Importance of Bonding for Infants and Toddlers and Foster Care

By Becky Swain

Updated September 26, 2017

Tired toddler

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Attachment refers to a stable, mutually affectionate bond that exists between a child and her parent or caregiver. The onset of attachment process begins immediately after birth. A secure attachment grows as the infant learns that she can trust her caregiver to provide nourishment, love, comfort and protection are consistently met. The interruption or absence of attachment occurs for many infants and toddlers placed into a foster care setting. Understanding the importance of attachment helps foster parents recognize how attachment influences a child’s development 2.

Secure Attachment Advantages

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that a secure attachment is related to a child’s developmental progress. When an accessible caregiver demonstrates reliable sensitivity to the child’s needs, the child is free to engage in learning and discovery experiences. Securely attached children do not hesitate to seek reassurance from the caregiver, who functions as a safe harbor when the child feels afraid or hurt. The child learns to recognize and monitor emotions in the context of a loving relationship, building new social skills. A secure attachment communicates to the child that she is cherished, and merits her caregiver’s love and attention.

Problems Related to Insecure Attachment

Children who have suffered neglect or abuse, and children who have experienced an unpredictable pattern of caregivers present challenges to children and their foster parents. According the Child Welfare Information Gateway, abuse and neglect creates problems with attachment in that these problems redirect the developing brain to focus more on immediate survival and self-protection, and less on learning and exploration. Without opportunities to recognize and regulate emotions, these children may struggle to self-monitor their emotions and they may struggle to react appropriately to emotional cues. Other problematic behaviors may include poor self-esteem, eating disorders, anger and aggression.

Attachment and Brain Structure

Children who form secure attachments to a caregiver are more likely to see the world as a safe place and view the caregiver as reliable source of support. However, children with insecure attachments are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Emotional abuse may impair the brain’s capacity to utilize serotonin, which generates mood stability and promotes feelings of happiness. These neurochemical changes in the brain may change how a child attempts to relate to others.

Implications for Foster Parents

Helping children develop secure attachments to new caregivers requires substantial patience, empathy and sensitivity. Forming a secure attachment, like any relationship, requires an unlimited commitment of time. Indeed, foster children must observe that time after time their needs are met with warmth and unparalleled empathy. Foster parents who exercise empathy on a daily basis are equipped to see the world through the eyes of an emotionally wounded child, and to respond with positive sensitivity.