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Understanding Healthy Attachment

Understanding Healthy Attachment

Promoting Healthy Attachment Bonds: Consistent Caregiving is Key


We hear a lot about attachment bonds, but what exactly is behind this term? Attachment bonds refer to the bond between an infant and their primary caregiver. Attachment is the foundation that determines a child’s sense of security and future relationships. Attachments also impact an individual’s confidence and self-concept. Psychology has contributed years of research to the topic of attachment.


Freud believed that healthy attachment occurs when moms are relaxed and provide plenty of oral pleasure opportunities for their babies. Erikson also supported the idea of a secure attachment base. The first stage, “trust vs mistrust,” in his 8-stage model of psychosocial development refers to the infant’s attempt at developing a sense of trust in its caregivers. He also felt that infants completely depend on others to meet their social, physical, and emotional needs. 

Caregivers who consistently meet these needs for their baby will successfully instill a belief in their baby that the world is a trustworthy place. This is why caregivers should not concern themselves with “spoiling” or “overindulging” their baby’s need for comfort. There is no such thing, if the goal is to instill a healthy attachment bond. Instead, Erikson warned us that mistrust is the contaminate that can deprive the child of love and connection with others. It is important to consider the negative implications of inconsistent, unavailable, or unprepared caregiving as it impacts the individual throughout the lifespan.


Similarly, Harlow and Zimmerman tried to determine if, indeed, feeding was the most important factor in the attachment. They studied infant monkeys who were separated from their mother at birth and instead provided 2 inanimate surrogate mothers. One was made of cloth and the other was made of wire but had a food source attached to it so the infant monkeys could drink. The result was the monkeys went to the wire monkey for food but spent significantly more time with the cloth monkey instead because it represented comfort for them. 

This study was important because it provided evidence that an infant’s need for physical closeness and connection was more important than having their physical needs met from eating. Harlow and Zimmerman referred to this finding as “contact comfort,” which has now become the foundational philosophy for healthy attachment. Overall, Harlow and Zimmerman taught us that humans have both social and physical needs. When those needs are fulfilled, it creates a secure foundation that helps humans “feel” safe, which in turn provides the opportunity to confidently interact with other people besides their caregiver.


John Bowlby extended the work of Harlow and Zimmerman to develop the concept of attachment theory. He, too, believed that the baby must form a bond with its primary caregiver, in order, for healthy social and emotional development throughout the lifespan. Bowlby believed that humans are biologically predisposed to develop an attachment as it ensures infant survival. Innate attachment-related behaviours such as crying, sucking, and cooing evoke the caregiver’s attention, naturally resulting in keeping the caregiver near their baby, making it easy to meet the baby’s needs. 

Bowlby described 2 ingredients needed for healthy attachment. The caregiver must be responsive to the baby’s physical, social, and emotional needs and engage in mutually enjoyable interactions. Bowlby said that babies often attempt to prevent separation from their caregivers by crying and refusing to be comforted until their parent returns which serve an evolutionary function. Such behaviour keeps the caregiver nearby, which ensures the baby’s survival needs are met since it is 100% reliant upon its parent for survival. Babies who remain in close proximity to their attachment figure will increase their chances of survival.

Bowlby also believed that babies who received sensitive and responsive care develop a healthy internal working model that tells them they are loveable and that their parent is trustworthy to meet their needs. In contrast, an inconsistent parenting approach lacking warmth can result in a negative internal working model where the baby learns to believe their parent is not trustworthy because the baby is flawed and unlovable. Is this when our inner critic is born? What do you think?


Mary Ainsworth was a student of Bowlby. She continued to study attachment in infants. She categorized 4 attachment styles through her infamous test known as “The Strange Situation Technique”. She conducted her study of infants in an unfamiliar setting which she believed would heighten the baby’s need for their parent. The parent and baby explored the unfamiliar setting alone at first before the parent is asked to leave the room. The baby is exposed for a few minutes to a stranger before their parent re-appears in the room. Ainsworth was able to capture the babies’ responses when their parent left the room and returned after a few minutes. The babies were categorized into one of 4 groups based on their responses. There was one secure group and the other 3 were various versions of insecure behaviour.

The secure attachment style showed a baby who adjusted to their parent leaving the room, even if they were upset. They interacted with toys with the stranger and was happy when their parent returned. Parents of these babies were noted to be sensitive and responsive. 

The ambivalent/resistant attachment style was cautious and clingy with their parent versus exploring the toys in the room. When their parent left the room, the baby was significantly distressed; when the parent returned, the baby was ambivalent toward them. These babies could not be comforted by their parent and seemed angry and resistant to parental soothing when picked up. Parents of these babies inconsistently demonstrated an approach that was indifferent and/or overly enthusiastic. 

The avoidant attachment style showed a baby who avoided or ignored its mother, whether in the room or not. When the mother returned after a few minutes, the baby often ran away. The baby did not explore the room much regardless if the stranger or the parent was present. The stranger was treated similarly to the caregiver by the baby. Parents of these babies were noted to be rejecting and intrusive/overstimulating in their approach. 

The disorganized/disoriented attachment style is associated with the most insecure attachment style. During the test, these babies demonstrated inconsistencies when adjusting to the unfamiliar situation. This baby would cry during the separation and avoided the mother when she returned. The baby appeared fearful of the mom and often had a dazed or confused facial expression toward both the stranger and their mother. These babies were typically maltreated by parents and research shows that abuse disrupts a child’s ability to regulate their emotions. This makes sense because we know these children never quite learn how to interpret emotions or connect with their unpredictable parent and thereby negatively impacting the future of their interpersonal relationships. 

Ainsworth’s work has helped further our understanding of the need for a secure attachment base as a key contributor toward the individual’s health adult attachment bonds throughout the lifespan and particularly highlighting the role of caregiver consistency, as it is paramount for developing a healthy attachment style.

If you’re wondering how you can develop a healthy attachment style with your baby, take a look at our free download, 10 Ways to Establish a Healthy Attachment with Your Baby, to discover ideas to support a healthy bond between you and your baby. 


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