Get in Touch with What Your Children Need

Attachment is the Foundation

Children's relationships with their parents and other caregivers are vitally important to their early brain development, and we often talk about these relationships in terms of attachment. Attachment is an enduring emotional bond between two people. Parent-child attachments begin to grow at birth and continue to strengthen throughout life, but most importantly in the first three years of life.1

This bonding process leads to better outcomes for children in many areas of life. Children with quality attachments to their parents feel safer, tend to be able to regulate their emotions, and are often more independent. These children explore their world more freely, which allows them to learn more from their surrounding environment. On the other hand, children who do not form quality attachments to their caregivers are more fearful and, thus, develop less adaptive social skills, emotional regulation, and cognitive development.2,3

The importance of attachment does not mean, however, that you must interact with your baby in a limited range of behaviors or have contact with your child all of the time. Attachment has been found to be important across the world, but culture influences the way in which parents engage with their children. In a city like Memphis where children grow up with quite diverse backgrounds, this is important to remember.

Though specific behaviors vary, parents in many cultures engage in a common pattern that strengthen parent-child attachment. In this pattern, parents:

  1. Observe their children's cues
  2. Interpret the cues as some need, and
  3. Take action to meet the needs.

We call this process parents' responsiveness to their children. One of the most effective ways to respond to very young children is through touch.

Touch Supports Attachment

Similar to infants' hearing, their sense of touch is very well developed at birth. As a result, they communicate most through touch.  Additionally, babies are born with natural responses to bring caregivers closer and maintain contact with them.1  One reason for babies crying is to bring their caregivers close to them. In fact, researchers have found that babies cry less often when they are held more; they also smile more.4 Smiling is one of the ways babies keep adults near them.1 Responding to these cues through touch helps babies know they are loved and cared for.

When parents give their infants and toddlers affection through behaviors like hugging, kissing, and stroking their babies hands, their attachment to each other is strengthened.  This is important for both moms and dads, but sometimes it is harder for men to show these kinds of affection. Additionally, not only does touch tell children that they are cared for, but parents can use touch to draw their infants' attention to toys or games as well as soothe them to sleep.

Exploring the World through Touch

It is important for children to receive positive touch from others to foster positive growth and relationships. Let us not forget, however, that children learn about their world through their senses, including the sense of touch. This is exactly why babies pick up objects around them and put them in their mouths. This is also why parents find themselves running after their toddlers who like to touch everything they can find in new environments. Children are learning about the texture, weight, temperature, and other characteristics of objects. Thus, it is important for young children to explore the safe objects and materials for optimal cognitive development.

  • Have lots of safe objects for your child to explore, like foams, lotions, cardboard books, and rattles.
  • When they begin eating solid foods, find times for them to feed themselves. Even though they will get quite messy, using their fingers to eat helps them explore the foods they eat and promotes feelings of accomplishment.
  • Playing hand games, like the Itsy Bitsy Spider, with your babies and toddlers have many beneficial characteristics. They have rhythmic sounds which catch their attention. They also encourage caregivers to spend time face-to-face and play with hand movements. Do not forget about other old favorites, like Wheels on the Bus and This little Piggy. Watch how this mom plays Patty Cake (or Pat-a-Cake) with her baby.
  • Zero to Three has several other fun ideas, like offering different fabrics to your child and playing games with sponges. Even try finger painting

Lamb, M. E., & Lewis, C. (2011). The role of parent-child relationships in child development. In Lamb, M. E. & Bornstein, M. H. (Eds.), Social and Personality Development. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds). (1999). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press.

Sroufe, L. A., Carlson, E. A., Levy, A. K., & Egeland, B. (1999). Implications of attachment theory for developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 1-13.

Stack, Dale M. “ Chapter Thirteen: The Salience of Touch and Physical Contact During Infancy: Unraveling Some of the Mysteries of the Somesthetic Sense”. Blackwell Handbook of Infant Development. 1994. Available here.