father bonding with baby

How attachments in early infancy set the stage for the rest of your life

After my last post about Baby M, a woman in her sixties called me.  She shared that she spent the first year of her life in an institution and wanted to know what the cognitive and emotional deficits were that occur in order that she could begin to heal from them.  She told me that despite a wonderful step mother who came into her life when she was one who loved her completely and deeply, she has struggled her entire life with emotional attachments to people, and that she never really felt connected even to her children.

Someone else told me that her single mother struggled with giving her up after birth and though in the end she kept her, mentioned that her mother would keep her in a drawer in a closet when she taught.  She is now doing a lot of work to heal from her experience as a newborn.

For many years it was believed that newborns were little blobs that weren’t conscious of what went on around them.  If they were fed and changed, that was all the care they needed.  There are those who still are unaware of all the research that shows how extremely aware and influenced newborns are by the circumstances and even feelings of those around them, and how the experiences of this very formative time in an infant’s life sets the foundation for his emotional future.  Unfortunately, Baby’s M’s parents (who I haven’t met but believe are genuinely kind and well-intended people) are in this category and though it is sin is one of omission rather than purposeful denying of an infant’s needs, the end result is the same.

Babies are hard-wired for attachment to one or two primary people and secure attachment is at the root of their emotional and physical development.  When from the earliest days of life an infant is responded to, held close and given lots of love, he integrates a positive sense of his own value and is able to later have healthy and emotionally satisfying relationships.  When this closeness and resulting trust is absent for whatever reason and however unavoidable or undesired it was by the parent, the result is a deep seated sense of insecurity and unworthiness.

A child is biologically programmed to thrive with lots of love and physical contact.  A child denied that won’t thrive.  When I first met Baby M, my overriding concern was that at the age of one month she was already emotionally shutting down.  Her brain was protecting her from the pain of not being emotionally tended to by keeping her asleep and lethargic.  It was extraordinarily difficult to wake her up.

Once she woke up, she wasn’t able to focus her eyes.  Learning to focus is a skill that comes with practice and she wasn’t getting it.  She also wasn’t getting the sensory stimulation and input that is important in activating different parts of the brain.

The attachment deficit was my biggest concern, however.  (Reactive Attachment Disorder is the diagnosis when this deficit is prolonged but the damage is there even when less apparent.)  When I found out that Baby’s M’s parents weren’t going to keep her, I called someone experienced with this issue and told her my concern about the effect being in an institution for 2-3 months could have on her long term emotional health.  She suggested that since ‘Mohammed wouldn’t go to the mountain’ (ie Baby M isn’t being placed yet with a loving family), that ‘the mountain go to Mohammed’ (that we provide her with consistent attachment figures by being there with her all day long).

This advice really resonated with me because it matches my own conviction about what she needs, and dramatically limits the damage she is experiencing while in an institutional setting.

Dd15 and I have been with her the last few days – I took the first 25 hours, she took the following day and a half, and dd20 arrived late Weds. evening and will be there until early Friday morning.  I hope that we will continue to be allowed to offer this support for her.  It’s quite moving to see her becoming dramatically more alert, socially interactive and physically active  – a senior staff member exclaimed that it was obvious that our time with her was making a big difference.

We would love to make Baby M part of our family and it is my hope that this will somehow happen.  There is a lot we can give her that most families can’t.  However, the parents want the family who takes her to agree that they could take her back in nine months or two years or five years or ten years or whenever they might change their mind.

I can’t do that.  I just can’t. While I’m willing to allow the birth family regular contact, it isn’t fair to agree to raise her without the security and sense of belonging that she deserves.

Right now Baby M and her parents need prayers.  I could use some prayers as well since this is a very hard situation to be part of.


13 thoughts on “How attachments in early infancy set the stage for the rest of your life

  1. wow, I really don’t know what to say. I am 100% sure the parents are hurting inside, but you can’t have someone take your precious baby, raise them for 2,3 7 or 10 years and ask for them back. you are really amazing aviva for taking care of baby m now. wow, my head is spinning just reading about this.

    you should have hatzlocha, good health, patience, for your family, and baby m’s family right now. I really hope the parents make the right decision and raise her. there are so many schools now for children, there is so much more help and understanding than there was 25 years ago about this subject.

    wishing you and your family shana tova ‘umetuka, loads of nachas, good health . and peace of mind that you did all you can to help baby m.

  2. praying for Baby M and all around her to work and be together in her best interest.

    I know you are very distracted now, but at some point down the line, I’d also be interestd, like the woman who was in an institution for the first year of her life, to learn about ways to heal from this even if it isn’t completely irreversible.

  3. Wow Avivah. What a painful dilemma for you and for them. What a bracha that Hashem sent you to this baby, to care about her and her future. I am davening for you and her. I completely respect your boundary. It is wise and tru.! lots of love!

  4. Wow, Avivah, this is so hard! What you’re doing is amazing, and it’s great that you are seeing improvement right away. Sending prayers, thoughts, and virtual hugs. Good luck navigating this very sticky situation!

  5. My daughter is adopted, and has always had lots of contact with her birth parents.

    Now that she’s 13, and fun to hang out with, they are starting to drop hints that they want her to live with them, and it makes her FURIOUS! She says “You had your chance, you made your choice.” She likes her birth parents, and we consider them to be like distant relatives.

    She knows that we are the ones who love and care for her day in and day out, through good and bad, and that the birth parents can’t just come waltzing in any time they feel like it, and mess with her emotions like that. It’s really unfair to everyone involved.

    I wish you all the best luck. May you be blessed for sharing your love with this sweet baby, for as long as you can. I really admire your strength in this uncertain situation.

  6. It would be very difficult for me to be w/Baby M & maybe you should reach out to support groups in your area so you can spread out the giving of wonderful attention to a wider group so that you don’t get burnt out. But your article also says something about conventional upbringing as well. I remember a friend complaining to my wife about constantly picking up child #4. My wife responded that she’d only be able to pick up #4 for a certain time & then he’d simply be too big, so what’s the worse thing that could come from it? That he received more comfort, more security? We have to give children security. We could take a step further & be conscious of ANYONE w/in our immediate area & also try to whatever degree to at least move in that direction, though obviously the helpless need this more.

    1. Right now I don’t feel burnt out – I feel we are privileged to help an innocent child who has no one else who has stepped up to help in this way. The reason we are spending the time with her rather than looking for more volunteers is because what a baby needs is a couple of primary caregivers who are consistently loving and present. Lots of people coming and going would be better than being left in a crib all day but wouldn’t allow her to develop healthy attachments. Our littlest infants are so completely helpless and dependent – they can’t do anything for themselves to protect themselves for a situation like this that overwhelms their capacity to cope. So they just shut down.

  7. Wow, so many emotions and feelings all jumbled up, I’m not sure what to say. I was all teary reading this. You’re amazing, Avivah, for giving her the love she needs right now.

  8. Much hatzlacha in giving baby M what she needs. You are an amazing, amazing person. May you always be in the position of giving. Shana Tova!

  9. How is the biological parents’ approach to this anything but selfish?!?! They abandon an innocent, helpless infant to the mercies of others and then, when the hard work has been done, when the love has been invested and the nights have been spent tirelessly walking the baby and tending to her needs, when her attachment has become strong for her adoptive family, then maybe, just maybe they’ll swoop back in and take her back. What exactly would give them the right to that? It’s unconscionable and their selfishness is further delaying this child’s becoming part of a nurturing and loving forever family. Bless you for considering making baby M your daughter!

    1. Thank you for your passion for Baby M, Irina! I’ve had to really work a lot on letting go of anger and resentment regarding what I see as not considering the baby’s best interests.

      After thinking about this quite a bit I realized this might be what the mother needs in order to let go – to tell herself that she’s leaving the door open to having the baby back in the future.

      1. Aviva you are a special person, I am in awe of you and how you handle everything that happens in your life (that you’ve shared on the blog). Hashem should bentch you with clarity, peace and everything you wish yourself.

  10. I think they would eventually want the child back but then would once again be overwhelmed and eventually relinquish it. Not a good situation for anyone…
    I think the parents will never truly be at peace with their decisions. They will always feel guilt, grief, confusion, sadness, anger, and be traumatized. That is a horrible lifelong punishment. I feel sorry for the parents just as I feel sorry for the baby. Clearly they are overwhelmed. Theyve been forced to make difficult decisions knowing that whatever they decide will not feel right to them. My heart goes out to the parents,as well as the baby.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WP-SpamFree by Pole Position Marketing