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!