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on January 4, 2007 at 5:13:07 pm

The development and variety of attachments


Socialisation is the process whereby the young infant learns what is expected of him/her in order to be accepted as a member of society. Through socialisation we learn the norms of behaviour that are associated with social roles.


Socialisation can be thought of as a kind of bond holding all of society together, but before socialisation occurs, the infant first forms attachments to others. According to some psychologists, the quality and timing of these attachments can largely determine later individual development of the child. This is one of the reasons why the study of attachment has been a major focus of research into early social development.


The ethologists suggest that attachment bonds are important, because they ensure the survival of the infant by keeping it close to its caregiver. A similar process of bonding (imprinting) occurs in all higher animals (including humans). Thus, ethologists have suggested that human infants imprint onto their mother resulting in the formation of an attachment bond between the infant and its mother. However, we have to be aware of the problems of generalising the findings of animal studies to humans (anthropomorphism). From a different viewpoint, Sigmund Freud suggested that close emotional relationships with our parents were essential for the normal development of the personality — especially the superego (conscience).


In the 1940s John Bowlby, influenced by the theories of both Freud and the ethologists, suggested that sometimes bonding could fail between children and their mothers, and that such maternal deprivation could have serious consequences for the child.


Stages in the formation of attachments


Attachments are an important sub-variety of affectional bonds. They are the emotional bonds that children form with their caregivers during the first year of life. Following on from the work of John Bowlby, Ainsworth described it as ‘a relatively long-enduring tie in which the partner is important as a unique individual and is interchangeable with none other. It is an affectional bond where there is a desire to maintain closeness to the partner’. (1989, p.711.) When attached, an infant feels (or expects to feel) a special sense of security and comfort in the presence of the other person and uses the other as a ‘safe base’ to explore the world.

Attachments are internal states and so cannot be directly observed. Instead we must infer attachments by observing the infant’s behaviours. Thus if a baby is attached then it should show behaviours to maintain proximity, such as smiling, making eye contact, crying, clinging, calling out and so on.


The infant’s attachments to parents emerges gradually. Bowlby suggested three phases:

  • Non-focused orientation and signalling. Humans are born with a set of innate behaviour patterns designed to shape and control the behaviour of carers, the most important of these ‘proximity promoting’ behaviours are sucking, cuddling, looking smiling and crying (see Box 3.4). At the start these behaviours are emitted rather than being directed at one person in particular.
  • Focus on one or more figures. At about 3 months the proximity promoting behaviours are beginning to be directed at those people who regularly take care of the infant and not at strangers. However the baby is still not attached as there is no fear of strangers
  • Secure base behaviour. At around 6-7 months the baby can move about the world and this coincides with the formation of a true attachment. Behaviours change from ‘proximity promoting’ to ‘proximity seeking’ (Ainsworth).


By the time that a clear attachment has been formed a number of related behaviours occur, principally stranger anxiety (or fear-of-strangers) and separation anxiety. The former is usually triggered when a stranger tries to make contact with the baby. Male strangers cause the most anxiety while child strangers elicit the least. Separation anxiety first appears at around six months and reaches a peak at around 15 months. Separation anxiety can be reduced if the child is in familiar surroundings (such as a day care centre) or left with a brother or sister or other familiar person.

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