Attachment: Caregiver-Infant Interactions and the Stages of Attachment

Every time I use a colon in a title I feel as though I’m writing a Harry Potter novel.

We’re onto Attachment!  Halfway through!  Or – now that I’m writing this – more than halfway through!  So, if you don’t know what Attachment is, I made a long post about it in late May, so go ahead and check that out.

In our first topic, we have caregiver-infant interactions and the stages of attachment – and I’m starting with caregiver-infant interactions, because it’s first in the textbook.  I am a simple woman and I am doing a simple thing.

Caregiver-Infant Interactions consist of two main categories: interactional synchrony and reciprocity.  Hey, isn’t it great when psychologists think it’s a super cool thing to do to give simple concepts really complex names?  It feels like we just went through this with the encoding specificity principle.

Let’s explain what they are, pronto, so that nobody is left looking at those titles and having an aneurysm because of the names.  Interactional Synchrony is, essentially, just mimicry.  If a caregiver makes a distinct hand or facial movement, it’s likely that an infant, from as early in its life as 10 minutes old, will mimic the movement.  This was studied by Meltzoff and Moore, who placed a dummy (I believe a dower is the US term) in the infant’s mouth whilst the caregiver gave a distinct hand or facial movement, then removed the dummy to see how the infant responded.  They found a correlation between adult behaviour and infant behaviour.  This type of study is called an observational study, as behaviours were placed into categories by an observer watching a film of the interactions.  The earliness of this suggests it is an innate behaviour.

The use of an observational study was intelligent, as it is difficult to measure infants’ behaviours, as their hands and especially their mouths are constantly in motion.  By getting others to observe whether a behaviour fits into a behavioural category, Meltzoff and Moore removed the issue with observing infant behaviour.

On the other hand, Koepke was not able to replicate Meltzoff and Moore’s study, suggesting that there may be an issue with research findings.  Meltzoff and Moore claim that Koepke did not follow the procedure correctly.

Whilst Meltzoff and Moore believed that imitation was intentional, Jean Piaget believed that intentional imitation did not occur before the end of the first year of an infant’s life.  He believed that the infants in Meltzoff and Moore’s study were displaying pseudo-imitation, and responding to caregivers because the consequent caregiver behaviour was rewarding.  This is called pseudo-imitation.  However, Murray and Trevarthen carried out research in support of Meltzoff and Moore, finding that if the caregiver did not respond to the infant’s imitation, the infant would show acute distress.  This suggests that infants actively try to elicit a response.

Marian found that, in response to Murray and Trevarthan’s study, infants couldn’t distinguish between caregivers in real life and caregivers who were on video, suggesting infants are not really responding to the adult.  However, Marian did acknowledge that this may have been due to procedure.

However, a study by Abravanel and DeYong found that inanimate objects which made mouth opening movements and other similar specific movements did not prompt an infant to display imitation.  This suggests that interactional synchrony is a specific social response to other humans.

It’s also interesting to note that strongly-attached infants displayed greater interactional synchrony.  We’ll learn about attachment types later.  It’s also notable that infants who displayed greater interactions had stronger relationships with their caregivers at three months, though whether this is a cause or an effect (or even simply correlational) is not clear.

Meltzoff and Moore claim that interactional synchrony also helps infants to understand social interactions and empathise with what others are thinking and feeling, based on what they’re feeling as they carry out certain movements.  This is called ‘Theory of Mind’, and I personally think that it needs a lot more research done on it before it should be in an A Level textbook for 16-18 year olds, but I am not on the exam board.

The other type of caregiver-infant interaction is reciprocity.  This one is a bit less complex.  It refers to the conversational rhythm that infants and caregivers adopt when interacting, even though the infant is non-verbal at this point.  This means things like taking turns, so if a caregiver smiles, the infant might smile back, or the infant will wait for the caregiver to repeat a specific action before carrying out a specific action of its own.

Caregiver-Infant Interactions help to form the basis for the different stages of attachment, as developed by Schaffer and Emerson.  According to Schaffer and Emerson, there are four different stages of attachment.  I believe we covered these in the overview of Attachment, but I’m going to go over them again.

Before we start, it should be noted that reports on infants’ behaviours were obtained from the mothers.  Self-report techniques are not always very reliable, as it’s possible that a self-conscious mother could lie – or even that a non-self-conscious mother could simply interpret her child’s behaviour wrong.

Furthermore, Schaffer and Emerson used a biased sample.  Their research was only based in one city (Glasgow) and only around one class (Working-Class).  This means that the validity of their research is lessened, as families in different areas and different classes may show different behaviours.  Furthermore, it was carried out in the 1960s, and cultural norms – such as women working – have changed since then, which may influence the way that attachments are formed.

Cultural differences are very important in attachment research.  Schaffer and Emerson researched the United Kingdom, an individualist culture wherein everyone is mostly concerned with their own needs or the needs of their immediate network.  Other countries, such as China, are collectivist cultures, who are concerned with the needs of the group as a whole.  In these cultures, multiple attachments are more common, as evidenced by Sagi’s study of an Israeli Kibbutzim, in which infants are mostly brought up communally.

The first stage is called indiscriminate attachment.  This occurs when an infant is very young – up to about the second month of life – and it refers to the fact that very young infants do not show stranger anxiety or any preference for a specific caregiver.  However, most importantly, they do not show a defined preference between animate and inanimate objects.  This is at an interesting odds with Abravanel and DeYong’s research, though this isn’t covered in the spec, so I’ll leave that observation there.

The next stage is called the Beginnings of Attachment (apologies if this one’s a bit sloppy – I just had a 20 minute break, and we know what those are like).  It occurs from about the second to the fourth months of life, and it’s the point at which infants begin to show a preference for human interaction over inanimate objects.  They can also distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people, though they are unlikely to show any stranger anxiety at this point.

Ar around four months to seven months, an infant will begin to show discriminate attachment.  This is when they become strongly attached to one particular caregiver and show significant separation and stranger anxiety.  The primary caregiver is usually the mother, in 60% of cases, with a joint attachment of mother and father occurring in 30% of cases.  This prevalence of the mother over the father is thought to be because mothers produce oestrogen, associated with caregiving, though there is no physiological difference between mothers’ and fathers’ responses to an infant’s distress.  Sociological factors such as fathers being expected to work are also thought to be a factor in this, though they are also thought to provide a strong basis for the development of active problem-solving in offspring.

The final stage of attachment is multiple attachments.  This is when infants have one or more secondary attachments on top of their attachment to the primary caregiver.  Generally, within six months of developing a primary attachment, 78% of infants have developed secondary attachments to grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings.

A researcher called Bowlby, who gets plenty of spotlight in this research, asserts that not all multiple attachments are equal.  He believes that the infant has a special bond with the primary caregiver (monotropy) and that other bonds may be weaker or serve different purposes.  Rutter, on the other hand, believes that all attachments are equal, and that they all integrate into an infant’s attachment type.

We do need to be careful not to judge attachments and developments on stage theory alone.  In some cases, multiple attachments might come first, or attachments may simply be more flexible than stage theory suggests.

That’s our first attachment topic finished, so we’re onto Animal Studies next!


Paper 1, Topic 3: Attachment

And we’re back again!  This one’s on Attachment, just in case you didn’t read the title.  Attachment explores how infants bond with their caregivers – or don’t.  It’ll go through how it happens and why it’s so important, touch on what happens when they don’t, and how attachments affect an infant’s later relationships.

I actually did my EPQ on child development, with a focus on Attachment, so I love this topic a lot!

As always, here’s a rundown of everything in the topic:

  • Caregiver-infant interactions in humans; stages of attachment
  • Animal studies of attachment
  • Explanations of attachment; learning theory, Bowlby’s monotropic theory
  • Ainsworth’s Strange Situation; types of attachment; Cultural variations in attachment
  • Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation; Romanian orphan studies and effects of institutionalisation
  • Influence of early attachment on childhood and adult relationships

Caregiver-infant interactions in humans and stages of attachment

So, people communicate with one another.  That’s a fact.  We don’t always do it well, but most of us give it a try, at the very least.

This starts from when an infant is as young as ten minutes old.  The two types of main communication in infants are called interactional synchrony and reciprocity.  None of these involve actually speaking, because apart from an infant in a story that Dick King Smith once wrote, very young infants cannot speak.

Interactional Synchrony is, basically, imitation.  That’s the short form of it, anyway.  If an adult model displays clear and specific facial and hand movements, it’s very likely that an infant will imitate these gestures.

Reciprocity is the conversational rhythm that an infant and a caregiver have in their interactions.  This is a similar rhythm to the one you’d have in an everyday conversation: if the person you’re speaking to is speaking, you don’t speak.  If they smile, you carry on with the same train of thought you started with.  The difference is, of course, that the infant is not speaking.

These are important because they are a way in which infants can bond with caregivers even before they develop speech.

There are also four stages of attachment that an infant goes through before being “attached”, if that is the right way to put it.  The first stage is called indiscriminate attachment, and it refers to the fact that when a child is very young, it will show no stranger anxiety and be as interested in inanimate toys as it is in people.  The next stage is called the beginnings of attachment.  It is the phase in which a child shows a preference towards people, and can distinguish between familiar people and strangers, but doesn’t have any specific attachments.

After this, a child will form a discriminate attachment with a particular caregiver.  The child will become very distressed if separated from this key caregiver.  This caregiver is called the primary caregiver.  After some time, the child will form secondary attachments with people like grandparents and siblings; this phase is called multiple attachments, and usually marks that an infant’s development regarding attachment is complete.

Animal Studies of Attachment

So, it can be pretty hard to study human attachments, because removing infants from their caregivers to see how they respond is considered unethical in most communities.

Something which isn’t considered unethical, apparently, is removing half a clutch of gosling eggs from their mother to see what would happen when they hatched – and this is what a man called Lorenz did.  He made sure that his clutch of goslings saw him first for the first 12 hours of his life, and then he put the goslings back together with the original batch to see who followed the mother goose and who followed him.  Lo and behold – all the goslings who had seen Lorenz first followed him, and all the ones who had seen their mother first followed her.  This is called imprinting, and is considered important because it suggests the presence of something called a critical period for attachment.

The next animal study is considered unethical, and quite rightly so.  It concerns a man called Harlow, who studied eight infant rhesus monkeys in order to see if contact comfort was more important than food.  He did this by giving either group of four monkeys a ‘wire’ mother and a ‘cloth’ mother.  In one condition, the wire mother had the feeding bottle, and in the other, the cloth mother had it.  He found that regardless, the infant rhesus monkeys spent more time with the cloth mother.  This suggests that contact comfort is more important in forming attachments than food.

Explanations of Attachment

We study two explanations for Attachment in Psychology: learning theory, and Bowlby’s monotropic theory.

The first one we’ll go over is learning theory.  Here’s your warning: it’s… kind of cold, and also considered to be mostly wrong.  Learning Theory asserts that food is the most important thing in forming attachments.  Here’s a break to talk about a guy called Pavlov, who you may have already heard of.  He tested dogs’ salivation, and conditioned them so that they’d salivate on the ring of a bell, even if they weren’t given food.  This is they way that learning theorists think attachment forms.

They claim that hunger causes discomfort, and food relieves it.  That part is right.  They claim that the primary caregiver provides food, which relieves the discomfort.  That part is also right.  As such, the primary caregiver becomes associated with the food, which makes them a secondary reinforcer.

You’ll learn briefly about Occam’s Razor later, but for now, please bear in mind that in the above case, simplest is not always best.

Bowlby’s theory of monotropy is a bit more complex, sort of because it’s a concept rather than a process, so we’ll start with the big picture, then narrow down the details.

Humans are on earth because they survived.  Babies are on earth because humans want to carry on surviving.  Babies cannot survive on their own, which is where caregivers enter the picture to try and keep their offspring alive.  However, this caring has to happen within the critical period we explored above, with Lorenz, or an attachment cannot form.  This is very important, because attachments form something called an internal working model, which impact how the child considers relationships in later life.

There’s sort of a quid pro quo in all of this, in that it’s believed that easier babies have more secure attachments than fussy or sickly babies.  This is because “easy” babies are likely to use social releasers, like smiling, to elicit caregiving behaviours from their primary caregivers, in order to form attachments.  Similarly, the caregiver has to be sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs, or attachments won’t form as easily.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation

Earlier I said that human attachment studies were usually considered unethical, but this one: the Strange Situation, has been in use for a while.

Ainsworth developed the experiment, whose many stages I will go over in a later post, to develop three different types of attachment.  In order to determine these, she took measures of infants’ separation anxiety, stranger anxiety, willingness to explore, and reunion behaviour.

Eventually, she developed three types of Attachment: Secure, Insecure-Avoidant, and Insecure-Resistant.  The three types have different characteristics to each other.

Securely Attached children are often considered to be the type with the most cooperative and harmonious interactions with their caregivers.  They often show moderate separation and stranger anxiety, a high willingness to explore, and eager and cooperative reunion behaviour.

Insecure-Avoidant children are recognisable by their indifference in attachment behaviours.  They show little to no separation and stranger anxiety, a high willingness to explore, and will avoid the caregiver on their return.

Insecure-Resistant children have an anxious disposition, and will seek and resist contact from caregivers.  They show very high separation and stranger anxiety, a very low willingness to explore, and seek, then resist contact from the caregiver on their return.

A researcher called Van Ijzendoorn studied the Strange Situation in the context of other cultures.  He found that whilst a Secure attachment was the most prevailing type of attachment, other types of attachment did not necessarily hold the negative connotations in other cultures as they did in the United States.  For example, cultural differences mean that children in West Germany held a higher percentage of Insecure-Avoidant attachments, whilst in Japan there were a higher percentage of Insecure-Resistant attachments.

Bowlby’s Theory of Maternal Deprivation

Bowlby, whose theory of monotropy we explored above, also examined what happened when children were continually apart from their mothers in the development of early attachment, specifically during the critical period.

There’s already a key question here, and its lack of an answer is one of the main criticisms of the study: we aren’t quite sure if Bowlby means that a child forms an attachment, and then the mother is removed, or if the child never forms an attachment at all.  For the sake of ease, most people go for the former for Bowlby, as a researcher called Rutter covers the latter.

Nevertheless, Bowlby’s research is very important.  See, when Bowlby proposed that emotional warmth and a secure environment were as important for a child’s development as physical healthcare, it was the first time anyone had suggested as much.  As some of you may well be aware, in science, when something is suggested for the first time, the natural next step is to test the theory.

Bowlby conducted a study called the 44 Thieves study, to test the effects of early separation on a child’s later development.  He found that amongst “normal” juveniles, normal thieves, and affectionless thieves, it was the affectionless thieves who had the highest percentage of time apart from their mothers in early childhood.  This supports Bowlby’s theory that simple physical care isn’t enough to sustain a child’s development.

A different psychologist, Rutter, then posed the question of what would happen if a child didn’t form any attachments at all in the critical period.  Luckily for him, he rather had the opportunity to find out without being accused of unethical conduct, in the form of a case study.

I’m going to go through exactly why this was, because I’m a history buff and I find it really interesting, but for the sake of keeping things easy to read, I’ll put it in italics, so you can easily skip the section if you’d like.

In 1966, a dictator called Nicolae Ceausescu took power in Romania.  He wanted to boost populations, so he illegalised things like contraception and abortion, supposedly for a greater number of workers.  However, he didn’t improve healthcare to correspond with these changes, which left many mothers dead, and many children orphans.

Rutter studied the Romanian orphans compared to a control group of British children adopted before the age of six months.  He found that the Romanian Orphans adopted to the age of six months caught up developmentally to their British counterparts.  However, those who were adopted after this often had long lasting deficits: they were physically smaller and intellectually weaker.  Additionally, they also had trouble forming discriminate attachments, and often found parenting difficult in adulthood.  This supports both Bowlby’s theory above, as well as the theory we studied a few paragraphs up touching on internal working models and the continuity hypothesis.

Influence of Early Attachment on Childhood and Adult Relationships

The influence of early attachment on childhood and adult relationships sort of works like getting used to school does.  You have your first day at a new school, so you think about your first day at an old school to make things easier: you know you’ll have lessons for most of the day, and a break in the morning and a break at lunch, and you also know that now is a good time to start talking to people.

The internal working model kind of works like that as well: you base your current relationships on that first proper attachment.  Someone with a secure attachment will show these behaviours in later attachments, with the same applying to people whose first attachments were Insecure-Avoidant or Insecure Resistant.

This is reflected in a study by Hazan and Shaver which assessed the Internal Working Model using a questionnaire published in a small town magazine.  They found that people rated as having more secure attachments as children tended to have more positive attitudes towards love, as well as happier and longer-lasting relationships compared to Insecure-Avoidant and Insecure-Resistant individuals.

A study called the Minnesota Parent-Child study found similar results in childhood relationships, with children who had secure attachments in infancy supposedly being more popular than peers with insecure attachments.  Furthermore, a study by Quinton found support for Rutter’s findings, as it also found that children who fail to form secure attachments in infancy are usually poorer parents.

That’s a wrap on Attachment! Next up is Psychopathology, and then we’ll start again from Social Influence, but in much, much more depth!