Knowing Gordon Neufeld’s Stages of Attachment has allowed me to anticipate my children’s needs better over the years, and has helped me understand their behaviour better too, something that can be very powerful and reassuring amidst the uncertainty and challenges of parenting! Applying these stages to sleep, this article explores what each stage looks like, and what parents can do to support each stage.
As we move rapidly towards the end of July I find myself trying to squeeze as much summer leisure time in as I can. Most recently this meant celebrating my three-year-old niece's birthday and spending three nights camping locally. The first night was spent camping alone, a tradition I started last summer when we realized that my youngest wasn't looking exclusively for me when he stirred in the night. As a work-from-home primary parent, prioritizing me has been something I've had to work hard on. And I don't think I'm the only one.
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.
There was a time before kids when I was not as attachment-focused in my sleep approach. And if I am completely honest with myself, there have been times even after becoming a mother where I have struggled with attachment-based approaches to supporting sleep. Shifting my perspectives and expectations this much has been a process.
But now, with my youngest at age 4, and with my two older boys, I’ve hit my stride (without perfection, but with calm intention) when it comes to supporting their sleep most nights.
Tonight’s bedtime routine (with all it’s imperfections, and bumps) feels like a story worth telling, in that it reflects how profoundly I’ve shifted my priorities around night time parenting. I don’t dismiss the importance of sleep (enough of it, and of good quality). But I do know that more often than not the best way for our kids to get good sleep is to meet (and exceed) the need with an open heart and a calm, unhurried state of mind.
Perhaps some nights an open heart and a calm, unhurried mind are a struggle. On those nights it’s a challenge to dig deep and meet the need. It becomes a war against our intentions, which often comes out looking like a battle against our kids: them resisting sleep, and us trying to overpower their resistance.
But tonight there was no strong arm, no temptation to coerce, and no resistance. Instead, the evening started with rather feeble efforts on my part to start the routine, and ended with a sense of such connection that I am smitten.
At the usual bedtime, as I do on nights when I am distracted and trying to get work done, I was verbally guiding my two older kiddos (6 and 9) to bed. But as with so many pieces of parenting, you’ve got to walk the walk….and actually walk with them upstairs! Instead, I was giving instructions about shutting down screen time while tapping on my laptop, and listing off bedtime steps without modelling them myself. Hardly “leading by example”.
Now I do know that my children are capable of walking up stairs independently. Of brushing their teeth independently. Of getting dressed independently. Of climbing into bed and crawling under the covers independently. But I have learned well both through research and through parenting experience, that the ability to do something independently is not the only factor in accomplishing a task. Not by a long shot. Coming alongside, and “doing with” are powerful strategies for connecting and accomplishing.
So instead of escalating the volume of my voice, getting sharper and snappier and frustrated, I paused, and heeded the call from my spouse to please come upstairs and help usher them to bed (we both play integral parts in the bedtime wind-down) —tonight things weren’t going all that smoothly. There seemed to be a frenetic energy in the upstairs loft (full moon?!). A lot was happening that had very little to do with bedtime. There were push ups and jumping jacks, karate punches and kicks into cushions, building of forts, requests to make elaborate paper plate faces to tape to these “punching bags” (yes that sounds terrific; yes, it will have to wait till tomorrow), and a lot (a lot) of talking.
But step by step, slowly and calmly, we made our way to their beds where story time was pulled off the roster but gratitude questions and a review of their day remained intact. By now it was very late and despite having more work to take care of, I lay with them a while, and I closed my kindle (did I say screens shouldn’t be part of bedtime? Direction not perfection!), and just lay there as my middle child told me elaborate explanations of how things work. He chatted while holding my hand. His volume was louder than usual, and we kept having to remind him that his little brother was sleeping. He talked with excitement and enthusiasm and while he talked he played with my hair. And then, interrupting his story, he requested that I get the detangling brush….so that he could brush the knots out of my hair.
Now the old me —before I became a mother, or before we got to a point where I was getting enough sleep most nights to make flexibility and patience easy— would have said no, it’s bed time, good night. But tonight I paused, considered how comfortable and content he was: he was getting one-on-one time with me as he peered at the full moon out his window and lazily shared contemplative explanations of zombies and werewolves.
Here was a kiddo whose one-on-one time often gets squeezed out between the needs of his younger brother and the activities of his older brother. The kiddo who sometimes stops talking out of frustration that no one is listening, or that he’s been interrupted again. Here he was chatting to me, connecting with me. So I did what I felt compelled to do: I got the comb, I brought it up, and he combed my hair while talking, while solving dilemmas of his day, while unwinding for sleep.
When all the knots were out I said good night, gave the boys kisses, and left. They both fell asleep without another peep.
There is something liberating about approaching night time this way. For all the conflict, or upset, or missed opportunities to connect during the day, night time has fewer distractions. Night time is a chance to put a cherry on top of the day, no matter how bad the day has been. Night time could be (and often is!) a stressful, exhausting ritual of resistance when we as parents can be maxed out. But by “finishing strong”, and finishing with connection, I’ve made up for some of the less-than-ideal parts of today.
Whatever needs he had not had filled during the day seemed topped up well by my spending this time with him as he lay in bed. And his need for sleep is fulfilled too: maybe not as early as ideal, but certainly as smoothly as I could ever wish for.
Infant Mental Health: A primary goal of attachment-based parenting
Early in my career as an occupational therapist, I had the privilege of participating in York University's inaugural Infant Mental Health certificate program. The focus was on understanding the environmental and biological basis for infant mental health.
Since that time I have studied the science of attachment theory and ecology, and learned the impact of our parenting approaches on infant mental health. What has struck me most across all of this learning was appreciating the impact that our environment can have on the developmental well-being of infants and young children. Our children’s environments are largely created but us in the early years, and we have a significant influence on how nurturing their environments are.
Nurturing, stable, safe, and loving environments can have a positive influence on children, including those with a history of trauma. Although we cannot change the past, what we do today to shift towards more nurturing environments can support infant mental health.
The passion I have for connected parenting in the early years and beyond is reflected heavily in my approach to supporting infant sleep. Sleep deprivation can make even the most patient parent short-tempered and less compassionate. Sleep-deficient infants are more easily upset, more 'wired', and often more difficult to get to sleep. And yet, at the heart of it, infants need proximity to a loving adult who has the capacity to parent in a nurturing way. It is helpful to listen to our instincts about how to support their biological and emotional needs, and to seek support (from family, from friends, from skilled mental health care professionals) to do that.
My approach to infant sleep is to inform, to guide decisions, and to change the environment and expectations in order to progress towards sleep practices that support everyone's sleep needs. For families who have additional challenges, including mental health issues, and trauma history, I connect families with local health care professionals who can continue to support families in ways that respect the family's needs and goals.
Understanding the huge impact that we, as parents, have on our children’s well being is not intended to add a burden. Rather, it can help make decisions easier: we can choose to meet the need. We can choose to connect. We can choose to be present with our children. And we can choose to take care of ourselves and to get support when we feel overwhelmed.
Attachment based parenting improves infant mental health.
Our environment impacts our health.
Decisions are easier when we know why attachment is important.
Self-care is critical: fill your own cup so you can fill theirs too.
I am not a mental health professional. But there are talented and compassionate people in our community who are. If you are concerned about mental health and about your capacity to support a nurturing relationship with your child, reach out and seek support.
In Niagara, local supports for infant and family mental health include:
Pathstone Mental Health Services, pathstonementalhealth.ca
Emily Pollak, Social Worker, individual and family counselling, St. Catharines, emilypollak.ca
Niagara Infant Mental Health website (Early Childhood Community Development Centre), http://www.eccdc.org/infant-mental-health/
Within and beyond Niagara, supports include:
911 for medical emergencies
411 for information about local mental health services in some jurisdictions
Your family physician
Local initiatives to support infant and child mental health
When it comes to understanding the normal development of independent sleep, knowing the facts can make a profound difference in our perspective on the “problem”. Understanding normal sleep patterns in childhood can be incredibly reassuring. And, frequently, this involves realizing there is no problem at all!
Knowing what is typical can help us figure out if the expectations we have (or our family has, or strangers have!) match with what is developmentally reasonable. To know that frequent night waking doesn’t indicate that we have “done something wrong” to cause our babies to have frequent night waking, but rather that it is biologically normal, can take away a lot of pressure! Putting energy into coping with the phase rather than fighting our child’s nature can be a refreshing shift from trying to fit our babies into the expectations,. This way we can model our expectations on our babies’ abilities.
In my September 12, 2018 facebook interview with Built to Birth’s Melanie Farrell, we spent an hour online chatting about what is normal, how to shift perspectives on the problem, and how to manage the challenges that come with supporting infants and young children to gradually develop the holy grail of parenting: independent sleep. One of the papers I mentioned was Sadler’s 1994 paper called (most encouragingly!) Sleep: what is normal at six months?
Here is a bit more of the detail of that paper, and why it is relevant to parents of young babies.
Of 640 parents who completed a survey about the sleep of their infant, only 16% reported that their 6 month old “slept through the night”.
16% of the infants were reported to not have a regular sleeping pattern at 6 months of age (meaning a sleep pattern maturing from within the child, rather than a lack of ‘routine’ from the parents). This suggests that the internal regulation required for a regular sleeping pattern takes several months or more to develop. This fits with our understanding of infant development and neuro-maturation.
61% were sleeping in their own room by 6 months, but many ultimately shared a bed with the parents upon waking: a whopping 43% were always, almost always, or routinely (34%) brought into mom and dad’s room upon waking.
The author suggests that knowing that these sleep patterns (frequent waking, proximity to parents during sleep) are normal can be reassuring.
What may help in re-framing the perspective of night waking in your 6 month old:
It is normal for babies (even at the ripe age of 6 months) to wake often and prefer proximity to mom.
“Sleeping through the night” is typically defined as 5 consecutive hours, not the 8-hours-a-night we come to expect as adults.
The pressure to have young babies “sleeping through the night” does not coincide with biologically normal sleep.
Trusting your instincts regarding sleep problems can be helpful, especially if baby is not sleeping as well as they ought to be because of colic, reflux, food allergies, sleep apnea, or poor air quality.
A return to more frequent night waking at 9 months, after a period of relatively good sleep, is normal. This tends to improve after 12 months of age.
The route to independent sleep is not a linear one.
Sometimes the best strategy is to anticipate the wave, hang on tight, recruit help, and ride it out. When mother nature is the one dictating the rules, changing course may be futile! Nature has a way, and we’d do well to consider that although our environment has changed a great deal, the nature of sleep has not.
So, what is a parent to do if they are struggling with their young child’s sleep but think it might be developmentally normal? Get support! Support can go a long way in reassuring you, in tweaking some strategies for sleep, and in emphasizing (giving you permission!) to focus on your own self-care. Parents who have sought my help and needed, primarily, reassurance, are among the most rewarding consults I’ve done because it puts the power back in parents’ hearts that what they are doing feels right, is supported by evidence, and, in the end, works to create healthy, and even joyful, bedtimes and a happy and confident independent sleeper. It may not take much to bring this power back to parent decision-making, but it can make a world of difference to how you feel about your child’s sleep.
Sadler (1994). Sleep: what is normal at six months?. Prof Care Mother Child. 4 (6): 166-7.
I have been an Occupational Therapist for almost 18 years. Most of that time I have worked with families of infants and young children, many premature, and each of them with some risk factor or developmental difficulty that led families to seek support from our government-funded home-visiting program or hospital-based clinic. I was surrounded by strong, nurturing intelligent women service providers who had empathy galore, and whose hearts and minds were focused on the needs of vulnerable families and children. I couldn’t ask for better mentorship.
I had also studied attachment theory and connected parenting, infant mental health, and maternal mental health. I had the book smarts, and nurturing mentors, and yet I still, when I pictured parenthood for myself, I had an image of a Dr. Spock-inspired authoritarian parent, and my advice on parenting reflected that. Despite whole-heartedly believing in attachment theory, and its importance, I had no real sense of just how that applied to figuring out how to meet the need of a tired moms and dads who needed practical advice right now that didn't contradict their baby's needs.
It was not until I became a parent myself that my perspective on nurturing and attachment and what that means in practical terms shifted dramatically. My views became more child-focused, and was more aware of the evolutionary needs that babies are born with, regardless of the books that are published, the advice that family physicians give (which, generally, was as naive and self-oriented as my own), or the plans I had.
I also had a baby who would not sleep. And very little support on how to manage this. My sweet and lovely baby boy would finally fall asleep at the breast late at night, only to wake up the instant I lay him down beside me. I would pick him up and start again. When he finally ‘crashed’ into a reasonably deep sleep at close to midnight, I’d nearly start to cry at the thought of wanting to get dressed for bed and brush my teeth: I was exhausted, and I knew that getting ready for bed was eating into the precious short time before he awoke again. I counted his sleep time in minutes, not hours, hoping somehow that a sleep interval that was two minutes longer would somehow mean I was doing something that was working.
Eventually we got through it. With reflux medication, baby-wearing, positioning, and diet changes. And also with patience, and an eye on the long game of wanting sleep to be a state that our son felt comfortable falling into, and staying in. We got through. But we would have gotten through with a lot more grace (and a lot more sleep) had we had more support.
What I needed as a new mom was a professional who could help me navigate things: who could value my knowledge, put that knowledge into perspective, and couple it with drawing on the instincts and goals we had as parents.
With so much conflicting information out there (both on-line and from health care providers), parents are left feeling over-informed, overwhelmed, and under-supported. Parents need help finding evidence-based information, and may need help uncovering the instincts and knowledge they already have.
Now that I run my own private practice, I see much more clearly how my roles as an OT and as a mom allow me to draw on the evidence, the experiences, and the empathy, to help families. Parents benefit from support in gathering information, problem-solving, and finding the joy in meeting the needs of infants in personal, unique, and empathetic ways.
Parenting transforms us. A little help to get through the tough spots can make a big difference.