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How Attachments Develop
Learning Theories of Attachment
Bowlby's Theory of Attachment
Evaluation of Bowlby
Ainsworth's Strange Situation
Cross Cultural Variations
Day Care and Social Development
Implications of Research






Bowlby’s theory of attachment

It is impossible to study attachment and child development without considering Bowlby’s work.  His theories on attachment and on maternal deprivation have been some of the most influential writings on the topic.  Given the nature of his theory I thought it would be worth including an abridged biography of Bowlby’s early life which sheds light on his motivation to produce the sort of theories he did.

Bowby’s theory

Bowlby worked for many years as a child psychoanalyst so was clearly very influenced by Freud’s theories and child development.  However, he also liked the work of Lorenz on the innate nature of bonds through imprinting and combined these two very different ideas to produce his own evolutionary theory of attachments.  Bowlby believed that attachment is innate and adaptive.  We are all born with an inherited need to form attachments and this is to help us survive.  In line with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, any behaviour that helps you survive to maturity and reproduce yourself will be maintained in the gene pool.  In human terms, the newborn infant is helpless and relies on its mother for food, warmth etc.  Similarly the mother inherits a genetic blueprint that predisposes her to loving behaviour towards the infant.

Bowlby believed that an attachment promotes survival in 3 ways:

  1. Safety: the attachment keeps mother and child close to each other.  Separation results in feelings of anxiety.
  2. Safe base for exploration: the child is happy to wander and explore (necessary for its cognitive development) knowing it has a safe place to return to if things turn nasty.  This also develops independence necessary in later life. 
  3. Internal working model: This was based on Freud’s idea of the mother-child relationship acting as a prototype fro all future attachments.  Bowlby believed that this first relationship forms a template or schema that gives the child a feel for what a relationship is.  It uses this in future years to develop other relationships and is particularly important in determining the parenting skills in later life. 

Other aspects of the theory (deary)

Sensitive period

Being innate Bowlby believed there would be a period in which they were most likely to develop, similar to the critical period for imprinting.  Unlike a critical period (the only time in which an attachment may form), a sensitive period suggests a time when they are most likely to occur.  Bowlby believed that for the human infant this was between the fourth and sixth month.  After this it becomes ever more difficult for the child to form a first attachment.

Social releasers

Being innate the child has built in mechanisms for encouraging care-giving behaviour from parents.  Children have ‘baby faces’ and their noises and facial expressions such as smiles encourage contact.  It seems that adults are genetically primed to respond to these releasers by offering care and affection. 


Babies’ smiles are powerful things leaving  mothers spellbound and enslaved.  Who  can doubt that the baby who most readily rewards his mother with a smile is the one  who is best loved and best cared for?’ 

                                                   Bowlby 1957. 

Continuity hypothesis

The internal working model ensures that early attachments are reflected in later relationship types.  For example, a secure attachment as a child leads to greater emotional and social stability as an adult, whereas an insecure attachment is likely to lead to difficulties with later relationships.  As already mentioned this is likely to be reflected in the parenting style when the child matures and has children of their own.


Once made the attachment cannot be broken. 


The argument here is not as straight forward as it first appears.  On the face of it the debate is between many attachments or just the one.  However, Bowlby, who was in the ‘one’ camp, did not actually believe that only one attachment was formed, rather that there was only one primary attachment.  The ‘many attachments’ approach believes there are many attachments and that they are all similarly important to the child.  The text also claims that Bowlby did not believe that the main attachment had to be the mother, saying that his words ‘maternal’ and ‘mothering’ were not intended to mean mother!                       

Thomas (1998) has made it clear that children will benefit from a variety of attachment styles provided by different caregivers, so for example an attachment to a father figure will provide benefits to the child that a mother alone could not provide.  In Caribbean and European culture, infants seem to form many equally important attachments to different people.

Bowlby (1969) claimed that there was a hierarchy of attachments, with a primary caregiver, usually the mother at the top.  The Efe, an African tribe, share the care of their children so that women in the village breast feed each another’s children.  However, the infants still go on to form their primary attachment with their biological mother.

Schaffer and Emerson’s Glasgow babies study found that nearly a third of infants had five or more attachments by the age of 18 months.