Developmentally sensitive parental contact with infants when families are separated

This post is based on information provided on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website based on a paper by Cathy Humphreys and Meredith Kiraly. The paper is primarily about the issues of out of home care for babies when they are taken from their parents by child protection services but does draw on the research base into babies attachment needs.

This is also relevant for parents of young children and babies when they separate and have to find a shared care arrangement that best supports their baby rather than one that appears “fair” in the allocation of time with the baby for the adults. There is much more at stake than the parent’s feelings.

The importance of bonding for child development

In all the emotion, frustration, anger, loneliness and sadness that parents can feel when going through a separation and divorce there is one thing that it is absolutely critical that you must remember. It isn’t all about you.

Your child has unique, individual but also universal developmental needs.

They are in the process of growing into adults and in the case of very young children they are in the process of actively growing their brains. What happens to them, the environments they are exposed to and most of all the people that they are able to bond with are critical. It matters very much if they are able to develop a secure attachment and develop normally or if they are in a toxic or overly changing environment causing insecure attachment and abnormal development.

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 of life, and are related to the capacity of the infant and caregiver to develop a positive interactive relationship.

Perry, B. D. (2008). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children: Consequences of emotional neglect in childhood. Paragraph 12

There is now a body of knowledge that has explored the way in which healthy babies develop and also how dysfunctional attachment relationships and trauma can impact the development of babies.

Brain development

At birth your babies brain is about 25% of its adult size and by age three it is about 90% of adult size.  The brain is not just growing, it is becoming more complex with complex interconnections that are influenced by the child’s attachment relationships. This is because a secure attachment relationship with the babies care giver creates a safe, predictable and secure psychological and physical space for the baby to grow and make sense of the world.

Imagine you were trying to make a map of the world and but it keeps changing all the time. How could you draw your map? How would you connect everything up if you kept getting a different response to the things that you do?

It would be like going to work every day in a different building, with different rules and different expectations. How would you cope? And what if this was all happening in a country where you don’t speak the language and it is really hard to make yourself understood when you are hungry, thirsty or tired?

When babies are faced with inconsistent, unpredictable and especially unsafe care it affects their ability to trust, floods their system with stress hormones, wires their brains for anxiety and doesn’t give them the environment they need to grow their brains in a well organised and functional way.

The easiest way for babies to have this safe, predictable and secure environment they need to develop normally is with a primary attachment figure. That person is usually their mother due to the biological reality that their mother carried them in their body during pregnancy and may continue to nurture them through breast feeding for months after their birth. This usually creates a very close bond and emotional attachment with the mother attuned to the child’s needs and moods.

There is a significant risk for the child if this bond doesn’t develop due to the mothers emotional unavailability. If the mother had insecure attachment herself as a child she may have difficulty establishing a bond with her baby. If she has a mental illness, a substance abuse issue or is subject to family violence she may be  unpredictable and scary for the baby at times.

Fathers can and do have an incredibly strong bond with their babies but usually their role is secondary during the first few months or even years of the babies life. The reality is that if mum is not working in order to have the baby and then care for it while it is very young dad probably has to go to work to support the family. Some families organise differently but if a father has not been a primary care giver who understands the babies needs as well as the mother it is generally considered better for the baby for them not to have them for extended periods or overnights.

If you’re a dad fighting for time with your child stop and think for a moment about whether you are able to care for your baby as well as it needs. This study looked at the difference between high frequency contact (every 4 to 7 days) and low frequency contact for parents with babies in foster care and found no difference in the success of reunification of the family. You’re baby is going to be little for a long time and there will be time for you to bond and connect with your baby when it is older and no longer in such critical need of a predictable routine with care givers who understand and respond to their physical and emotional needs.

A primary care giver is not the only way that a child can safely develop. There are examples of cultures and families where babies have many people who they can provide them with the level of safety, predictability and security they need. What you have to do is think about whether you can.

Due to economic realities and personal choices some babies are in family or professional child care from a very young ages but the basic needs of the child remain the same. They need care givers who have the capacity to create a safe, predictable and secure psychological and physical space for the baby to grow and explore the world.

Highly emotionally charged change overs between parents who are in conflict do not provide that sense of security that babies need so if you are going to be sharing care the most important thing that BOTH parents can do to protect your baby is to resolve any conflict and form a team to work towards your child’s best interests.

The effects of a toxic environment

Studies on babies who have grown up in institutional environments where they have had no consistent attachment figure and no responsiveness to their emotional needs show that their neurological development is stunted especially in their ability to think and to regulate their emotions.

While less extreme, clear chemical differences have now been established between the brains of infants and children growing up with “good enough parenting” – including at least one secure attachment figure in a safe environment – and those growing up where a secure attachment figure is not available and where abuse and fear may be rife.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Meisels, S. J. (Eds.) (2000). Handbook of early childhood intervention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

When a baby has a consistent care giving figure who is attuned to their needs they are able to develop normally. Attuned to their needs means being responsive to their sleeping and feeding patterns, able to recognise and meet their needs and able to help them to sooth and calm down when they get upset.

Do some research on Attachment Parenting which may be very different to the way you were raised. For many of us our parents were told that we should be left to cry if our physical needs had been met but research shows that not to be appropriate and is no longer recommended.

If you have a problem with regulating your own emotions such as you’ve got a short fuse or get emotional and can’t control yourself or you find it difficult to understand other peoples emotions you might be living with the legacy of poor attachment as a baby. If your mother or other primary care giver couldn’t bond with you and teach you to understand and control your emotions it can be a life long problem unless you do some serious work on retraining your brain.

Studies have shown that when the baby is in an environment where their needs are not met, such as when they have frequently changing care givers who don’t understand their needs, their attachment with all care givers can become dysfunctional. There are various types of dysfunctional attachment patterns but they are all a sign that the child is not getting the safe, predictable and secure environment they need to thrive. Unless they are able to re-establish their attachment with a secure care giver who understands their needs the impact on their brain can be very significant. The areas of the brain that are particularly affected are those that relate to learning to regulate their emotions and to empathise with others.

In J. Solomon, & C. George, (Eds.), Attachment disorganization. New York: Guilford Press they identify a link between overnights with a parent who could not provide infants with the security they need and disorganised attachment with both parents.

Some of the symptoms you might notice if a baby’s attachment is dysfunctional are  the child disassociating (going limp and unresponsive), freezing or becoming hypervigilent and appearing worried in the presence of their care giver. Their feeding and sleeping patterns are often unsettled. Sometimes the signs of stress and the release of stress hormones are not evident.

Care Giving

Your baby needs consistent and competent care giving. If you have separated it is easy for your upset with your former partner to affect your ability to be available and responsive to your baby.

If you were not the primary care giver due to work or other obligations you may not know what your babies different cries mean. If spending significant and substantial time with and caring for your child is your ultimate goal for your child’s sake you may need to work up to that and establish a trusted co-parenting relationship.

Experts disagree about what is the “perfect” arrangement and in some ways the perfect arrangement can only be worked out by trial and error by your family where you work together to be responsive to your babies needs rather than blaming each other for things that are no one’s fault.

Go to https://aifs.gov.au/publications/family-matters/issue-85/developmentally-sensitive-parental-contact-infants-when  for a full copy of the paper.

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