Healthy attachments

The past few generations of children in the western world have been ‘generally’ raised with the expectation that they become totally self reliant and independent, rather than with the hope or intention that they have the capacity to form close, loving, intimate relationships with others. In this article I will explore how a different style of parenting (to the western population) has emerged.

I have been fortunate throughout my 20 + years midwifery career to have cared for hundreds of women who choose homebirth whilst continuing my clinical practice in the hospital setting. Throughout this time I have become increasingly aware that there is a marked difference between homebirth families and the rest of the birthing population. The philosophy of birth stand out as being an obvious difference, however it is the way that families who choose homebirth parent their children that is so strikingly different. Is this because the mother birthed at home or is it that her beliefs of parenting differ right from the outset, which included homebirth?

Caring for families with their subsequent births, sometimes all four children in the one family also provided me with the opportunity to witness these homebirth babies as they grow, seemingly on the whole, into confident empathic children. to witness a three year emerge from sleep to see her mother in strong labour in the family lounge room and simply sit with her and stroke her mothers arm lovingly is a testament to the profound ability to be compassionate.

This phenomenon prompted me to explore what these differences are and to ask what newborn babies and their mothers really need in the period after birth.

Firstly I believe it is important to try to understand how the newborn brain is at birth. Newborns have changed very little in evolutionary terms since we emerged as a separate species when we became upright. As our pelvic shape altered to allow us to stand on two feet, and our brains grew larger from using our hands more, babies needed to be born much earlier to be able to fit through this new shaped pelvis with their now large head. This meant that our babies are born very prematurely: probably about nine months prematurely. Today our newborns have the least developed brain of all mammals, with only about 25% of the neo cortex (our rational higher brain) being functional at birth, compared to about 45% for other primates. We share however all the attributes of our ever present reptilian and mammalian brains. This means that babies are functioning from their lower primitive brain from birth not their rational, reflective part as this is almost entirely underdeveloped. This explains the rage, fear and separation distress that babies express right from birth. It is this primitive alert system that ensures babies have their needs met, as they are entirely dependant for their very survival. Having an awareness of this may make it easier to care for your baby: knowing that your baby has no cognitive thought process or ability to self reflect for a long time helps us to not assume adult behaviours, thoughts or feelings onto our babies. Of course this early birth puts a lot of pressure on the people caring for this vulnerable dependant person.

As their carer you are programmed to respond to your newborns cry. Believe in the language of your babies cries. It is a signal designed for the survival of the baby and the development of the parents. Responding sensitively (most of the time) builds trust. Babies cry to communicate not manipulate.  In the first few days/weeks of the newborns life mothers often find it difficult to switch off at all from the sounds her newborn makes enough for her to sleep. Her brain is programmed to be alert to her babies’ sounds and after weeks and months her higher brain is able to determine which sounds need to be responded to and when. I’m not sure this ever changes no matter how old your children are! This however is much easier to do if the baby is near to you most of the time; hence co sleeping and baby wearing are common parenting styles for home birthing women. By wearing and sleeping near to your baby you are promoting healthy neurological brain development. Maximum contact with mother ensures strong neurological scaffolding, as babies are ill equipped to effectively meet their own emotional needs. Without the stimulation from maternal- infant contact and interactions- including nighttime sensory exchanges- neonatal brain cells are potentially lost. I find it interesting that in the western world, where we are often provided with a ‘choice’ of where baby might sleep, that we are still encouraging separate sleep behaviours- despite the fact that the past 5 generations or so of babies have been forced to sleep alone with the objective of creating ‘good sleepers’.  What do we have? 5 generations of poor sleepers.

The babies’ higher brain will develop to become the control centre for the more primitive parts of the brain. This brain hardwiring and trimming off of the higher brain happens entirely outside the womb. In fact our babies’ social capacities are really mostly potential, not actual at birth. There is nothing automatic about this development; instead it is entirely experience dependant. (No pressure!!) Of course this is good from an evolutionary perspective: to ensure that each human can be moulded to the environmental niche in which he/she finds himself.

Nature was not so foolish as to deliver (at home) these premature infants into the hands of their parents without making sure there was a good reception waiting for them. Evolution put in place mechanisms to ensure parents rapidly attach to their newborn to once again guarantee their very survival.

Babies are born particularly attractive to look at. Well, ok, maybe not in the first few days but as each week progresses they become more and more pleasurable to their parents eye.

Babies are born with excellent vision to scan their parents face and will prefer to stare at a human face more than anything else. This entices us to want to look at them even more.

Their hearing is finely tuned and babies prefer a higher pitch voice: which explains why adults instinctively speak in a high voice when talking to a baby. This may be a result of babies being used to the mothers voice whilst in the womb.

Breast feeding enhancing this attachment by producing powerful love hormones which makes us feel relaxed and loving toward our baby.

From birth as parents we are programmed to want to spend hours each day staring at our newborn, watching each and every facial expression. This imprinting is essential for mother and baby. Babies also smell delicious so we are drawn to want to breathe them in to us.

For mothers to experience that deep sense of loving attachment it is helpful if she feels safe and nurtured to provide an opportunity for her to lie about and baby gaze. She needs to consider having someone with her in those few days/ weeks to enable her to enjoy that period we call the baby moon. In essence she needs to be ‘mothered’ to be able to be free to learn to mother. This does not mean just for baby number one either as each newborn deserves and needs this ‘love fest’ as much as his or her siblings.

One of my favourite catch phrases is, ‘It’s far easier to care for a newborn if you love them!’

So what is healthy attachment?

There are many ways to describe this bond. Put simply I believe it requires parents to be able to open their minds and hearts to the individual needs of their baby. It involves being responsive to enable your baby to feel trust that their needs will be met. (Really not much different to any relationship we would hope for ourselves.) Sometimes this is difficult: be mindful that providing your ‘intention’ is sincere that babies will forgive those less than perfect moments, due to their flexible ‘plastic’ brains. It is how we are ‘most’ of the time that is important. Being attached also allows for separateness. When ‘tuned in’ one can parent without being intrusive and to be respectful of when your baby is happy to be alone.

To enable this wiring of the adult brain babies need positive, responsive, attentive parenting from a consistent nurturer. Everything your baby experiences with you as a parent will forge connections between the cells of the higher brain. The human brain is designed to wire up to adapt to any particular environment in which it finds itself. This adaptability works for or against the well being of the child. With emotionally responsive parenting vital connections will form in the babies brain enabling him to cope with stress in later life, to form fulfilling relationships, manage anger well, be kind and compassionate, have will and motivation to follow their dreams and aspirations, experience deep calm and to love intimately and in peace.

We now know that baby’s emotional needs are just as important as their nutritional needs. Whilst whiling away the hours gazing into your babies eyes you can declare to anyone that asks what you’ve been up to all day –

“Oh the baby has been growing their frontal lobe, thanks”

(p.s. can you do the dishes please?)

Tips for preparing for your baby moon:

  • Freeze meals before you have your baby.
  • Stock up on non-perishables like soap and toilet paper.
  • Organise help from friends and relatives – remember, people feel privileged to share the love of a baby.
  • Invite supportive people to be with you as necessary. You may feel isolated at home alone.
  • Avoid unwanted interruptions by making a sign ‘mother and baby resting’ with a notepad for messages and hang it on the door.
  • Stay in your pyjamas. If you look ‘normal’ you will be expected to get on with it.
  • Accept your house might be messy for awhile.


There is something simple and life affirming in the attachment message – that the only thing your baby really needs in order to thrive emotionally is your emotional availability and responsiveness – most of the time, not all of the time!


This article was published in HAS magazine in 2010


Reading list:

Sleeping with your Baby, James McKenna

Why love Matters, Sue Gerhardt

Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland

Baby on Board, Howard Chilton

Helping your Baby to Sleep, Anni Gethin & Beth Macgregor

Copyright © Sheryl Sidery