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Attachment Part One: The dance of relationship

This is the first feature of a  multi-part series on the concept of attachment written by the late Susan Goldberg. Although published during 2004 and 2005, this six-part series has been updated and re-reviewed by Diane Benoit, also an internationally recognized researcher in the area of attachment, and her colleague Sheri Madigan.

By Susan Goldberg, PhD

As parents, we want to protect our children from harm. In our role as protectors we tend to think of the obvious provisions of food, warmth, and protection from illness and danger.

But what if we consider safety from the child’s perspective? For a child, a very real sense of danger can be brought about by situations that seem innocuous to an adult. In response to perceived threat, a distressed infant or child will naturally express his or her need for comfort and security. The way in which a caregiver responds to such signals teaches a child about the predictability and safety of his or her world. With time, children learn whether they can count on a caregiver to provide comfort and security. This, in turn, affects their expectations that the world is either a safe or dangerous place to be.

Research in the field of attachment suggests that a child’s sense of safety and security is as important to emotional and social well-being as actual safety is to physical well-being. The development of a sense of protection is directly related to the quality of the infant-caregiver relationship. Empirical research over the past four decades has confirmed our intuition about the critical importance of early relationships, and how a caregiver's role as an attachment figure might be one of the more important factors for a child’s future social and emotional well-being.

Attachment versus bonding

People tend to be familiar with the notion of bonding but less so with the idea of attachment. In fact, the two are quite different. The term bonding refers primarily to the emotional bonds that form between a caregiver and his or her child, initially as a result of the events surrounding birth and delivery. By contrast, attachment theory focuses on the child's feelings towards the caregiver.

What is Attachment?
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Babies need a special person called an "attachment figure" to make them feel safe and secure. This will be very important in shaping how they relate to other people in the future.
Attachment involves two components in the infant-caregiver relationship: the infant's need for protection and comfort, and the caregiver's provision of timely and appropriate care in response to these needs.

Attachment behaviours occur when an infant is emotionally distressed, physically hurt, or ill. In response to a threat to safety an infant will stop his or her activity and seek close contact with caregivers. Attachment behaviours also include efforts to maintain contact with the caregiver by, for example, clinging to caregivers or sitting on their lap, and any other behaviours that signal needs for comfort, such as crying.

Think of the process of attachment as a kind of dance between infant and caregiver. In other words, attachment is not solely concerned with a caregiver’s behaviour toward an infant. How the infant signals and responds to the caregiver is a critical part of the process. The infant’s signal is responded to in a particular way by the caregiver, which in turn is interpreted by the infant. Depending on the nature of the caregiver's response, the infant modifies his or her behaviour. Very early on an infant learns how to manage distress or regulate his or her emotions depending on the caregiver’s responses.

Thus, in this complex dance, different patterns of attachment develop. Infants learn to expect certain responses from their caregivers based on the reactions of their caregivers over time. By the end of the first year of life, an infantsw expectations or internal working models of relationships with caregivers are established and may prove difficult to change.

Origins of attachment theory

Attachment theory has its origins in a number of sources. In the 1940s, children raised in orphanages were found to exhibit unusual social and emotional behaviour. Other researchers observed the behaviour of animals in natural and laboratory settings. Many animals demonstrate preferential behaviour toward a figure they are exposed to during a critical period soon after birth. Infant monkeys raised with surrogate mothers, wire frames with bottles to provide milk or covered with terrycloth to provide comfort, spent more time with the terrycloth surrogate, showing that pleasant, tactile sensation – affection — was more important than food. Although all monkeys showed abnormal social behaviour in later development, those with wire frame surrogates only were worse off.

These studies and observations formed the basis of later theories of attachment. John Bowlby, a British child psychiatrist, was the first to put forth a formal theory of attachment. Mary Ainsworth expanded and confirmed many of Bowlby’s ideas by observing infant-caregiver interactions in the field, and in a laboratory setting.

Attachment patterns

Ainsworth developed the 'Strange Situation Paradigm', a laboratory method used to measure the quality of attachment between caregiver and child. This procedure involves several separations and reunions between an infant or young child from a caregiver or a friendly stranger. The way the infant behaves at reunion with the caregiver is the main indicator of the quality of attachment.

From this simple but very powerful naturalistic experiment, Ainsworth identified three general attachment patterns:

  • A secure pattern involves a positive response on the part of the infant during reunion with the caregiver. The majority of infants fall into this category.
  • In contrast, an infant in an insecure-avoidant attachment relationship does not seem to be bothered by a caregiver's absence and will often snub the caregiver on reunion.
  • A resistant attachment pattern is characterized by infant distress upon separation and the infant's reluctance to explore his or her environment even in the presence of the parent. The infant with an insecure- resistant attachment pattern does not respond to the caregiver's attempts at soothing.
  • A fourth category was later added for infants who seem to have no strategy for coping with separation or reunion. These infants are considered to have a disorganized attachment relationship with their caregiver.

A caregiver who is consistently available, sensitive to their infant's signals, and receptive and accepting of the infant's distress tend to have securely attached children. A caregiver of an insecurely attached child tends to be less responsive to the child’s signs of distress and need for comfort and protection. These caregivers are unavailable either physically, psychologically or emotionally or tend to be insensitive or unpredictable in their parenting style.

Tips on How to Respond to Your Baby
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There are many things you can do to respond to your baby when he is hurt, ill, or upset. If you respond to your baby now in ways that make him feel loved and secure, it will give him confidence that someone is on his side.
When a caregiver does not respond appropriately to an infant's need for comfort, it is not necessarily the fault of the caregiver. There are instances when a caregiver, because of their own grief or needs, simply is not capable of being sensitive to his or her infant’s needs in a particular situation. Other caregivers simply are not able to read their infant's signals and thus respond inappropriately.

These four major infant-caregiver attachment patterns have been shown to be independent of an infant's temperament. In other words, attachment patterns concerns the relationship between the infant and caregiver rather than the personality of either.

Steps toward healthy attachment

Research has shown what many caregivers seem to know intuitively — being consistently available, sensitive and receptive to an infant's signals helps promote healthy attachment. The following are general strategies for caregivers to consider when responding to their infant's signals of distress or need for comfort and protection:

  • Pay attention. Learn to recognize your infant’s signs of distress.
  • Be responsive. Let your child know that you are aware of his or her distress and respond to it appropriately.
  • Be consistent. Consistent and predictable responding to your child’s need for comfort creates a sense of security in the child.
  • Be accepting. Accept rather than judge or discount your child’s emotional distress and discomfort.
  • Provide comfort. Soothe and comfort your child in response to distress.

Attachment patterns develop in the infant-caregiver relationship to meet the infant's very powerful and basic need for comfort and security. How caregivers respond to their infant's distress has lasting implications for his or her emotional and social development, future relationships, even future parenting styles. As parents and caregivers, it is essential to be aware of the important role we play in this complex dance, as we help our children develop a healthy sense of social and emotional well-being.

Diane Benoit, MD, FRCPC

Sheri Madigan, PhD, C.Psych (supervised practice)


Benoit D. Attachment and parent-infant relationships... a review of attachment theory and research. Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies Journal. 2000;44(1):13-23.

Goldberg S. Attachment and Development. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press; 2000.

Goldberg S, Muir R, Kerr J, eds. Attachment Theory. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press; 1995.

Karen R. Becoming Attached. New York: Warner Books; 1994.

The Infant Mental Health Promotion Project and the Department of Psychiatry, The Hospital for Sick Children. A Simple Gift: Comforting Your Baby [video]. Toronto: The Hospital for Sick Children; 1998. Used by permission.