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Secure attachment: The importance of responsive relationships in childcare

Providing secure attachment for a child involves responding sensitively and consistently to their needs, helping them to understand that they are loved, respected and understood.

Not only does this have a long-lasting effect on the child’s view of the world; it can mean higher self-esteem and emotional resilience as they grow older.

Scientific research has dispelled the myth that it is indulgent to respond too quickly to a baby's cries.

According to Sir Richard Bowlby, “A secure attachment is likely to develop when an adult is sensitive and attuned to the baby’s communications, and when the adult provides consistent and predicable care which meets the needs of the baby quickly and reliably.” (P.117, Attachment Theory: How to help young children acquire a secure attachment.)

A child’s primary attachment is usually to their parent/s. That strong bond is needed to enable the child to feel safe and to equip them to build trusting relationships later in life.

With recent debate over “hug polices” in childcare settings, it is also important for us to understand that a young child’s need for secure attachment doesn’t simply stop outside the home. They need love, hugs and reassurance from their childcare provider in order to feel calm and secure, and to cope with the temporary separation from their parent/s.

The calming effect of responsive childcare providers

Studies have shown the stress hormone cortisol to rise in children when separated from their primary caregiver, even if a child appears to be calm. However, before all working mothers and fathers gasp with guilt, it seems that finding quality childcare with a responsive key person can protect children from experiencing high levels of cortisol.

Sue Gerhardt talks about this in her book, ‘Why love matters’. Two studies (Dettling et al. 2000 and Badanes et al. 2012) found that children who were able to build secure relationships with highly responsive childcare providers retained normal cortisol levels. “This acts as a buffer against stress in much the same way as does a sensitive parent,” says Gerhardt. (P.92-93, Why love matters.) In other words, the attentive and responsive nature of the childcare provider prevented children from feeling stressed in the absence of their parent/s.

Promoting self-esteem through secure secondary attachments

According to Sir Richard Bowlby, secondary attachment figures such as a key childcare provider or grandparent can help to promote self-esteem and balanced mental health.

“In appropriate circumstance and given sufficient time and attention, children can develop enduring secondary attachment bonds to affectionate and responsive people…Three or more secondary attachment figures in addition to the primary attachment figure can promote self-esteem in children, and is a psychological protective factor that can reduce the probability of mental health problems in the future.” (P.119, Attachment Theory: How to help young children acquire a secure attachment.)

Parents can feel reassured that a responsive childcare provider who builds secure secondary attachments will support children to feel safe and loved, and will help to provide them with the confidence to explore and learn about the world.

Making the sun shine

Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training at the Centre for Child Mental Health, uses the example of a little girl who is cared for by emotionally responsive adults.

“When she is playing happily and seems fine, they give her the same attention as when she is crying or upset. They know that plenty of warm, emotionally responsive interaction and cuddles will help prevent her cortisol levels rising while she is separated from the people she loves.”  (P.59, What every parent needs to know.)

Sunderland explores the effect of a warm and loving relationship activating high levels of the oxytocin and opioid hormones in a child’s brain: “The natural hormones and neurochemicals that we have in our bodies and brains can not only make us feel just great, but also enable us to thrive”. “What’s more,” she says, “we treasure people in our lives who strongly activate opioids in our brain. Metaphorically speaking, they make the sun shine”. (P.86 ad 186, What every parent needs to know.)

So who are we to argue with science? Love, hugs, reassurance, responsiveness and comfort are all essential, both at home and in childcare, if we are to provide children with the best chance of health and happiness for the future.

References and further reading

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