the mother’s and baby’s minds. Inevitably, there will be a mishap here and there that you will pick up and attend to effectively to sustain your baby’s secure attachment with you.

In fact, simply playing repeatedly with your infant intentionally and empathically will not only strengthen your relationship with your baby but give you the wondrous feeling of your baby enjoying playing with you!

Related: Your Four-Month-Old: Optimizing Play Activities for Mental and Physical Milestones

Your babies will learn to trust you will provide safety and security as they become mobile and continually fascinated by the world around them.

One more note

As you focus on your little one’s needs, emotions, preferences, and emerging personality, you will promote a lasting, secure attachment that will aid your baby.

Your infant will learn how to regulate his own emotions and live a life full of positive interactions and loving relationships. There is no greater reward for a mother.

(This research was carried out with mothers, which is why all explanations and illustrations are about mothers and babies. But surely father can gain exponentially from this research as well.)

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

Website: Laurie Hollman, Ph. D.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child adolescent, and adult psychotherapy and is an expert on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

She is an authority on modern parent-child relationships who has published six award-winning parenting books and more books to be released in 2021. She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, among others.