What is Attachment?

‘Attachment’ is a term used to describe the dependency relationship children develop towards their primary caregivers. In ordinary circumstances, an infant’s emerging attachment to their primary caregivers begins to show during the latter half of their first year post-birth, and develops progressively over the first four years. It is most readily observed when children are sick, injured, tired, anxious, hungry or thirsty, and at reunion after temporary separations (Bowlby, 1969; Ainsworth et al, 1978).

Although early attachment research focused on the mother–infant dyad, it is now generally accepted that children form multiple attachment relationships. An ‘attachment figure’ is defined as someone who provides physical and emotional care, has continuity and consistency in the child’s life, and an emotional investment in the child’s life (Howes et. al., 1999). This can include parents (biological, foster, adopted), grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and alternate caregivers (e.g. child-care workers).

Given that children are able to form multiple attachments, the question has been asked as to which attachment relationship is most influential on children’s developmental outcomes. The literature provides considerable support for an integrative model of attachment: that is, children’s social–emotional development is best predicted by their network of attachment figures rather than by a single attachment relationship per se. (Howes, 1999).

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment Theory is the term used when referring to knowledge about attachment. Attachment Theory has developed across more than half a century in association with observations made of children interacting with their caregivers and associated scientific endeavour. Attachment Theory represents an integration of observation and scientific endeavour, and reflections about this.

During the 1930s and 1940s, psychoanalyticallyoriented clinicians in the United States and Europe were making observations of the illeffects on personality development of prolonged institutional care and frequent changes of mother-figure during infancy and early childhood. Among them was John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who, prior to receiving his medical training, studied developmental psychology (Bretherton, 1985).

At this time the most popular thinking among psychoanalyticallyoriented clinicians was that infants’ goal-directed behaviour was governed by two kinds of drive: primary and secondary. The alleviation of hunger and thirst was thought of as a primary drive and, therefore, as one of the main determining factors in the infants’ goal-directed behaviour. As such, infants were considered to form a close bond to their mother because she feeds them. Relational aspects of the infant-mother interaction (referred to as ‘dependency’) were considered to be secondary drives and, therefore, of secondary importance in the infant-mother bond.

Bowlby believed that this did not fit with his observations of institutionalised children. For if it were true, infants of one or two years of age would take readily to whomever fed them – that simply being fed would be sufficient for the development of a close bond between infants and their primary caregiver – and this was not what was being observed. It was also inconsistent with emerging scientific evidence from animal studies, including the work of Harry Harlow (1958).

Harlow separated infant rhesus monkeys from their mothers within 6–12 hours of birth and raised them with the aid of two forms of ‘mother surrogate’. One was shaped out of wire, whereas the second was shaped from wood and wrapped in towelling to make it soft. Both were warmed by an electric light globe positioned behind the mother surrogate. The main difference was softness. Infant rhesus monkeys were raised with the aid of the two mother surrogates in different combinations. In one combination, infant rhesus monkeys had access to both forms of mother surrogate, but only the wire mother surrogate fed it via an artificial teat from which it could nurse. In another combination, infant rhesus monkeys had access to both mother surrogates but were fed by the cloth-covered mother surrogate only. In both combinations, infant rhesus monkeys demonstrated a clear preference for the soft, cloth-covered mother surrogate, regardless of whether it fed them, spending up to 18 hours per day clinging to the soft mother surrogate. Similarly, when exposed to a fear-evoking situation or stimulus, the infant rhesus monkeys that were raised with both forms of mother surrogate would rush to the soft mother surrogate for comfort, regardless of whether it ‘fed’ them or not. In addition, Harlow’s research demonstrated that those infant rhesus monkeys that spent the early weeks of their life without a soft mothersurrogate that they could cling to showed marked disturbance in their emotions and behaviours, which was only ameliorated by the introduction of the soft mothersurrogate. Further, all infant rhesus monkeys displayed an apparent attachment to a heated gauze pad placed in the bottom of their cage and became distressed when it was removed for cleaning. Harlow’s research clearly demonstrated the pre-eminence of that most basic quality of the caregiving relationship, contact comfort, over physical nourishment in the development of the infant-mother bond.

Consistent with such contemporary challenges to the popular thinking among psychoanalyticallyoriented clinicians, Bowlby began to formulate a new theory that recognised the primary influence of relational variables in the development of the infant–mother relationship, and of the relationship itself on the successful adaptation of the young child to life. Relying heavily on naturalistic observation, but also drawing on the results of scientific research, Bowlby developed what we now know as ‘Attachment Theory’.

Among his associates at the Tavistock Clinic in London in the early 1950s was Mary Ainsworth. Her prior interest was in ‘security theory’, which proposed that infants and young children need to develop a secure dependence on their parents before launching into unfamiliar situations. Through observational studies of mothers and their infants in Uganda and the United States, and her later studies using an experiment called ‘the strange situation’ (which is discussed later in the chapter), Ainsworth made a significant contribution to the classification of different types of attachment, and the identification of the pivotal contribution of the mother’s sensitivity to her infant in the development of attachment patterns (Ainsworth et al., 1978) .

Source: Pearce, C. (2016). A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder – Second Edition. London: Jessica Kingsley

For more information about attachment, including about the attachment patterns identified by Ainsworth and others via the Strange Situation protocol, how parental care influences the attachment patterns and how attachment influences outcomes for children, continue reading via A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition), details of which can be accessed via the link or by clicking on the image below.

Colby Pearce - Attachment


Bretherton, I. (1985). Attachment Theory: Retrospect and Prospect. In I. Bretherton and E. Waters (eds), Growing points of attachment theory and research. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50 (1-2), 3-35.

Harlow, H.F. (1958), The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Ainsworth, M, Blehar, M, Waters, E. and Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum and Associates

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss – Volume I: Attachment. New York: Basic Books

Howes, Hamilton and Althusen (in press), cited by Howes, C. (1999). Attachment Relationships in the Context of       Multiple Caregivers. In J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver (eds). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications (pp.671-687). New York: The Guilford Press.

Howes, C. (1999). Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (eds). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research and clinical applications (pp. 671-687). New York: The Guilford Press.

About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
This entry was posted in Attachment, Parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.