Human babies are unique in the animal kingdom in the extent of their underdevelopment at birth. What other animal cannot walk until it is a year old?
But the physical underdevelopment is only a part of it. The human brain is also only partially formed at birth.
It is the earliest experiences of the human baby that literally shape his or her brain development, and will have a lifelong impact on the baby’s mental and emotional health.
The baby that learns about the world as a good place will retain this sense as almost an ‘instinct’ for life……this individual will become emotionally more robust than the baby whose basic needs not usually met.
So what is meant by ‘having your needs met?’ Well, when a baby cries, he doesn’t know he is wet, tired, hungry, bored or too hot – he only knows something is wrong, and he relies on an adult carer to soothe his feelings. There are two impacts on the brain of the baby who is continuously neglected or abused.
A baby cannot regulate her own feelings at all. If her needs are not met she will simply scream louder and louder and eventually take refuge in sleep. So the first impact is that a baby left to continually scream will experience raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Excessive amounts of this damages the baby’s immune system, and there is also evidence to suggest that a baby left to scream throughout babyhood will have a higher tolerance to stress, meaning that in later life they will be more attracted to high risk –taking behaviour than a baby who has only a normal level of cortisol.
The second impact is that the ‘social’ part of the brain only starts to
develop at around 6 months. The peak period for development of this
part of the brain is at 6-18 months old. Growth is stimulated by the
relationship between baby and carer, where ‘peekaboo’ games and singing
songs, cuddling etc all play a strong role.
Where a baby does not receive any attention (as has been shown in
certain developing world orphanages where physical contact with babies
has been minimal), this part of the brain literally does not grow and
may never grow.
This has profound implications for society. A human being without a
social brain finds it very difficult to empathise and to form
relationships with other human beings. In other words, Sociopaths are
not born – they are made by their earliest experiences when they are
less than 2 years old
There is scientific evidence that shows more than 80% of long term
prison inmates have attachment problems that stem from babyhood.
It is now believed that you can predict two thirds of future chronic criminals by behaviour seen at the age of two.
Why does poor attachment arise?
So often, poor attachment is the result of the parents’ own unhappy
lives. A Mother who was not attached as a baby to her own Mother will
struggle to form a bond with her baby. A woman who suffers post-natal
depression will often struggle to form a bond. Parents with drug,
domestic abuse or unemployment problems will often struggle to form a
Poor attachment is no respecter of class or wealth…
But I want to stress this is not about making parents stay at home, or
rejecting the idea of putting babies into childcare settings.
Attachment means building a bond with a baby, so that the baby
instinctively learns the capacity to be a part of a caring
relationship. Where both parents work, or where there is a single
parent, or adoptive parents, attachment can be very secure.
Where a baby’s home life is disturbed ie due to divorce, death,
domestic abuse, drugs or even post natal depression, it can be a
positive experience for that baby’s quality of attachment to be in a
caring child care environment. And where a baby’s home life is happy,
and there is a strong bond between the baby and the rest of the family,
again a caring child care environment can add to the baby’s quality of
On the other hand, where a baby’s home life is disturbed and the baby
is put into an insensitive child care environment, it can be a disaster
for that baby.
It’s really common sense. A baby can take only so much stress, and
only so much change and disorder – if you pile it up and up, the baby
will suffer lifelong damage.
There is now research suggesting that in Britain 40% of children are
not securely attached by the age of five. This doesn’t mean they will
all go on to have behavioural problems. But what it does mean is that
they will be less robust in their emotional make up to meet the
challenges and disappointments of life. And it also means they will
struggle to form strong attachments to their own babies, thus
perpetuating a cycle of misery through generations.
There are some inevitable conclusions to be drawn from this – namely,
it may well be poor attachment that lies behind the recent UNICEF
report showing British children are the unhappiest in the developed
world. It also may be poor attachment that lies behind our high
teenage pregnancy rate (Mums who are themselves children looking for
love) and our high divorce rate (adults unable to form long-lasting
What can we do about poor attachment?
Well the astonishing thing is that if we tackle poor attachment early
enough (before the baby is two), it can be turned around very quickly
to the benefit of baby and carer. The Oxford Parent Infant Project
(OXPIP) is an Oxfordshire wide charity that is about to celebrate its
10th anniversary of providing psychotherapeutic support for families
who are struggling to bond with their babies. Our results over 10
years have been astonishing with a wide variety of clients coming from
self-referral, from Oxfordshire Social Services, Health Visitors and
OXPIP’s parent/infant psychotherapists work with carer (often the Mum,
but could be Dad, Grandparents or foster parents) to improve the
quality of the relationship between them and the baby. It sounds
simple, but it has dramatic and far reaching consequences for the
baby’s lifelong mental health.
And government could so easily help to turn around this pandemic of
poor attachment, with its vast consequences for our society….here are a
First, what a baby needs is the right environment for secure
attachment. The ideal place is, of course, within the home. So
Midwives and Health Visitors should be trained in the importance of
early attachment and should have the emotional wellbeing of the baby in
mind as much as his physical wellbeing. . …..an ante-natal
questionnaire in Canada has been 80% successful in identifying later
attachment problems. Predicting where there are likely to be problems
so they can be dealt with early must be the start point.
Second, specialist parent-infant support like that provided by OXPIP
should be available for onward referral from Social Workers, GPs,
Health Visitors and Midwives.
Third, where a baby spends more than a few hours a day in a child care
environment, there should be protocols within the nursery that ensure
the attachment needs of the baby are met. These could include: focus
on the ‘key worker’ relationship, so that one adult carer does all the
‘intimate’ activities with the baby such as nappy change and feeding,
and the same adult should be responsible for the ‘handover’ morning and
evening to the parent. There are plenty of opportunities to maximise
the sensitivity of the child care environment to support the attachment
needs of the baby.
Fourth, training in early attachment for childcare workers is
critical. The turnover of staff in nurseries is high, and often staff
are young and inexperienced. All these facts contribute to a greater
risk of ‘insensitive’ care.
Finally, where the baby cannot be safely left at home and social
services intervention is necessary, there should be much more focus on
a swift resolution – if taking the baby away from the natural parents
is the conclusion, then for the sake of the baby this should happen
before his first birthday.
Before the age of two, there is a huge opportunity to turn around the
life chances of a baby. But even if you think it is not the job of
society to worry about the individual baby, then consider a while why
we have so many violent young gangs, so many unhappy children, so much
drug abuse and such a vast financial burden on our society that must
pick up the pieces of these damaged people.
Support for early attachment is the single greatest thing we can do to mend our broken society.