John Bowlby’s Research

What is meant by “attachment” and does it matter? Attachment is an emotional bond to another person. Psychologist John Bowlby working in the UK in the 1940s,  believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. According to Bowlby, attachment also serves to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving the child’s chances of survival. The central theme of attachment theory is that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant’s needs establish a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world (as shown in Harlow’s research.)

Although Bowlby did not rule out the possibility of other attachment figures for a child, he did believe that there should be a primary bond which was much more important than any other. Bowlby believed that this attachment is different in kind (qualitatively different) from any subsequent attachments. 

Bowlby claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years and, for most children, if delayed till after 12 months, i.e. there is a critical period. He said that if the attachment is broken or disrupted during the critical two year period the child will suffer irreversible long-term consequences of this maternal deprivation. The risks continue until the child reaches the age of five. Bowlby used the term maternal deprivation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as failure to develop an attachment.

There has been criticism of Bowlby’s view that the mother should be the most central care giver and that this care should be given on a continuous basis. An obvious implication is that mothers should not go out to work or that fathers,  grandparents or other key adult figures cannot be key attachment figures. However his work proved to be very influential for many years.

Mary Ainsworth’s Research

In her 1970’s research, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded greatly upon Bowlby’s original work. Her study revealed the profound effects of attachment on behaviour. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers.  Bowlby believed that attachment was an all or nothing process.  However, research has shown that there are individual differences in attachment quality – especially the security of the attachment. 

She devised an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification in order to investigate how attachments might vary between children. The experiment is set up in a small room with one way glass so the behaviour of the infant can be observed.  Infants were aged between 12 and 18 months.  The sample comprised about 100 middle class American families. She observed the behaviour of the infant in a series of seven 3-minute episodes, as follows: 1) Parent and infant alone.2) Stranger joins parent and infant.(3) Parent leaves infant and stranger alone.(4) Parent returns and stranger leaves.(5) Parent leaves; infant left completely alone.(6) Stranger returns.(7) Parent returns and stranger leaves.

She measured the following: categories  of behaviour: (1) separation anxiety: the unease the infant shows when left by the caregiver, (2) the infant’s willingness to explore, (3) stranger anxiety: the infant’s response to the presence of a stranger, and (4) reunion behaviour: the way the caregiver was greeted on return.  She found that there were 3 attachment styles:

Insecure/Avoidant: Babies exhibited an avoidance of interactions with the mother on her return. They either completely ignored the mother or turned away or avoided eye contact. During separation they showed no distress. Their behaviour changed little whether they were with a stranger, with their mother or alone.

Secure:These babies actively seek interaction and contact with the mother especially in the reunion stage. They were visibly upset when the mother left and happy to see her return. They would not engage with the stranger if the mother wasn’t in the room. 

Resistant:These babies were extremely upset when the mother left and on reunion with the mother seemed to want to be near her and yet resisted her efforts to comfort them. If the mother picked them up they displayed a great deal of anger and tried to struggle free. They wouldn’t interact with the stranger even if the mother was in the room.

Real life studies

An estimated 100,000 Romanian children were in orphanages at the end of 1989, when communism ended and news of the unspeakable conditions in which they lived filtered through to our TV screens.  These infants were given the very basics of food and hygiene but were not able to form a healthy emotional bond with a caregiver. As a result, they developed autistic-like behaviors, repetitively rocking or banging their heads. They were also affected physically (often failed to gain height and weight), had lowered immune systems, lower than average learning abilities and problems with social interaction. Their head circumference was significantly smaller than average, and they had problems attending and comprehending language. 

Contact Me

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


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See also: The Emotional Needs of Children A Happy Childhood?