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Attachment: The Baby's Feelings For His Parents

Birth to about Six Months: Everybody's Friend

The newborn baby cannot at first make sense of the world. But as his mother handles him day after day in familiar ways, the pattern begins to emerge. Each time she picks him up he recognizes her smell and touch and voice, and soon learns that feeding or comforting follows.

Within the small world she thus creates for him the baby "knows" the mother in these primitive ways, and in time she becomes the person he can distinguish from the more fleeting people who come and go.

At about three months he recognizes her face clearly, where previously he sensed only her familiarity, and he responds to her with greater animation than to others. But throughout most of the first six months the baby is friendly and smiling to everyone and allows himself to be held by almost anyone.

It is part of the parents' pleasure in their baby at this time that his friendliness draws appreciative comments from acquaintances. But, generally friendly though he is, the baby is gradually developing an especially intense response to his mother.

About Six Months: Fear of Strangers

At about six months his behavior changes quite dramatically. He clings to his mother: he wants her and her alone and cries when strangers approach him. She has become his haven of safety. Father and grandparents may find themselves shunned and avoided. Father can feel a pang of hurt that his baby is unwilling to stay with him, and the grandparents may be puzzled and even impatient that the cherub will no longer sit beaming on their knee. The baby dislikes being apart from the mother and cries if she goes from him.

This is not a step backwards and the baby has not been "spoiled". The recognition of strangers is an important step in the baby's development.

During the previous months his mother had shared his pleasures and anxieties, tended him during illness, aided him in the gradual mastery of his body, understood his non-verbal communications. This and their physical closeness has established her as the most familiar person in his life, the person he most enjoys being with.

Now he is aware of the world beyond his mother, and for a time he is fearful of it and cannot cope. He therefore turns for safety to the person to whom he has become powerfully attached. Everyone else is for a time unwelcome.

This phase of "stranger recognition" can be embarrassing and tiresome for the parents, but it is normal and necessary for good social and emotional development. It is a first step towards the child's ability to discriminate between strangers and those he loves, an ability to enter into enduring relationships in later life.

After about Nine Months: Making Real Relationships

The fear of strangers lasts from two to eight weeks, during which time the baby may have withdrawn even from the father. But by eight to nine months he will return to him again in a more mature way of relating. The strength of the baby's attachment to him reflects the extent of the father's availability and involvement. The father is known and enjoyed but is as yet less important than the mother because his role as a breadwinner usually means that he has the smaller part in the ongoing care. But the father becomes increasingly important as the months and years go by.

Gradually the baby makes a few other relationships to close family members, and perhaps to family friends, but always according to the extent of their involvement with him. His behavior towards people outside the family is reserved. He is now acutely aware of the difference between intimate family, friendly acquaintances and strangers. The blood tie has no meaning for him. His relationship to a near neighbor may be closer than to a distant grandmother.

By the end of the first year the baby is crawling and perhaps walking, curious about the world around him; bravely moving a few yards away from the mother or father but speedily getting back to one of them as a place of safety if danger threatens, or if he is tired or hurt; friendly to familiar people outside the family but not indiscriminately so as when he was four or five months old.

After the First Year

During the second and third years the importance of the child's attachment to his parents becomes clearer. In his relationship to them he begins to show "giving" aspects of loving. He wants to share - even if it is only a corner of his sticky bun; he shows concern if he thinks a parent is hurt or unhappy and wants to kiss them better. He is beginning to love.

As he moves out of babyhood his parents begin to expect more grownup behavior, and because he loves them he tries to do what they ask of him. He is gradually expected to tolerate frustrations, to be toilet-trained and to substitute language for impulsive action.

The child can accept these curbs because it is his parents who want this behavior from him. He loves and wants to please them - wants to be in harmony with them, wants to be like them. The parents, because they are bonded to him, sympathize with the struggle within the child and give him time to comply; they are patient with backsliding and give constant encouragement to his efforts.

At first he does what they ask of him only while they are there to remind him; but in time these codes of behavior become his own and form the basis of his social behavior outside the family.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Separation and the Very Young by James and Joyce Robertson (London: Free Association Books, 1989, pp. 206-8).