There's one unequivocal truth about pregnancy: The minute you tell people you're expecting, they'll start telling you what to do as a parent. That includes when and how to take care of your infant when they're distressed. "Pick them up." "Let them cry it out." "Don't be frantic." All the unwarranted advice can become confusing, especially to new parents. But new research may give insight into how you respond to your baby's cries influences their attachment style.
A new study published in Child Development found that a mother's emotional and physiological response to an unhappy infant may predict what type of attachment style their child will establish, according to Psych Central. In particular, researchers discovered that, while most babies are securely-attached to their parents, about 40 percent of infants develop insecure attachments, such as infant avoidance and resistance, and are at risk for issues as adults.
According to the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, when a person develop insecure-avoidant attachments, they feel uncomfortable with intimacy and are emotionally distant or unavailable. Infants with insecure-avoidant attachments will keep away from their parent when upset or scared, and suppress their emotions. Infant with insecure-resistant attachments, on the other hand, will be inconsolable in times of distress, even when their parent tries to comfort them, according to the Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development.
In undertaking the study, researchers evaluated 127 mothers and their 6-month-old babies, monitoring their respiration sinus arrhythmia (RSA) — or how your heart rate fluctuates with your breathing — and emotional expression when responding to their crying infants, according to Psych Central. The researchers followed up when the babies were a year-old to evaluate their attachment styles, using the strange situation procedure — an observation technique developed in the late '60s where a child is separated, then reunited, with their parent in a series of tests.
Parents who remained emotionally-neutral when responding to distress were more likely to have insecure-resistant infants, while mothers who had little change in respiration sinus arrhythmia were more likely to have insecure-avoidant babies, according to the study. Researchers suggest that mothers who show little emotion may cause their babies to become more upset; on the other hand, infants may see parents who are less able to regulate their RSA as poor sources of comfort.
Researcher Martha Cox, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told Psych Central,
This study provides evidence that we can better understand babies’ and mothers’ experiences in these important encounters when babies need reassurance and support if we consider both the mothers’ emotional response and her physiological regulation in these challenging caregiving contexts.
There are many ways parents can affects child's attachment style, which will impact their behaviors and relationships later in life. According to a 2012 study in the Korean Journal of Pediatrics, not only do your physiological and emotional responses play a role, but so do your actual interactions with your children. Kids who are left to cry it out "cannot fully develop their potential and stable personalities, despite their normal genetic endowment," the study found.
Of course, one size doesn't fit all, and not every child will develop insecure attachments from parents who are not as sensitive and responsive. But the Child Development study at least gives parents a deeper understanding of how our responses affect babies, and how to be more conscious of their actions in order to promote healthy development.