Laura Barbour explains the importance of the findings of the recent Baby Bonds report.
When I was preparing to have my first baby, I remember an uncle of mine saying: “I didn’t get involved with my children until they became interesting, it’s all about their plumbing to begin with.”
I guess what he meant by this, was that all that matters with small babies is making sure something goes in one end and that the results at the other end are dealt with. Whilst it would be easy to dismiss him as anachronistic, I do remember that when our first baby arrived we did focus on the practicalities of looking after him: Was I feeding him enough? Breast or bottle? Was he gaining enough weight or too much weight? Was he too hot or too cold? Was he sleeping enough? Were we sleeping enough (NO)?
However if I could turn back the clock to when Ben was a baby, I wish that I had had a better understanding of baby development. I would like to have tried harder to put myself in his shoes and respond to him more as a little person, rather than just thinking: you are fed and clean why on earth are you still crying? I think it would have helped the bonding process and made life easier for us all.
As the Moullin, Waldfogel and Washbrook review of Baby Bonds published today by the Sutton Trust outlines, it is the early bond between a parent and baby (attachment) that underpins a child’s future life chances. It has a primary impact on their social and emotional development but also links to their cognitive skills. Good early bonding facilitates resilience, otherwise referred to as character or grit. The impact of a strong bond is as protective whether it is with a mother or father or a constant, consistent caregiver.
Nor – as some preview coverage of the report has suggested – is the bond dependent on the continual presence of the caregiver. Imagine a game of Peepo , even when a child covers their eyes they know that a reliable carer is still there. The same applies to the bond between parent and child. A child can be secure and content when they know that there is someone that they can rely on even if they are not with them all the time. Today’s report is clear that neither maternal employment nor non parental childcare have been found to have a negative effect on attachment, unless the child is already at risk of insecure attachment and they receive low quality external childcare.
At the Sutton Trust our overall aim is to encourage social mobility and to break the cycle of disadvantage. We concentrate on education as the vehicle, so our primary focus has been on a child’s cognitive outcomes as a good predictor of their life chances. However as we emphasised in the recent report “Sound Foundations” and echoing the Early Years foundation stage ,if a child is to be in the best position to start school, they need to have developed, physically, emotionally and cognitively.
The Trust commissioned Baby Bonds to understand better the link between emotional and cognitive development but also because of a growing recognition of the lifelong impact of non-cognitive development (soft skills) referred to in the recent APPG report on Character and Resilience.
The greatest predictor for a child not forming a strong attachment is having a parent who is not securely attached themselves; this makes a strong case for early intervention. The high risk of intergenerational insecure attachment will in many instances mirror an intergenerational cycle of economic disadvantage. Parents who are challenged by living in poverty, have poor mental health or are young are also understandably more likely to struggle with parenting and have insecurely attached children. When we are looking to break the cycle of economic disadvantage, we should also consider how best to break the cycle of insecure attachment.
Alarmingly Baby Bonds shows that 40% of children lack a secure attachment, with 15% in the highest risk category. This is a clear indicator that midwives, health visitors, GPs and Children’s centres should be prioritising the issue. In addition, there need to be targeted interventions for the children most at risk of a disorganised attachment.
At the Sutton Trust, whilst primarily focusing on raising academic achievements (cognitive development) we have always recognised the importance of non-cognitive development (soft skills). This review gives a clear indicator that we need to start at birth with the bond between the child and their first carer. PEEP based in Oxford, who have long worked with families from birth, helping them to develop as their child’s first educator, are developing a programme for their parents, focusing on how to develop a responsive and attached relationship with their baby.
We recognise that both academic outcomes and resilience are key drivers of social mobility. As importantly we should take note of the findings from the LSE report last October, that the most powerful predictor of adult life satisfaction is their emotional health as a child. Baby Bonds makes it clear that this all rests on a loving and responsive relationship from the start.