Development of attachment

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Learn about the development of a baby's system of attachment over the first year of life. Attachment will solidify as a baby's memory develops.

Key points

  • In the first three months of life, babies will begin to form attachments to their caregivers based on experiences of touch, feeding, smell and faces.
  • By three to six months, a baby will begin to seek out their primary caregivers and will be soothed more easily by their caregivers than by strangers.
  • Between seven and 12 months, a baby will begin to be quite discerning in terms of who they respond to; they may try several different ways to get their caregivers' attention; and they may become upset when separated from their primary caregivers.

Your baby’s system of attachment will slowly emerge over the first eight months of life. As your child gets older, their sense of attachment will influence how they perceive and interact with other people. This page describes how your baby’s system of attachment develops over the first year or so.

Birth to three months

Your baby really likes human faces, and they show this preference almost from birth. In these early months, they enjoy looking at your face and the faces of their other caregivers — in fact, during these months, you are your baby's favourite toy! They enjoy being held, touched and fed by you, and they love your own unique smell. Through these experiences and their unique interactions with you, they will start to form memories of how you look, smell and feel.

At this stage, it is up to you and their other caregivers to maintain closeness and protect your baby. Your baby has many reflexes, such as crying, grasping, sucking and eventually smiling, that will draw you in — essentially cuing you to respond to them. These reflexes help to ensure your baby’s needs are met.

If you are responsive and sensitive with your baby, their crying episodes should decrease over time. However, at this age, many different people will be able to soothe your baby, as long as each person responds sensitively to your baby's needs. Your baby is not too discriminating quite yet.

Three to six months

Around three months of age, your baby will start to seek out interactions with you and their other primary caregivers. They will make efforts to keep the interactions going. They will gradually orient themselves toward you and those who are familiar. They will turn toward your familiar voice.

By four or five months, your baby may become less likely to respond to strangers. They are much more likely to smile at you than unfamiliar people. They are soothed more easily by you than by a stranger. However, at this age, out of sight is still out of mind. Your baby does not remember you if you are not around for long periods of time, so true attachment has not yet developed.

Seven to 12 months

This is a time of rapid change in terms of your baby’s attachment. They are very interested in you and their other primary caregivers. They are becoming quite discriminating in terms of who they respond to. They enjoy gazing at your face and pulling at your hair. Although their memory is still fragile, they now know when they are separated from you. They will begin to "make strange" and will resist being picked up by other people. They may become quite upset if separated from you, and they are cautious around strangers. They now have special greetings for you when you approach.

Another milestone that is achieved during this time is your baby’s ability to use certain behaviours to accomplish a certain goal. For example, if first attempts at getting attention, such as crying, do not work, your baby will try something else such as shouting or following after you.

From 12 months on, your baby will enjoy exploring their surroundings with the knowledge that you are nearby. They will not venture out too far, and they will run back or call out to you every so often to "refuel". Your baby will probably have a very strong attachment with you and one other primary caregiver. They may become very upset when separated from you, even at bedtime. If your child is tired, sick or scared, they will seek out your presence and comfort.

Further information

For more information about attachment, please see the following pages:

Different types of attachment

Attachment: What you can do

Attachment and premature babies

Last updated: April 25th 2023