Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour


Attachment is the emotional tie between your baby and you, his caregiver. Attachment goes both ways: from you to your baby, and from your baby to you. It is the system of behaviours your baby displays in order to get and stay close to you. Generally, your baby will seek to make contact with you when he is frightened, upset, tired, or ill.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed that a baby’s tie to his caregiver is formed out of a number of behavioural responses that develop in the first year of life. The baby ensures his own survival by attracting the attention of his caregivers. Usually the most important caregiver is the baby’s mother.

What is Attachment?
Get Adobe Flash player
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.
There are a number of ways that your baby will try to seek and maintain contact with you. His first way of communicating is through crying, and he will cry when he needs you. Suckling your breast, grasping your finger, smiling, and eventually reaching out to you are other ways that your baby will show attachment.

Your baby’s system of attachment will slowly emerge over the first eight months of life. As your child gets older, his sense of attachment will influence how he perceives and interacts with other people.

Types of attachment

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth developed a system for classifying the relationship between children and their caregivers. She did this by using a research procedure called the Strange Situation. This involved a number of episodes where children were observed while they were left either with their parent alone, a stranger alone, a stranger and the parent, or totally alone in an unfamiliar playroom. Ainsworth evaluated how the children reacted to these stressful situations. She looked at how much exploring the children did with their parent present, how much they missed their parent when separated, how they related to their parent compared with a stranger, and how they acted when reunited with their parent.

Through her research, Ainsworth was able to show that children tend to take on a specific attachment type, described below, which affects how they react in stressful situations. The type of attachment that defines a parent-child relationship is shaped by a parent’s caregiving responses to their child, particularly when the child is frightened, tired, upset, or ill.

Secure attachment

About 60% of children have secure attachment. A child with secure attachment enjoys being around other children, has good social skills, and gets along well with his peers. He is distressed by his mother’s departure from the playroom, and he is easily comforted by her sensitive and soothing reactions upon her return. A child with secure attachment is resilient under stress and manages conflict well.

Parents of secure children are sensitive to their child’s signals, receptive and accepting of their child’s distress, and consistent in applying comfort, particularly when their child is ill, hurt, upset or frustrated.   They show positive feelings towards their child, including genuine love and joy. Furthermore, they are careful not to overwhelm their child by being overly intrusive. Instead, they grant their child as much freedom as possible to explore the world independently, while at the same time ensuring that their child is safe.  

When parents respond consistently in a loving and accepting manner, babies and children learn that someone is there to support and protect them, especially in times of distress. With this reassurance, children feel free to explore the physical and social world confidently, knowing they can return to the safety of a parent if any situation becomes frightening or overwhelming. With this advantage, babies and young children will encounter many opportunities to learn new skills, and they are able to take full advantage of them.   Knowing that the parent always offers a safe haven from which to explore the larger world is the basis of a secure attachment.  

Insecure/avoidant attachment

Approximately 18% of children have an insecure or avoidant attachment style. An avoidant child does not seem to be bothered by a parent’s absence and will often snub the parent on reunion. He manages well during separations and in child care. He tends to ignore other children’s feelings, and not show his own.

Avoidant attachment can occur if the parent does not provide adequate comfort when the child is emotionally upset, ill, or hurt. These caregivers may become hostile, ignoring, or rejecting if their child shows negative emotions. They may be accessible to their children at times, but they are insensitive to cues of distress when their children require comfort and support.  

Under these circumstances, a baby or young child learns that the caregiver is unwilling or unable to provide comfort in times of distress. Consequently, these children learn to avoid their caregiver and try to manage their distress on their own, with limited success, in order to avoid the parent’s rejection or hostility. When a parent leaves, these children do not seem bothered by the parent’s absence, but their preoccupation with toys or other objects in the environment reflects their active avoidance of the parent when they are reunited.   Because the need to manage their distress without the parent’s help creates an added burden for these children, their exploration and learning is more limited than that of securely attached children.

Insecure/ambivalent/resistant attachment

Around 12% of children have an insecure/ambivalent/resistant attachment style. A child with this type of attachment tends to become very upset when left alone and very hard to settle. He is reluctant to explore his environment, even if the mother is close by, and he might not respond well to her attempts at soothing. He may be whiny, unhappy, impulsive, needy, tense, angry, and intense. He acts helpless at times.   

Parents of resistant children may be overly anxious and can be overprotective and interfering at times. They tend to be inconsistent in response to their child’s signals of distress. Sometimes these parents respond well while at other times they fail to notice the child’s needs for comfort or do not provide the necessary support.   

Babies and young children in these situations learn that the caregiver is unpredictable – sometimes comfort is provided, sometimes it is not. Given this unpredictability, babies and young children learn to exaggerate their emotional responses in order to attract and keep their caregiver’s attention. These children can be very hard to settle, perhaps because they fear that they will lose their parent’s attention once they begin to calm down. Since children facing these challenges are more concerned with keeping their parents involved in their comfort, their exploration of the world is restricted and so are their opportunities for learning new things.

Insecure/disorganized/disoriented attachment

Another 10% to 14% of children fall into a fourth category: insecure/disorganized/ disoriented attachment. A child in this category seems to have no strategy for coping with separation or reunion. He may show bizarre behaviour at times, such as freezing, dissociating, or appearing frightened. He may want to be close to his parent but strike out at the same time. Disorganization is considered an extreme form of insecurity.

Children who fall into the disorganized category are unable to predict what will happen if they approach their caregiver for comfort. At times, caregivers may seem frightened and unable to cope when their child is in distress. At other times, caregivers may be frightening for the child, displaying extreme anger and hostility. This pattern of behaviour places the child in an impossible situation when distressed; the child wants to seek comfort but is afraid to do so.

Caregivers who produce this response may be depressed, suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol, abusive towards their child, or affected by their own trauma, abuse, or severe loss. Disorganized attachments are seen frequently in homes where children are exposed to violence and abuse.  

Brenda S. Miles, PhD, CPsych