theory of attachment
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.
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.
believed that an attachment promotes survival in 3 ways:
the attachment keeps mother and child close to each other.
Separation results in feelings of anxiety.
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.
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
aspects of the theory (deary)
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.
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
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?’
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
the attachment cannot be broken.
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!
(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
(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.
Emerson’s Glasgow babies study found that nearly a third of infants had
five or more attachments by the age of 18 months.