The emotional connection formed by nonverbal emotional communication between an infant and their parent or primary caregiver is known as the attachment bond.

This bond is not based on love or the quality of the care a parent or caretaker gives a child, but on wordless emotional communication.

Attachment will occur naturally, but, according to attachment theory, the quality of the bond is critical to a child’s future.

Learn more about secure attachment, what it means, and how to develop one with your child.

Attachment theory is based on the first relationship that a child has, and how that relationship influences the child’s mental development.

This theory has evolved from contributions by many researchers, primarily Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. It focuses on a mother’s ability to be sensitive and responsive to her infant’s needs, and how that impacts the infant’s development of trust, resilience, and confidence as they grow up.

A secure attachment bond that meets a child’s need for security, calm, and understanding allows for optimal development of the child’s nervous system.

A child’s developing brain organizes itself to provide a foundation based on a feeling of safety. As a child matures, this foundation can result in:

  • healthy self-awareness
  • eagerness to learn
  • empathy
  • trust

According to the Georgia Department of Human Service (GDHS), infants who are securely attached have learned they can trust other people to take care of them. They tend to:

  • react well to stress
  • be willing to try new things independently
  • form stronger intrapersonal relationships
  • be superior problem solvers

An insecure attachment bond — one that does not meet a child’s need for security, calm, and understanding — can hinder a child’s brain development for optimal organization. It can also restrain mental, emotional, and physical development.

All this can result in learning problems and difficulty in forming relationships as the child matures.

According to the GDHS, infants who are insecurely attached do not trust easily, having learned that adults are not reliable. They tend to:

  • avoid others
  • refuse interaction with others
  • show anxiety, anger, or fear
  • exaggerate distress
Safe havenWhen a child feels afraid or threatened, they can return to their caregiver for soothing and comfort.
Secure baseThe caretaker provides a dependable and secure base from which the child can explore the world.
Proximity maintenanceThe child is encouraged to stay near the caregiver for the safety they provide.
Separation distressWhen separated from their caregiver, the child becomes distressed and upset.

According to experts at Harvard University, healthy development from birth to age 3 sets the stage for:

  • economic productivity
  • educational achievement
  • lifelong health
  • responsible citizenship
  • strong communities
  • successful parenting

Attachment is a result of a dynamic and interactive exchange of nonverbal emotional cues. This process makes your baby feel safe and understood. Your baby picks up on your emotional cues, such as your gestures and your tone of voice.

Your baby is also signaling you with crying and gestures such as mimicking facial expressions, pointing, as well as cooing, and laughing. As you pick up on your baby’s signals, respond with affection and warmth.

Nonverbal communication

Your baby is nonverbal, and when you understand their nonverbal cues you give them a sense of recognition, comfort, and safety. Nonverbal communication that you can use to help build a secure attachment bond include:

body languagerelaxed, open
eye contactaffectionate
facial expressionsattentive, calm
touchgentle, reassuring
vocal tonetenderness, concern, understanding, interest

One of many influences

Secure attachment is only one of a variety of influences — such as cultural norms and individual personality differences — that affect a child’s process for:

Attachments between an infant and a primary caregiver begin developing at birth through one-to-one interactions. These early interactions affect the brain, establishing patterns for how a child will develop relationships as they mature.

The brains of infants who form secure attachments have a greater foundation or ability to form healthy relationships. Children whose first attachments are insecure or negative may have difficulty forming healthy relationships.

You can develop a secure attachment with your baby through nonverbal emotional interactions such as reassuring touches, attentive eye contact, and a warm, affectionate tone of voice.