Babies who are securely attached to their caregivers have much better outcomes than babies who are insecure. Decades of research have shown that secure babies grow up to have better mental health in childhood and adulthood, have better school readiness, and get along better with peers as they grow up. But sometimes parents feel pressured to be the “perfect parent” in order to give their children a bright future, and that pressure isn’t helpful to anyone. New research by Dr. Susan Woodhouse, an expert in attachment at Lehigh University, and her colleagues highlights the aspects of parenting that matter most in having a secure baby. The research suggests that being a “good enough” parent is good enough. 

Dr. Woodhouse’s research found that a new framework for understanding parenting, called secure base provision, explained later infant attachment 8 times better than the traditional framework for looking at parental caregiving, particularly in low-income families who were the focus of the new study, and who may face additional strains and stresses in daily life. Of course, all babies need to sleep, eat, and have their diapers changed. But once those basics are in place, what are the key components of parenting that help babies become securely attached? The secure base provision framework focuses on how parents respond to babies’ signals at two key times: when babies cry and during the ordinary moments in life when the baby is just exploring.

Traditionally, parenting has been assessed in terms of sensitivity, which refers to the moment-by-moment matching of the parent’s caregiving to the baby’s signals, and how promptly parents respond to infant cues. In contrast, secure base provision does not consider promptness of responding because the researchers found that parents who delayed responding could still have a secure child, as long as the child’s need was met in the end. Also, real life often does not allow parents to match what they do to their babies’ signals on a moment-by-moment basis. Life has many demands, and this may be particularly true for families that are dealing with economic or other stressors. The new research found that matching infants’ signals on a moment-by-moment basis was not necessary. 

The researchers examined which parenting behaviors mattered most in predicting infants’ attachment security. They studied a racially and ethnically diverse set of 83 low-income, first-time mothers. The researchers videotaped the mothers and babies not only in lab when babies were 4 1/2 months old, but also at home in three separate 30-minute home visits between 7 to 9 months. In the home visits, mothers and babies just went about doing their usual routines at home. 

Results showed babies were much more likely to be secure if mothers picked up their babies when the babies cried, and soothed the babies in a chest-to-chest position until the baby was calm. In fact, if mothers did this only half the time their babies cried, this appeared to be enough. Somehow, if mothers pick up a crying baby and soothe chest-to-chest at least half the time, the baby seems to learn that he or she is able, in the end, to recruit the mother when needed—even in the context of a fair degree of insensitive behavior (such as not picking the baby up right away, or saying “Come on, don’t cry” to the baby). Responses to infant fussing were not especially important—it was picking up and soothing the baby when the infant cried that made a difference. The baby came to see the parent as secure base who, on average, could be counted on to be there when it really mattered.

When the baby is exploring, what matters most seems to be allowing the exploration to occur without terminating or interrupting it – for example, by making the baby cry through play that is too sudden or rough – and on “calm connectedness,” which communicates the mother’s ongoing availability if needed for regulation or protection: “I am here if you need me, and you can count on me.”

There are also some behaviors that parents of secure babies must always avoid. For example, caregivers must not frighten the baby or fail to protect the baby when real hazards are present, such as a sibling who is too rough. 

What really matters in the end is whether the parent gets the job done – both when a baby needs to connect, and when a baby needs to explore. Being good enough really is enough.

These research findings are detailed in “Secure Base Provision: A New Approach to Examining Links Between Maternal Caregiving and Infant Attachment,”which appears in the journal Child Development, co-authored with Julie R. Scott of Pennsylvania State University, Allison D. Hepworth of University of the Maryland School of Social Work, and Jude Cassidy of the University of Maryland.

Susan S. Woodhouse, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Lehigh University

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