My favourite Canadian developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, outlined six stages of attachment to explain the development of attachment in children. I have found these stages helpful as a mom in knowing what emotional and attachment needs my boys could be expected to have, and how that can shape my parenting. Knowing the stages has allowed me to anticipate their needs better over the years, and has helped me understand their behaviour better too, something that any parent of a toddler will tell you is a bit of a miracle!
The stages that Gordon Neufeld describes are:
Belonging or Loyalty
As I watched my first two boys move from stage to stage, almost exactly as Neufeld described, I was awestruck with the idea that something as seemingly “soft” as attachment could be so predictable. I was also well aware that the attachment I was seeing emerge from them would form the basis of every healthy relationship they have in their lives. My third kiddo, somewhat obscured by the busy-ness of life with three boys, has benefited greatly from my understanding of the natural progression of attachment, while at the same time I have paid far less attention to the details. Despite my lack of attention, the stages of attachment have marched on anyway. I can say, though, that anticipating each stage, and reveling in this natural emergence of attachment, is really rewarding.
Here, I outline the first three of Neufeld’s six stages of attachment and describe what each stage may look like, and how parents can respond to the needs of their child at each stage.
In general, the six stages of attachment correspond to age in years. Developmental and neurological challenges, trauma, illness, and separation can all have an impact on the timing of these stages —and when this is the case, understanding these stages can be helpful for establishing attachment on a child’s own timeline. It is useful to appreciate that the stages of attachment are worth working through gradually, at a child’s pace, and with the intent to ensure the needs at each stage are fully met. It is also helpful to appreciate that we can be grown adults and still have needs that correspond to earlier stages of attachment, particularly if we have had negative relationships early on in our lives, or have experienced trauma and adverse childhood events. Babies don’t entirely abandon earlier needs (e.g. the need to be close), However, Neufeld feels that the better a child’s attachment needs are met, the more easily they will be able to move to the next stage of attachment. It is never too late.
It is also helpful to understand that attachment is “in the present moment”. Attachment can be temporarily ‘broken’ if we are distracted, angry, or disconnected, or if our children are frustrated, overwhelmed, or angry. And attachment that has fallen apart earlier in the day can be re-established through connection, empathy, and attention. By focusing on re-establishing our connection with our children “in the moment”, we can re-establish the bonds of attachment. In practical terms, this means bedtime can be wonderful one evening and then feel like it is falling apart at the seams on another: look at ways to reconnect at your child’s level, if things feel disconnected. It also means that bedtime can be a wonderful time of day to repair attachment: focus on slowing down, listening, paying attention, and reconnecting during the bedtime routine to finish the day with strong, secure attachment.
STAGES OF ATTACHMENT
Proximity (1 year old)
What it is:
The need to be close, to touch you, to be touched by you, to be nearby, to see you, to hear you, to smell you.
What it looks like:
Babies will curl into you, reach out to you, cry when separated from you, be soothed by skin on skin contact with you, and have an easier time regulating with touch, breastfeeding, being held, or being carried.
How parents can meet this need:
Expecting babies to need to be close to you can help set reasonable expectations in the first year and beyond. Ways to meet this need for proximity include babywearing, roomsharing, holding, rocking, breastfeeding, bedsharing, and orienting yourself to hold baby for bottle feeding in ways that mirror breastfeeding (skin on skin, frequent cradling, considering having one primary ‘feeding person’ for bottle feeds) can all meet this need. Hugs, and squeezes, horseplay and cuddling are all very physical ways to meet this need. Using your soothing voice, your eye contact, or even remaining visible are all ways that help babies relax through your proximity.
As babies become more mobile, they will begin to move away from you but will circle back to you for proximity in order to get reassurance, particularly when unsure in a new situation. As they get older, this ‘circling back to you become visual: they will turn to check that you are still there.
By ensuring the need for proximity is met, we are reassuring our babies that we love them and are taking care of them.
2. Sameness (age 2)
What it is:
Two year olds tend to want to be like the people they love.
What it looks like:
Your child will mimic or imitate the behaviours, actions, and words of you and other very key caregivers (usually one or two key adults). Two year olds love to imitate household activities, facial expressions, gestures, and mannerisms. Children will often show an intense need for sameness of one caregiver over another at certain points in time. This may be difficult for the other parent or caregiver who can feel rejected and not understand why: the intensity of attachment is so great that it is often directed really strongly to one parent. This changes over time, and requires patience and understanding that it is typical.
What parents can do to support this stage:
Take pleasure in this imitation. Be playful with it. Model calm self-regulation, and share in these imitated activities as much as you are comfortable with. Enjoy this shared behaviour, and know that this imitation indicates a strong attachment to you. Encourage your two year old to help you around the house: wiping windows, folding cloths, using utensils, putting toys away. Imitation is a powerful indicator of attachment, but it is also nature’s way of setting the stage for behaviours that we come to expect our children to have. Know that if you are a loving parent who is not the object of this imitation, your presence, consistency, and love will lead to this happening: it is worth the wait!
At bedtime, create some ‘sameness’ with same physical belongings like pillow cases or even two stuffies that are the same (one for you and one for your two year old!) if you sleep apart. Same pajamas can also be a fun way to build on this stage.
The same routine, and reveling in that routine, can be a powerful way of providing security and predictability for your two year old. The same book, the same chair, and the same tuck in routine each night lets your child know what to expect.
3. Belonging/Loyalty (age 3)
What it is:
A strong sense of acceptance as a family unit to you and one or two other key caregivers.
A sense of you ‘belonging’ to your child. This can feel like ‘ownership’ or possessiveness, but is based on a strong sense of unconditional belonging.
What it looks like:
This stage can be clear to see when our children start using the phrase “my _____”. “My mommy”, “my cup”, “my toy”, and “my baby” are frequent at this age. Often, this age coincides with the birth of a baby which can make children feel even more possessive of parents and cherished things. Eventually, this sense of belonging extends to the new baby too, though this takes patience and time to get there!
How can parents support this stage:
At bedtime, belonging and a sense of loyalty can be supported through continued bedtime rituals that strengthen your child’s sense of safety and unconditional love.
Urie Bronfenbrenner, father of attachment, has said that every child should have at least one adult who is crazy about them. Enstilling a sense of unconditional belonging supports this stage of attachment.
Leaning into the need for your presence and for feeling the need to belong allows a child to relax in the reassurance that you and they are a family unit. It may also help them feel, over time, less concerned about how a new sibling can threaten this feeling of belonging.
This is a great age to consider shifting children to their own bed or own bedroom. Pulling the space together for them and focusing on phrases like “your room” and “your bed” can be helpful. Follow through by respecting that space and protecting their space from siblings in order to maintain this space as something that belongs to them.
Consider these stages ‘signposts’ of attachment development, rather than as set-in-stone measures of attachment. Use them to guide your parenting, to anticipate your child’s needs, and to take pleasure in the ever changing emotional landscape of childhood! It can be quite a ride.
Next month I will add stages 3 to 6. If you don’t want to wait, you can view my 5-8 minute videos describing each stage of attachment via my facebook page. Stage #3 is a stand alone stage pinned at the top of my facebook page, but the rest of the videos are all in a folder together (securely attached!).
If you want to understand more about how to use the Stages of Attachment to strengthen your child’s sleep routine, or want to explore other shifts in parenting and the environment that can support infant sleep development, I welcome you to connect with me via email or phone.
If you want to read or learn more about Gordon Neufeld’s approach to attachment and child development, I recommend his book, Hold Onto Your Kids (co-authored by Gabor Mate). I also highly recommend the online courses offered through the Neufeld Institute, most especially Making Sense of Preschoolers.