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Attachment in Infants

Attachment Theory is an evolutionary perspective proposing that animals developed the Attachment system in order that they might seek support from primary caregivers (primarily the mother) when they feel under threat.(1)  The system developed in order that animals might form a bond with their primary caregiver and thereby obtain the support necessary for protection, nurture and growth, particularly during the earliest stages of development. 

Secure Attachment. 

If, when an infant makes efforts to receive comfort and support from the primary caregiver, the parent is responsive and provides adequate and interactive support with the infant, the infant’s attachment system has operated successfully and she (the infant) will gain a strong sense that her efforts to receive such support will, in future, continue to be adequately satisfied.  She therefore feels confident and comfortable about approaching her primary caregiver (usually her mother) whenever she requires emotional or physical support.  This is understood to mean that she securely attaches. 

Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth developed a test known as the Strange Situation test, which has now become a standard test for investigating the way in which infants respond to a mildly stressful situation.  Responses are grouped into one of four categories and from these responses, the child’s attachment ‘type’ is inferred.  The test is administered to infants aged between 12 and 24 months. 

During the test, the infant is brought into a room with her mother and the infant is allowed to explore the room.  Then a stranger enters the room and talks to the mother for a minute, then the mother leaves the infant with the stranger for three minutes.  The mother then returns and the stranger leaves.  The mother now remains with the infant for three minutes.  There then follows some further similar episodes involving the mother and the stranger.  The whole test lasts around twenty minutes. 

Special attention is paid to how the infant responds to the mother on her return.  The infants' responses are coded in the following manner. 

Type A.  These infants avoid the mother on her return, or mix their welcoming of her with signals of avoidance, for example turning away from her or moving past her or averting gaze.  The infant does not become distressed when the mother leaves the room. 

Type B.  These infants are marked by their active seeking of proximity, contact or interaction with the mother. 

Type C.  These babies attempt make contact with the mother on her return to the room, but the infants' attempts are interspersed with resisting behaviour.  The infant therefore mixes avoidance with seeking contact.  These infants are seen as being resistant or ambivalent in their responses to the mother’s return. 

Type D.  This category was developed by M. Meins and colleagues at a later date.  These infants show no clear pattern in response to separation and reunion with the mother; rather they show inconsistent and often bizarre behavioural responses. 

Type B infants are termed ‘secure’, whilst the other types are ‘insecure’.  Type A is usually referred to as ‘avoidant’, Type C ‘resistant’ and Type D ‘Disorganised’. 

Much evidence has shown categories assigned in the Strange Situation test predict aspects of later development.  Secure attachment at 12 months has been found to predict, for example, curiosity and problem solving ability at age 2, social confidence at age 3, empathy and independence at age 5 and lack of behavioural problems in boys at age 6. 

Two variables have been found to predict, to some extent, an infant's attachment type.  Meins and colleagues term the first variable ‘mind-mindedness’.  This refers to how much a mother is able to infer and respond to her child’s specific needs and is able to perceive her child’s internal state of mind as opposed to just observing and responding to the infants basic behaviour in a less insightful manner.  The extreme of low ‘mind-mindedness’ might involve a mother treating her child as a creature needing to be satisfied rather than participating in more meaningful interaction.  M. True and colleagues also found that mothers who were highly fearful and mothers who demonstrated frightening behaviour towards their children had an impact on their infant’s attachment style. 

Can attachement styles alter over time?

Vaughn and Colleagues studied a sample of children who were living in stressful situations at 12 months old and then again at 18 months old in the United States.  There was a good degree of concordance of attachment style in children at both ages.  However, the majority of children who altered from ‘secure’ to ‘insecure’ in attachment style had mothers who undergone some notable difficult changes, for example there had been a loss of partner or difficult financial circumstances.  The mothers of most who moved from ‘insecure’ to ‘secure’ reported having experienced some more positive life circumstances during the period being studied. 

Main and Colleagues developed the Adult Attachment Interview to measure attachment in Adults.  A number of long-term studies, spanning a period of around 20 years, have investigated whether or not there is continuity between infant attachment style and Adult Attachment style.  Results are mixed, but some studies appear to show strong continuity.  Where there has been discontinuity, some studies have shown that there has been a relationship between discontinuity and negative life events such as parental divorce. 

Does a parent’s attachment type affect the nature of her/his children’s attachment type?

There appears to be considerable linkage between parental attachment type and their children’s attachment type.  However there also appears to be good evidence to show that attachment type can be different from parental attachment type and that it can change over time.  Of particular interest is a study undertaken by Fonagy and colleagues, who developed a scale to measure what he called ‘reflective self-functioning’.  This measured parents' abilities to reflect on conscious and unconscious psychological states, and to recognise conflicting beliefs and desires.  In his study of 100 mothers, 27 mothers were highlighted as having received notably deprived or disrupted parenting experiences in their own childhood.  Of these highlighted parents, 17 had low reflective self-functioning scores and ten had higher scores.  Of the 17 parents who had low scores, 16 of their children insecurely attached and of the 10 who had high reflective self-functioning scores, all their children securely attached.  This once again demonstrates the importance of parents having a good understanding and recognition of underlying emotions.(2)

1.  Since Attachment theory was first proposed by John Bowlby evidence has suggested that infants form important attachements with both father and mother and sometimes other parent figures.   

2.  Information found in this article has been drawn from Smith, P., K., and Cowie, H., and Blades, M., (2005).  Understanding Children's Development, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 92-2005.