How does Attachment Theory Work

“Attachment” is a term used to describe a child’s natural tendency to prefer a single caregiver (in most cases his mother) over others, to feel secure in her presence, and to use her presence as a base in which to explore the world.

Attachment is formed within the first year of a child’s life through various attachment behaviors that are innate within an infant, and which a mother instinctively responds to, e.g., sucking, crying, etc. Babies begin to feel separation anxiety at six to seven months, at the onset of object permanence (which refers to a baby’s ability to understand the continued existence of objects he no longer sees).

Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson in 1964 were able to identify the basic proponents needed for attachment between mother and infant to be formed, which are as follows:

1. A mother’s sensitivity and responsiveness to an infant’s core needs: feeding, sleep, comfort

2. The attention a mother gives to her infant outside of an infant’s core needs.

While it may initially appear developmentally correct to suggest that a mother not pick up her infant whenever the infant begins to cry, so as not to reinforce a reward for negative behavior; viewing it from an attachment perspective, we see that an infant’s crying or desire to be consoled is part of a deeper biological process that is meant to engender a secure attachment with the mother.

The theory of attachment was first developed by John Bowlby (who was influenced by the work of Konrad Lorenz), and was later refined and expanded on by Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby suggested that an infant is born with certain innate behaviors that are designed to keep a primary caregiver in close proximity to the child, thereby ensuring the protection and safety of the child.

Ainsworth’s work gave meaning to the positive and negative affects of secure and insecure attachments between mother and child through her research using the Strange Situation study model. As a result of Ainsworth’s research she was able to identify three main kinds of attachment styles: that of secure attachment, insecure attachment, or those children who are non-attached. There is also a fourth, known as disorganized attachment, which is less common and is likely (though not conclusively) to be the result of abusive situations.

Ainsworth, interpreting the data from the Strange Situation model, came to find that children who are securely attached to their primary caregiver (as a result of the primary caregiver’s sensitivity and responsiveness to her child) were found to be more confident, curious, and emotionally stable. While the majority of children falling under the “insecurely attached” or “nonattached” classifications tended to have parents who were less sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs. Such children were also found to have tendencies toward emotional and social difficulties during their childhood years.

Having a basic understanding of this theory of attachment can increase our understanding of the sensitivities of early childhood, and may aid us in providing better care for children, which can result in greater chances of rearing an emotionally and socially confident individual.