Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Stages of Infant Attachment

Updated: 23 August 2016

Attachment can be defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space (John Bowlby, 1969; Mary Ainsworth, 1973). Attachment does not have to be reciprocal.  One person may have an attachment to an individual which is not shared.  According to Bowlby, attachment is characterized by specific behaviours in children, such as seeking proximity with the attachment figure when upset or threatened.

The process of attachment is clearly influenced by caregiver sensitivity, plus where both caregiver and child tend to locate on the Dimensions of Temperament – see Caregiver Sensitivity vs Temperament Hypothesis. However, other factors also have a major influence:-

  • The PURPLE vMEME’S need to find safety in belonging
    This will be underpinned by a BEIGE/PURPLE vMEME harmonic using close proximity as a means to ensure survival, in terms of both sustenance and protection
  • Perceptual development
    The baby needs to develop visual, auditory and kinaesthetic senses to recognise its mother/primary caregiver
  • Cognitive development
    The baby needs to make sense of its perceptual input and relate it to its need to survive and develop through attachment

In attempts to track the progress of attachment development, there are 2 principal stage theories – represented in the graphic below. There are far more similarities than there are differences – though the few differences are important. (Click to enlarge graphic.)


Stage Notes:-

  1. Despite the difficulties in meta-stating the meaning of young babies’ behaviours – not only can they not talk (obviously!) but they have poor coordination and very limited mobility – there is notable support for idea that infants are effectively asocial in the first 3 months of life. For example, Daphne Maurer & Maria Barrera (1981) found that, at 2 months, infants showed no preference for realistically-drawn faces as against ‘scrambled’ faces – eg: nose where the eyes should be; however, by 3 months, infants in their sample were showing a marked preference for the more realistically-drawn faces.
    The first stage may not be quite as asocial as either Schaffer & Emerson or Bowlby presumed.
    Genevieve Carpenter
    (1975) demonstrated that 2-week-old infants can recognise their mother’s face and voice. She set up a situation in which the infants looked at face while hearing a voice. Sometimes the face and the voice belonged to the same person; sometimes they did not. The infants looked at the face the longest time when it was their mother’s face and when it was accompanied by her voice. When their mother’s face was matched with a different voice or her voice was matched with a different face, most infants found this distressing and looked away from the face. There is a potential methodological flaw with Carpenter’s investigation in that those rating the behaviour of the infants knew which condition was being used at any time.
    I W R Bushnell, F Sai & T R Mullen
    (1989) presented 2-day-old babies with the faces of their mother and a female stranger until they had had reached a total of 20 seconds fixating on one or other of the faces. Almost two-thirds of the babies showed a preference for their mother over the stranger, indicating that they had some ability to recognise their own mother. 
  2. R Ahrens (1954) found that infants begin to smile ‘socially’ at around 6 weeks. Moreover, Juan Serrano, Jaime Iglesias & Angela Loeches (1995) showed that infants can smile back at a photograph of a happy face, thus demonstrating reciprocity. Linda Camras, Carol Malatesta & Carroll Izard (1991) found that, by about 3 months, infantrs are beginning to smile more at familiar than unfamiliar people, suggesting they are relatively discriminating in their social interactions at an early age.
  3. According to Jean Piaget (1937), around about 7 months most children begin to develop the schema of object permanence ie: they realise things still exist even though they can’t necessarily see them. Around this time, infants also become capable of exploring their environment more through crawling. These two capabilities go together, according to Bowlby, allowing the infant to explore – essential for cognitive development, whilst knowing that the mother/attachment figure is still there as a ‘safe base’ to return to.
    (1967) reported that Ugandan infants expressed stranger anxiety at the slightly earlier age of 6 months – though their motor development was also more advanced.
  1. The issue of multiple attachments is the biggest area of disagreement between Schaffer and Bowlby. The latter, while conceding that other attachments took place, very much sees them a secondary and relatively inconsequential in comparison to that all-important first attachment – the theory of Monotropy. Schaffer & Emerson’s study provides incontrovertible evidence of infants forming multiple important attachments. Though a small sample size and culturally limited, their findings have been supported by much consequent research.
    The issue is further complicated by cross-cultural research such as that of Marinus Van Ijzendoorn & Abraham Sagi (2008) who note that multiple caregivers are the norm in collectivistic cultures, with babies correspondingly forming multiple attachments from the outset.

General: The boundaries between the stages, in reality, are fluid. A child is not in one stage and then suddenly another. Some children will pass from one stage to another very quickly while others seem to be in a state of apparent transition – showing characteristics of more than one stage – for perhaps some time.


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