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Attachment Theory and Limbic Attunement


Learning to Sleep and Strengthening the Bond

The sleep program I have developed is rooted in Attachment Theory and the importance of Limbic Attunement.

Dr. Allan N. Schore, from the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, with a scholarly article entitled “Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship On Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health.”

Academics don’t write for people; they write for each other. This is why we need to deconstruct this publication to figure out precisely what he is trying to say. Simply put, the article describes how a mother and child move through stages of equilibrium (happy) to disturbance (distressed), and then back again. This has also been referred to as “Optimal Anxiety,” which sounds contradictory.

8376702890_c214b0534c_zWhen distress happens (and it always does) it is the mother’s job to step in and alleviate the problem. But what if the mother IS the problem:

“To act as a regulator of the infant’s arousal, she (the mother, caregiver) must be able to regulate her own arousal state (stress level.) In early development, an adult provides much of the necessary modulation of infant states, especially after a state of disruption and across a transition between states. This allows for the development of self-regulation.”

This means that if the parent tends to unravel and lose control, this will cause the infant, being closely attuned to her emotional state, will experience even more anxiety – on top of whatever stress was already there!

State Of Repair

“In this essential regulatory pattern of “disruption and repair”, the “good-enough” caregiver who induces a stress response in her infant through a misattunement reinvokes in a timely fashion her psychologically attuned regulation of the infant’s negative affect state that she has triggered.”

In other words, the mother will attempt to repair the damage she herself has caused.

1848880493_6e91a9deed_z“…the key to this is the caregiver’s capacity to monitor and regulate her own affect, especially negative affect. The regulation of her own affective state, as well as the child’s, may be an emotionally demanding task.”

Can the parent, utilizing self-control, nip this rollercoaster ride in the bud, so to speak? Some can. Some can’t. Others won’t. After enough of this, the child might get the idea that the ideal way to deal with frustration is to become hysterical and shriek.

“The re-attuning, comforting mother and infant thus dyadically negotiate a stressful state transition of affect, cognition, and behavior. This recovery mechanism underlies the phenomenon of “interactive repair”…in which the participation of the caregiver is responsible for the reparation of stressful dyadic misattunements. If attachment is interactive synchrony, stress is defined as an asynchrony in an interactional sequence, but a period of synchrony following this allows for stress recovery.”

Deconstructing the Theory

Dyadically, huh? All that means is that they do it together. The key to this paragraph is “interactive synchrony” It simply means simultaneous action that occurs between the two individuals, a series of ups and downs. In ‘Peanuts,’ the Lucy character at one point asks, “Why does life have to be a series of ups and downs? Why can’t we go from an ‘up’ to an ‘upper up’? Her question remains unanswered.

“It is now thought that the process of re-experiencing positive affect following negative experience may teach a child that negativity can be endured and conquered. Infant resilience emerges from an interactive context in which the child and parent transition from positive to negative and back to positive affect, and resilience in the face of stress is an ultimate indicator of attachment capacity and, therefore, adaptive mental health. These arousal-regulating transactions, which continue throughout the first year, underlie the formation of an attachment bond between the infant and primary caregiver. An essential attachment function is “to promote the synchrony or regulation of biological and behavioral systems on an organismic level.” “

As we respond to any transition that inspires this positive-to-negative-and-back-to-positive affect, we support our babies in their growing capacity to handle the sensations and feelings of their own experience. And holding on to our experience and not getting swept away by our emotions is the most challenging task we face as parents.

The truth we all face

From Allan Schore’s book; Affect Regulation: And the repair of the self.

Possibly the most crucial and difficult aspect of mothering consists in permitting the child to bear increasingly intense affective tension (such as crying, not getting what the child wants, tantrums, upset, etc.). In order to perform this parental regulatory function, the adult must not only mirror the infant’s distress state, but then “go beyond the mirroring” to “deal with distress” rather than be overwhelmed by it. To do this the parent needs to sense and then regulate his/her own as well as the child’s affective state, a particularly demanding emotional task.”

The resulting beauty of this truth

The normal infant needs to be able to sense that her mother is struggling to tolerate her projected distress without major disruption in her own maternal function. The mother will be unable to avoid giving the infant slight indications of the way she is affected by her infant, and it is these indications which allow the infant to see that the projected aspects of herself can indeed be tolerated.”

That last part gives me chills. The infant learns that no matter what she presents to her mother, mommy will respond with love and compassion.

  • Mom/dad/caregiver won’t get completely thrown off-center by their own emotions.
  • Mom/dad/caregiver will remain present and connected.
  • Mom/dad/caregiver can handle the truth of the child’s experience.

And in that intimate connection, we can’t hide that we are affected by our child’s discomfort or disturbance. Why would we hide that? We are mirroring what an authentic human looks like in the face of disequilibrium, disturbance, disappointment, and disquiet. We mirror empathy and compassion. The fact that we get upset in the face of our upset child is a healthy response. Not being affected by our child’s tears would mean we were detached or distant.

The Symphonic Dance of Human Relationship

“One term scientists use for neural attunement is limbic resonance, a symphony of mutual exchange and internal adaptation whereby two people harmonize their emotional state.”

What it all boils down to is that the infant/toddler is capable of dealing with the amount of stress or struggle that learning a new way of sleep will present. The ability of the infant to cope with the regulatory pattern described above as “disruption and repair” is greater as the Cingulate Cortex (part of the limbic system) develops. The brain is designed to deal with this incremental amount of stress, and the ability to do so is coming online at 4-6 months of age. This is when the infant becomes responsive to social cues, shared pleasure states and when the first signs of separation anxiety are expressed. As you implement your sleep program, by responding when necessary, reassuring when needed, allowing your child to struggle when able and all the while managing your own emotional states…you can be reassured that, at the very least, your baby can handle the struggles of his/her own development.

The ongoing question is; can we, the parents, handle the ongoing struggles of our own development?


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