BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Tending to and having a firm understanding of an infant’s needs may come naturally to some parents, but for others it can pose a constant challenge. Whether you’re striving for perfection or fear you’re not a strong enough caregiver, it turns out that doing a “good enough” job of parenting can still leave a positive imprint on a child. Lehigh University researcher Susan S. Woodhouse says caregivers only need to “get it right” 50 percent of the time when responding to a baby’s need for attachment.
Her study finds securely attached infants are more likely to have better outcomes in childhood and adulthood. Based on Woodhouse’s potentially paradigm-shifting work, there is more than one way to get there, particularly for low socioeconomic-status families.
Results show Woodhouse’s “secure base provision” framework is eight times more effective than traditional frameworks for predicting infant attachment. She argues that the factors which matter the most in caring for infants are different than what most people think. Moreover, her study shows there is more than one “right” way to create attachment in infancy.
“The findings provide evidence for the validity of a new way of conceptualizing the maternal caregiving quality that actually works for low-income families,” explains Woodhouse in a university release. “It really is a different way of looking at the quality of parenting. It’s looking at this idea of does the job get done in the end, and it allows us to see strengths in low-income parents that our previous ideas about sensitivity don’t let us see.”
Finding better ways to examine low-income families
Woodhouse and her team examined 83 mothers and infants that the researchers considered to be on the low end of the socioeconomic scale. The infants were studied at ages 4.5 months, seven months, nine months, and 12 months to observe changes in attachment. The mothers and infants in the study were racially and ethnically diverse, and all the infants were selected for high levels of temperamental irritability.
The researchers scored mothers based on their responses to their infants while the baby was crying and not crying. Using these scores, Woodhouse and her team assessed the qualities of their “secure base provision.” Woodhouse’s new parenting framework is based on the aspects of caregiving that show infants the caregiver’s ability to be a secure base for them. A common example of secure base behavior is attempting to comfort infants while they cry. The results shows that mothers can establish this secure base by responding properly to their infants at least 50 percent of the time.
Researchers define infant attachment as the bond between babies and their primary caregivers. When infants have a secure attachment to their caregiver, they feel comfort when they are in distress and they have a safe base from which to explore. This attachment is the first bond between caregivers in the life of an infant, and a crucial phase in their development.
Over the past 30 years, researchers have struggled to find the right ingredients for infant attachment, despite many studies proving the importance of secure infant attachment in infant development. The ability of caregivers to accurately interpret infant needs and to respond to those needs appropriately and on time was thought to be a key attachment ingredient. Recent research however, shows that sensitivity is only a small component, with an even lower impact in families of low socioeconomic status.
“That’s a real problem, because low-income babies face the most amount of risk, toxic stress and other factors that go along with being low income,” Woodhouse explains. “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.”
New school vs old school caregiving
The Lehigh researcher’s “secure base provision” describes the degree to which a caregiver can meet an infant’s needs on either side of the attachment-exploration scale. The traditional sensitivity framework and the secure base framework both examine how caregivers perceive, interpret, and respond to infant signals. Significant infant signals also occur at both ends of the attachment-exploration spectrum.
Secure base provision isolates a few key infant signals and specific caregiver responses. Woodhouse’s framework also focuses less on prompt response times and more on crying resolution, or the ratio of infant crying episodes that end in chest-to-chest soothing to calm the infant, regardless of timing. It doesn’t take attunement to a baby’s state and mood in a moment-by-moment way like the sensitivity framework does. Woodhouse explains that attunement is not a key metric because it shows how the infant learns to recruit the caregiver when needed. Woodhouse’s scale examines the degree to which a parent can soothe a crying infant to a fully regulated and calm state while in chest-to-chest contact.
“It is at the end of each crying episode that the infant learns about whether, on average, the caregiver can be counted on to be available as the infant achieves a calm state or whether the infant typically must stop crying alone,” study authors explain.
In the infant exploration phase and other times when the infant is not upset, the secure base provision focuses on whether caregivers allow exploration and play to occur without interrupting it by making the baby cry.
The do’s and don’ts of parenting
The researchers find there are certain behaviors that caregivers must avoid in order to provide a secure base for infants. They must not frighten the baby, for example, or fail to protect the baby when real dangers are present — such as when another child is playing too rough.
After scoring mother-baby pairs for maternal responses to crying and to exploring infants, the researchers compared the scores to another group being tested by the traditional sensitivity framework.
The research team finds mothers following the secure base provision guidelines improve infant attachment security overall. Mothers who score higher on the secure base provision framework are more likely to have more securely attached infants.
“What this paper tells us is that we need to change not only how we measure sensitivity, but how we are thinking about the caregiving behaviors that really matter,” Woodhouse adds. “What we found was that what really matters is not really so much that moment-to-moment matching between what the baby’s cue is and how the parent responds. What really matters is in the end, does the parent get the job done – both when a baby needs to connect, and when a baby needs to explore?”
The study was published in the journal Child Development.