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Attachment Part Two: Patterns of attachment

In part one of our multi-part series on attachment, we saw how attachment patterns develop in the infant- caregiver relationship to meet the infant's powerful need for comfort and security. In this second feature, Dr. Goldberg provides a detailed description of the various patterns of attachment in infancy.

By Susan Goldberg, PhD

Through careful observation of mother-infant pairs in naturalistic settings, Mary Ainsworth noted differences in the way infants moved away from their mothers to explore and then returned for reassurance and affection. These observations gave rise to the concept of the secure base.

The secure base

The concept of a secure base became fundamental to attachment theory. An infant naturally turns to his or her primary caregiver as a source of comfort and protection. Ideally, the caregiver represents a secure base from which an infant can confidently explore. Confidence in a caregiver develops over the first year of life as a result of the caregiver's response to the infant's signals when ill, hurt or emotionally upset. If the infant learns that his or her base of security is either unresponsive or unreliable, exploration will be adversely affected along with the infant's expression of needs.

In 1963 Mary Ainsworth designed the 'Strange Situation Paradigm' to study the attachment behaviors of infants and young children in the laboratory. Using this innovative technique, Ainsworth was able to systematically observe infants' reactions to separation from primary caregivers in an unfamiliar environment.

The Strange Situation Paradigm is a 20 minute procedure involving two brief separations and reunions between the infant and caregiver. Various aspects of the infant's behavior are observed. The infant's response to the separations and reunions, the quality of his or her exploratory behavior in the presence and absence of the caregiver, and the infant's ability to be soothed, are the behaviors that are closely observed and coded to determine the infant's attachment pattern within a specific infant-caregiver relationship. Although all of these behaviors are relevant to attachment patterns, reunion behavior is what most distinguishes secure from insecure infant-caregiver attachment relationships.

Attachment patterns

Ainsworth’s research led to the identification of three attachment patterns. In general she described infant-caregiver relationships as either secure or insecure. Insecure attachment can be further subdivided into either an avoidant or resistant patterns depending on the particular pattern of behavior displayed by the infant. For each attachment pattern there is a corresponding caregiving style.

Secure attachment

The majority (55-65%) of infants demonstrate secure patterns of attachment, considered the optimal attachment classification.

An infant in a secure attachment relationship explores freely in the presence of the caregiver, checks on him or her periodically, and restricts exploration during the caregiver’s absence. An infant who is securely attached with a caregiver will show varying levels of distress in the absence of the caregiver but responds positively to the caregiver’s return. The infant will seek contact with the caregiver when distressed and will settle down once contact is made and comfort is provided.

A caregiver who promotes secure attachment is sensitive to his or her infant's signals, receptive and accepting of their infant's distress, and consistent in applying this positive parenting style. 

Insecure attachment

An Example of Rejecting a Baby's Distress
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This clip shows an example of a parent responding to her child's pain by distracting him or minimizing his distress. This will have a lasting impact on the child, and affect his ability to develop healthy relationships later on.

Insecure attachment is classified as either avoidant or resistant. In general, caregivers of infants with insecure attachment tend to be less responsive to their infant's signs of distress. These caregivers are unavailable either physically, psychologically, or emotionally and tend to be insensitive or unpredictable in their response to attachment needs.

Avoidant attachment

About 20-25% of infants demonstrate avoidant attachment patterns with their caregiver. Children in avoidant attachment relationships seem not to care whether a caregiver is present or absent. In the presence of the caregiver, avoidant children will explore their environment without interest in the caregiver's whereabouts. Upon departure infantsw with avoidant attachment are minimally distressed. At reunion, they do not move toward the caregiver or try to initiate contact. In fact, they often ignore or avoid the caregiver. Despite this apparent lack of concern, infants with avoidant attachment patterns show as much, if not more, physiological arousal than other infants, suggesting that they have learned to contain their distress.

Avoidant attachment has been associated with a pattern of care in which the caregiver does not provide adequate comfort when the infant is emotionally upset, ill, or hurt.

Resistant/ambivalent attachment

 About 10-15% of infants demonstrate resistant attachment patterns with their caregiver. Resistant attachment relationships are characterized by exaggerated expressions of attachment needs. In the presence of their caregiver these infants are reluctant to explore their environment and preoccupied with getting the attention of their caregiver. When a caregiver departs, infants with resistant attachment become extremely distressed. When the caregiver returns, they both seek and resist contact. When they do seek contact they have difficulty settling down and do not respond well to their caregiver’s attempts at soothing.

Resistant attachment has been associated with a pattern of care in which the caregiver inconsistently responds to his or her infant's signals of distress.

Disorganized/disoriented attachment

An Example of an Inconsistent Response to a Baby's Distress
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This clip shows a parent responding to her child's distress inconsistently. The result is that the child doesn't know what to expect from the parent, and he will be unsure how to get love and affection.

There is a group of infants (15-20%) who do not fit into Ainsworth’s original three-category scheme. Mary Main, another influential attachment researcher, added a fourth category to include these infants.

Whereas infants in the 3 primary attachment groups have organized strategies for dealing with arousal, infants with disorganized attachment relationships either lack an organized pattern to their behavior or have strategies that repeatedly break down. When stressed, in the presence of their caregiver, these infants appear disorganized or disoriented, displaying unusual behaviors such as approaching the caregiver with their head averted, trance-like freezing, or strange postures. These behaviors have been interpreted as evidence of fear or confusion with respect to the caregiver. Disorganized attachment is considered an extreme form of insecure attachment.

Many infants who fall into the disorganized category have experienced some form of maltreatment or have a caregiver who has been traumatized by severe loss or abuse. Other stressful situations involving reorganization of the family such as family moves or the birth of another child may also temporarily disorganize attachment patterns in an infant-caregiver relationship.

The meaning of attachment behaviors

An infant's attachment pattern is strategically determined and based on his or her understanding of the caregiver’s reliability as a source of comfort and security.

From the earliest stages of development an infant is learning about the caregiver's reliability as a secure base. Caregivers of infant's with secureattachment are consistently sensitive, receptive and accepting of their infant's signals of distress. Thus, infants in secure attachment relationships learn that they can be confident in their protection. Their behavior in the Strange Situation reflects this confidence as they freely explore their environment, openly express their needs and accept comfort from their caregivers.

Infants with insecure attachment in contrast are not confident about the caregiver as a secure base. This insecurity dramatically impacts an infant's behavior and quality of emotional expression.

Consider the apparent independence and precociousness of an infant in an avoidant attachment relationship. Such an infant seems not to care whether a caregiver is present or absent and is likely to snub the caregiver upon reunion. But in fact for every infant personal security is instinctively of critical importance.

Infants with avoidant attachment patterns have repeatedly felt rejected by primary caregivers during times of illness, injury or distress. As a result these infants learn that they cannot count on the caregiver to meet their attachment needs. To avoid further rejection, the infant in an avoidant attachment relationship limits his or her emotional expressions. Seen in this context, the apparent indifference of the infant's  involved in an avoidant attachment relationship begins to make sense as an effective strategy for maintaining contact with a caregiver who is unable to provide comfort but does provide other kinds of care and protection.

Caregivers of infants with resistant attachment have responded inconsistently to their infant's attachment needs. The best strategy for infants of inconsistent parents is to devote a lot of energy to soliciting help. This explains these infant's prolonged and exaggerated expressions of their needs and preoccupation with attracting their caregiver’s attention during the Strange Situation paradigm.

The organized strategies of infant's with avoidant and resistant attachment illustrate the infant's adaptive response to perceived threats to security. When confidence in protection wavers, behavior and emotional expression change in an attempt to secure contact with caregivers.

The unusual behavior of the infant with disorganized attachment is more difficult to understand even when considered from the infant's perspective. Many infant's with disorganized attachment patterns have been subjected to highly stressful, chaotic, and frightening environments.

As an example, disorganized attachment sometimes occurs following extreme loss or trauma on the part of a caregiver. Researchers speculate that caregivers who are unable to recover from tragic losses, for example the death of their own parent, or abuse by a parent, subtly communicate a sense of anxiety, fearfulness, and/or hostility toward their infant. This situation is highly disorganizing to the infant because the person who is supposed to be a source of comfort is also a source of threat or fear. Faced with this impossible situation, the infant's attempts at an organized strategy breaks down.

In general, an infant's sense of security can be thought of as being on a continuum. With a strong sense of security, an infant feels free to explore and venture out into the world. If confidence in protection falters, the infant's world begins to contract as the freedom to explore is overshadowed by a sense of doubt and apprehension.

An infant's basic pattern of attachment develops during the first year of life. Although thought to be relatively resistant to change, changes in life circumstances can alter attachment patterns as infants develop and mature.

In Part III of our series, we will look at attachment throughout the life span. Attachment in older children, teens, and adults will be discussed along with the implications of attachment patterns for emotional and social development.

Diane Benoit, MD, FRCPC

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


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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.