More Comments on Day Care, Attachment, and Separation


Another IPMH graduate, a doctor, Maria Veronica Mingo, wrote:

First, I found it so valuable that the director has written to you with her concerns, looking for ways of doing better work with their children.

I do not know what she meant by “Do you believe that early child care (before 3) undermines security of attachment?” Does she means it undermines security of attachment with parents or the child’s attachment in general?

In this regard, I think it is important to keep in mind that the child could have different kinds of attachment (ABCD) depending on the relationship. This makes it hard to talk about an “overall child’s attachment” or a “general attachment”. This point might help the director open the door of variability and diversity of relationships. It could also help to broaden the meaning of “healthy relationships” (since having an insecure attachment is considered “normal” too, in contrast with disorganized attachment).

I can imagine that child’s attachment with parents might not change before and after a child care experience (though I do not know the data). And I think it is expected that the child could have different kinds of attachment with parents and teachers. I could even imagine that the child could have different attachment with different teachers of his/her classroom! It is complicated – hard to measure and even harder to draw conclusions about it. Moreover, attachment could change over time, with parents or/and teachers, so the “one shot” strange situation measure has to be read carefully.

Another point is that behind this kind of discussion there is a kind of fear of insecure attachment and an idealization of secure ones, without understanding that attachment status is a particular way of viewing relationships that is limited in theme and time, in relation to a child’s development as a whole. It is as if the child having an insecure attachment with one teacher means that his entire capacity for secure attachment is undermined.

In this case I think it could help to think about what kind of skills or behaviors (regarding expressed needs, met needs, expressions of emotions, etc.) is required for a child’s healthy development in a childcare setting? What would impact his/her attachment with teachers (all teachers or some of them?) in some way (for better or for worse?) In the end, we do not know what particular attachment related behaviors will work for the child. Maybe, being less open in expressing needs and finding comfort from an adult (being seen as insecure attachment of a child with his teacher) could be, in some case, a good adaptation and benefit the child. I don’t know, it is something to reflect on.

The last point is that I infer from the director’s words anxiety about children’s experiencing stress when separating from their parents. In this case I believe that we could bring Dr. Tronick’s thoughts about stress (in good enough amount) and its benefit. It could help her think about the diverse expressions of a child’s distress – in kind and in intensity – and how important is to be able to be sensitive to the child in those moments; that is how trust is built, slowly, over time. It might be good for a child, who experiences high distress after separation, to know/to learn that also other people can meet his needs and that he can be safe in other places and with other people. This could take time and it might be hard for the child, the parents and the teachers but, it will have a good ending and it will be a great gain for child.

Finally, I think that shifting the focus to sensitivity to the child’s needs rather than attachment could help.

Dr. Mingo found a meta-analysis of day care studies and attachment. I found it to be an interesting and balanced examination of 40 studies including almost 3,000 children in some kind of nonparental day care – both home based and center based day care. Important limitations of the study, acknowledged by the authors, include the fact that important correlates of attachment security such as parental SES (socioeconomic status of the parents) were examined in only a few of these studies. Also, the time in day care was not usually considered.

Ahnert, L., Pinquart, M., & Lamb, M. E. (2006). Security of children’s relationships with nonparental care providers: A meta?analysis. Child Development, 77(3), 664-679.

Another IPMH grad, Marilyn Sanders, a neonatologist, writes this comment and promises to write more later:

This director has raised some fascinating questions. I will send you a response over the weekend. It will likely be based in a combination of my typical pragmatism, theory, and evidence. As a starting point, I will state that the question of whether or not to place an infant in some form of early care, be it in home or out of home, is no longer even a choice for most US women since our social policies do not support women to be home with their infants.

And, finally, another IPMH grad, Terri Lear, the Executive Director for Family Attachment, comments:

It is important to think about attachment and early childcare in the right
way. Early childcare does not impact attachment (not in a way that you might
think). Attachment impacts early childcare. The fact that a child needs to
be cared for by another person before age 3 does not guarantee or create an
insecure attachment. What matters most is the foundational relationship the
child has with his primary care provider (usually the mother) and the
quality of that relationship. Securely attached children do better in a
childcare setting, but it is not the childcare setting which “caused” the
secure attachment. It is the quality of the relationship at home which
impacts the child’s coping skills (the child’s ability to self-regulate) in
the childcare setting. Yes, it is true that children experience stress when
separated from their primary care providers, regardless of whether their
attachment is secure or insecure. This is a fact that cannot and should not
be changed. The child who experiences no stress when separating is much more
of a concern because that child may not have formed any attachment at all.
Stress upon separation can be mild or severe. Examples of mild signs of
stress upon separation is for a child to behave in a shy manner, to require
the parent to reassure him that she will pick him up after work, to make a
plan for what they will do after that pick-up (e.g., then we will go to
McDonald’s or to soccer practice, etc.), or for that child to make contact
with a beloved teacher or good friend to soften the separation stress. Some
children require a transitional object (“lovie”) to come to school with
them. Teachers should not coerce children to put them away until they are
ready, but lovies are precious and cannot be lost. So the child should be
made aware that the lovie should go to its safe place during certain

Children who are highly stressed may be experiencing a bad day, may not be
feeling well, may have something unusual going on at home, or may have an
insecure attachment which causes them to feel alarmed and uncertain about
whether or not the care provider will be there as promised. Perhaps there is
a history of the care provider not  being reliable or available (physically
or emotionally) for the child. This would cause the child to be extremely
stressed and difficult to console upon separation. We cannot know if the
parent needs to return to employment for financial reasons or for more
personal reasons (they just don’t know how to connect with a young child and
feel more comfortable in their professional setting). This inability of a
parent to relate to, connect with, attune to–whatever you want to call
it–will reveal itself in many ways in the child’s behavior and it is out of
the realm of a teacher’s capacity to change.

To answer your question about how to make separations easier, the first thing that could be done is to
make reunions better. Parents should be encouraged to take 20-30 minutes
after each reunion to not make dinner, not rush out to the store, not turn
on the TV or the laptop or the iPad/iPhone/iPod, and to just sit with their
child(ren) and talk about the child’s day, read together, or just cuddle and
make small talk. This investment of 20-30 minutes a day goes a long way
toward saving bedtime battles and perhaps is a good start at creating that
strong connection which will endure separations more readily.

Terri Lear, PhD
Executive Director
American Foundation for Family Attachment, Inc.

You can see why I appreciate so much my connection with the Infant Parent Mental Health course and the excellent colleagues I meet in the course.

1 thought on “More Comments on Day Care, Attachment, and Separation

  1. Abigail Miller

    Wow! I am really overwhelmed by all of the thoughtful responses, and the time and energy you have spent sharing your thoughts and expertise with me. I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate it, and how much I appreciate reading this blog. I am going to read and re-read these.

    Thank you so much,
    Abigail Miller

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