What is attachment?
The type of attachment your baby forms is one of the most important developmental milestones in the first year and lays the foundation for all of his or her future relationships. But like with many parenting topics, attachment is greatly misunderstood and it can be difficult to find the facts online.
As an introduction to attachment, we wanted to share with you the knowledge of clinical and developmental psychologist Dr Solomon, who has dedicated her life to understanding why babies grow into the adults that they do. This discussion is the first part of our Wise Parenting Academy, and is available in audio format for those who would prefer to listen on-the-go.
Recently, mothers have been talking about attachment within the framework of co-sleeping, breast-feeding and baby wearing. So Dr Solomon, could you please begin by explaining what attachment is?
The first important thing that I’ll say about attachment is that it is essential for the baby to become attached. The type of attachment the baby develops will become the template or the model for all his future relationships. That’s right – all future relationships relate back to the type of attachment a baby develops.
The second important thing is that attachment is a feeling. The behaviours that you mentioned like co-sleeping and baby wearing are not attachment. They can contribute to attachment but they are not, by definition, attachment. And the third important thing I’ll say about attachment is that it is established in a baby’s first year.
So a full definition of attachment is that it is the essential emotional link that the baby establishes during his first year of life. He establishes this emotional link with the people who take care of him.
There is a misconception about attachment that it is one feeling between the baby and mother or caregiver. You, as a mother, for example, may feel very attached to your baby and say ‘we are very attached to each other’ or even, ‘he’s very attached to me’, because you feel very attached to your baby. What many people don’t realize is that the baby has his own feelings. Just because a mother feels a certain way about her baby, it doesn’t guarantee that her baby feels the same way about her. The point that I’m trying to make here is that just loving your baby is not enough. The way your love is expressed through your behaviour is what counts. And we’ll get into this a little later on.
To help explain what attachment is and why it happens so early on in life, I’ll put it in the context of human evolution. As a species, we humans are primed, hard-wired to become attached. So, why is this?
Well, different from other animals, human babies cannot take care of themselves until they are much older. They need others to take care of them. So, from birth they will emit behaviours designed to get others to take care of them. And when others take care of them, babies become attached to these people – babies become attached to the people who help take care of them because they cannot do it on their own.
What behaviours do human babies show to get people to take care of them?
Well, when they are very young, the behaviours are mainly crying, cuddling in, and at about six weeks showing pleasure by smiling, and a little later by laughing.
Short of being born into an extremely bad environment, every baby will become attached in one way or another to one person or to a handful of people who take care of him regularly.
This brings up an important aspect of attachment which I haven’t addressed yet and it is that a baby can become attached to more people than just his mother. It can be his father, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, a babysitter, a nanny etc. The baby can become attached to any person who has the characteristics that will permit it.
To help illustrate this, imagine your baby is a satellite dish sending out ‘help me’ signals throughout the day, day after day. The person or people who consistently respond to his signals will affect how he will become attached. This person or people will show him whether or not they will protect him, whether or not he can count on them, whether or not they provide all the needs that he cannot fill by himself.
Now, I’ve explained the basic definition of attachment, why your baby becomes attached and to whom he becomes attached.Attachment is a huge topic with many important factors and we can’t go over all of them in this article, but there is another factor that I have to tell you about right away so that you don’t misinterpret what I just explained. Yes, your baby can become attached to several people, but there’s actually a limit. This limit is about 5 people. So, what does this mean? When your baby sends out a ‘help me’ signal and one of these 5 people answers, he is able to recognize that this is one of the people he can count on. Even at such an early age, he can actually tell people apart from each other. In his first year, he can only do this with about 5 people. If there are more than about 5 people who take care of him, he simply cannot develop the necessary attachment feelings for all of those looking after him. As a result, it is difficult for him to become attached. As you’ll read shortly, becoming attached, and securely attached is the key to optimal development.
Some parents get a lot of help from family in taking care of their baby, involving grandparents, sisters, maybe even a babysitter. Isn’t that a lot of caregivers?
There’s a difference between primary caregiver and a person who is frequently present. A primary caregiver goes to the baby when he wakes up, goes to the baby when he cries, feeds him, plays with him, changes his diaper, bathes him and holds him. A primary caregiver is someone who does all of these things and does so consistently. And, to bring in my earlier point, if there are less than about 5 primary caregivers, the baby will quickly be able to start distinguishing between the handful of people who care for him in this way and will be able to set these people apart from other people. In the case of your friends, it’s probable that not every grandparent is taking on the role of a primary caregiver to the baby – they may be present a lot of the time, but wouldn’t be considered a primary caregiver. Although there are exceptions, we often see a grandmother taking on the role of a primary caregiver while the grandfather may be present in the house the entire time but does not take on the duties, and therefore does not have the role of a primary caregiver.
Earlier you said that short of being born into an extremely bad environment, every baby will become attached in one way or another to one person or to a handful of people who take care of him regularly. What did you mean by ‘one way or another’?
I said that because babies become attached to the person or handful of people who take care of him regularly in different ways. The emotional link that the baby forms can be a good link or a bad one. When it is a good link it is called secure attachment. When it is a bad link it is called insecure attachment. There is only one form of secure attachment, but there are several forms of insecure attachment.
Let’s start with secure attachment. When a baby is securely attached positive feelings of being cared for, safety and trust dominate in him. These feelings permit him to feel that he can explore and learn safely. He feels that someone is there who will protect him, whom he can count on to provide all the needs that he cannot fill by himself. Secure attachment lays the groundwork for a positive lifelong outcome. Whether you know about the term secure attachment in depth or not, I think it is what we all strive for in our baby. Secure attachment is the equivalent of building your house on a foundation that is strong and solid versus building your house on a foundation that is prone to cracks and leakage.
Now, moving on to insecure attachment. There are various forms of insecure attachment, but a baby that is insecurely attached in any form will feel unsure about being cared for, unsure about being safe and will trust his caregivers less. He feels less protected and less that someone is out there that he can count on to provide all he needs that he cannot fill by himself. Insecure attachment also lays the foundation for a lifelong outcome, but a less positive one, even a bad one.
Is it actually possible for a baby to establish attachment in its first year? Why isn’t this general knowledge?
Not everybody knows about this because the scientific study of human development is very recent. We have been around for thousands of years and it took a lot of time for scientific knowledge in many areas to develop. Just think how long it took us to learn that the earth is round, not flat, and that microbes cause illnesses, not bathing too often or evil spirits.
Ok, so back to the definition of attachment where you explained that it is a feeling. If it is an emotion that is felt by the baby, and we can’t see it, how do we know what kind of attachment a baby has?
Right. We can’t see it in the way we can measure head circumference or weight of a baby. But we can measure it. At 12 months (often earlier) when the baby is in a place that is new to him or when people he doesn’t know approach him, he shows us what his type of attachment is. It’s important to remember that we can only see the attachment behaviours becoming visible in these situations: in a new place, with new people, or even in a familiar place with a new object or person. The context is key when looking to see the type of attachment the child has. It’s not easy to see the behaviours that point to secure or insecure attachment when the baby is at home with familiar people.
If you have a baby who is 12 months or younger, by the end of this audio recording, you will probably look at your baby’s behaviour a little differently, and this is normal, it’s a good thing. Your knowing more about what motivates your baby’s behaviour is a key factor to understanding him. So, in the next few weeks, watch your baby when a stranger enters your home, or when you walk into a new environment (particularly if he’s crawling or walking at this point) – like a new mom and baby class, or a friend’s house. If you know what you’re looking for – and you will by the end of this article – it is often fairly easy to read and understand your baby’s behaviour.
Which behaviours show us the baby’s type of attachment?
Before I describe these behaviours, let me bring you into an adult world for a minute. As adults when we are faced with a new or difficult situation and feel insecure, whether we realize it or not at the time, we rely on our memories of how we successfully faced challenging situations before in order to feel more secure and face the present situation. Think of a job interview or giving a talk to a room full of people. Our experiences of previous successes give us confidence in the new situation.
Babies are hard wired to explore and learn how the world works in order to function in it. This goes back to our evolution where babies aren’t born fully able to explore and interact with their world, it’s something that happens slowly over time. Ideally, a baby begins and continues to explore with confidence. A baby’s confidence comes from an outside source. This outside source, also known in the literature as a secure base, is the person he is attached to. For example, when a baby feels unsure when he has never seen a particular toy, room or person before, he relies on the person he is attached to in order to feel safe enough to explore with confidence. And, whenever he begins to feel unsure again, he knows he can return to this person, in the same way that adults go back to their memories and previous experiences to help them through a difficult situation.
Now, back to your question of how a baby shows his type of attachment. First of all, I briefly mentioned this earlier, the baby’s behaviours become visible only in a particular context. The context is a situation that is strange to him – as I mentioned, a new room, a new person a new toy etc.
How does a securely attached baby behave in a strange situation?
At 12 months, a baby who is securely attached to his mother uses her as a secure base when he is unsure in a new situation. This could be a friend’s house, a restaurant, a gym, a park, in fact any place that he is not familiar with or a place that he is familiar with, but is faced with a new person or even a new toy. The baby uses his mother as a base that he can leave in order to explore and learn and return to if he becomes afraid or upset. As he explores spaces or manipulates objects or lets strangers approach him or take him in their arms, he glances at his mother frequently, brings objects to her or signals her to come over to him. If the baby has moved a bit further from his mother, he goes back to check on her and then goes off to explore again. When his mother picks him up after he signals that he wants to be picked up, he shows that he is pleased. He shows a desire to be with his mother. For instance he cuddles in to her, he nuzzles in to her and/or he smiles at her, laughs with her. He is easily consoled, comforted and reassured by his mother when he is stressed for any reason, especially after he has been separated from her. He quickly stops crying if he has been crying. He clearly shows that he prefers his mother to new people. He clearly feels safe with her. And, to give you an idea about our society as a whole, about 66% of babies in Canada and the United States are securely attached.
What about an insecurely attached baby? How does he behave in a strange situation?
In contrast a baby whose attachment is insecure, no matter the type of his insecure attachment, is not easily consoled and reassured by his mother when upset.
I just explained what a securely attached baby looks like and in contrast to an insecurely attached baby, a securely attached baby will most often stop crying almost immediately when his mother consoles him. As soon as he gains control of his crying, he really just stops. And this is what we don’t see with an insecurely attached baby.
He doesn’t show a clear desire to be with his mother. Now, what I mean by this is that as opposed to acting like being held by his mother is what he REALLY needs (a securely attached baby shows that he really wants his mother to pick him up he moulds to her body and his sobs turn more into sighs of relief as he is able to stop crying), you won’t see this behaviour with an insecurely attached baby.
So in conclusion, an insecurely attached baby does not clearly show that he completely trusts his mother unconditionally. He doesn’t show that he feels really safe with her. He also doesn’t use her as a secure base from which he can leave to explore and return to, to pick up some courage and leave again.
What are the different types of attachment, and how do they differ?
Yes, there are three types of insecure attachment:
- Disoriented (or disorganized).
In a new situation, an insecure 12 month old baby whom the scientific literature has named ‘avoidant’ does not clearly show that he prefers his mother to another person, even a stranger. If the baby has been separated from his mother and is upset about it or has been approached by a stranger and is upset about it, he nonetheless may in fact ignore or avoid physical contact with her. This type of insecurely attached baby does not use his mother as a secure base from which to explore. And, he doesn’t use his mother as a sharing loving partner to bring things to or as a source of comfort when he is upset. He shows little interest in his mother when she tries to comfort him. He does explore. When he explores he therefore may look “independent.” In fact, even some early researchers, when studying attachment, thought that these babies might be showing independence not an avoidance form of insecure attachment, but as later physiological measures showed, rather, that when these babies look independent in new and stressful situations, they have elevated heart and pulse rates. In other words, although they may look independent, they are actually feeling stressed. It is as if by the baby’s behaviour, he is saying “I can’t rely on you, I have to try to manage on my own”. Don’t forget that this is happening to a baby who is only 12 months old. It’s hard to believe that a baby this young can process his surroundings and how he fits into them at this level. This summarizes one type of insecure attachment, an avoidant baby.
The next type of insecure attachment that I will describe is called anxious resistant or ambivalent attachment. An insecurely attached baby whom the scientific literature calls “anxious resistant” or “ambivalent” hardly explores in a new situation. He stays near his mother but he appears to be anxious in spite of his close proximity to her. Most babies get upset when separated from their mother in a new situation and this type of insecurely attached baby will as well, but when his mother returns to him and tries to comfort him, he resists his mother’s attempts at comfort and acts angry. He struggles against his mother even to the extent of kicking her as his mother picks him up. This is why these babies have been named ambivalent. It’s almost as if by their behaviour they’re saying “I need you but I never know how you’re going to react, so I’m angry with you”. And, now that sums up a second type of insecure attachment, an anxious resistant or ambivalent baby.
The next category of insecurely attached babies that I will describe is called ‘disorganized’ or ‘disoriented‘ in the scientific literature. These babies act dazed or confused when in a new situation. For instance, after being separated from his mother in a new situation, the baby may move toward his mother when she returns, as if seeking reassurance or comfort, but as doing so he may not look directly at his mother. He may also keep on crawling or walking right past his mother or even “freezing” when his mother returns to him. His behaviour is very odd.
And that sums up the third type of insecure attachment, the disoriented or disorganized baby. So again, there are three types of insecure attachment: avoidant, ambivalent and disoriented.
Can the type of a baby’s attachment really lay the foundations for his future? Do people actually act the way that they do today based on the type of attachment they developed in their first year?
Right, the type of attachment a baby has does in fact set the foundation for his future. It is a major contributing factor, but there are of course other things that happen in life that also affect how adults you know today act. Other factors include temperament, their cultural background, economic situation, political situation, the influence of teachers and friends, and many others.
But still, the way that an adult will interact with family, with friends, with co-workers, by and large all comes down to what happened in the first year. And, I must underline that there is a possibility that a child’s attachment type can change. It can change from insecurely attached to securely attached although it can also change from securely attached to insecurely attached – this is another topic in itself, but I want to be clear that there are particular circumstances that can bring about this type of change. Just because your baby is securely attached at 12 months, doesn’t mean ‘all right, they’re good for life now’.
So, whether a baby is securely or insecurely attached, it is his type of attachment that will mould his future relationships. Again, this may seem unbelievable and some people still talk about attachment as a debatable concept, but it simply isn’t, not anymore, not after all the research that has been conducted on this topic in particular. There are literally thousands of scientific articles on attachment all coming to the same conclusions.
How does a baby’s form of attachment become the model that he will base all his future relationships on?
There are a great many differences between the babies who have different styles of attachment as they grow older. As I’ve said a few times, the type of attachment lays the foundation for all future emotional relationships in a baby’s life. By 12 months, he has internalized that this is how relationships between people work. Depending on the type of attachment at this age he feels that people will help others or they won’t, people will care for him on an emotional and physical level or they won’t, people will like to be with him or they won’t. And then he attributes his feelings to other people. Essentially, he grows up with expectations of either affection or rejection. And in turn, these expectations will affect his behaviour, his memory and his attention. What I mean by affecting his memory and attention is that he will notice and remember experiences that fit his model and will miss or forget experiences that don’t match it. With every new relationship, he tends to recreate the model that he is familiar with. Before the age of 5, he can have different forms of attachment to different people. For example, he can be securely attached to his father and insecurely attached to his mother, but after age 4 or 5, he attributes his dominant form of attachment to everyone around him.
So what would a child who is securely attached look like as he grows up?
Secure attachment is one of the crucial elements that leads to becoming a competent adult. Back to the baby, secure attachment leads to independence in the sense that the more secure the attachment the more independent the child becomes as he grows up. Because he is securely attached, he is confident enough to be open to new experiences and he tries to solve the problems he encounters by himself (age-related of course). This means he can more easily develop good relationships with other people, such as day care or nursery school personnel and other children, relatives and baby sitters. He is more popular with other children than an insecurely attached child is because he is usually easy to get along with. He is more intellectually curious. He is strong enough to ask when he doesn’t know and he perseveres. He is competent for his age. Securely attached children are more self-confident, empathetic and less aggressive than insecurely attached children.
At elementary school age and at adolescence, securely attached children are more likely to reach their intellectual potential, and are able to form good and stable friendships. They are more socially competent in general. They are less likely to be led astray or to put themselves in dangerous situations.
As adults the quality of their emotional relationships is better. And, they are more likely able to be the kind of parent who can raise securely attached children.
So what would a child who is insecurely attached look like as he grows up?
Insecure attachment is one of the crucial elements in the development of long-term problems as they get older. Insecure children are often both more inhibited and more aggressive. They have more negative emotions such as sadness or discouragement. After age five they have more problems getting along well with other children and they are more dependent in elementary school. That is, they do not often initiate projects or activities, they need to be told what to do. They also have difficulty working independently.
Disorganized (or disoriented) children – they were the babies that showed very odd behaviour when reuniting with their mother in a strange situation – are more likely than other children to have behaviour problems at school and psychiatric problems towards the end of adolescence. Now, keep in mind I’m not saying there’s a definite cause between a disorganized child and a psychiatric problem, what I’m saying is that research has shown there to be a link.
Is there another category of babies who are not attached at all? Is this even possible?
Yes, it is possible for a baby not to form an emotional link with another human but although it’s possible, it is quite rare. It happens usually in situations where the baby is looked after by many people, not by one special person, such as happens in poorly run orphanages or poorly run day cares. Sometimes it happens in a home with highly negligent parents and/or abusive parents. It is a very serious condition. As I’ve explained a few times now, the type of attachment that a baby develops will become the model for all future relationships. So, if a baby has not become attached to anyone, it means that the baby cannot develop loving feelings for others, not as a baby, not as a child and not as an adult. And, these babies are more likely than other babies to grow up to be dangerous to others.
What causes a baby to develop one type of attachment over another?
This is a great question, and it has a crucial answer. It has to do you with you, the parents, and your behaviour and interaction with your baby. The key factor in a baby developing one type of attachment over another is more than the parents’ love. It’s different from buying mostly organic food, it’s different from taking extra care to child proof a house, it’s different from interviewing 20 babysitters before selecting one, it’s different from buying the newest, safest, top of the line baby products, and it’s different from going to mom and baby classes, reading and playing with a baby. I know that all of these factors, and many many more, are important and pull at parents and take up their time and energy, but they are not what helps your baby develop a secure attachment to you.
So if those are not the decided factors to secure attachment, what is?
The key factor in developing secure attachment is emotional availability. Being emotionally available means that the mother understands her baby and wants to respond to his needs even more often than to her own needs. And, she responds in a short enough time for the baby to make the link between his demands and her responses. It is her dominant attitude. A mother being emotionally available and her rapid response are the main factors to her baby becoming securely attached. I’m saying that the mother or primary caregivers must be emotionally available, but I also want to say and stress that being emotionally available is extremely difficult. There’s no job in the world as demanding, tiring, and important as being emotionally available to a baby. In addition, every job in the world requires training from janitorial work to a nuclear physicist – yet you get no training for probably the most important job of all, how to parent a child for optimal development. And there are several influences on you that may help or hinder your ability to be emotionally available.
There’s no doubt the world has changed. Parenting was always difficult, but today we know far more about the consequences of parenting than we did in the past and so parenting is even more difficult. We know more about child development today and our Western societies are advancing so quickly that there will be demands made on our children that were not made on previous generations, not even on ourselves. On top of all of this, there are great societal pressures to ‘do the right thing’ – and this is what I meant earlier when I said that developing one type of attachment over another is different from the activities you enrol your baby in, and different from the time and energy you spend on creating a great environment for your baby. So again, being emotionally available is the key to secure attachment, and unfortunately, it’s something we don’t hear all that much about online or, in the media.
A mother who is not emotionally available to her baby will have a baby who is insecurely attached. And, there are mothers who are sometimes emotionally available and sometimes not. The babies of these mothers will also be insecurely attached.
My intention in explaining the consequences of insecure attachment is not to make anyone feel guilty or to blame anyone. Actually, it’s my responsibility to not withhold important information from you, even if it’s unpleasant. What we want is for you to understand the importance of secure attachment, and the reasons for insecure attachment. And, research has shown that knowing more about the link between emotional availability and secure attachment actually helps boost emotional availability.
If a mother has a child who is now over a year old and she feels that her child is not securely attached, is it too late to help this mother and her child get on the right track?
No, it’s not too late, but it takes even more time and effort to do so than to do it in the first year. The mother or any other primary caregiver may be able to learn to become more emotionally available. Changing her level of emotional availability may help her child to become securely attached. This takes a lot of time and is difficult to do. There are psychologists who are specifically trained to help parents help their child to become securely attached. I want to be clear that not all health professionals have this training, it is a very niche specialty so parents who are interested in changing their emotional availability must be sure to verify that the health professional has this training.
Turning now to the child, earlier I explained that the first 12 months are the time when he is primed to become attached. Let me now explain the importance of the timing of this first year a little further. After this time, after his first year, he is in a new developmental stage and it is hard for him to form a new type of attachment, so it will take more time and effort to do so than it would have have been in his first year. Keep in mind, after the first year, the child has already formulated how relationships between people work and now he must change this perception. And, it will take time for the child to recognize the changes in his caregiver or caregivers. After all, it took him about a year to formulate his first perceptions of how relationships work and what to expect from his caregiver or caregivers, so it will take quite some time for him to develop a new perception and expectations.
Some parents warn not to spoil a baby in their first year. What would you say about spoiling a baby?
My answer is that all the research on this topic shows that you can’t “spoil” a baby under a year old. In fact, and I hope I’ve been very clear about this, it’s actually the opposite. One of the most important things you should do as a parent of a baby is to give him what he wants. When some people bring up spoiling a child they are often underlining the importance of discipline.
Discipline can only start to be effective toward the middle of the second year – around 18 months – when the child is in the right developmental stage and has sufficient understanding of what the parents are trying to do and what he is supposed to do. Even then, it’s just the beginning of discipline. And by discipline I don’t mean punishment, I mean learning to live in society where you can do some things and you can’t do other things.
So no, you can’t spoil a baby under a year old and yes, discipline is important, and a topic for another day.
Your infant will grow from baby to toddler and toddler to pre-schooler. He will change physically, his understanding will change, the quality of his interactions with adults and children will change (as he prepares to play with others), his emotions will change – and actually what will happen is that he will go from learning to trust (in his first year) to learning to assert himself (in his second and third years), to learning to take initiatives (from ages 3-5). Your baby will grow into the next developmental stage and your parenting should change as a function of the new stage that he is in. As he grows, you will no longer have to respond to his every need as he expresses it, nor should you.
So this now wraps up my explanation of what attachment is and why it is so important. What I’d like to leave you with is, in summary, the first year is extremely important for many reasons and one of the most important reasons is that this is the year in which the baby’s type of attachment is established. As you’ve read, there are several types of attachment and the one to strive for is secure attachment because securely attached babies have the best foundation for growing up to be independent, socially and intellectually competent loving adults.