The most important process in our whole lives happened years ago. I am speaking about the period between our conception and our third year of life. Not only is important basic physiological formation of our bodies taking place, but those first three years of life are a time when much of the organization and development of the brain and nervous system takes place. At no other time in our lives does more learning take place than during those first few years. And, one of the very most important things we learn is about our relationship to others.We learn about relationship through our most primal of all relationships: our experience with our mothers. Our fathers may be important, as are other primary caretakers, but the process of attachment begins in the womb of the mothers who gave birth to us. A five month old fetus is able to recognize her mother’s voice, as well as to sense maternal emotions through a neuro-hormonal dialogue. As soon as a human infant is born, and his nasal passages cleaned out, he can recognize his mother’s smell. Thus, the attachment process, the process of creating affectional ties between mother and infant has begun.
If the baby was wanted, and the mom was fairly calm, not depressed, and did not use alcohol or drugs during her pregnancy- the attachment process will have been successfully initiated. During or after birth, building a healthy bond of attachment continues. Each time her child has a need and the mother is responsive to that need, the attachment between she and her child is strengthened. Mom’s touch, words and gaze helps their bond to strengthen, and if all is well, the baby’s eyes will make contact with her mom’s, and the baby will sink in to her mother’s body when held. When a baby is born, he is able to focus his eyes for seven to twelve inches- precisely the distance needed to make eye contact with mom, while nursing in her arms. This creates a profoundly intimate bond between mother and child, which establishes the mother as a secure base, from which the child may later venture forth into the world.
The mutual bond of attachment, is extremely important to the child’s well being in many ways: It helps insure protection and safety for the child through closeness to the caregiver, it creates a secure base from which the child can explore her world, and through the reciprocity of this relationship, a child learns empathy and compassion and eventually, will develop a conscience. Through the mother and child bond, the child will develop a self concept, and confidence, as well as the ability to self regulate in regards to impulses and emotions. Secure attachment also makes the child more resistant to stress and trauma, and contributes to optimal brain and neurological development.
When Attachment is Disrupted…
However, when conditions are not so benign, the secure attachment may not develop. If, for some reason, whether it be depression, illness, addiction, trauma, or the baby wasn’t wanted, the healthy attachment of mother and child may be disrupted. Often, procedures in hospitals, such as babies being put in incubators when they are pre-mature, even when it is to save the baby’s life, or taking babies away from their mothers to be bathed right away are not conducive to promoting attachment. Neglect, abuse, separation from mom or primary caregiver, chronic illness of mom, or if the infant is ill, may all affect attachment negatively.
Reactive Attachment Disorder…
Many people, as children had difficulty attaching to their mother or primary caregiver, and may have some difficulty in subsequent relationships in their lives. They may display symptoms of attachment disruption. However, when the difficulty in bonding is more severe, I will refer to the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, sometimes called RAD. Attachment Disorder results from the failure to bond and attach to the mother or primary caregiver in the first few years of life. Some of the symptoms are: superficial charm that is phony, manipulative and controlling behavior, not being affectionate on parental terms, obvious lying, stealing, not being cuddly or affectionate with mom, as an infant, inability to be consoled, a lack of impulse control, lacking a conscience, and being distructive to self and/or others.