Proximal nurturing

How can I promote secure attachment with my baby? In the first two articles in this series on attachment, we looked at what infant attachment is and how it develops in babies’ brains. We know that children who develop “secure” attachment have excellent chances of becoming socially well-adjusted teenagers and adults, able to experience healthy relationships with others.

Some say that you mustn’t “spoil” a baby, that you should let them cry to “develop their lungs”, that they learn to comfort themselves and that they gain independence as quickly as possible. What are babies’ true needs? Experts in child psychology generally agree that “proximal nurturing” is what best meets their emotional needs, particularly the need to be close to their parents to feel safe. “Proximal”, from the Latin for “close”, as opposed to “distal”, which shares its roots with “distance”. It is the equivalent of the American term “attachment parenting” popularized in the eighties by Dr. William Sears. It is a child-rearing philosophy that takes for granted that the more sensitivity parents show in relation to their young child’s needs for dependence, the greater the true independence they will develop at a later age. Proximal nurturing is characterized by behaviours showing parental availability, rapid response and sensitivity to babies’ needs. These behaviours seem to promote babies’ basic security, and consequently, secure attachment.

Proximal nurturing begins if possible by skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby (and between father and baby) immediately after birth. This intimate tactile contact between baby and parents promotes the development of a deep emotional bond. Breastfeeding is then a logical choice for mothers who seek proximity with their baby. The innumerable benefits of breastfeeding for both babies and mothers are well-known.  Breastfeeding on request facilitates rapid response to babies’ needs. However, it is possible to practice proximal nurturing and to respond quickly to babies’ needs while bottle-feeding. What matters most to help babies develop secure attachment is parental availability. “Proximal” parents quickly respond to crying babies, even if they “only” need to be held by their parents. To them, babies’ emotional needs are just as important as physical ones.