Relax, worried parents. You don’t have to do everything perfectly with your baby. In fact, if you get things right about half of the time, according to research, your child will turn out fine.
The study, led by Lehigh University researcher Susan S. Woodhouse, an expert on infant attachment, concerned caregivers’ response to babies when they cried. You only needed to “get it right” 50% of the time when responding to the babies’ need for attachment to have a positive impact on the baby, researchers found. The findings were published in the journal Child Development and co-authored with researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland.
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Securely-attached babies – meaning babies who feel safe – are likely to do better as children or adults. Secure attachment is also linked to better mental health in both childhood and adulthood, as well as an increased readiness for starting school.
The results were especially promising for low-income families, who researchers studied exclusively – 83 mothers and infants in all.
The study focused on the mother’s responses to their crying baby when it cried to measure feelings of security. It also focused on the mother’s status as a secure “base” when the baby was playing or exploring. Babies felt that their mother was a secure base if the responded and soothed their cries at least 50% of their time – specifically, with close, snuggly contact until they were completely calm.
Examples of getting it wrong in ways that lead to insecurity were scaring the baby, not handling the baby gently, yelling, or failing to protect the infant from another threatening child. Overparenting had the same effect. But the most important thing you can do, the research found, is comfort your child – as often as you can, even if you don’t pick up the infant immediately.
“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, in a release.
“Because low socioeconomic-status parents juggle multiple challenges associated with low socioeconomic status, it may be helpful for them to know that holding a crying infant until fully soothed, even 50% of the time, promotes security,” the researchers said. “Such a message could help parents increase positive caregiving without raising anxiety regarding ‘perfect parenting’ or setting the bar so high as to make change unattainable in families that face multiple stressors.”
Ways of maintaining a calm connectedness and being a secure base for a baby throughout the day could include carrying the baby on the hip while the caregiver does tasks, researchers suggested, an act that could also encourage secure attachment.
These findings aren’t meant to rebel against attachment theory, Woodhouse said, but provide an attachment framework that is more accessible across race, culture, and socioeconomic class.
“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” Woodhouse said.
Ultimately, she said, the research showed that babies were quite resilient.
“It really is a different way of looking at the quality of parenting… 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.”
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