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The Science of Attachment in Toddlers

sok_ribbon.pngRecently, I heard a mom of a toddler say that she’s “had enough of this attachment thing” and that she’s at her wits’ end trying to respond to her little one’s every need around the clock. Whenever I hear this, I’m reminded of how misunderstood the word “attachment” is — especially as our tiny bundles become walking, talking little people.

In some ways, baby attachment is a straightforward process. We instinctively pick infants up when they fuss. We rock them, carry them, shush them, give them breast or bottle when they smack their lips, and make wide-eyed, close-up smiles when they’re calm and playful. As my daughter starts to toddle, though, it’s clear our relationship is becoming more complex than it used to be. So what exactly does it mean to have a healthy attachment with your toddler?

Misunderstanding attachment

The word attachment is easy to misinterpret because it sounds like the gold standard is constant contact and immediate response — literally being attached to each other. But in reality, the whole point of a healthy attachment is independence, so part of our role as parents is to give our toddlers space, challenge them to grow, and even let them be uncomfortable at times. Especially as they start to be mobile, it’s important to nudge them toward exploring (while letting them periodically scoot back for snuggles).

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Setting limits

At some point in the first year of baby’s life, setting limits starts to enter the equation (as in, It’s time to get in the car seat, or, No, you can’t throw bath toys in the toilet), and it can feel tricky to balance our desire to boost happiness and confidence with our need to keep everyone safe and on track. But part of what makes our children securely attached is that they know we are in charge. Even Dr. Sears says it in The Baby Book: “Be consistent in your discipline, and remember that lasting discipline requires persistent effort. When babies have clear boundaries they can proceed with growth and development instead of wasting energy dealing with uncertainty.”

I prefer the term “setting limits” because “discipline” has the old-school connotation of punishment. With all the empathy in the world, we can still set reasonable and consistent boundaries so our toddlers feel safe, and their world makes sense.

I can see this happen in real time with my daughter. When she tests me and I come back with the same old response, even if it’s to tell her — No, you can’t take my phone in your smudgy hands and most likely drop it — I can see her relax. Little kids are like scientists who need a lot of data to draw conclusions; as they try to figure out how the world works, hearing consistent feedback is helpful and even soothing.

It’s not always pretty, of course. Arched backs, flung broccoli, streaming tears — these are all perfectly normal, routine parts of a toddler’s emotional life. Knowing that this is okay and sending our little ones the message that we can handle their big feelings, without changing course ourselves, is also an important part of the relationship.

Pick me up, put me down

We know babies need us a lot. But toddler attachment is riddled with confusing messages. In some moments, it actually feels like mine is growing clingier, not more independent. She’ll spend hours at a time off at daycare, happily playing and exploring, but she also koalas on my legs as I chop vegetables for dinner and insists on being in my lap any time she sees me sitting. She needs desperately to be picked up, but also wants to do things all by herself.

It’s the nature of toddlerhood. Her world is exponentially bigger now, she’s trying her hand at navigating, and it’s not a smooth course. I can also feel her evolutionarily programmed sense of danger when it comes to new people and new situations, and I remind myself that it’s healthy and adaptive for her to feel shy and to stick with her safe haven when she’s in unknown territory. I know from experience that if I spend time sitting and playing closely with her on the floor, she’ll venture out slowly as she warms up to new people.

Luckily, I’ve seen this process unfold before (I have a son in preschool), so I know that my daughter won’t always collapse in agony when I say she can’t eat markers or insist on riding around on my hip like a monkey. I try to soak up all the sweetness and proximity-seeking now, give her nudges to explore, and let her tell me when she genuinely needs mama to scoop her back up again.

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