What Is Infant Attachment, And How Can You Create A Secure One

Updated May 31, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

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Infants need a strong, secure bond with a primary caregiver, not only for healthy development but also to thrive as adults later. Yet, the best ways to facilitate infant attachment may seem mysterious, especially if your baby has problems that keep her from bonding right away. When you learn how to make that magic happen, you can start your child on a more positive life path.

What Is Infant Attachment?

Infant attachment is the bond a baby develops with the person who takes care of the most often. It is the infant's first and most crucial bond. How well the infant forms an attachment to the first person who cares for them regularly can impact them through childhood and even for the rest of their life.

Who Does The Infant Bond With First?

An infant's first attachment relationship is typical with the mother, the father, a childcare worker, or anyone else who does the bulk of caring for the infant. Most importantly, it's the person who meets the child's survival needs when they cannot meet them alone.

Bowlby's Attachment Theory

John Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who studied the ways people bond with each other and developed his theory of attachment during the mid-1900s. Bowlby had worked in a home for maladjusted children early in his career. There, he found that many children in the home showed little affection to anyone. After talking with the children and their mothers, he found the bond had often been disrupted early in life.

Bowlby also studied the 44 Thieves Study, which looked at juvenile delinquents' development. These children had not formed a strong bond with their primary caregiver, or a bond was formed but disrupted by the mother's absence or death.

Drawing on his research, Bowlby created his attachment theory that stated children needed a strong, secure, enduring bond with their mother. The theory also explained Bowlby's theory of why infant attachment is important and what might happen if no such bond is created.

Biological Need Or Attachment To One Caregiver

Bowlby saw attachment as a process that developed during the evolution of humans. It was a way for infants to survive in the often harsh conditions of early human life. Bowlby postulated that infants needed one primary caregiver. Having one main caregiver form, a strong attachment, increased the likelihood that the child's needs would be met. This made it possible for children to survive until they could meet their own needs.

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Maternal Deprivation

In recent times, fathers and other caregivers are more likely to be the primary caregiver than when Bowlby was working on his theory. In many other cultures, children have multiple caregivers. However, in Western culture, at least when Bowlby was developing his theory, that caregiver would usually be the mother. Thus, Bowlby called the lack of reliable care from the primary caregiver "maternal deprivation."

What Is the Critical Period For Attachment?

According to Bowlby, there was one critical period for forming that first attachment. If bonding didn't happen within the child's first two years of life, the child would have issues with feelings of security and connectedness throughout life. By the time a child is five years old, the possibility of forming any other close, warm, secure bond would be minimal.

Ainsworth's Contributions To Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth, who helped Bowlby formulate his attachment theory, went on to study secure attachment and stranger anxiety on her own. Her first major work came from studies in Ganda relating to secure attachments between mothers and their infants.

Maternal Sensitivity

As a part of her work in Ganda, Ainsworth visited mothers with their babies present. She noted how the mothers and infants interacted. She noticed that infants who had a secure attachment with their mothers had the most sensitive mothers.

The mothers who were sensitive to their infant took care of the babies' survival needs quickly and reliably. They also responded to the infant's emotional states, being playful when their infant was playful and comforting when their infant seemed fearful or upset.

The children whose mothers responded warmly, quickly, and reliably were less needy later in infancy than the children whose mothers didn't respond in those ways. Ainsworth found out that these children were emotionally strengthened by having the attention they needed rather than being spoiled by too much attention.

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Ainsworth's conclusions about this research prompted her to develop the concept of maternal sensitivity as a vital facet of infant attachment.

Ainsworth's Strange Situation Test

After returning home to Canada, Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Test to determine how infants with and without a secure attachment behaved differently in an unfamiliar situation.

The Strange Situation Test starts with a mother and her baby being brought into a lab. The child typically plays freely with the lab's toys for as long as the mother is present.

Next, an unfamiliar lab assistant comes into the room and begins playing with the infant. The mother leaves, and the lab assistant is alone with the infant. After that, the lab assistant returns, and then the mother returns.

Babies typically don't play as vigorously with the toys when the mother isn't present. They may show signs of separation anxiety when the mother leaves. The differences between the attachments different babies have already formed with their mothers before the test show up in their different behaviors when they return during the test.

In scoring the Strange Situation Test, Ainsworth used data that included the number of minutes the child cried, the amount of effort they made to get contact when the mother returned, how much initiative they showed, and whether they could get that contact.

Ainsworth found the following tendencies among her children:

  • In a pleasant but unfamiliar setting, infants with a secure maternal attachment are most likely to show distress while the mother is gone but return to a happy state when the mother returns.
  • In the same situation, infants with an insecure-avoidant maternal attachment usually explore less, then shows no response to the mother when she leaves and returns.
  • Infants with an insecure resistant/ambivalent attachment explore little, become very distressed when the mother leaves, and show resentment and even anger when they return.
  • When infants have a disorganized insecure attachment, their responses are like a combination of resistant and avoidant behaviors.

Consequences Of Insecure Attachment

Bowlby, Ainsworth, and others who studied attachment found that children with mental and behavioral problems as they got older had insecure attachments as infants. Life was not only hard for the child, but it was also hard for the parents and sometimes others who encountered those children. Child attachment can have a major impact on later happiness and mental health.

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How To Create A Secure Infant Attachment

Giving your infant everything they need to develop a secure attachment with you can give them a much happier and healthier life from birth through adulthood. So, how do you create that secure attachment during the critical first two years of your life?

Be Sensitive To What Your Infant Needs

Your baby can't tell you in words what they need. So, you need to notice their discomfort and distress. When they're fussy, take time to check them to see if you can do anything to make them more comfortable physically.

Notice when they need to be comforted as well as when they're in a playful mood. Also, be aware of when they're hungry or anxious so that you can respond to them appropriately.

Meet Their Needs Promptly And Reliably

What your child needs most from you is to meet their survival needs. If you can find out why they're distressed, the next step is to provide them with the resources they need to meet those needs.

Be reliable, so the infant feels more secure. Move towards meeting their needs as soon as possible after you realize they need you. Your promptness and reliability will promote trust and a secure attachment. Don't worry that this will spoil your child. Rather, it is likely to help them become more independent as they get older.

Limit Separations

The reality is that parents often have to work outside the home to support the family. Scientists haven't found any correlation between infants being in daycare and insecure attachments. However, one study found that infants who spent more than 60 hours per day in daycare did tend to have a less secure attachment.

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Understand The Role Of Individual Differences

Infants aren't all the same when they're born. They're genetically different, so they have different capacities for attachment. Your infant may not respond as easily to you, but they can still form secure attachments when you show great sensitivity to their needs.

You also need to be aware of your infant's temperament and the unique stressors they are under. Understanding how your baby is different from others isn't an excuse to ignore their needs because "that's just the way that child is." Instead, it may call for even greater care, attention, and reliability from you.

Can Anyone Help You Create Secure Infant Attachment?

Having a strong support system can help you stay focused on your child's needs because your own needs are being met more effectively. Elicit the help of friends and family to help you manage other duties when needed. Rely on them for emotional and social support, too, to help you stay emotionally available to your child.

If you're concerned that your child isn't forming a secure attachment no matter what you do, you can get help from a therapist. Talking to a licensed counselor at ReGain.us can provide you with the resources you need, not only for your mental health but your child's as well.


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