Relationship Rattles: Raising the Securely Attached Infant

Relationship Rattles: Raising the Securely Attached Infant

Infants are born into a context. The parents’ wishes and dreams for their imagined child far precede the actual arrival of the infant. David Lichtenstein (2018) summarizes the concept, attributed to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who

“viewed the mother as a culturally embedded subject defined by her linguistic community, her personal fantasy, the structure of her unconscious desires, etc. Into this representational matrix arrives a baby who is already anticipated, named, spoken about” (p.61).

When these factors are consciously acknowledged and reflected upon by parents, they can be celebrated or mourned, as the child does and does not fit the hoped-for ways of being. The child is then able to differentiate into their own person and develop an appropriate sense of boundaries and integrated identity within the context of the larger familial system.

When wishes, dreams, and experiences ae not reflected upon, however, they can intrude on the parents’ capacity to manage the digressing and overwhelming feelings that come with raising a baby, dealing with an obstinate toddler, or collaborating with the adolescent who wants to know their own mind better by rejecting that of parent. The parents’ capacity to “contain” (Bion, 1962), moderate, and transform the chaotic emotional states of the infant becomes impaired. This impairment impedes the parent’s ability to teach the infant to manage and integrate overwhelming states of mind.

The unprocessed parental wishes, dreams, and experiences become “ghosts in the nursery”. The real and imagined figures in the parents’ upbringing intrude on the burgeoning parent/infant relationship. In the classic 1975 paper “Ghosts in the Nursery”, Fraiberg and colleagues observe how “visitors from the unremembered past” reside in the parents’ working unconscious and influence the pattern of relationship between mother and infant. These “ghosts’ emerge, repeat, and consolidate in the growing relationship between mother and infant.

There are, of course, numerous additional factors that contribute to the well-being of the developing child. However, the quality of the relationship, or attachment, between parent and infant is a critical piece of the developmental puzzle, and it’s one that is under our control as parents (Siegel and Hartzell, 2014).

Approximately 60 percent of babies are securely attached, or bonded with their primary caregivers in ways that enable them to feel safe and secure enough to begin exploring the world around them without excessive fear. Secure attachment styles predict improved functioning in multiple domains, such as peer relations, social relatedness, school performance, regulation of emotion and arousal, curiosity, and childhood and adolescent adjustments (Sroufe, 1983, 2005; Sroufe et al 2005a, 2005b). Insecurely attached infants are characterized as insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent, or insecure disorganized. Not surprisingly, these styles predict a variety of negative outcomes in the growing child and adult.

It is one of our passions at Chrysalis to intervene during stages of pregnancy and early relational engagement to foster better attachments between primary caregiver(s) and infant. Improving these relationships at their inception contributes to a more functional humanity overall, a humanity that treats others with kindness, respect, and consideration of each other’s perspectives and differences of opinion.

We recently started parent/infant groups designed to foster support for, encourage, teach, and practice basic attachment skills. Ideas for future programs to support early relational health include:

1) Dyadic/Triadic/Family Parenting Training and Interventions

2) Parent/Infant Movie sessions, designed to promote play and attachment observation

3) Parent workshops and skills-based groups

4) Psychotherapy for parents to process their “ghosts in the nursery” and other difficulties that impair attachment

5) Parental consultation

6) Home visits/infant observation for new parents

There is so much more to say, and I’d be glad to review these concepts in more depth in the future if there is adequate interest. In the meantime, thanks for reading! I look forward to hearing any questions or comments.


Carla Pulliam



Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Tavistock.

Fraiberg, S. Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychanalytic approach to problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14, 387-421.

Lichtenstein, D. (2018). Lacan and the evolution of Hermes. In M. Charles (Ed.), Introduction to Contemporary Psychoanalysis: Defining Terms and Building Bridges, pp.53-72. New York, NY: Routledge.

Siegel, D.J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press, 1999.

Siegel, D.J., & Hartzell, M. Parenting From the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. New York: TarcherPerigree, 2014.

Sroufe, L. (1983). Infant-caregiver attachment and patterns of adaptation in the pre-school: The roots of maladaptation and competence. In M. Permutter (Ed.), Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology (pp. 41-79) Hillside, NH: Erlbaum.

Sroufe, L.A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 7, 349-367.

Sroufe, L., Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Collins, W. (2005a). The development of the person: The Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Guildford.

Sroufe, L., Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Collins, W. (2005b). Placing early attachment experiences in developmental context. In K.E. Grossman, K. Grossman, & E. Waers (Eds.). The power of longitudinal attachment research: From infancy and childhood to adulthood (pp. 48-70) New York, NY: Guildford.