“My son cries whenever I leave,” says Cathy, mom to a 10-month-old. When her baby is in his playpen, Cathy has to stay out of his line of vision (even if it means crawling on the floor!) because he’ll scream to get picked up. “He’s not like that with anyone else! Is that normal?”
Secure attachment, according to science “There’s a difference between a ‘tight’ connection and a secure attachment,” says developmental psychologist Alan Sroufe, who has been studying attachment relationship for over 40 years. “A tight attachment -- together all the time -- might actually be an anxious attachment.”
Attachment isn’t bond. It’s your baby's sense of trust in his caregiver, which leads to how safe he feels when we explores his environment. He knows that if he needs help, someone is going to respond to his cries. It’s like he’s thinking, “I’ll be okay, Mom’s got my back.”
A securely attached baby will cry when you leave but easily calms down. If you’re together, he’ll play on his own – checking once in a while, but looks like he’s relaxed and feels safe. If you return, he’ll cling to you for a bit, then go back to doing his own thing.
So what’s an unhealthy attachment? Look at how he reacts when you come back or when you’re around. Is he okay after a quick hug, and goes back to playing? Or does he act angry (hitting, struggling) or cling to you like Velcro for the rest of the day?
What can cause anxious attachment? • He sees your separation anxiety. Babies will normally look for mom or run for reassurance. But if you over-respond (rushing to pick them up at the slightest whimper or being really fussy when he gets hurt) you’re actually reinforcing his fears. Dr. Sears explains, “Baby's anxiety triggered mom's anxiety, reinforcing baby's fussiness and creating one anxious pair.”
• You’re too exhausted to respond consistently and calmly. You love your baby, but you’re worn thin from sleepless nights and round-the-clock care. So sometimes you ignore him, or act angry, and maybe sometimes shout and cry. You’re not a bad mom, but you’re a burnt out mom -- and your inconsistent responses are confusing your baby.
• Lack of routine. Babies find comfort in familiarity. They may become more anxious when there’s a lot of change (new yayas, you’re traveling so routines are disrupted).
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•No opportunity to safely explore. How do you react when your baby puts something new in his mouth or crawls on the floor? Is he always being wiped up, told “No!” or scooped back into safety? Overprotectiveness doesn’t give him the chance to develop his confidence and trust. You’re teaching him that the only time he’s safe if when you’re carrying him.
Calm your clingy baby • Stay chill, mom. Your baby “reads” your body language, voice, facial expression, and even your grip on him. If he’s freaking out, show him that everything’s okay. Keep your voice level, smile, nod encouragingly.
•Set up routines. Even if you’re a stay-at-home mom, establish routines where your child plays alone or spends time with other people. While society applauds a mom “who does everything,” it’s not actually good for your child’s social or emotional development to be with you 24-7.
•Schedule “me time.” This isn’t selfish -- it’s maintenance. Even one hour to do what you love or have coffee with friends can boost your positive vibes. Remember, your baby is very attuned to you. If you’re stressed, he’s stressed. (Don’t know where to start? Real moms share their fave me time rituals here.)
•Don’t give up or give in. He screams, you panic, and you carry him even if you’re seething inside. Stop it. Just calmly and cheerfully leave him with someone he trusts and his favorite toys.
•Minimize stranger anxiety. New yaya? Show baby that she’s a friend by being very warm and friendly with her (remember: he’s watching your reaction to this ‘stranger’). Show her his favorite books, songs, and games.
•Baby-proof your home. Removing hazards and risks can help him explore – and help you stay calm when he’s on his own. (Read our article on 10 products that can babyproof your home here.)