Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave: Maintaining a Secure Attachment Bond

Many new moms fear their return to work will come at the expense of their child’s secure attachment bond. But, here’s the good news–it’s been shown by numerous research studies that whether a parent is a stay-at-home or working mom or dad has no bearing on whether or not a child forms a secure attachment. Want to know what DOES matter when it comes to attachment security? Keep reading to find out!

Mom sitting on grass with her baby and toddler

Secure attachment bonds are established when a child reliably expects that their primary caretaker will meet their needs most of the time.

Many parents worry about what they should (or shouldn’t) do to foster attachment security in their babies. In particular, many new moms are concerned about whether going back to work after maternity leave will impact their relationship with their child.

So what does the research show? Does going back to work after your last day of maternity leave prevent or impair a secure attachment?

The answer is a resounding no!

How to Maintain a Secure Attachment With Your Child

When it comes to secure attachment, quality is far more important than quantity!

Attachment is all about attunement—understanding what your child needs, responding appropriately, and reflecting their experiences back to them. Consider a baby who is crying inconsolably. Being an attuned parent means searching for the why behind a child’s fussiness—are they hungry, tired, in need of a diaper change?

Attuned parents reflect and communicate what their baby is feeling back to them. This may sound like, “oh, you must have been thirsty!” or “I know you don’t like getting your diaper changed, but I bet it is uncomfortable to be wet”.

The quality and accuracy of the response matters much more than the quantity of time mom or dad spends with their child.

What Affects Whether a Child Forms and Maintains a Secure Bond?

While there may be an impulse to dissect every decision we as caregivers make, the truth is that most of the things that we worry about don’t actually jeopardize the security of our child’s bond. That is because attachment is not fragile!

Our children are biologically hardwired to connect with us to ensure their greatest likelihood of survival. Think about what little babies needed hundreds and thousands of years ago—a system to get mom’s attention so they could get their needs met. As nd so as long as we are attuned to our child’s basic physical (hunger, thirst, tiredness) and emotional (to be seen and soothed) needs most of the time we are on the right track.

“Mistakes” (aka mis-attunements), like when a baby is crying because they’re cold, but we give them a bottle, are unavoidable.

Keep reading to learn why misattunement are not just something we’re forced to accept, but are an important piece of our child’s development!

What is “Good Enough” Parenting?

Not only is it impossible to be a perfect parent, it’s actually not optimal. It is our mis-attunements that actually help our child to recognize that we are separate, and from this separateness evolves the relationship.

Parenting is what happens in the aggregate. It’s how all these moments add up.

Building a secure attachment involves both the parent and the child. If moms are feeling fully burnt out and depleted, they’ll struggle to have the bandwidth to respond appropriately and with sensitivity to their baby’s needs. This means making self-care should be a priority for working parents. Whether it’s taking a few deep breaths before walking through the front door or using your commute home to unwind, focusing on your mental well-being is critical. Being a working mom doesn’t require you to dedicate all your non-working hours to parenting. Find the balance that suits you best, and remember that by taking care of yourself, you’re also taking care of your baby.

(And when you do get it “wrong” rather than beating yourself up, click here to learn how to use this misattuned moments as an opportunity for modeling to your child how to repair.)

New mom holding her baby in one arm and typing on a laptop with the other hand

Can Children Have Multiple Attachments?

Another thing to keep in mind is that a child can have multiple healthy attachments (and this is a good thing). Attachments are not a “zero sum game.” Your child won’t have a weakened bond to you just because they develop a secure relationship to a grandparent or child-care provider. The more healthy attachment figures a child has the better for their overall mental wellbeing.

How to Keep the Bond Strong Even When You’re Busy

We want children to know they can turn to us for comfort and safety, but that doesn’t mean you need to be present with your child 24/7 to create a secure attachment bond.

Try to be intentional about using the moments you’re already spending with your child as opportunities for deepening your connection. One of the best times to do this is during caregiving moments, like diaper changes, bathtime, and feedings.

Rather than rushing through these tasks, slow down, tune in, and stay emotionally connected to your child. Do the attunement during the task. That’s where the real secure attachment gets built up—relationships are built in the mundane moments of everyday life. 

Participating in these small but meaningful actions can make your child feel safe and loved, and that’s what’s most important.

My child has trouble separating, does that mean they are insecurely attached?

One of the most common misinterpretations of a sign of an insecure attachment is separation anxiety.

Parents may view their child’s difficulty separating from them as a sign that something is wrong, or an attachment system in peril. In reality, separation anxiety is a normal and developmentally appropriate response for a child. Some amount of separation anxiety is actually a positive thing—it shows us that our child is aware of her surroundings and recognizes who their attachment figures are. Some children are more sensitive than others. This is part of their temperament, or the groundwork for their personality. Parents should try to take comfort in the fact that even a very securely attached child may still cry every morning at drop-off.

And if the opposite is also true. If your child is a little slow to warm up upon your return, or struggles with transitions, it is not necessarily a sign that they are insecurely attached.

Getting proper support with the transition back to work

The transition back to work after baby can be stressful and overwhelming. Try to give yourself some grace, be intentional about making the time you do have together meaningful, and protect your own needs.
If you are worried about going back to work, struggling with the transition, or would like additional support navigating this challenging time, Upshur Bren Psychology Group offers many options for both group and individual support. Click here to schedule a free assessment consultation call to learn about services that would be best for you.

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