Attachment between infant and caregiver

Attachment Between Infant And Caregiver 2250
Photo by: Kim Ruoff


Infant attachment is the deep emotional connection that an infant forms with his or her primary caregiver, often the mother. It is a tie that binds them together, endures over time, and leads the infant to experience pleasure, joy, safety , and comfort in the caregiver's company. The baby feels distress when that person is absent. Soothing, comforting, and providing pleasure are primary elements of the relationship. Attachment theory holds that a consistent primary caregiver is necessary for a child's optimal development.


Attachment theory originated in the early 1950s with John Bowlby, a child psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist, who both became interested in young children's responses to experiencing loss. They began studying the realms of attachment and bonding . Their theory was developed and integrated over the following 60 years by researchers around the world. (For attachment as it pertains to adoption , readers can consult the entry in this encyclopedia on adoption.)

Attachment theory is based on the idea that the bond between an infant and his or her primary caregiver is the crucial and primary influence in infant development and as such forms the basis of coping, the development of relationships, and the formation of personality. If the mother is absent or not available, a primary caregiver serves the role usually assumed by the mother. Attachment refers to a relationship that emerges over time from a history of caregiver-infant interactions. As adults nurture and interact with infants during the first year of life, infants organize their behavior around these caregivers. Attachment is a phenomenon involving physiological, emotional, cognitive, and social processes. The baby displays instinctual attachment behaviors that are activated by cues or signals from the caregiver. Therefore, the process of attachment is defined as a mutual regulatory system, in which the baby and the caregiver have an influence on one another over time. The caregiver's presence provides a feeling of safety and security for the infant. Once this relationship is established, the preference tends to remain stable, and a shift of attachment behavior to a new or strange person becomes more difficult.

Some theorists believe that the attachment system evolved to ensure that infants and caregivers remain physically close, and that the infant is protected. Thus, in order to survive, an infant must become attached to the primary caregiver, who is stronger and wiser regarding the dangers of the world. The caregiver is a safe refuge, a source of comfort and protection, and serves as a secure base from which the infant can explore.

Research has shown that babies and caregivers demonstrate an instinct to attach. Babies instinctively reach out for the safety and security of the safe haven they have with their primary caregiver, while parents usually instinctively protect and nurture their children. Children who start their lives with the essential basis of secure attachment fare better in all aspects of functioning as their development progresses.

Attachment and behavior

From a behavioral perspective, attachment is represented by a group of instinctive infant behaviors that serve to form the attachment bond, protect the child from fear and harm, and aid in the infant's protected exploration of the world. These behaviors include:

  • reaching
  • crying
  • grasping
  • smiling
  • vocalizing
  • clinging
  • sucking
  • moving

All of these behaviors assist in facilitating the maximum physical and emotional development of the child. These particular behaviors may vary from one culture or society to others, but the attachment relationship appears to be universal.

Attachment and emotions

From an emotional perspective, attachment is the development of a mutual bond in which the primary caregiver positively influences infant development through the interactions and relationship that person has with the child. Babies are unable to regulate themselves and become overwhelmed by their emotional states, including those of fear, pleasure, and sadness. Babies are unable to keep themselves in a state of equilibrium, as they lack the skills to control either the intensity or the duration of those emotions. In an attached relationship, babies rely on their primary caregiver to help them navigate the world. The primary caregiver serves as a secure base that is used for exploration and learning. At the same time, the infant forms the necessary skills of self-protection and intimacy.

Other important functions that a secure attachment between an infant and his or her caregiver serves for the developing child include the following:

  • learning basic trust, which serves as a basis for all future emotional relationships
  • exploring the environment with feelings of safety and security, which leads to healthy intellectual and social development
  • developing the ability to control behavior, which results in effective management of impulses and emotions
  • creating a foundation for the development of identity, which includes a sense of capability, self-worth, and a balance between dependence and independence
  • establishing a moral framework that leads to empathy, compassion, and conscience
  • generating a core set of beliefs
  • providing a defense against stress and trauma

Children will display distinct attachment styles, which can be loosely defined as either secure or insecure. Secure styles show a child consistently connected to the primary caregiver, with a firmly established sense of trust and a nurturing response; however, insecure styles of attachment have features of instability.


Several milestones occur over the course of their first year as infants form an attached relationship with their primary caregiver. These milestones include the following:

  • In the first two months of life, even though infants show little observable preference for a particular care-giver, the warm, sensitive, and reliable responses of the caregiver to the child set the stage for the developing attachment relationship.
  • From two to seven months, infants tend to interact differently with primary caregivers than they do with strangers but in general still do not display solid preferences.
  • By four to six months of age, infants begin to develop expectations of how their primary caregiver will respond to them when they are distressed.
  • Between seven months and one year, infants show a definite preference for their primary caregiver. They start to exhibit a wariness of strangers and symptoms of separation anxiety .


From 12 to 18 months, as they start to walk and crawl, children use their attachment figure as a secure base from which to go out and discover the world and as a safe haven to which to return when frightened or alarmed. Children with secure histories have been shown to be more determined, enthusiastic, and competent in problem-solving as toddlers.


During this time, the attachment relationship is characterized by an increased tolerance for separation and an ability to cooperate with others. The child is learning to balance his or her need for independence, self-discipline, and exploration and the need for love and protection from the primary caregiver. However, as preschool approaches, children are still susceptible to a variety of dangers. Therefore, attachment behaviors, such as wanting to stay close to the primary caregiver and displaying occasional separation anxiety are adaptive processes, not regressive ones. Western culture has often portrayed this type of behavior as controlling or attention-seeking. Attachment theorists believe this is inaccurate, as these behaviors help serve to ensure the child's survival and socialization.

School age

School-age children with a history of secured attachment histories demonstrate an ability to be more goal-oriented and often display positive leadership skills. Numerous long-term studies have shown that in the following areas securely attached children do better as they grow older:

  • self-esteem
  • autonomy
  • ability to manage impulses and feelings
  • long-term friendships
  • positive relationships with parents, caregivers, and other authority figures
  • effective coping skills
  • trust, intimacy, and affection
  • positive and hopeful belief systems
  • academic success in school

Common problems

Insecure attachment develops when a primary care-giver does not consistently respond in ways that are warm, affectionate, loving, dependable, and sensitive to the infant's needs. The three primary insecure types are resistant attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.

Resistant attachment

This pattern is characterized by an emotional ambivalence in the child and a physical resistance to the primary caregiver. The infant is often hesitant to separate from the caregiver and is quick to display anxiety and distress in an unfamiliar setting. This classification is often referred to as anxious-ambivalent because the child will demonstrate anger towards the caregiver at the same time they are expressing their need for comforting. This type of insecure attachment may be an indicator of risk for the development of emotional, social, and behavioral problems in childhood and later in life.

Avoidant attachment

The key behavior in this type of insecure attachment is an active avoidance of the primary caregiver when the infant is upset. These babies readily separate from their primary caregivers in order to explore and may be more affectionate with strangers than their own mother. They exhibit little preference for and appear emotionally distant from the primary caregiver.

Disorganized attachment

In this type of insecure attachment, infants show a variety of confused and contradictory behaviors. For example, during a reunion with the primary caregiver, the child may look away or even display a blank stare when being held. Other babies may exhibit confusing patterns such as crying unexpectedly after being held or displaying odd, dazed expressions.

Parental concerns

Healthy attachment is the key to healthy babies, and healthy babies are the key to healthy adults. It is crucial for parents, however, to understand that each parent faces times when things do not function flawlessly. What is important in the development of secure attachment is that the primary caregiver is available emotionally to the child and sensitive to the infant's needs.

When to call the doctor

Parents should call their doctor if their child exhibits any of the behaviors of an insecure attachment.


Attachment behavior —Any behavior that an infant uses to seek and maintain contact with and elicit a response from the caregiver. These behaviors include crying, searching, grasping, following, smiling, reaching, and vocalizing.

Insecure attachment —Develops when a primary caregiver does not consistently respond in ways that are warm, affectionate, and sensitive to a baby's needs.

Secure attachment —Usually develops when the primary caregiver is sensitive to the infant's behavior and is emotionally and physically available to the child.

See also Adoption .



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Bremner, J. Gavin, et al. The Blackwell Handbook of Infant Development. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

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Spitz, Rene A. First Year of Life: A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal and Deviant Behavior. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 2005.


Carlson, Elizabeth A., Megan C. Sampson, and L. Alan Stroufe. "Implications of Attachment Theory and Research for Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics." Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 24, no. 5 (October 2003): 364+.


Attachment Parenting International. 2906 Berry Hill Drive, Nashville, TN 37204. Web site:


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Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN

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