Infant Bonding

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: How important is it for a child to bond to a parent?
When you speak of bonding, you are speaking of the process of forming an attachment in what is called Attachment Theory. This theory originated in the work of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. The essence of the theory states that children have a need for a secure relationship with adult caregivers. When this is not present, there is a strong likelihood that normal social and emotional development will not occur.
According to Attachment Theory, timing is critical. There are critical periods during which bonding experiences must be present for the brain systems responsible for attachment to develop normally. These critical periods appear to be in the first year or two of life and are related to the capacity of the infant and caregiver to develop a positive interactive relationship.
Infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them, and who remain as consistent caregivers during the period from about six months to two years of age. According to Attachment Theory, appropriate parental responses become internal models that guide the individual’s feelings, thoughts, and expectations in later relationships.
Instability or disruption in relationships between caregivers and the child during those critical months may result in major problems in a child’s ability to trust and attach to parents or caregivers.
The kinds of problems that are frequently displayed by children who have not properly attached to a parent or caregiver are lack of development of a conscience, poor impulse control, poor self-concept, dysfunctional interpersonal interactions, emotional problems, lack of comprehension of cause and effect, poor insight into the child’s own behaviors, and developmental delays.
Unattached children have difficulty learning to build and maintain relationships of any sort. Having received little love, they have trouble giving it. Having not learned to care for others, they are self-centered and act impulsively. They often have difficulty incorporating rules and laws into their worldviews, violating the rights of others to satisfy their impulses. If you were to study the lives of men such as Ted Bundy and Lee Harvey Oswald, you would find disruptions of early attachment.
Not all children with breaks in early attachment develop an antisocial personality. However, many never trust others, and display behaviors that keep others at a distance. These behaviors include poor eye contact, withdrawal, chronic anxiety, and lack of self-awareness.
Researchers believe the most important factor in creating attachment is positive physical contact. Factors crucial to bonding include time together, face-to-face interactions, eye contact, physical proximity, touch, and other primary sensory experiences such as smell, sound, and taste. The acts of holding, rocking, singing, feeding, gazing, kissing and other nurturing behaviors involved in caring for infants and young children are bonding experiences.
The most important relationship in a child’s life is the attachment to his or her primary caregiver, optimally, the mother. This is due to the fact that this first relationship determines the biological and emotional “template” for all future relationships. Healthy attachment to the mother built by repetitive bonding experiences during infancy provides the solid foundation for future healthy relationships. In contrast, problems with bonding and attachment can lead to a fragile biological and emotional foundation for future relationships. So as to your question concerning the importance of bonding, the old saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” may be more than just an old saying.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].