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By Jenna M. Weglarz-Ward, Ed.M.

Janya holds her new baby, Sasha, in her arms and gazes into his big, blue eyes. During this moment, she feels connected to him and she snuggles him just a little bit closer.

This is a moment that many families encounter with their infants. These moments are the beginning of a lifetime of social and emotional connections, or attachments, between a child and the world around him. Bowlby defines attachment as children “seeking and maintaining proximity to another individual” (p. 194). The root of attachment is in the protection and safety of infants. Infants need to stay in close proximity to a responsive caregiver in order to stay out of danger. As children create secure and predictable bases of support, they can explore and learn from their environment and other individuals with the confidence that their caregivers will be available if and when they are in need.

For example, a child with a trusting and reliable relationship with a caregiver feels confident to explore the sandbox at the park. This play may include walking on unstable ground to promote core strength and stability, digging through rocks promoting hand mobility, pulling a stick from the mud promoting problem solving, and asking another child for a turn with a shovel promoting turn taking and making verbal requests. Because the caregiver is there to provide some help when asked, this child is willing and feels confident to try new things and thereby develop new skills.

The overall development of the child is the product of continuous, dynamic interactions between the child and her social world [4]. More specifically, the child is not only influenced by his caregiver’s behaviors but the caregiver’s behaviors are impacted by the child. Consider the adult caregiver who waits to see if the child needs assistance as he wanders over to the sandbox where other preschoolers are playing with a bucket of toys. As the child becomes more independent, the adult might refrain from stepping in to support requests for sharing. Therefore her behavior is impacted by the child’s increased independence and social emotional skills. Research indicates that secure attachments are linked to positive developmental outcomes for children with and without disabilities, particularly in cognition, play, language, and social emotional development [2] [3] [4] [5].

Janya holds her now 10 month old Sasha on her lap. She tries to look into his big, blue eyes but he looks away. Last month Janya’s husband left for military duty oversees. Janya has found herself tired and overwhelmed with caring for Sasha by herself. She feels she is losing her connection with Sasha as she juggles her work schedule with home and caregiving responsibilities.

What happens when something gets in the way of adult-child relationships? If an infant has a disability such as autism or hearing loss, she may not be able to respond to a parent’s soothing voice from the driver’s seat or a greeting from across the room after a nap. This may impact the parent’s confidence as a caregiver and he may inadvertently stop trying to comfort his child. On the other hand, if a parent experiences stress or depression, she may not respond positively to the repeated questions from her 2 year old about why the cat has whiskers, or demands from a preschooler who wants to dress himself when they are already late for school. These interactions may influence the child’s natural curiosity or sense of autonomy. Additionally, over time he may seek out his parent’s help or comfort less often. It is vital that early childhood professionals support these foundational relationships between parents and children.

Janya and Sasha are at the playground. He is almost 2 years old now. Margo, an early intervention provider, sits next to Janya, coaching her in ways to play with and support Sasha, who has a language delay. Janya looks into his big blue eyes as they sing a song together while going down the slide.

Learn more about the importance of social and emotional development and strategies to support parents and caregivers in the OneOp Webinar Series Social and Emotional Development in the Early Years beginning with Understanding Social and Emotional Development.