Positive Relationships: Working with Parents - Extra special

When parents separate, caregivers outside the family can provide essential protection, love and stability to the children affected. Dr Penelope Leach explains how.

It was the great child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott who famously remarked that, 'There is no such thing as a baby'. By this he meant that babies cannot meaningfully exist alone, without an adult 'completing half'. And he was more right than he could then have known.

He meant that a new baby is not a fully functional individual and we know now that they are not fully formed either. It is not only their body that must grow and develop - their brain must too.

At birth, the left side, the uniquely human 'thinking part' of their brain, has only just begun to grow. Over the next three years, the brain's structure will unfold, but how it functions - how the mind develops - will depend on its interaction with the environment in which it finds itself. For an infant, the environment mostly consists of relationships with people. Parents literally build babies' brains.

Nothing in a child's life is as important as their relationship with their parents and especially their first attachment, which is usually with the mother and begins even before the child is born (see 'Primary attachments', below).

Mother or father or carer cuddles and smiles and talks, shows and sings and soothes - and that is what organises the baby's experiences today in the light of what they made of yesterday. It is through those relationships that babies build their sense of self, and become able to relate to others - even, perhaps, to their own babies one future day.

It is being loved that helps to make children both loving and lovable. It is having their dependency needs met that helps them towards independence. It is by being calmly controlled that they develop self-control. And it is by modelling themselves on adults who behave in certain ways that they learn the behaviour that is appropriate to their particular family and community.


A lot of people still imagine that all these things must come from parents: that full time mother care is the gold standard against which all other styles and patterns of infant care must be measured.

But continual exclusive care by a solitary mother has never been the childcare norm anywhere or anytime. Almost all mothers, everywhere, have worked and had others care for their children while they did so. The demand for childcare while parents work has been rising for two generations, but now the nature of the care that is needed is changing.

With at least half of all parents separating before children leave school, there is a growing need not only for care for children while parents work, but also for non-parental caregivers who can provide children with secure secondary attachments when home is in emotional chaos.

Many people believe that babies and toddlers are unaffected by their parents separating because they are too little to understand. But every child notices and suffers from the absence of a parent who has moved out of the home, and from birth onwards babies are affected by any acute stress that affects their mothers, and toddlers as well as older children suffer from losing some of the attention and sensitive responsiveness of parents who are drowning in the misery and anger of family breakdown.


For such children, the relationship they have with a carer outside the family - be they a childminder, a nanny or a key person in a nursery - may provide vital protection for their brain development and happiness.

Linked to future emotional, mental and physical health, the effects of this relationship will stay with them for life. Given that attachment security during infancy is associated with fewer behaviour problems in toddlerhood, greater self-control and emotion regulation in the pre-school years, greater achievement and competent problem solving in middle childhood, and less anti-social behaviour in adolescence, the importance of providing whatever sensitive caregiving is available - in infancy and as the child grows - cannot be overstated.

If a child whose parents are separating already has a close, mutual bond with a carer, keeping that relationship stable will help her cope with all the changes at home. If there is to be a new or first-time carer, it needs to be someone who will easily form an attachment relationship with the child.

Carers who become secondary attachment figures help young children to regulate their emotions - even their confusion and despair over a parent leaving home - until they are able to do this for themselves. So it is important that the carer can read the child's verbal and non-verbal cues and respond appropriately.

For a baby, simple techniques like eye contact, talking and cuddling, actually facilitate sophisticated brain growth. And for an older child, someone they readily warm to and who responds to them in a sensitive and loving way will go at least some way towards alleviating the stress of what is happening at home.

In nurseries, a child's key person probably cannot be hand-picked to match that child and however well they get on with the assigned nursery worker, key person changes, staff turnover, shift work and holidays make close attachment relationships difficult to maintain. However, the best nurseries understand attachment, recruit and support staff to develop these relationships, have a comprehensive induction process for each child, and do everything possible to minimise key person changes.

In such a nursery, staff will not be concerned about getting 'too close' to children for fear of upsetting the parents, but will be supported by management and senior colleagues in doing all they can to manage the behaviour and meet the needs of children who are victims in parental battles. And if a parent feels threatened by the close bond that develops between their child and their key person, a reminder that the strength of this secondary attachment builds on but in no way replaces the primary attachment may help. Caregivers are vital extras to parents, but never replace them.


Attachment is helpless human infants' survival mechanism: an inborn system in the brain that ensures that all babies attach themselves to someone - usually their mother - and turn to that 'attachment figure' whenever they are alarmed or upset.

It is no use for a baby to turn to someone who will not protect or help them, so attachment is a two-way process depending on both mother and infant playing their part and reinforcing each other.

The mother is attuned to the baby, always aware of them, keeping them always in mind whatever else she is doing. When the baby signals - often by crying - that they need something, she responds immediately, often without thinking about it. Many mothers have left the TV and started to climb the stairs before they are even aware of having heard their baby crying.

Because the mother is sensitive and responsive, the baby develops confidence that she will always be there for them when they need her, and secure attachment grows between them.

By reflecting the baby's feelings - smiling and stroking them when they smile at her - the mother lends them meaning, and by soothing and moderating their anger or fear she provides them with emotional regulation before they can self-regulate.

Insecure attachment

Not all first attachments are secure, though. Infants with insecure attachments of any type have just as strong a need to seek refuge and help from their attachment figures, but they have to develop different strategies for getting close to, and gaining the attention of, their mothers.

The strategy that an infant adopts will depend on their experiences of the mother's behaviour and what will please her and get them what they need.

So while all babies must attach themselves to a primary caregiver, the nature of the attachment varies according to their early experience of the relationship, especially whether it is valuable, reliable and safe.


Family Breakdown: helping children hang on to both their parents by Penelope Leach (Unbound, £12.99 in paperback, £4.99 in ebook) sets out the potential impact of separation or divorce on children and offers practical advice to parents on how they might minimise the negative effects of such an event - looking at everything from handovers and holidays to decisions about access and custody.

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