New research by Susan Woodhouse finds that caregivers need only “get it right” half the time when responding to babies’ need for attachment to have a positive impact on a baby.
Woodhouse is an associate professor of counseling psychology. She studied 83 low socioeconomic-status mothers and infants at ages 4.5 months, 7 months, 9 months and 12 months to observe and assess attachment. Infants and mothers in the study were racially and ethnically diverse, and infants were selected for high levels of temperamental irritability, according to Science Daily. The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and National Institute of Mental Health.
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Her findings are detailed in “Secure Base Provision: A New Approach to Examining Links Between Maternal Caregiving and Infant Attachment,” which appears in the journal Child Development, co-authored with Julie R. Scott of Pennsylvania State University, Allison D. Hepsworth of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and Jude Cassidy of the University of Maryland.
The study scored mother-baby pairs based on a mother’s responses to the infant while the baby was crying and not crying to assess the qualities of “secure base provision.” This framework focuses on aspects of caregiving that tell an infant about the caregiver’s availability to serve as a secure base, such as soothing to cessation of crying and providing a present and safe base from which to explore.
“If we want to give advice to parents about what they can do to give their baby the best start in life, it would be really good to know what helps a baby to be secure,” Woodhouse said.
Woodhouse’s study seeks to address this critical gap in understanding what leads to secure attachment, through examining whether a new conceptualization of caregiving behavior, “secure base provision”—the degree to which a caregiver is able to meet an infant’s needs on both sides of the attachment-exploration continuum—predicts attachment security in infants.
Researchers found that this framework significantly predicted infant attachment, and that babies learned their mothers were providing a secure base when mothers responded properly at least 50 percent of the time. Attachment is an infant’s first bond with important caregivers and a critical phase in development, with a major impact on emotional and social development.
“The findings provide evidence for the validity of a new way of conceptualizing the maternal caregiving quality that actually works for low-income families,” Woodhouse said, adding “the first message gets at the core of getting the job done—supporting the baby in exploration and not interrupting it and welcoming babies in when they need us for comfort or protection,” Woodhouse said. “The other part is that you don’t have to do it 100 percent. You have to get it right about half of the time, and babies are very forgiving, and it’s never too late. Keep trying. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough.”