Learning to Live: The Importance of a Good-Enough Caregiver

            The first two years of life are a time of exploration, learning, and establishing basic beliefs about our tremendous and complicated world. Infants, whose brains are only partially functional at birth, require the presence of a good-enough caregiver to identify their needs and respond with timeliness and accuracy. Through their caregiver’s behavior, infants begin to grapple with some of the most complicated questions in our existence. Is the world a safe or dangerous place? Can I achieve, or am I doomed to fail? Will I be able to survive?

            Thomas and Chess refer to the infant-caregiver relationship as one that requires goodness-of-fit, or a close match and understanding between an infant’s needs and a caregiver’s responsibilities (Vaughn, DeLisi, & Matto, 2014). In many ways, a strong, “good-enough” relationship is the best gift or privilege an adult can bestow upon an infant. The newborn’s brain will be permanently and positively changed by feelings of attachment and security, and the world will become a curious place that warrants approach and exploration. Bowlby and future generations of researchers refer to this type of connection as a secure attachment (Cozolino, 2014).

            From neurochemistry to complex social interaction, the attachment relationship has a significant influence on all levels of an infant’s existence. Levels of oxytocin, the neurotransmitter responsible for the warm and fuzzy feelings of interpersonal intimacy, are significantly higher during interactions between securely attached than insecurely attached infants and caregivers (Ursache, Blair, Stifter, & Voegtline, 2013). Levels of dopamine, another rewarding neurochemical, are similarly high among secure infants and their caregivers, especially when one responds to the other’s smile. Within this framework, it makes sense that babies are cute. It makes sense that they smile, coo, and attract the attention of (almost) any adult in the room. Developing an attachment relationship is a significant and rewarding task for children, and there are biologically primed and rewarded for forging this connection.

            However, it isn’t infants who are ultimately responsible for attaching to their caregivers. Adults, with their fully formed brains and collections of life experiences, are the most significant social influence on newborn children. Rosenblum, Dayton, and Muzik (2009) describe how infants rely on their caregivers for “social referencing, detection, [forming] expectations, and… responding” to the world around them. A young child trips on the playground and falls down onto the repurposed rubber mulch under the monkey bars. Overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, the child looks up at their mother, who is sitting on a bench with one of her friends. Does the mother smile, reassure the child that they’re ok, and then urge them to continue playing? Or does the mother throw her hands in the air, unable to control the horrible disaster of her child’s fall? Or, perhaps most sadly, does the mother continue to chat with her friend or read her magazine and not notice at all? In this scenario, the child is referencing their caregiver for a reaction, a response or piece of information about the world around them. These reactions are internalized and, as patterns and expectations form, become the child’s way of approaching or avoiding the world around them (Rosenblum, Dayton, & Muzik, 2009).

            As children become adolescents and eventually adults, expectations from infancy persist as an essential influence on worldview and temperament. Vaughn, DeLisi, and Matto (2014) describe numerous behavioral correlations between children at ages 3 and 15. Increased prenatal activity leads to more active and sometimes difficult children and teenagers, and research suggests that early attachment experiences have a significant and enduring influence on important structures in the brain (Vaughn, DeLisi, & Matto, 2014). However, as our conversation on the significance of early relationships draws to a close, neuroplasticity reminds us of an important caveat: nothing in the brain is set in stone, and humans are always capable of changing their interpersonal styles (Cozolino, 2014).

            If I could summarize the myriad tasks of infancy into only a few words, I would suggest the phrase “learning to live.” Infants are naturally wired and physically built to seek out caregivers for vital information about their surroundings. This information is internalized by the child and has measurable, physical effects on the child’s brain, nervous system, and stress response (Cozolino, 2014). As adults, we need to hold ourselves accountable for the infants and children in our society. Some day, they’ll be in our shoes, and the lessons we teach today will remain significant for generations to come.

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References:

Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Rosenblum, K. L., Dayton, C. J., & Muzik, M. (2009). Infant social and emotional development: Emerging competencies in a relational context. In C.H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook infant mental health (3rd ed., pp. 80-103).  New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Ursache, A., Blair, C., Stifter, C., & Voegtline, K. (2013). Emotional reactivity and regulation in infancy interact to predict executive functioning in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 49(1), 127–137.

Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., & Matto, H. C. (2014). Human behavior: A cell to society approach. Hoboken: N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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