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Andrea Leadsom: Support for early attachment is the single greatest thing we can do to mend our broken society

Picture_19Andrea Leadsom, Chairman of the Oxford Parent Infant Project and Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for South Northamptonshire.

Human babies are unique in the animal kingdom in the extent of their underdevelopment at birth.  What other animal cannot walk until it is a year old? 

But the physical underdevelopment is only a part of it.  The human brain is also only partially formed at birth. 

It is the earliest experiences of the human baby that literally shape his or her brain development, and will have a lifelong impact on the baby’s mental and emotional health.

The baby that learns about the world as a good place will retain this sense as almost an ‘instinct’ for life……this individual will become emotionally more robust than the baby whose basic needs not usually met.

So what is meant by ‘having your needs met?’  Well, when a baby cries, he doesn’t know he is wet, tired, hungry, bored or too hot – he only knows something is wrong, and he relies on an adult carer to soothe his feelings.  There are two impacts on the brain of the baby who is continuously neglected or abused.

A baby cannot regulate her own feelings at all.  If her needs are not met she will simply scream louder and louder and eventually take refuge in sleep.  So the first impact is that a baby left to continually scream will experience raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.  Excessive amounts of this damages the baby’s immune system, and there is also evidence to suggest that a baby left to scream throughout babyhood will have a higher tolerance to stress, meaning that in later life they will be more attracted to high risk –taking behaviour than a baby who has only a normal level of cortisol.

The second impact is that the ‘social’ part of the brain only starts to develop at around 6 months.  The peak period for development of this part of the brain is at 6-18 months old.  Growth is stimulated by the relationship between baby and carer, where ‘peekaboo’ games and singing songs, cuddling etc all play a strong role.

Where a baby does not receive any attention (as has been shown in certain developing world orphanages where physical contact with babies has been minimal), this part of the brain literally does not grow and may never grow.

This has profound implications for society.  A human being without a social brain finds it very difficult to empathise and to form relationships with other human beings.  In other words, Sociopaths are not born – they are made by their earliest experiences when they are less than 2 years old

There is scientific evidence that shows more than 80% of long term prison inmates have attachment problems that stem from babyhood. 

It is now believed that you can predict two thirds of future chronic criminals by behaviour seen at the age of two.

Why does poor attachment arise?

So often, poor attachment is the result of the parents’ own unhappy lives.  A Mother who was not attached as a baby to her own Mother will struggle to form a bond with her baby.  A woman who suffers post-natal depression will often struggle to form a bond.  Parents with drug, domestic abuse or unemployment problems will often struggle to form a bond.

Poor attachment is no respecter of class or wealth...

But I want to stress this is not about making parents stay at home, or rejecting the idea of putting babies into childcare settings. Attachment means building a bond with a baby, so that the baby instinctively learns the capacity to be a part of a caring relationship.  Where both parents work, or where there is a single parent, or adoptive parents, attachment can be very secure.

Where a baby’s home life is disturbed ie due to divorce, death, domestic abuse, drugs or even post natal depression, it can be a positive experience for that baby’s quality of attachment to be in a caring child care environment.  And where a baby’s home life is happy, and there is a strong bond between the baby and the rest of the family, again a caring child care environment can add to the baby’s quality of attachment.

On the other hand, where a baby’s home life is disturbed and the baby is put into an insensitive child care environment, it can be a disaster for that baby. 

It’s really common sense.  A baby can take only so much stress, and only so much change and disorder – if you pile it up and up, the baby will suffer lifelong damage. 

There is now research suggesting that in Britain 40% of children are not securely attached by the age of five.  This doesn’t mean they will all go on to have behavioural problems.  But what it does mean is that they will be less robust in their emotional make up to meet the challenges and disappointments of life.  And it also means they will struggle to form strong attachments to their own babies, thus perpetuating a cycle of misery through generations.

There are some inevitable conclusions to be drawn from this – namely, it may well be poor attachment that lies behind the recent UNICEF report showing British children are the unhappiest in the developed world.  It also may be poor attachment that lies behind our high teenage pregnancy rate (Mums who are themselves children looking for love) and our high divorce rate (adults unable to form long-lasting relationships).

What can we do about poor attachment?

Picture_20 Well the astonishing thing is that if we tackle poor attachment early enough (before the baby is two), it can be turned around very quickly to the benefit of baby and carer.  The Oxford Parent Infant Project (OXPIP) is an Oxfordshire wide charity that is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary of providing psychotherapeutic support for families who are struggling to bond with their babies.  Our results over 10 years have been astonishing with a wide variety of clients coming from self-referral, from Oxfordshire Social Services, Health Visitors and GPs.

OXPIP’s parent/infant psychotherapists work with carer (often the Mum, but could be Dad, Grandparents or foster parents) to improve the quality of the relationship between them and the baby.  It sounds simple, but it has dramatic and far reaching consequences for the baby’s lifelong mental health.

And government could so easily help to turn around this pandemic of poor attachment, with its vast consequences for our society….here are a few ideas:

  • First, what a baby needs is the right environment for secure attachment.  The ideal place is, of course, within the home.  So Midwives and Health Visitors should be trained in the importance of early attachment and should have the emotional wellbeing of the baby in mind as much as his physical wellbeing. .  … ante-natal questionnaire in Canada has been 80% successful in identifying later attachment problems.  Predicting where there are likely to be problems so they can be dealt with early must be the start point.
  • Second, specialist parent-infant support like that provided by OXPIP should be available for onward referral from Social Workers, GPs, Health Visitors and Midwives. 
  • Third, where a baby spends more than a few hours a day in a child care environment, there should be protocols within the nursery that ensure the attachment needs of the baby are met.  These could include:  focus on the ‘key worker’ relationship, so that one adult carer does all the ‘intimate’ activities with the baby such as nappy change and feeding, and the same adult should be responsible for the ‘handover’ morning and evening to the parent.  There are plenty of opportunities to maximise the sensitivity of the child care environment to support the attachment needs of the baby.
  • Fourth, training in early attachment for childcare workers is critical.  The turnover of staff in nurseries is high, and often staff are young and inexperienced.  All these facts contribute to a greater risk of ‘insensitive’ care.
  • Finally, where the baby cannot be safely left at home and social services intervention is necessary, there should be much more focus on a swift resolution – if taking the baby away from the natural parents is the conclusion, then for the sake of the baby this should happen before his first birthday. 

Before the age of two, there is a huge opportunity to turn around the life chances of a baby.  But even if you think it is not the job of society to worry about the individual baby, then consider a while why we have so many violent young gangs, so many unhappy children, so much drug abuse and such a vast financial burden on our society that must pick up the pieces of these damaged people.

Support for early attachment is the single greatest thing we can do to mend our broken society.


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