Attachment is the deep bond which develops between a child and their primary caregiver in the first few years of life. Secure attachments have positive outcomes for infants and children throughout their lives.

Key points to remember about attachment

  • all infants will form attachments when cared for
  • the type of attachment formed will largely depend on the quality of that care
  • secure attachments have positive outcomes for infants and children throughout their lives

What is attachment?

Attachment refers to a particular aspect of a child's relationship with their parents and other carers in their life.

It is the child's instinct to seek closeness to specific people who will comfort, protect and/or help organise their feelings. Infants usually have an attachment relationship with a number of people who have provided care including mothers, fathers, grandparents, foster parents and early childhood carers.

Infants are born ready to build an attachment to their parents; they are hardwired for relationship.

It is the most researched approach to looking at child-parent relationships.

How does the attachment system function?

The attachment system functions to ensure an infant/child's protection and survival. When the system is activated, seeking closeness, comfort or protection from mum or dad is the goal. The attachment system can be activated for a 12-18 month old, for example:

  • by anxiety about seeing or briefly being left with a stranger
  • by being left alone for a short period of time

Your 12-18 month old will let you know they need you to help them feel safe and calm by signalling they're upset (by crying, looking worried, calling for you) and coming to you.

Everyone's attachment system can be activated throughout our lives, for example:

  • first days at new schools
  • experiences of separation and loss

How many attachment figures do infants usually have?

Infants usually have around 4 to 6 attachment figures depending on their experiences of being cared for. They may, however, have more adults who feel bonded to them. Each attachment relationship reflects the quality of care they have received over preceding months.

Are there different patterns of attachment?

Yes there are and depending on how an infant is cared for by a specific person, they may develop one of the following patterns: either secure, insecure organised or insecure disorganised.

The attachment relationship may change over time; towards security or insecurity if the quality of care from a parent changes in a major way.

A secure attachment relationship:

  • promotes the most favourable social and emotional development for a child
  • provides the child exposed to adversity with greater resilience or resistance to the full effects of difficult experiences

How does a secure attachment relationship between a child and parent develop?

It is the early care of an infant especially around supporting the infant when emotionally unsettled (dysregulated) that lays the foundation for a child's attachment relationship with that parent. Usually, you can see signs of the infant's attachment pattern with a parent towards the end of the first year.

Warm, predictable, sensitive care when an infant or child is emotionally unsettled, anxious, or fearful, is important for supporting the development of a secure attachment relationship for that infant with that parent. Watch the Circle of Security video below (click on the image) and see the links to the Circle of Security website at the bottom of this page for more information.

Still image of video

In the early months, understanding and responding to a baby's cues lays the foundation for the baby developing a sense that they are loved and lovable. Care that frightens the child, is hostile, is very insensitive or interferes with a child's own initiatives does not support secure attachment.

It can be very hard for parents, even with the best of intentions, to care responsively with warmth, consistency and predictability, if not cared for like this as a child themselves. It is also difficult when a parent has an addiction problem, is severely stressed and/or very ill especially with a serious mental health problem. Contact the Infant Mental Health Association Aotearoa New Zealand to request information about supports and services available in your area.

This page last reviewed 02 July 2015.
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