The Importance of Attachment

The following is an article we wrote for the ABC Magazine and explores the nature of attachment at nursery and at home:

Over the years, the subject of children under the age of two attending nurseries and other childcare settings has excited much debate, some of it quite heated. As a nursery owner and father of teenage alien life forms, I have experienced both sides of this very emotive issue. I can just about remember what it was like all those years ago when Jayne and I first entered the kingdom of little people. Waves of guilt mixed with intense anxiety swept over both of us as we handed over our precious daughter to the smiling but nonetheless unfamiliar nursery faces. We had spent so much of the preceding year with this small bundle of need, that it seemed less like her first settling in session and more like the beginning of an overseas gap year.

The anxiety probably wasn’t helped much by the many hours of research we’d conducted into the pros and cons of nursery life. And even though back then, the Internet was about as responsive as Ceefax, nonetheless, we found enough material to turn us both into instant child psychologists. Far from clarifying our thoughts, we fell into the trap of too much information. For every expert telling us to expect our child to emerge from nursery as a social delinquent, there was another one claiming we should prepare ourselves for a child prodigy; then there were the academic studies suggesting that at 12 months old, our daughter was not programmed to settle with nursery staff; and yet within a few weeks, she was turbo-toddling into the arms of her keyperson, without so much as a backward glance. So each day in those early months when we returned to nursery to collect our daughter, we were often unsure whether to expect J.K. Rowling or Horrible Harriet.

That said, this is not intended to be a soap box about whether children benefit from nursery or pre-school experiences. Much has already been written on that subject, including one recent study proclaiming a £27,000 increase in lifetime salaries for children attending high quality pre-school. Does that mean one day my children can afford to give me back their nursery fees? Probably not.

Anyway, it’s been many years since our daughter “wound the bobbin up” with her nursery friends and brought home surrealist hand paintings that we framed for posterity. And in that time, whilst there has been a tsunami of regulatory and educational changes in childcare, the basic principles of what makes a secure and happy child remain the same, whether at home or at nursery.

Just recently I attended an early years conference, in which one of the seminars was whimsically entitled “ Sabre Tooth Tigers and Teddy Bears”. Intrigued by the title, and wondering how on earth there could be a link between Paddington and a pre-historic carnivore, I found myself listening to a fascinating talk by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, a developmental psychologist.

Suzanne spoke about the fear of the “sabre-tooth tiger moments” in our lives, which cause anxiety and even fear. In very young children these scary moments can be as simple as a parent or carer leaving the room, or something more worrying such as a stranger nearby. Consequently, a pre-historic tiger represents the age-old threat to our instincts of survival and self-preservation.

To combat the tiger, young children need repeated and reliable experiences of comfort to build up their emotional resilience, which helps them to cope better with such situations in the future. It builds up an ‘internal teddy bear’ – the reassurance and comfort that a familiar cuddly toy brings, which helps when the scary moments come again in the future. In the main, these experiences are very simple – consistent and reliable sleep and meal times, structured and free play, freedom to express their emotions, make choices, feel heard and experience unconditional love from trusted adults.

As the talk went on, I began to think about those first few weeks at nursery and the potential for scary tiger moments for both children and parents; and I wondered how our own nursery was providing the reassurances needed for babies and toddlers to feel secure and to settle happily into their new surroundings. So pondering a slightly different perspective on a familiar topic, I returned home in search of the metaphorical Paddington.

At first our nursery managers, Bridget and Lorraine, looked at me with those long suffering expressions I’d come to know so well, “look out, he’s been to a seminar again, batten down the hatches”. But very soon we were exploring our new found metaphor with enthusiasm and purpose. And it wasn’t long before we were discussing the most common anxiety that many new parents and carers feel, namely that of separation. Bridget reminded us of her own feelings when 3 of her 4 children attended our nursery, giving her the dual perspective of being an anxious parent and an anxious manager, sometimes both in the same day.

But despite having twin roles, Bridget agreed that her experiences of childcare and career were no different to other mums. Once the decision had been made about returning to work and the organisation of childcare, it was then about coming to terms with a plethora of mixed feelings; how to balance home and career, how will baby settle at nursery, how will the finances work, sibling rivalry, arranging a support network and most important of all, had someone finally invented a buggy that could collapse without taking the end of your finger off? Ultimately, it was about creating the time and space to enjoy just being mum.

So thinking back to the tiger and teddy bear, we looked at how our nursery could build upon the attachment that a child has established at home. Experience had taught us that the strength of this bond would act as a blueprint for how children engage with and trust other adults, such as the nursery keyperson. To quote Suzanne Zeedyk “ Children with strong early attachments cry less when separated. They engage in more pretend play and sustain attention for longer. They are less aggressive and are popular with other children and with adults. Their sense of who they are is strong”. In our experience when children feel safe they are more inclined to try things out and be more independent. They are confident to express their ideas and feel good about themselves.

So looking back at our own experiences, we thought about how to make those early childcare moments a three way success for children, families and the nursery. Firstly, it’s wise to acknowledge that every child will experience their journey to nursery differently. Before the start date, it helps to go and see the setting again, with other family members if possible, to ensure that what first filled you with enthusiasm is still the case. It can also help in some circumstances to arrange a home visit with the Nursery Manager and keyperson who will be one of your child’s trusted adults.

Hopefully, you should have received a welcome guide giving information on nursery life, its curriculum and care, fees and funding, frequently asked questions and the nursery’s approach to settling in. Indeed, the initial settling sessions should not be rushed and can take many 2-3 hour visits over a number of weeks, so the start date should be kept flexible. This is the time when parents, carers and nursery staff get to know each other and where the keyperson begins to build a relationship with a new child: this is also the time we come to understand a child’s physical and emotional needs by building a “care plan” to help us understand what works and what doesn’t, food likes and dislikes, sleep times, nappy changing, family names and arrangements, favorite toys, comforters and songs, what language is spoken at home, cultural considerations. It even helps to know the name of the family’s pet Labrador.

We also begin to plan how to make the nursery playroom feel homely by placing family photo boards at baby level, or by playing a familiar piece of music at sleep time or providing an item from home such as a blanket which will have a familiar smell or feel. During the settling in period, it’s important to talk about how the pregnancy went and the baby’s birth experience, breast and bottle feeding considerations, special health and other needs and generally trying to understand mum and dad’s unique feelings for their new baby. Vital to the initial and ongoing success is communication between nursery and home, whether face to face, by daily written reports, email or even text. Furthermore, through the wonders of iPad and Internet technology (other tablets are available) there are even ways to securely share and participate in your child’s nursery development online.

Very young children generally live in the moment and need regular reassurance and stimulation from trusted adults. Increasingly, we live in a society built from many cultures, each having their own traditions and family structures, where sometimes children are required to grow up too quickly. Now more than ever, childcare is seen as an economic and social necessity. The continuing challenge for nurseries and other settings is to maintain a well-qualified, consistent and empathetic staffing team, who are trained and encouraged to “tune-in” to children’s and family needs. What seems clear from our own experiences and the many studies of attachment, is not so much who is doing the caring, but it’s the ‘amount, quality and consistency of care’ that is important.

So for those parents and carers thinking about entering the world of messy play and treasure baskets, I can report back to you and J.K. Rowling, that in the 15 years since nursery, our daughter is not yet writing Harry Potter and the Early Years Foundation Stage. I can also reassure you that neither does she live in a nest on the roof of her school with Horrible Harriet. Whilst she may not remember the time she dressed as Pocohontas or sat in a tray of flour with her nursery friends, I’d like to think those early experiences of teddy bear attachment are still there today keeping the tigers away.

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