Today's guest blogger is Meghan Walls, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children.
How likely will the quality and impression of early relationships influence us throughout our lives? A recent New York Times article, Yes, it's your Parents Fault addressed this concept called attachment theory and says it matters a lot. Once you get past the slightly negative title and some psychological jargon, the opinion piece is laden with good information.
Why is parenting so important? Instead of blaming parents, let's take a small step back: Parents can contribute so much value to their children's lives, especially in the early years. Experts agree that the early years (especially months 0-36) are a critical time for development of relationships, language, and emotional understanding. Simple behaviors such as talking to your baby more, no matter what words are spoken, are impactful. We should teach parents that this period is important and offer support. We might think this comes naturally to parents, but it doesn't always. Love doesn't necessarily equal secure attachment. The question is then: how do we help parents succeed from the start?
Successful programs. The New York Times piece pointed to a couple great programs that exist: the University of Delaware's Infant Caregiver Project works with parents of babies six months and older, and Circle of Security, a program that has been widely distributed. These programs provide the right support and structure for helping parents understand the key importance of attachment and helping to foster these bonds. But, what if you don't have these programs available? What if you don't even know they exist?
Support where it matters. There are two places that children go most frequently in those first few years— their pediatrician and daycare. Interventions, or at least education and information from these providers have the propensity to have a big impact. Integrated pediatric primary care is effective and useful for a variety of reasons. Programs like Healthy Steps focus specifically on early childhood emotional development and parenting.
Recently, some Nemours psychologists, under a large nationally funded award, have started co-managed well visits with physicians. Psychologists have the time and expertise to help parents with little things such as difficulty with routines, sleep challenges, and crying babies. If you're a parent, make sure you ask your pediatrician about both your child's physical and emotional health at each well visit. Daycare centers also have a great opportunity to give parents feedback and can be a place to learn positive emotional development and attachment.
Beyond age 3. What happens if parents and kids are past that three year mark and struggling with trust and attachment? Are they doomed? The simple answer is no. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child reminds us that there is one thing that makes the biggest difference: at least one stable, consistent caregiver or adult. This can be a parent, relative, or teacher. The key is to listen and understand the children we come into contact with, and make sure each one has the opportunity for resilience.
Tips for parents. Of course, most parents try to do their best for their children. There is an overwhelming sense of wanting to do what's right. Here are some tips for helping to form good attachment from an early age and support positive development.
Don't try to be a hero – accept support and help from the start. Managing your own stress is critical.
Respond to your newborns and young infants as frequently as they seem to require your attention.
Look at and talk to your baby frequently.
Hold your baby and be affectionate; you won't spoil your newborn.
Look at babies' cues to understand their needs. For example, if babies turn away and cry, they may just need some quiet down time.
Keep consistent routines (especially for feeding and sleeping as babies grow) to help your child form expectations.
Know this: babies cry. Sometimes it will happen regardless of your efforts. Try to take a break if you need it.
Websites on early child development and attachment: