Understanding Secure Attachment - Happy as a Mother

Understanding Secure Attachment

with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Tanya Cotler


  • Understanding attachment science
  • Attunement
  • Our own attachment tendencies
  • Holding space
  • Ways to “repair” with our child

Regulating our own emotions can be difficult enough. Adding a wonderful little bundle of joy who also wakes up at 3 a.m. and may scream loud enough to alert the whole neighborhood can really complicate matters.And there seems to be anxiety around how our triggered moments might affect our children and what they think of us. Clinical psychologist Dr. Tanya Cotler specializes in infant mental health and attachment is here to help us understand parent/child attachment. And the good news is we’re more than our worst moments, and our children know it.

Understanding Attachment Science

We’re going to focus on attachment science not attachment parenting.

Attachment parenting is a parenting style developed by Dr. William Sears. It describes a set of behaviours the caregiver can engage in to try and “guarantee” attachment from the infant, and a lot of these behaviours focus on proximity. (Babywearing, cheastfeeding, co-sleeping).

John Bowlby who was a psychologist, ethologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst developed attachment science. His interest in the animal kingdom—this is the ethologist part—made him think that children would seek proximity to their caregivers for safety and security. He did mean physical security, but he was also talking about mental proximity for safety and security. The idea of feeling seen, safe, and close to someone.

Attachment parenting takes this idea of proximity very literally. Dr. Cotler says, “If there is one thing I want you to take away from today is that you can wear your baby, you can chestfeed, you can cosleep, but no single behaviour is responsible for the attachment relationship that unfolds.” She explains, “The attachment relationship unfolds over time.” What’s important is that the baby knows it’s in your mind.

“The steel face experiment” watched mothers and babies interact and at some point mom would be told to quit responding to the infant. So, the baby would coo, gurgle, cry, whatever babies do to get mom’s attention, but the caregiver wouldn’t respond. Then mom was allowed to respond again, and the baby could be soothed. The caregiver’s lack of response was a rupture in the relationship but it repaired quickly, and they were able to move on. “What brings attachment forward is the representation of the relationship that is formed,” Dr. Cotler says. The child feels “seen.” 

What we think about as attachment is actually just a coping skill. If mom quits responding and the baby looks out the window and ignores the situation, that’s an avoidance. Some babies might cry until they turn red and scream till they’re blue in the face. That’s an eager/anxious attachment style, but these styles aren’t set. They move along a continuum. 

Dr. Cotler explains we’ve also learned we have a romanticized view of attachment. Attachment isn’t about the caregiver being perfectly tuned in to the child’s needs constantly. It’s about the parent’s consistency in showing up to repair after a rupture. Being dropped off at daycare might be a rupture, but the child still gets dropped off. The repair happens when the caretaker picks the child up. And that repetitive pattern of being dropped off and picked up—experiencing a rupture and repair in the relationship—teaches the child to regulate their emotions, and that their caretakers may go away for a while, but they come back. This is attachment science at work.

Attachment parenting where you’re doing all of these things to stay in close proximity can almost be overstepping boundaries. Kids need the ability to explore the world. And there is nothing wrong with cheastfeeding or co-sleeping if that’s your parenting style, but it’s different when you do these things because you feel like your child’s secure attachment is dependent on it.

I sing this song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to my kids every night at bedtime, and I tell them nothing is strong enough to keep me away. I want them to go off to school and have experiences, but if they ever need anything I’ll be here for them. 

Initially, children may need the proximity to feel close to us, but over time through experiences, they’ll be okay with some distance as long as they know we have them in our mind.


Attunement is about mindfulness. It’s about being present in the moment to be aware of the baby’s needs. You’re being mindful of the baby’s mind and also your own mind. This is the concept of two to tango. It requires mom and baby being in tandem with each other to build the attachment bond. 

We talk a lot about tantruming toddlers but there may be signals we can pick up on before we get to the tantrum to avoid that situation.

Our Own Attachment Tendencies

Dr. Cotler paints a scenario for us of a mom and baby in mother/infant psychotherapy, a mom might try to breastfeed a squirmy baby who might even slap her breast away. Mom gets frustrated and says, “I can’t even nurse.” 

You ask, “What happened?” 

And Mom might say something like, “I don’t know. I told you. Baby won’t feed. I’m not good enough. I can’t even nurse.” 

And maybe you notice Baby staring at the light, so you say, “I think he’s looking at the light,” and point at it.

She looks at what you’re pointing at, and says, “Oh, I guess maybe he got distracted by the light.” 

This can be an intro into why that felt like such a rejection, because the baby was just distracted.

This is what Selma Fraiberg referred to as “ghosts in the nursery.” This is the concept that our own early experiences influence how we react. “It’s the concept of the there and then being connected to the here and now,” Dr. Cotler explains. 

Reflective functioning allows us to change our attachment style if we can move past the experience enough to reflect on it, which is what we’re doing when Mom is able to understand Baby got distracted by the light. Practical advice might even be to dangle a light behind her shoulder when she’s trying to breastfeed to prevent some of the squirming. But even without the practical change, she learns that this reaction is not because of her, and she can think differently about it in her head. 

But our current circumstances play into how we react as well. If it’s 4 p.m. and you haven’t eaten yet today, when your baby starts crying or your toddler starts rolling around on the flooring having a tantrum, you might lose your cool. That doesn’t mean this is who you are or even who you are as a parent. If you experience depression or anxiety you might feel triggered easily. And it can also be about our child and what their temperament is. Dr. Cotler says, “Remember two to tango means that mom’s needs need to be met too. It’s not just about baby.” Mom needs to feel seen as well.

If your baby cries between awake states that’s a temperament thing. It’s important to recognize this is part of what they bring to the world. But it’s also important to practice self-compassion. We might want to think about why the crying is so triggering to us. What is our inner child missing that we need? Was there a lot of conflict in our home? Did I feel responsible to fix my parent’s relationship? Do I feel responsible for fixing the baby? 

And sometimes we might just be hungry or tired. Mindfulness will help us be aware if our body has gotten what it needs, and if we’re tired, it’s okay to take a nap. But if we notice patterns emerging where a certain kind of situation is always triggering to us, it might have deeper legs—not necessarily—but maybe, and that might be worth exploring.

Holding Space

Some of us had a hard time regulating our own emotions before parenthood. But nothing—NOTHINGnothing prepares you to regulate your own emotions through a tiny human’s explosive emotions, especially when you are responsible for that tiny human’s life.

This is such a big responsibility. “This is one of the causes of postpartum depression or at least anxiety in my opinion,” Dr. Cotler says. But this is also where rupture and repair comes in. Because I can be depressed or anxious and react in a way I’m not proud of, but we can repair that and be okay again.

When we have a moment of rupture with our child, we can go back and stitch up that wound and make it right again. But we can do this for ourselves too. We can go back on that moment and stitch it up for ourselves and not let it fester. That’s self-compassion.

Ways To “Repair” With Our Child?

Lean into what happened. Reflect on the moment that occurred. What were you thinking and feeling? What were they thinking and feeling?

You observe and describe what they were thinking and feeling.

And you may observe and describe your own mind and what you were feeling.

Then you apologize. The apology is important. It’s not about over-apologizing. But it’s about owning your actions.

The “ABC” of it is the Affect. Emotion. What are you feeling? What am I feeling? B is the Behavior. You’re kicking and screaming, but we still have to go to school today. The C is coping. Why don’t we hug? Or why don’t I let you dress yourself? Maybe they need some control. Or some creative way of coping. Why don’t I zip you around like an airplane and get you dressed?

Think of it like a mindfulness exercise. Dr. Cotler says, “Observe and describe.”

You’re doing a great job, mamas! Keep showing up.

If this resonated with you, check out the motherhood roadmap for more ways to embrace the motherhood journey that is unique to you.

Dr. Tanya Cotler is a Clinical Psychologist, author and speaker who specializes in reproductive mental health, infant mental health and parent-child attachment. Through nearly 20 years of clinical and research experience, Dr. Cotler has honed her particular interest in the emotional bond between parent and child – including how it is formed and the role it plays in lifelong capacities for emotion regulation, empathy, and social emotional development. Her work and approach also acknowledge that every relationship is messy and that repairing ‘ruptures’ (as opposed to avoiding them completely) is central to building safety and trust. For Tanya, the most central part of her biography is that she is a mom to three children.





  1. […] Dr. Tanya on Happy as Mother on Understanding a Secure Attachment. Listen to the Podcast. […]

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