Attachment: The Foundation of Human Relationships

All infants become attached, but how they do so shapes their lives.

Posted Nov 08, 2018

The foundation of a theory: Hospitalism

In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, orphanages and foundling homes had shockingly high mortality rates.  For example, the Dusseldorf nursery — a well funded, clean and 'scientific' institution — reported a 71.4% mortality rate in 1901. Childhood diseases like measles often resulted in 50% of infants dying. Trying to fight these horrific death rates, institutions increased sanitary procedures, reduced breastfeeding (which was felt to result in germ exposure), separated infants from each other, and minimized physical contact with caregivers. As conditions became more and more germ-free, infant mortality soared.  

Why? Although experts at the time believed that infants were too young to have social needs, it turns out that that the experts were wrong. What was lacking in their lives was just that: love and social contact. Without it, infants' immune systems shut down, they become vulnerable to disease, and normal development did not occur. Language, motor skills, and cognitive development declined.  In the late 1940's, René Spitz and his collaborator Katherine Wolf were documenting differences between infants who were institutionally raised in clean but socially impoverished conditions and those raised in the less optimal conditions of a woman's prison with more social contact — particularly with mothers. Social contact and stimulation clearly won out. Youth raised in contact with their mothers did much better on all outcomes — including mortality and morbidity — than the well fed and clean, but isolated, infants.  

John Bowlby and ethological models of attachment

World War II produced a glut of studies of infants raised in harsh and inhumane conditions. The rise of social psychology, combined with work by ethologists such as Conrad Lorenz, came together in work by John Bowlby,  Ethologists:

  • Focus on species-specific behavior
  • Take an evolutionary perspective, interpreting behavior in the context of survival and reproduction
  • Assume species-specific learning dispositions
  • Attend to behavior rather than internal states
 Sara Clarke, used by permission
Bowlby argues that babies are cute because we have evolved to care for them.
Source: Sara Clarke, used by permission

Bowlby developed a theory of attachment that posited a series of behavioral systems inherent to human beings. From the perspective of infants, three of the most important were the infant attachment and exploration systems and the adult caregiving system. Bowlby argued that adults were pre-disposed to be attracted to and protect creatures that showed 'babyish' features (large heads relative to their body, large eyes relative to face, small nose, round cheeks.).  Babies, in complementary fashion, emitted signals that attracted adults to them so that they were protected, safe, and cared for.  The infants' attachment system kept them close to protective others. When first born, these behaviors include crying, cooing, smiling, and other behaviors that keep them close to adults and encourage adults to meet their needs. When they grow older and more mobile, staying close to adults reduces fear and anxiety.

The Development of Attachment in Infancy

Within attachment theory, the word 'attachment' specifically describes the orientation of the infant to others. Parents may love their children, but they are not 'attached' to them in the way that an attachment theorist uses the word. For the first six weeks of their lives, infants are in a 'pre-attachment' stage, where they indiscriminately accept care from anyone. From six weeks to six months, infants begin to show a preference for familiar caregivers, becoming more wary of strangers and of strange things. Infants of this age are truly charming. They share a flattering preference for parents, but are readily charmed by people less familiar and can often be happily passed to grandparents, uncles, and other cheerful strangers. All of this changes with the onset of stranger anxiety somewhere between six and nine months of age. At this point, infants show a strong and often frantic anxiety around strangers. They are clearly attached to familiar caregivers. How we can tell? Typical behaviors include:

  • Wanting to be close to caregivers
  • Distress when separated
  • Happiness and ability to comforted by caregivers after reunion

Babies at this age can be frantic when left with even familiar caregivers — daycare providers, for instance. They will do all in their power — crying, holding, and crawling — to keep caregivers near. Eventually, perhaps as early as 18 months, babies begin to show more reciprocal relationships with their 'attachment figures'. They may be parted by look to caregivers and feel safe without approaching them. They will often hold up and 'share' something that pleases them with a caregiver.

Attachment keeps us close so we can explore on our own

The attachment behavioral system functions to keep infants close to caregivers. It is activated when babies feel threatened. Just as we most want to be close to loved ones when we are sick or tired or afraid, babies most desperately want to be with their 'attachment figures' when they feel threatened.  

Although staying close to caregivers keeps infants safe, it also prevents them from learning about their new and exciting environment. The exploration and attachment systems work against one another. When the baby feels safe, their attachment system is not activated, so they are free to explore. When they are frightened, they are pulled back to the caregiver, and exploration is muted.

Different types of attachment

Although virtually all infants form attachments, the style of attachment can vary depending upon both the characteristics of the infant, of the caregiver, and of the stressfulness of the environment. The way these different types of attachments work is key to that balance between exploration and safety.

Mary Ainsworth developed the 'Strange Situation' task to assess this balance of exploration and attachment. By creating an experimental setting where infants went through a series of increasing stressful separations and reunions, she could observe how infants explored, how they used their caregivers as 'secure bases' for exploration, and how they were able to take comfort from caregivers when distressed. Using this lab situation, infants showed four different patterns of behavior.  

Nancy Darling
Infant classifications using Ainsworth Strange Situation
Source: Nancy Darling
  • Secure infants are those that can use the caregiver as a safe base for exploration and are able to re-establish that safe base and be comforted after a stressful separation.
  • Insecure Anxious-Avoidant infants seem unable to use mothers as a secure base. They seem fearful when the caregiver is there and have difficulty re-establishing a connection when they return.
  • Insecure Resistant infants also have difficulty using caregivers as a secure base. They actively push the caregiver away or ignore them, seemingly self-sufficient but unable to explore.
  • Disorganized infants appear to have the most difficult time in the Strange Situation. They both want to be near the caregiver and are unable to take comfort from them. Thus they are in a continually unsettled state.  

The consequences of attachment appear to carry on well beyond the first few years of life when it is first established. Securely attached infants continue to be able to explore, showing evidence that they have internalized the felt stability of the attachment figure and keeping the attachment system at bay.  In addition, securely attached infants seem to have an easier time establishing good relations with other babies, children, and adults. In fact, there is evidence that they are also happier in romantic relationships later in life. Other attachment styles show similar persistence over time as well.