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What is attachment theory?

Attachment is the deep and enduring emotional bond that is most obvious in early childhood between an infant and their parents, but also characterizes relationships from “the cradle to the grave.” Prior to the 1950’s, it was widely believed that the reason a child develops a strong connection to his parents is because they feed him. However, this belief changed with work from researchers such as John Bowlby, Harry Harlow, and Mary Ainsworth.

Bowlby proposed that attachment could be explained from an evolutionary standpoint. He believed that children come into the world biologically preprogrammed to form attachments with others, as this will help them survive. Children will try to maintain proximity to at least one individual — anattachment figure — who they believe is better able to cope with the world and respond to their needs. When separated from their attachment figure, they might cry or search for that individual; these are called attachment behaviors. These attachment behaviors are used as a protection mechanism for your child, and thus are most apparent during events such as pain, fatigue, frightening situations, and when the attachment figure appears to be inaccessible.

As a parent, you are likely to become the attachment figure! In Bowlby’s own words, you are a secure base for your child, where they are able to explore the world, but know they have a place to come back to where they are welcomed, comforted, and nourished. This is an intuitive idea: only when one feels secure are they empowered to venture out and develop authentic autonomy. Consequently, Bowlby proposed attachment theory to attempt to explain how these enduring attachments emerge and influence later development.

Around the same time but independently from Bowlby, Harlow conducted research with monkeys to explore why individuals form attachments. He sought to differentiate whether infants form attachments based on those who feed them or rather those who provide comfort. Monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth, and placed in cages with access to two surrogate mothers. One mother was made out of wire, and the other was covered in a soft cloth towel. Harlow found that these monkeys spent significantly more time with the cloth mother, even if the wire mother was the one providing food. They also used the cloth mother as a secure base, as demonstrated by the monkey’s willingness to explore when it was present and clinging to it in the presence of a frightening object. This demonstrates that tactile comfort, rather than nourishment, led to the formation of bonds.

Building on this knowledge, Ainsworth explored the variation in attachment behaviors by studying the interactions between children and their caregivers. She set up the Strange Situation Paradigm. Researchers observed eight different episodes of interactions between a mother, her baby, and a female stranger as the mother and stranger enter and leave a room with the baby. The critical times for understanding the individual differences in attachment quality were how the mother and child responded to being reunited. From this study, Ainsworth created three classifications of attachment behavior: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant attachment. The majority of relationships were characterized as a secure attachment, in which a baby became distressed when the caregiver left the room and fully soothed when the caregiver returned. In relationships categorized as ambivalent, babies sought contact when the caregiver returned, but were not fully soothed and actively (even angrily) resisted comfort. Lastly, when the caregiver returned those babies characterized as having an avoidant attachment actively avoided contact with the caregiver.

This research demonstrates that just like adults, an infant’s experiences lead to their expectations, thus influencing how they are going to behave. For example, if a parent is warm and constantly responds to their child’s particular needs, your baby will expect warmth and love and will thus reach out and seek comfort from their caregiver. A second takeaway is that these differences in attachment behaviors are not due to your baby’s temperament, but rather from the nature of the relationships themselves. Your baby may respond differently in the strange situation to different individuals. Overall, this work highlights that there are individual differences in the quality of attachment that children form with their attachment figures.

Supplementary Material

You have a vital role in creating a strong and secure attachment with your child! The answer can be as simple as cuddling with your baby, holding eye contact, and being sensitive to your baby’s needs and nonverbal cues: in other words, showing your baby that they can be safe with you. See this article from the Urban Child Institute, this article from the Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association, and this article from Psychology Today on how to raise a securely attached child.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). “An Interpretation of Individual Differences.” Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press. 311-325.
Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. I. Aetiology and psychopathology in the light of attachment theory. An expanded version of the Fiftieth Maudsley Lecture, delivered before the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 19 November 1976. The British Journal of Psychiatry130(3), 201-210.
Bowlby, J. (2008). “The Origins of Attachment Theory.” A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic books. 19- 38.


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