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Attachment Part Four: Caregiver and child influences on attachment

Part three of our series on attachment described attachment across the lifespan. In this fourth feature, Dr. Goldberg discusses the relative contribution of child and caregiver factors in the development of attachment behaviours.

By Susan Goldberg, PhD

Attachment: Nature or nurture?

The nature-nurture debate is one of the most enduring and controversial of the twentieth century. Are a person’s essential qualities and behaviours genetically determined or learned? The modern answer is that the capacity to behave in a particular way is genetically determined but experience determines whether, how, and when capacities are engaged. This is the case with attachment theory. A key theme of attachment is how infants manage distress. How often infants experience distress and how it is expressed are influenced by genetic factors, but responses to stress are modified by experience and learning.  

Attachment theorists believe that infant-caregiver attachment patterns are essentially learned. Although infant characteristics contribute to the infant-caregiver relationship, experiences provided by the caregiver are the primary determinant of infant attachment patterns. According to attachment theory, the most important factor in the development of attachment pattern is an infant’s experience of caregiver response in times of distress.

The research provides some support for this view. Parenting style has a significant impact on an infant's attachment behaviour. Infant-caregiver attachment classifications have been predicted prior to birth simply from mothers’ attitudes about the upcoming birth of their infant. Numerous studies have shown that maternal behaviours in the home predict attachment at one year better than infant behaviours. These findings point to significant caregiving influence in the development of attachment patterns.  

Caregiving factors and attachment

Parenting style

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Part two of the series described how parenting styles affect a child’s attachment classification. Caregivers who are consistently available, sensitive to their infant's signals, and receptive and accepting of their distress tend to have babies who are securely attached with them. In contrast, caregivers of infants with insecurely attachment tend to be less responsive to their baby's signs of distress and needs for comfort and protection. These caregivers are unavailable either physically, psychologically, or emotionally and tend to be insensitive or unpredictable in their parenting style.

Caregiver sensitivity and attachment style

In 1972, Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth carried out a study of maternal responsiveness to infant crying. Mothers who were more responsive to their infant's cries had babies who cried less and expressed more varied vocalizations and gestures. Researchers have since tried to replicate these findings with mixed results.

Most studies on parenting style and attachment include some measure of caregiver sensitivity or responsiveness to infants’ signals of distress. A 1987 review of 13 studies on maternal sensitivity and infant-caregiver attachment and a more recent 1997 review of 66 studies found a low to moderate effect of maternal sensitivity on attachment.

In general, the results are mixed and less compelling than the 1972 Bell and Ainsworth findings. This may be because of the way maternal sensitivity and attachment have been defined. In many cases, the definition of attachment is broader and includes more aspects of the infant-caregiver relationship than the original conception of attachment as a protective phenomenon used in the 1972 study.

A few studies have examined maternal sensitivity specifically in protective situations. One found that low maternal responsiveness had a significant effect on attachment but only when social support was low. Others found significant differences in maternal soothing of infant fussing between mothers of babies classigied as secure and resistant. Anther study found caregiver distress management predicted attachment security.

The most support for a caregiver behaviour/attachment link comes from research with infants with disorganized attachment relationships with their caregivers. Caregivers who promote disorganized attachment in their infants might have difficulty relieving infant distress because they are a source of fear to the baby. There is some preliminary evidence to support this theory. Frightening, frightened, or extremely insensitive caregiver behaviours have been found to be elevated in caregivers of infants classified as having disorganized attachment in the Strange Situation Paradigm. A more detailed discussion of parental influences on disorganized attachment will be included in part five of the series, Attachment under adversity.

Caregiver attachment

As we have seen, parental attachment style predicts infant-caregiver attachment. One review of nine studies found 77% of adults classified as autonomous had infants classified as secure, 57% of dismissing adults had avoidant infants, 21% of preoccupied adults had resistant infants and 52% of unresolved adults had disorganized infants.

There is little evidence that specific personality traits in the caregiver are associated with a particular pattern of infant-caregiver attachment. But there is evidence that general parenting style and caregivers' attachment histories may significantly influence their infant's and even future generations’ attachment outcomes.

Infant factors and attachment

Caregivers clearly have a role in the shaping of attachment patterns and behaviours. But can the same be said of infants? Do infant characteristics influence developing attachments?   Some infant characteristics that have been studied by attachment researchers are infant temperament and the presence of a medical condition.

Infant temperament

Temperament refers to those aspects of an infant's behaviour and emotional responsiveness which are genetically determined. It is impossible to get a pure measure of temperament since experience always has an influence on behaviour. But in general, infant's tend to display noticeable differences in behaviour that are present immediately after birth that likely have a significant genetic influence.  An infant’s threshold for expressing distress is a temperament factor. Infant distress is a central component of attachment theory. It follows that infant temperament has a role in the development of attachment behaviours.

Temperament and attachment theorists agree that attachment is influenced by both infant and caregiver factors but they differ with respect to the emphasis they place on each of these variables. They also disagree on the meaning of infants’ behaviour in the Strange Situation Paradigm. For attachment theorists, infant behaviour reflects the baby's expectations of the caregiver as a protector based on past experiences in times of stress.   

In contrast, temperament theorists believe that it is temperament and not history with caregivers which determines an infant's attachment classification. According to temperament theory, there are innate differences in infants’ intensity and modulation of distress. These differences result in the range of behaviours observed in the Strange Situation Paradigm. If we consider the case of infants in avoidant attachment relationships, temperament theorists argue that these infants are physiologically programmed to have relatively mild distress responses. Therefore, in the Strange Situation Paradigm, they feel little distress and have no need to solicit contact with their caregiver on reunion. It is not that they are avoiding her, as attachment theorists would claim.

There is strong evidence against this view. Studies that which look at the physiological rather than behavioural responses to stress have found that avoidant children show as much or more physiological arousal than other infants. This suggests that the behaviour observed in the Strange Situation Paradigm is a child’s way of dealing with stress rather than the actual level of arousal or distress.

Infant medical conditions 

Attachment research on infants with medical conditions provides insight into the role of infant factors in the development of attachment. The lives of infants with medical conditions are often very different from those of healthy infants. Studying how these extreme circumstances influence attachment helps researchers understand how factors in the infant affect the development of attachment patterns. 

In the past, it was generally believed that infants’ medical conditions affected attachment security. Over the years, a number of studies have explored the impact of various infant medical problems on the infant-caregiver relationship. Some studies have shown that infants with medical conditions are more often involved in insecure attachment relationships than other infants. However a study that analyzed 34 clinical studies on attachment showed that infants’ medical problems had little impact on attachment style.

The infant-caregiver interaction

Attachment researcher Alan Sroufe illustrates how innate qualities in the infant and parental caregiving might interact to shape attachment behaviours. While parenting style determines attachment classification, infant temperament may determine the baby's subgroup within a major category of attachment. This is discussed further, below. While caregiver care determines a child’s security of attachment, the infant's temperament determines the particular form in which insecurity is expressed. While an infant's temperament determines the type of behaviour, the caregiver's response to these behaviours determines how the baby's innate tendencies develop into a particular attachment style.

There are some infants who fall into subgroups of the main attachment classifications. This provides support for Sroufe’s explanation of the interaction of infant and caregiver factors. A subgroup of infants who are predisposed to high levels of distress expresses strong emotions in the Strange Situation Paradigm upon separation as well as vigorous contact seeking upon reunion. But because these infants are unambivalent in their contact seeking and easily settled by caregivers, they are considered secure rather than resistant in their attachment classification. Similarly, there is a subgroup of infants in secure attached relationships who show minimal distress and contact seeking. They are rated as secure rather than avoidant because they are positive in response to their caregivers’ return. 

Emotion regulation

Emotion regulation refers to the adapting of emotional reactions to satisfy the demands and expectations of the environment. It is through the process of emotion regulation that both infant and caregiver factors influence attachment relationships. Initially, it is an infant’s temperament that determines the intensity of his or her distress response. Over time, the caregiver's reaction to this response will determine how the infant learns to regulate his or her innate distress response.  

There is some evidence to suggest that caregivers in the three attachment groups read emotions differently. For example, caregivers of infants in avoidant relationships describe emotional pictures with less intense labels than other caregivers. This could be one mechanism that influences the development of attachment patterns.  

Attachment is one aspect of the infant-caregiver relationship. Both partners contribute to the development of infant attachment patterns. It is the interplay between an infant's temperament and a caregiver's response to emotions that determine the baby's style of responding during times of stress. Although infant and caregiver factors interact to influence attachment, it is the primary caregiver who plays the greatest role in determining the attachment relationship. A caregiver's ability to think and understand far exceeds that of the infant. Given the infant’s dependency on the caregiver, this capacity places caregivers in the position of responsibility and control in the development of infant attachment behaviours.

Diane Benoit, MD, FRCPC

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


Susman-Stillman A, Kalkoske M, Egeland B, Waldman I. Infant temperament and maternal sensitivity as predictors of attachment security. Infant Behaviour and Development. 1996;19:33-47.

Van Ijzendoorn MH. Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness and infant attachment: a meta-analysis of the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview. Psychological Bulletin. 1995;117:343-387.

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.