As soon as they come out of their shells, some chicks start following the first animated object they see, as if it were their biological mother. The Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, at the origin of this discovery in the 1940s, experienced it himself by becoming the mother figure of greylag geese. A few years later his work inspired the British psychologist John Bowlby in his development of attachment theory, although in humans the process is obviously more complex. The little one of man does not get attached to the first person he sees but to the one who will take care of him.
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“At birth, the baby recognizes the smell of his mother and the low frequencies of his voice, which he heard in the womb, decrypts the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik (1). His gaze locks onto hers and moves towards the nipple to suck. But, at this stage, the one he will later call “mom” is only a partial sensory object for him. »Indeed, before 2 months, the baby is not yet attached to his mother and behaves in the same way with all those who take care of him. This is what John Bowlby calls the “pre-attachment” phase. Then, between 2 and 7 months, he begins to become more selective and adopts different attitudes in different people. It is only from the seventh month that it will attach itself exclusively to one or two adults.
The mother “main attachment figure”?
For the British psychologist, the mother is “The main attachment figure” of the baby. His theory is however questioned by some specialists. ” This was undoubtedly true in the 1950s, when mothers did not work and looked after the children alone, but society evolved, and the place of the father changed., analysis Blaise Pierrehumbert, Swiss psychologist, author of a recent book on the subject (2). Today fathers get involved from birth and can be an attachment figure very early on. “
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Carrying a child for nine months wouldn’t make a difference? “ Attachment is not built on this basis, he replies. The oxytocin secreted by the mother certainly promotes the relationship with the baby. But in humans, the connection is not forged only through hormones. It also goes through the smile, the voice, the psychic availability. But if the mother is depressed, if she does not feel comfortable in contact with her child and, on the contrary, the father takes great care of him, it is to the latter that he will become attached. ‘on board. ” Because the baby needs that we take care of him, that we feed him, that we look after him, that we also reassure him when he is sad or anxious. It’s a question of survival. And it is the experience of this security that will seal his relationship with the adult.
The first two years the baby needs a primary attachment figure, usually the mother, but when the father also takes care of that, “The baby learns to be attached to two people and his mental world opens, assures Boris Cyrulnik. The dad must be involved from pregnancy to secure the mother and soak up the child ”.
“The child can become attached to several people at the same time”
Should the baby also be attached to the nanny or the nursery nurse? This relationship sometimes worries mothers but yes, ” it is important that these professionals become figures of attachment to reassure the baby in an often stressful environment ”, says Blaise Pierrehumbert. “There is no competition with the parents, the child is capable of making a difference, and we now know that he can become attached to several people at the same time. “
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These bonds are essential to his emotional and social development. ” We can’t grow up and conquer the world if we haven’t been secure before, insists Boris Cyrulnik. Attachment makes it possible to acquire self-esteem, confidence in oneself but also in others and conditions future relationships. “
Sometimes, however, the child does not find a strong enough adult to tie up to, starting with his mother – specialists then speak “Insecure attachment” even of “Attachment disorders”. “Some women do not feel like mothers at the birth of their child, the maternal instinct does not exist, observes Déborah Schmidt, nursery nurse at the Moselle PMI. My work consists in identifying the weaknesses at the level of maternal sensitivity, physical proximity to the child, emotional commitment and reciprocity in the relationship to allow the mother-child dyad to take place. But the meeting is not always possible ”, she adds.
The fusional link is not necessarily more beneficial
Conversely, other mothers maintain a close bond with the baby, which is not necessarily more beneficial because “Their needs sometimes come before those of the child”, relieves the nursery nurse. “In addition, this relationship leaves no room for the father. “
Palmina, 33, admits that she feels very close to her 7-month-old daughter Élia. “After a long journey of assisted reproduction, I had a very strong maternal desire, especially since I had not had a very loving mother, she confides. As I had taken care of my siblings a lot, I immediately knew what to do. “
The father had more trouble. Despite his investment, he had the feeling that his daughter rejected him: “I could not take her in my arms to give her the bottle, nor change her, she would immediately start to cry, says Mathieu. So much so that my wife couldn’t leave us alone. “ It took the benevolent accompaniment of Deborah Schmidt for the couple to find their marks and for the father and his daughter to get to know each other.
To grow well, babies need several adults to rely on. Boris Cyrulnik even advises to create around him “A sensory niche made up of four to six people” because, he emphasizes, “The most protective family system is a system with multiple attachments”.
The different forms of attachment
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth has identified three types of attachment during a separation experience with the mother.
“Secure attachment”. The child protests when she leaves but is reassured by her return; after a moment of comfort, he sets off again to explore the room and the toys.
“Insecure-avoiding attachment”. The child is not completely reassured by the mother’s presence and when she leaves, he does not show signs of distress. Neither does he seek solace from an adult.
“Insecure-resistant attachment”. The child will be very disturbed by the mother’s departure and will seek comfort but in an ambivalent manner, with angry movements and resisting attempts at consolation.
We talk about attachment disorder when a child has been the victim of serious neglect and abuse.