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Understanding Infant Attachment: How Interactions with Caregivers Shape A Baby's Security

Attachment theory was initially conceptualized by John Bowlby (Ph.D.), a British psychologist, in the late 1940s in response to the negative outcomes children were experiencing after being seperated from their mothers during the bombings of London. Mary Ainsworth (Ph.D.), an American-Canadian psychologist and student of Bowlby, continued studying attachment theory, with many of her studies being named cornerstones of modern day attachment theory (Ravo, 1999). Bowlby's and Ainsworth's research, along with thousands of other studies, have tested and validated attachment theory for well over 70 years in a variety of research fields including (but not limited to) sociology, anthropology, child development, communication studies, family studies, and psychology.

Attachment is used to explain the bond between a child and their caregiver(s). Caregivers can be one individual, like a parent, or a few individuals, like a parent, grandparent, and a childcare provider. Individuals who spend a significant amount of time with the infant have the potential to become a secure base for that infant. Thus, infants should be surrounded by individuals who are consistently sensitive and able to tend to all of the infant's needs.

Here's a great video that briefly explains how attachment theory was developed, some basic tenants of the theory, and some positive and negative outcomes of attachment security and insecurity.

From feelings of hunger and sleepiness, to feeling scared after hearing a loud noise, to simply wanting to be held because he or she is lonely, infants experience all kinds of mild, moderate, and severe distress. Infants are not born with the ability to cope with this stress. Instead, they need a sensitive, caring adult to help them get through the difficult feelings they are experiencing. Eventually, the consistent help infants receive from their caregivers will enable them to down regulate their own stress.

When is Attachment Developed?
Based on the sensitivity and consistency of caregiver responses, attachment bonds are developed. For example, when a caregiver is consistently sensitive and quick to respond to their infant's distress or bids for affection, that infant uses the trust built with their caregiver to develop a secure attachment foundation, allowing the infant to view him/herself as loved and lovable, to view others as trustworthy and good intentioned, and to view the world as a positive, safe place to be. On the other hand, when an infant's bids for affection and cries of distress are met with negativity, frustration, or insensitivity, they can begin to loose trust in their caregiver and develop an insecure attachment style, causing the baby to view him/herself negatively and to either feel anxiety about or avoidance towards other people and the world.
As mentioned, around 18 months (some argue up to 3 years), the patterns of behavior that created attachment bonds with primary caregivers help babies develop an attachment style. Children carry this attachment style with them throughout life; impacting how they start, maintain, and end friendships, family relationships, and romantic relationships with others. In addition, our attachment style affects how we communicate, positively (or negatively) view the intentions of other people, and react to everyday stress or severe trauma. Thus, the interactions that babies have with their caregivers during the first 18 months of life are indicators of social and emotional development throughout life.

Still want to learn more? You can watch my (Dr. Jennie Rosier) Facebook Live Mini Lecture on Understanding Infant Attachment:

  • Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London, England:Tavistock.
  • Ravo, N. (1999). Mary Ainsworth, 85, theorist on mother-infant attachment. The New York Times.

Want to learn even more about infant attachment? Here are some excellent books and articles related to understanding infant attachment:

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