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Mental Health

Infant attachment and working mom

10/24/2008

Question:

Hi, I`m a working mom who returned to work 3 months after my daughter was born (I work from home, so my daughter is always around me ... cared for during my schedule by my mother in law or husband or myself.)

My daughter is now 8 months old and is in good health. My question centers on signs of healthy attachment. Are there any signs I should look for to indicate any attachment problems at this age? I don`t see anything in her that would suggest this intuitively, but I don`t know about how to gauge this for this age group.

I work very hard at being responsive to her needs, play with her, nurture her, carress her etc., but still want to make sure that the time I so spend `away` from her while I work will not be detrimental to her mental well being as she grows up. I understand the importance of a securely attached child to her well being.

thanks so much

Answer:

Thank you for voicing so well the concerns of many working mothers. I want to start by sharing a little information about attachment and then try to answer your specific questions.

Attachment is essentially the child's perception that he or she is lovingly protected from harm - internal harms and external harms. The perceived danger from outside (a barking dog) or inside (worry about abandonment) the child does not have anything at all to do with the actual reality of the danger. It is a real danger from the child's point of view and needs a parental response that acknowledges the child's feeling of threat and a respectful attempt by the parent to protect the child from the danger -  in the first example, by moving the child away from the dog and in the second example, by reassuring the child that you never would ever leave him or her, that he or she is very precious to you.

The major fears of children in the first years of life include fear of: abandonment, losing the parent's love, body damage, and doing wrong. These internal fears play a major role in shaping the development of external fears. It is always helpful for a parent to reassure a fearful child of the parent's love, presence, and protection. Teasing, put downs, and anger are never helpful responses to the fearful child. Responding with love and reassurance does not promote a child becoming a fearful wimp. Contrary to becoming a wimp, they are far more likely to become confident and competent children.

So, how do you know that your attachment relationship with your child is a strong one? She will trust your availability for protection and comfort by seeking you out when she is afraid or injured; she will be comforted by your reappearance after being away; and she will comfort quickly when you attend to her distress.

All children need additional positive relationships with other regular caregivers. Having too many caregivers does not allow the child to develop consistent expectations about others and their trustworthiness. Researchers don't know what the upper limit is on the number of consistent caregivers, but observation suggests that up to 4-5 regular caregivers seems to work well, as is the case in your home. So, great job!

Be aware also that your daughter will soon enter, or may already have entered, a new phase in her mental development, where she prefers certain caregivers, knows that you and other preferred caregivers continue to exist even if she can't see you, she is afraid of unfamiliar people, and she cries hard when her preferred caregivers are away, knowing that her special people do come in response to her cries.

Parents still need time-out from parenting and work to rest and renew their energy in their relationships and with themselves. Many parents feel very selfish and cruel in leaving their crying young child for a night out. However, it is not only a beneficial opportunity for her parents, it is also an important lesson in trust for her that you will always be clear about when you are leaving, you will always provide a caring protector while you are gone, and, best of all, you always return to love and protect her.

Another change that may occur at 12 months to 18 months is that a child suddenly seems to have a new preferred caregiver. This does not mean you are now a discarded old mom. It is just the very independent-minded toddler declaring that he or she now has a new preferred comforter, trying in another way to declare his or her difference from the caregiver of babyhood. Of course, that's just an independence, "I am me", kind of thing and nothing to do with his or her continued love and reliance on mom. It is a similar situation to when a toddler who loves ice cream says "No!" when asked if he or she would like some. They just have to be opposite in order to learn who they are by contrasting with their parent. This is hard on many mothers. It is best to remain calm and let the new preferred person, usually dad, provide more help. Older toddler boys and girls also know what sex he or she is and turn to the same sex parent to learn more about what boys do and what girls do, so a second switch in preference may occur as a child nears 2 1/2 or 3 years of age.

All of us who are parents grow and develop along with our children. Some periods of childhood and parenting are easier for us than others. The core values good parents have through the thick and thin periods of life with our children are commitment to learning how to be the best parent possible as our children change and believing that our children are worthy of our love and protection. I think you have these two core values well-covered.  You are doing a thoughtful and caring job as a parent.

 

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Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University