Mom and baby smiling

Keeping the Bough from Breaking: Signing and Attachment

By Linda Acredolo, Ph.D, co-founder of the Baby Signs® Program

What do you think is the optimal age for a child to be adopted? If you’re like most people, your answer is “at birth.” It just seems like common sense to us today.

Mom and baby smiling

Unfortunately, however, for centuries of adopted children that was not the typical answer. Even as late as the 1930s and 40s, well-known developmental psychologists argued that adoption at age 2 made the most sense—in order to ensure that the adoptive parents knew what they were getting! What no one knew then, but we know now, is that by waiting until age 2, adopting families were quite likely to be getting a child whose future emotional development had been put at risk. As hard as it is to believe today, no one thought it mattered what happened to a child during the first two years as long as his or her physical needs were taken care of.

Research has drastically changed this early view of infancy. We now know that a secure emotional bond with loving parents during infancy lays the foundation for future emotional development, including whether children view themselves as loveable, trust other people, and are capable of feeling empathy. Research has also provided clues as to what factors determine whether a child will develop a “secure” vs. “insecure” attachment with a parent. Specifically, we now know that the most important ingredients are sensitivity and responsiveness on the part of the parent—in other words, the ability to read the baby well (know what he or she needs) and the willingness to meet those needs in a timely fashion.

The bottom line of the attachment relationship, in other words, is very sensible: Children fall in love with those who meet their physical needs for food and warmth, comfort them when they are hurt, protect them when they are frightened, and, in general, make them feel respected, understood, and loved.

And here, obviously, is where the Baby Signs® Program enters the picture.

Because signs make the task of “reading” the preverbal baby so much easier, they help parents provide the baby what he or she needs to feel secure. Second, parents who are intently watching for signs are automatically paying closer attention to whatever the baby does, thus increasing the chance that even non-sign signals will be detected. Third, because they reveal to parents how much smarter their baby is than he or she looks (after all, babies do drool a lot!), signs convince parents that there’s truly “somebody home in there,” somebody who is capable of feeling loved and secure or anxious and rejected. That leads to the understanding that it really matters what a parent does. Finally, signs enable babies to share their worlds with their parents, thereby increasing the joy that each takes in the other’s company.

For all these reasons, signing increases the probability of a secure attachment. That’s the formal way of saying (as we often do!) that the Baby Signs® Program helps forge bonds of love and affection that can last a lifetime.