Doctor Says | Dr. Tjhin Wiguna

Why do small expressions of affection matter to babies?

Learning and Experiences

Why do small expressions of affection matter to babies?

Two individuals can have a deep and enduring emotional connection to each other. Psychologist John Bowlby calls this “attachment”1, and although long lasting, it may not always be reciprocal.

Young children can develop multiple attachments, but generally, they have one utmost preference attachment in their life, and it is usually with their mother or parent. As an infant grows, he/she develops attachment in four stages:

  • Indiscriminate attachment - around 3 months

  • Preference for certain people - around 4 months

  • Special preference to a single figure - around 7 months

  • Multiple attachments - around 9 months

A child with secure attachment has a more adaptive (easy to adjust) and easy-going character compared to one with disorganised or avoidant attachment.

According to psychologists Daniel Stern and colleagues, a mother and her infant have an “affective attunement” for each other. Being “attuned”, they reflect back each other’s emotions or sense and respond to each other’s cues through eye-to-eye contact or via other signals such as a coo to a touch. What is observed in their interactive exchange is an expressive interplay of vocal tones, visual cues and body language including gestures, facial expressions and posture.

The engagement in these affectionate interactions is needed in order to achieve a secure attachment. Well-attuned parents can “sense” their baby’s needs even before it has learned to utter a single word, such as a particular cry for food or diaper change. Parents who are “attuned” to their infant would enhance the child’s behavior and emotional development. Secure attachment helps modulate the development of thinking skills, the capacity to regulate or keep emotions in check, and to empathise or understand and share the feelings with other people.2-4

What this tells us is that secure attachment is important in promoting a child’s emotional intelligence or EQ, which sets the stage for future relationship with other people and his/her surroundings. As a further note, secure attachment has a great impact on brain development that will affect the quality of social emotional bonding.

Tips to promote secure attachment for your baby:

  • Be sensitive and responsive to your baby’s signal of feelings and needs

  • Develop a mutual enjoyment interaction with your baby by sharing happy moments together through play and other activities

  • Consistently and continuously maintain verbal and non-verbal interpersonal communication with your baby by eye contact and skin to skin contact

1. Bowlby, J.Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

2. Schore, Allan N. Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Psychology Press, 1994.

3. Greenspan, S.1. The growth of the mind and the endangered origins of intelligence. Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997.

4. Siegel, D. J. The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: The Guildford Press, 1999.

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