8.3 Child Development: Do you know how infants develop attachment?

8.8 Describe how infants develop attachment

How do infants develop attachment?

 There are various explanations (theoretical explanations ) of how infants develop attachment with other people.

A. biological explanation

B. parental history explanation

C. the social system explanation


Let us now look at each of these explanations


A. The Biological Explanation.

The biological explanation, also known as the critical period explanation, claims that maternal attachment is based on hormones. Hormones released at the end of pregnancy or soon after birth cause the mother to bond with her baby.  Bonding refers to the dramatic and immediate emotional tie that mothers feel toward their newborn babies.  It is triggered in the mother by contact with her baby within a critical period immediately after birth, when the hormones are at their highest level.  If the mother bonds with the baby during this early period, her love will continue to grow, and she will be able to provide the responsive care needed to ensure the baby’s attachment to her.


The biological theory of maternal attachment originated in research on lower animals.  Studies of sheep, goats, and rats showed that mothering was disrupted when the young were separated from their others immediately after birth, even for only one or two hours (Collias, 1952).  The identification of a critical period for maternal attachment emerged from these studies.


B. The Parental History Explanation.

Other theorists and researchers have suggested that maternal attachment is closely related to the mother’s history, that is her earlier experiences in life.  A mother’s ability to form a close, nurturing tie is closely related to her personality and on the way she was cared for when she was a child. Mothers who have no positive attachment to their children are seen as lacking in parenting skills, knowledge about children, or the ability to act responsibly because of their own immaturity.  Sometimes these mothers have psychological problems or personality disorders.


However, parents’ childhood histories don’t completely explain maternal attachment behaviour.  After all, not all abused parents abuse their own children. Parental history and personality characteristics may provide part of the explanation for maternal attachment, but they don’t account for it completely (Parke & Lewis, 1981).


C. The Social System Explanation.

Because no single factor completely explains maternal attachment, some researchers have considered that many factors might be working together.  They have proposed a model, known as the interaction/social system explanation, suggesting that maternal attachment is a function of several interacting factors: (1) characteristics of the mother (such as personality traits and psychological well-being);  (2) characteristics of the baby (such as health, degree of development at birth, activity level, and so on); (3) characteristics of the family (such as number of children, role of the father in child care, economic resources, and so on) and (4) social supports beyond the immediate family (such as extended family, friends, medical resources and so on).


These factors are thought to interact to determine the kind of attachment the mother forms as well as the extent of her ability to nurture attachment in the baby.  It’s the combination of circumstances – not one or another single factor – that determines the quality of the mother-baby attachment.


Since many factors are involved in the development of attachment, it follows that infant temperament – the inborn characteristics that account for differences in crying, cuddliness, activity level, and so on among babies – is not a critical factor in the relationship.  Temperament characteristics at birth often don’t last, and they don’t predict the baby’s later behaviour nearly as well as the mother’s parenting does.

The social system model is currently the favoured explanation for maternal attachment.  Studies have shown that the quality of the early attachment has long –lasting effects on the child’s social and cognitive development. Children who were securely attached as infants grow into toddlers and preschoolers with a positive attitude, a friendly interest in other people, and a confident approach to problem.  Children who were anxiously attached as infants, on the other hand, have a much harder time getting along in the world. They tend to become extremely difficult children who are negative and aggressive with people and tasks. They evoke reactions from others that keep them in negative relationships and that prevent them from developing more positive social behaviour.


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