Some adults believe that children need to learn to handle their distress without comforting, and to ‘toughen up’ for the real world.  What the research has taught us, however, is that the opposite is true.  It is via nurturing and responsive relationships that true independence emerges.

From the first days of their lives, babies recognise their mother, have a preference for her and know both her voice and her smell, preferring her to anyone else. Babies are wired for attachment to their primary caregiver. Being close to a caregiver is the most important source of emotional security for babies and young children. Having a parent nearby assures them of safety and protection, help and comfort.

Babies develop in stages, continuing to grow and change until they reach adulthood and full maturity. At each developmental stage a baby’s needs are unique and must be matched with sensitive responsiveness if the child is to reach her full potential. These changing needs can be seen in relation to issues of separation.

In the first year of life, for example, a baby is still establishing a sense of his caregivers as a ‘secure base.’ A secure base is a person who both acts as the main source of comfort and the main source of confidence for a baby. Through the interactions of everyday life a baby gains confidence that support and assistance will be available when he needs it. In doing so creates a secure base for himself. It is through the existence of a secure base that the baby is able to explore, learn about and experience the world.

Combined with this is the baby’s growing attachment system. Through her experiences with her primary caregivers, a baby establishes an increasing ability to develop and sustain a connection with another human being. These first relationships teach her about love and responsiveness. Somewhere between 6 months and a year of age, many babies start to protest when their primary caregiver departs. This is a reflection of the baby’s maturing attachment system and is commonly known as separation anxiety. While this can be difficult to understand and troublesome to deal with, especially with a baby who was previously relaxed in such situations, it is both normal and positive. It is a signal that the baby values her primary relationships and wants to remain connected.

Most young children show some level of distress when separated from their primary caregivers. Even for apparently independent babies who do not protest, having a familiar and trusted adult nearby provides reassurance and is the cornerstone of their emotional security. Whether or not a baby appears stressed upon separation, the pain of separation and the failure to have needs for closeness met is significant. Research shows that psychological pain is as powerful – and registers the same way in the brain – as physical pain. Most parents would never willingly inflict physical pain on their child, yet, due to our own upbringing or cultural values, we often wrongly regard this sort of emotional reaction as insignificant. In fact, the main difference between stress that is tolerable to a baby and stress that is toxic is the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver to help deal with that stress.

Close contact with a nurturing caregiver stabilises emotion, making stressful situations more manageable; oxygen levels and skin temperature increase and crying decreases. This is because attachment relationships – and the way a caregiver interacts with her baby - regulate the baby’s world. In other words, babies and young children get through the challenging events of their lives by relying on their loving caregivers for assistance. As a result, babies and young children experience stress upon separation from their caregivers. (see Basics).

This reliance on a caregiver to cope with stress lessens with time. At first, an infant cannot survive without the regulation provided by a caregiver. His physiological and emotional health depend on it. Slowly, however, experiences of being helped to return to feeling comfortable and safe (i.e. being regulated) in the company of a caregiver give the young child the tools to begin to achieve some of this for himself. Around toddlerhood, a child is beginning to expand his repertoire of skills and abilities. He still needs a caring adult to watch over him but he is able to handle more – physically and emotionally – on his own, returning for comfort and assistance when challenges become overwhelming. He is able to put his new skills to use, navigating stressful situations in the way he experienced with his caregiver before. Hence the experiences of being responded to and comforted by a caregiver in that first year are vital for developing the foundation of healthy self-regulation for life.

Clearly, parents are usually not able to be with their babies and young children 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and even momentary separations, like mum leaving the room to go to the toilet, can cause protest from a child. Some separations cannot be avoided and each family has their own set of circumstances to negotiate. What is important is the consistent message and experience a baby is having. The younger the child is, the more essential the constant presence of an attuned primary caregiver.

In our society, most people’s home and work environments are separate and many adult social environments are not child-friendly. When this is added to our cultural preference for independence, parents often feel pressure to push their children to deal with separations prematurely. Some adults believe that children need to learn to handle their distress without comforting, and to ‘toughen up’ for the real world. What the research has taught us, however, is that the opposite is true. It is via nurturing and responsive relationships that true independence emerges. Because of the way our society is structured, parents often need to make significant sacrifices to meet their children’s needs for closeness. When this can be done, however, the child’s immediate comfort and long-term development both benefit.


(You can find professional articles and books that describe, support and further the information presented in this paper in our References.)


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