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Theories describing the nature of interactions between infants and caregivers are often attributed to British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990). Bowlby was interested in how the quality of these early interactions impacts the emotional well-being of children and their subsequent ability to form stable and fulfilling relationships. Research has shown that children who do not form secure attachments in early childhood are at greater risk of developing negative behaviours in later childhood, adolescence, or during their adult years.

How to recognise secure attachment

Infants who demonstrate secure attachment patterns typically become upset when separated from their caregivers and show delight when they return. When frightened or distressed, they readily turn to their caregivers for reassurance and comfort.

As they mature, children who are securely attached are generally more likely to show resilience, positivity towards others, and success at school. Their high level of self-esteem means they can trust and respect not only themselves, but also other people. For example, they feel secure enough to see a different perspective, and they do not feel immediately defensive when others take a different point of view to their own.

How to foster secure attachment

Infants typically pass through four significant stages of attachment. By recognising these stages, we can help children ease through any particular phases of emotional distress and enable secure attachment patterns and behaviours. Caregivers who respond reliably and appropriately to an infant’s early needs help nurture a sense of trust and security and provide a reliable base from which the child can explore the world.

  1. Pre-attachment is the period from birth to 6 weeks when the baby does not show preference for any specific caregivers. At this stage, reliable responses to infants’ physical needs such as hunger and tiredness help alleviate their distress. Furthermore, providing food and comfort for the infant at the right times helps mitigate the stress induced by prolonged loud crying. As a consequence, the welcome moments of calm that are achieved when soothing a crying baby initiate the bonding process by encouraging the caregiver to remain close by, where he or she can quickly and smoothly fulfil the baby’s needs.
  2. Indiscriminate is the timespan from 6 weeks to 7 months. Through the sense of smell and emerging skills such as recognition of faces and voices, babies begins to bond with those who have become more familiar to them, and they begin to show signs of preference. For example, the baby may smile readily at mum but as yet, there are no smiles for grandma. It is during this phase that infants begin developing trust in their primary caregivers, for example, by being more easily soothed when held by dad than by granddad.
  3. Discriminate is the phase of development from about 7 months, when the infant begins to display a strong preference for, and attachment towards one particular caregiver, for example, mum. At this stage, the infant may experience separation anxiety (e.g. becoming highly distressed when mum leaves the room) and/or stranger anxiety (e.g. clinging to mum when someone unfamiliar to the baby is welcomed into the family home).
  4. Multiple is the stage from about 10-12 months when the child begins to develop closer bonds with other caregivers, such as grandparents. Furthermore, rapidly improving cognitive abilities and language skills support memory development and comprehension. The enhancement of these important skills brings fresh awareness and growing confidence to the child who can henceforth be encouraged to enjoy social encounters with new people and within new locations and situations.