Marvin G. Knittel Ed.D.

How to Help a Friend

Bonding Is Essential for Every Infant

Four out ten infants do not form a strong bond with either parent.

Posted Dec 25, 2017

Babies do not come with an owner’s manual. We come into this world as dry sponges ready to absorb anything and everything, totally dependent on our caregivers. Even though we do not understand what is going on during this critical time our instincts tell us when we are safe and if we can trust our caregiver.

John Bowlby (1958) believed that babies have an inbuilt need from birth to make emotional attachments. They bond with their parents in the minutes, hours, or days following birth.

Not All Infants Form a Strong Bond

Not all parents bond with their infant children during this critical time after birth. Princeton University research showed that forty percent of infants do not form a strong bond with their caregivers. And they found these infants can feel fear and distrust with either parent during the first few months of life.

Columbia University and the University of Bristol in England analyzed more than 100 research projects. They looked at the data collected by a longitudinal study of 14,000 children born in 2001. They found bonding to be simple to achieve. They wrote, “Most of the time parents can respond to a child in a warm, sensitive and responsive way such as picking up the child when it cries, and reassuring it that its needs can be met.” Other research points out that simply touching or caressing a newborn contributes to the infant’s sense of security.

Children who are securely attached when they are infants develop high self-esteem and self-reliance as they grow. Studies on attachment show that these children “are more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships and experience less depression and anxiety.”

Not All Parents Know What to Do

A study from the University of Rochester showed that nearly one-third of parents in the United States do not know what to expect from their newborns, or how to help them grow and learn to get along with others. Often the parents most in need of help are the least likely to seek it. Many factors contribute to the problem such as poverty, ignorance and overwhelming stress among the parents who are so busy with their own problems that the newborn is more than they can handle.

However, parents could make a significant difference with their infant by simply holding the infant close and comforting it when it cries. The infant needs to feel the warmth of the caregiver and smell its presence. These simple steps can significantly reduce the infant’s anxiety.  

The Eternal Search for Love

What is it like for these children when they become adults? What happens to the 40% who do not bond well? The basic need to love and be loved has not been adequately met early on in their life. Consequently, they spend the rest of their lives compensating for that loss.

Imagine you have a cup labeled “love” that is only half full. It has been half full from early on in your life because your caregivers were unable or too preoccupied to give you the unconditional love and a sense of belonging necessary to fill the cup.

So, you carry your cup with you, holding it out hoping someone will fill it. You continue to search for a relationship that will compensate for your lack of attachment and bonding from your caregivers. However, deep down you’re afraid to risk opening yourself up completely. You have this notion that you are inadequate and perhaps unlovable. So, you look for someone whom you believe will overlook your flaws. 

The Bad News

Here is the devastating news: The “cup” will often remain half full because the cup could only be filled with unconditional love during those critical months when bonding took place. Nevertheless, a person may wander from one relationship to another seeking confirmation that he is lovable always finding reasons that he is not.

It is a difficult quest. On the one hand a person desperately needs to feel loved but on the other hand fears she is not lovable. She is afraid to risk intimacy because to open herself up to another person is to risk rejection. 

Can anything be done?

I think it is surprising to most of us that 40 percent of infants do not form a strong bond with either parent. It is equally surprising to understand that a third of parents in the United States do not know what to expect from their newborn or how to help them grow and learn. The question remains, whether anything can be done. What role can society take to care for the psychological needs of our children?

Research is clear that learning how to bond and attach to our infants is simple to achieve. Perhaps every parent could be taught to respond quickly to a crying infant and to hold and comfort that infant particularly during the first six months of its life. Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally recognized authority on child development, writes that “The majority of attachment problems are likely due to parental ignorance about development.” He also suggests that with more public education these problems can be improved. It just is not that difficult to form an attachment with a newborn during the first six months of life.

I am professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where for 30 years I taught counseling theories, counseling methods, group counseling, practicum, and psychodrama. In addition to my current book, One Hand Clapping (2015), I wrote Counseling and Drama: Psychodrama A' Deux in (2009), a casebook showing how to use psychodrama in a one-on-one setting.

More Posts