Working in child care, you’re often the first person in a child’s life that they bond with, outside of their own parents.
In other words, the bonds you share with the children in your care have more lifelong impact than most other relationships in children’s lives.
But forming those healthy early attachments can be complex. It takes a lot of time and planning to understand and meet the needs of infants in your care. Could there be certain things we should do more of? Or things we do with the best intentions, that don’t actually work that well?
When it comes to bonding with babies, there’s a whole school of knowledge to make sense of it: Attachment theory.
You’ve probably heard of attachment theory before — but translating scientific theory to the daily ruckus of your early years environment is something else. So in this article, we’re going to get into how attachment theory looks and feels on the day-to-day in your classroom. We’ll talk about why exactly it matters so much, and how you can use attachment theory to form even stronger bonds with the little ones.
Attachment theory is the science of how babies bond with their caregivers.
Of course, attachment theory doesn’t dictate how that happens. Babies have been bonding with their caregivers since way before we had a name for it. But attachment theory helps us understand the patterns and influences behind how that bonding process happens, so that we can help children get the healthiest start to life. Attachment theory suggests that children’s bonding experiences are the most influential in their first year of life, so we’ll focus on that first year in the scope of this article.
At its core, attachment theory says that infants need to form strong bonds with one or two central caregivers, in order to have a solid emotional base that prepares them for the rest of life.
This bond is a matter of quality over quantity: The healthiest attachments don’t always form with whomever spends the most time with a baby, but who responds best to a baby’s signals. In infancy, this means not only being sensitive to babies’ needs, but also consistent in responding to those needs.
You could think about attachment as one of the very first steps on the pathway of child development.
Our first caregivers teach us how to use social cues, which is how we learn to process and communicate our own needs. But also, having these secure attachments gives us a safe home base as we venture out into the world. Infants and toddlers need someone to return to with questions, and to help them feel secure and supported as they explore their own independence.
To put attachment theory in the larger context of child development, here’s how those first attachments shape our growth later on:
Every child develops attachments in their own way. But as our newborn brains develop, the patterns of how we form attachments get more complex.
Our current understanding of attachment theory suggests children go through four distinct phases of attachment during their first year of life. This is the most critical time window for babies to form these bonds, and build these foundational relationships.
Again, within the context of child care, this means that you’ve got to think the most about attachment with children under one year old.
During that first year, you may notice that a few months can make a big difference in how babies approach attachment. Here are the four key phases of attachment children go through in their first year:
It’s hard to tell you what good attachment looks like in this short article.
Evaluating the quality of children’s attachment in any definitive way requires specialist training. It’s often done in a controlled setting, where children’s reactions can be very carefully observed. The daily hubbub of your early years setting might not be the place for that.
But beyond that, we probably shouldn’t focus too much on condensing children’s early emotional bonding into a numerical score. Instead, we can use attachment theory to help remember the importance and complexity of babies’ attachments. It reinforces the immense importance of the work you do, and underlines how critical it is that we show extra attention to the youngest ones in our care.
Within child care, here are some reflection questions that can help you think about how you and your team are helping babies form those first attachments:
Of course, an infant’s behavior in child care isn’t always an ironclad indicator of their attachment. Children’s age, developmental stage, home life, and of course individual personality can play a part in how they bond with you.
The good news is, supporting healthy attachment doesn’t need to be very technical or complex. Within child care, simply giving children consistent, attentive care is enough.
Here’s how you can help support healthy, nurturing attachments with the infants in your care:
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.