Bonding and attachment and are both ways to describe the feelings between mothers and their baby, but attachment has a broader meaning than bonding.
Attachment is about both you – the mother – and your baby. It’s about how you build a relationship over time that helps your baby to feel secure and loved, and ready to face the world.
Bonding is all about you. It’s about the surge of love and tenderness you feel for your baby. You may feel it when you’re pregnant, perhaps when you see the first blurry image of your baby on a scan. Or you may feel it when you first hold your baby after giving birth, but it can take longer.
So, Bonding is the binding love that a parent may feel for their infant, beginning even before he or she is born. The process of bonding refers to the intense emotional connection that the parent feels for the baby. Some parents feel this straight away and others take time to get to know their baby.
Parents usually have a special quiet time together with their baby immediately after birth in order to promote the process of bonding, and if the birth has been complicated, neonatal units encourage skin-to-skin contact as soon as the baby is ready.
Attachment (or Secure Attachment Bond) refers to the enduring ‘tie’ of affection that the baby develops towards their main carers, usually their parents. John Bowlby, a British doctor, first described how the security of the attachment that an infant makes with their parents becomes the foundation for emotional wellbeing.
Right from the start, babies begin to build an attachment to familiar carers who respond to their day-to-day physical and emotional needs. Securely attached infants have pleasurable interactions with their main carers and they can rely on them to be a source of comfort when they are distressed. When a parent comforts their baby, they are letting her know that they care about her feelings and promoting her sense of wellbeing. Her sense of wellbeing will become a source of later resilience, and will help her to develop trusting relationships.
Attachment enables the baby to feel safe. In the second half of the first year, the baby may show their attachment to their primary carers by developing a preferred parent to comfort them, and by being wary of strangers and clinging to their carer. As babies become more mobile, if they are securely attached to their caregiver, they will feel safe to play and explore and to use their parents as a ‘secure base’. This means infants who are securely attached feel safe to play and learn, knowing that their parents will care and look out for them, and that they will comfort them when they are distressed.
Secure attachment is one of the main sources of later resilience in childhood. Securely attached children achieve better outcomes across all domains including, social and emotional development; behaviour; relationships with peers, and learning. Attachment patterns that develop over the first few years of life continue to influence mental health and psychological functioning throughout childhood and the adult years.
Not all babies are securely attached. Insecure attachment occurs when parents regularly fail to meet their baby’s needs; they may be neglectful or erratic in their care, and these babies develop ‘anxious/ambivalent’ attachment patterns or parents may be punitive or rejecting and these babies develop ‘avoidant’ attachment patterns.
Children who anxious/ambivalent in their attachment patterns tend to be ‘clingy’ but also unable to be comforted by care when it is offered. Children who are ‘avoidant’ do not show their need for comfort and develop strategies to comfort themselves. When parents are psychologically frightened and/or physically frightening, infants may develop what is known as a ‘disorganised’ attachment pattern. When distressed, these children demonstrate a range of contradictory behaviours in terms of their approach to the attachment figure such as for example, approaching but with their head averted, or with trance-like expressions.
Insecurely attached infants are more likely to be stressed and have less confident relationships with peers and others as they grow. They are also more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems. Infants who have a ‘disorganised’ attachment experience later difficulty in establishing a trusting relationship with others and often go on to develop a range of mental health problems.