Attachment in Infancy and its Lifelong Effects

Attachment is the emotional bond between an infant and their care giver/s. Usually the first attachment is with the mother and then other bonds develop later. Some infants bond with alternate caregivers as that person might be their principal carer. Infants will show a preference for one attachment figure. The attachment process develops over time and is about the relationship the infant has with their mother/carer and it is separate from the mother’s relationship with the infant. That is, the bonding relationship the mother might develop when the child is born is unrelated to the attachment an infant develops. All the relationships an infant might develop will not necessarily be attachment bonds and the attachment relationships will not be equally important to the infant. (Ainsworth 1979)

Ainsworth’s extensive exploration of attachment showed that the depth and type of attachment with the principal carer varies and there are three main types. Firstly there is secure attachment, when the carer stays close, is responsive and approving and the infant develops confidence and feels secure. Infants who develop secure attachments are able to confidently explore their environment knowing they will be positively responded to. The second type of attachment is the anxious-ambivalent type – infants who develop this type of attachment show anxiety when separated from their mother/carer and also are ambivalent toward them when they return, seeking contact but resisting interaction. The third main group of attachment is the avoidant type. Infants who learn they get little or no response from their mother/carer, can develop avoidant behaviour as a defence. The infant is not bothered by separation and is not keen on physical contact. (Ainsworth 1979)

Attachment can be measured by separating an infant from their mother/carer and watching the infant’s response then watching what happens during reunion. Infant behaviour is then classified into one of several types, including those listed above. It is the pattern of the infant’s behaviour that forms the classification of the attachment type. Another way to measure attachment and determine attachment type, is to use the Attachment Q-Sort (AQS). This test was designed by Waters and Deane, for infants aged 12 to 60 months. The test allows children to be observed at home in a comfortable environment. Results give a security score and the test can be used across cultures. (Carlson 2003) There appears to be little difference in the way security is expressed by infants, across cultures, even though there are many cultural differences with regard to parenting style. (Weiten 2002)

Children who develop a secure attachment to their mother/carer, seem to fair better in childhood and through to adulthood. Interference in the attachment process can result in developmental, social and intellectual problems and also emotional difficulties. (Zimbardo 1979) Failure to thrive is an example of the debilitating effects of insecure attachment during infancy. In Carlson (2003) it is noted that attachment disorganisation is most likely responsible for serious problems with underweight children and it has been suggested that it is not only access to adequate nutrition that promotes a failure to thrive. The level of competence was lower in insecure children and the number of hospital visits was higher, if the child was not securely attached to their parents/carers. Even with inadequate nutrition as the baseline, insecurely attached children were worse off than securely attached young people, who also did not get adequate nutrition.

In Raja’s (1992) study of 1029 teenagers, whose development had been documented since birth, it was shown that adolescents who were not securely attached to their parents, scored high on poor attention ability and inappropriate conduct. In the same study, Raja reported that teenagers with low attachment to their parents also had high scores for depression and reported significantly more negative events in their lives.
From my experience as a high school teacher, I have noticed that many teenagers who have little or no connection with their family have little or no chance of developing satisfying peer relationships.

Whilst insecure attachments can put young children at risk and predispose adolescents to inappropriate and risk-taking behaviour, the effect of an insecure start can also flow on to adulthood. Associations have been found between attachment style and adult behaviour. However, research indicates that it is not the attachment style that precedes adult difficulties but rather that the attachment style initiates a development of a behaviour type that can be difficult to change. (Carlson 2003) Behavioural problems can often be corrected and adults can learn to connect with others, even if their upbringing was filled with rejection. Carlson(2003) found that adults with a history of insecure infant attachment were often found to have an inability to develop adult relationships, suffered with emotional immaturity and had difficulties with rejection and fear.

As personality development can be interrupted or halted by inadequate attachment, it appears that being an emotionally and psychologically secure adult depends on being a secure infant. (Porter 2003) Porter reports that a whole movement of Attachment Parenting started from the knowledge of attachment theory and recommends keeping your baby with you at all times and sleeping with your child. It is not enough to be with an infant, parents need to engage and communicate with a young child in order to help establish a good bond.

Studies into attachment and its effect in later life, continue. Hill et al (2003) explore the relational aspects of attachment and determine that the whole family have a part to play in the development of infant attachment. Attachment as a demonstration of love is explored in Neimark (2003). According to Neimark, love plays a huge part in a healthy life. Giving love, not only to infants to help them develop securely but as a lifelong process, is paramount to good health and good coping abilities. Researchers still believe that love and attachment are vital to a healthy and fulfilling life.


Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1979). Infant-mother attachment. American Psychologist, 34, 932-937.

Carlson, E. A., Sampson, M. C. & Sroufe, L. A. (2003). Implications of attachment theory and research for developmental-behavioural pediatrics. Journal of Developmental & Behavioural Pediatrics, 24, 364-379.

Hill, J., Fonagy, P., Safier, E. & Sargent, J. (2003). The ecology of attachment in the family. Family Process, 42, 205-221.

Neimark, J. (2003). All you need is love: here’s why it’s crucial to your health – and how to get more in your life. Natural Health, 33, 109-112.

Porter, L. L. (2003). The science of attachment: the biological roots of love. Mothering, 119, 60-70.

Raja, S. N., McGee, R. & Stanton, W. R. (1992). Perceived attachments to parents and peers and psychological well-being in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21, 471-485.

Weiten, W. (2002). Psychology: Themes and variations. Belmont CA, USA: Wadsworth.

Zimbardo, P. (1979). Psychology and Life. Illinois, USA: Scott, Foresman & Company.