My partner and I watched a fictional thriller recently that left me thinking I was probably surrounded by crazed serial killers. I thought I had become desensitized by now (thank you, Netflix docuseries), but apparently not. I jumped at every sound and inched ever closer to my husband’s side of the bed that night.
I noticed as he got up to brush his teeth, and my heart pounded faster and slowed at his return. The closer he was, the calmer I felt.
It struck me that this was likely how my 2-year-old feels, and I was reminded of the regulating powers of attachment. With each new place, person, or sound, he cozies up to me, his heartbeat slowing (see Salk, 1973). Like many toddlers, his ouchies go away much faster after a hug from mom.
One of the most unfortunate parenting myths is that you can spoil your baby by holding her too much. There is a fear that responding quickly to your baby's needs, especially emotional ones, will lead to less self-soothing and self-regulation. However, research shows the opposite is true (see Pallini et al., 2018).
We are designed to be social creatures. We can find mutual pleasure in being around one another. We catch each other's moods and learn from each other's expressions (Prochazkova & Kret, 2017). We form attachments that help us regulate stress, ultimately lengthening our lifespan through relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).
We can choose to build on neural systems that help us form healthy attachments, or we can work against them. As stated by Ludy-Dobson and Perry (2010):
For the vast majority of the last 200,000 years, humans have lived in multigenerational, multifamily hunter-gatherer bands characterized by a rich and continuous relational milieu… Then, as today, the presence of familiar people projecting the social-emotional cues of acceptance, understanding, compassion, and empathy calmed the stress response of the individual. We feel safest in the presence of familiar and nurturing members of our family and community. These powerful regulating effects of healthy relational interactions on the individual—mediated by various key neural networks in the brain—are at the core of relationally based protective mechanisms that help us survive and thrive. (p. 26-27)
The magic of attachment can be seen within hours of life as newborns mimic facial expressions (Simpson et al., 2015). Infants who receive immediate skin-to-skin contact with their mothers after birth cry less during painful procedures (Duerden et al., 2018).
As they age, infants can pick up on the emotional states of their mother. Researchers Walters, West, and Mendes (2014) had mothers give a short presentation to a small audience. One group was given encouraging feedback, the other critical. When mothers were reunited with their 12-14-month-old babies, the heart rates of the infants were measured. Children of mothers who received negative feedback had faster heart rates, matching the physiology of their mother.
This bonding force continues throughout the lifespan (see Doyle & Cicchetti, 2017; Raby & Dozier, 2019). In one study, women who were able to hold their partner's hand during a painful procedure had lower heart rates and reported feeling less pain. When women were in the same room as their partner but unable to hold their partner’s hands, they did not experience the same reduction in pain (Goldstein, Weissman-Fogel, & Shamay-Tsoory, 2017).
Children who receive proper food, clothing, and diaper changes, but lose out on having a caregiver who is loving and attentive, may experience a failure to thrive. This may lead to many health problems, such as low weight, developmental delays, and learning disabilities. They may also experience an attachment disorder, potentially leading to a host of relationship problems throughout the lifespan (see Benoit & Coolbear, 2004). While a cause-and-effect relationship between early attachment and adult outcomes is difficult to prove, new research found that those with insecure attachments as infants were more likely than those with secure attachments to use poor emotion regulation strategies such as suppression or rumination 20-35 years later (Grime et al., 2020).
Is it any wonder that infants want to be held or that toddlers want to follow their mothers around? When I'm starting to grow tired of my children sneaking into my bed at night, excitedly sharing stories with no end, and looking to me to fix each boo-boo, I think of how I do similar things with my husband.
Remember, spoiling is giving in to every unnecessary whim, such as excessive TV, junk food, toys, etc. These decrease health, whereas bonding mechanisms increase it. I would never think to withdraw time, love, or attention from my husband in fear that I was giving him too much. Why would it be different with my children?
Benoit, D., & Coolbear, J. (2004). Disorders of Attachment and Failure to Thrive. In L. Atkinson & S. Goldberg (Eds.), Attachment issues in psychopathology and intervention. (pp. 49–64). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2004-00108-003&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Doyle, C., & Cicchetti, D. (2017). From the Cradle to the Grave: The Effect of Adverse Caregiving Environments on Attachment and Relationships Throughout the Lifespan. Clinical psychology : a publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, 24(2), 203–217. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12192
Duerden, E. G., Grunau, R. E., Guo, T., Foong, J., Pearson, A., Au-Young, S., … Miller, S. P. (2018). Early procedural pain is associated with regionally-specific alterations in thalamic development in preterm neonates. The Journal of Neuroscience, 38(4), 878–886. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2018-04610-011&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Girme, Y. U., Jones, R. E., Fleck, C., Simpson, J. A., & Overall, N. C. (2020). Infants’ attachment insecurity predicts attachment-relevant emotion regulation strategies in adulthood. Emotion. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/emo0000721.supp (Supplemental)
Goldstein, P., Weissman-Fogel, I. & Shamay-Tsoory, S.G. The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain. Sci Rep 7, 3252 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-03627-7
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLOS Medicine 7(7): e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Ludy-Dobson, C. R., & Perry, B. D. (2010). The role of healthy relational interactions in buffering the impact of childhood trauma. In E. Gil (Ed.), Working with children to heal interpersonal trauma: The power of play. (pp. 26–43). New York, NY: Guilford Press. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2010-17991-003&site=ehost-live&scope=site
McConnell, M. & Moss, E.. (2011). Attachment across the life span: Factors that contribute to stability and change. Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology, 11. 60-77. https://www.newcastle.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/100278/V11_McConnell-and-Moss.pdf
Pallini, S., Chirumbolo, A., Morelli, M., Baiocco, R., Laghi, F., & Eisenberg, N. (2018). The relation of attachment security status to effortful self-regulation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(5), 501–531. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1037/bul0000134.supp (Supplemental)
Prochazkova, E., & Kret, M. E. (2017). Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 80, 99–114. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.05.013
Raby, K. L., & Dozier, M. (2019). Attachment across the lifespan: Insights from adoptive families. Current Opinion in Psychology, 25, 81–85. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.03.011
Salk, L. (1973). The role of the heartbeat in the relations between mother and infant. Scientific American, 228(5), 24–29. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1038/scientificamerican0573-24
Simpson, E. A., Paukner, A., Suomi, S. J., & Ferrari, P. F. (2015). Neonatal imitation and its sensorimotor mechanism. In P. F. Ferrari & G. Rizzolatti (Eds.), New frontiers in mirror neurons research. (pp. 296–314). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199686155.003.0016
Waters, S. F., West, T. V., & Mendes, W. B. (2014). Stress contagion: Physiological covariation between mothers and infants. Psychological Science, 25(4), 934–942. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1177/0956797613518352