The Significance of Attachment Bonds


By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College

Attachment bonds formed during the early years have a significant impact on the disposition and temperament of babies. Different studies show the type of bond formed with the caregiver can affect the physical, cognitive, and motor development of the child.

Mother holding the head of her baby
The skin-to-skin bond formed with a caregiver during the early years has a positive impact on the child even later in life. (Image: HTeam/Shutterstock)

What a Silent Baby Tells US

When Nathan Fox, the director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Maryland, first walked into a room full of infants in a Romanian orphanage, what struck him was the silence. Rows of babies lying in cribs, but none were crying. Because they’d learned from experience that crying didn’t matter; no one responded to it.

This example illustrates one of the most important lessons that babies learn in their first few days and weeks of life—what psychologists refer to as the attachment bond. And, of course, these babies quickly learned they did not have such a person.

These babies were being kept safe. They were in an orphanage precisely because they didn’t have family members who could provide appropriate care. So, the babies were fed, diapered, and bathed on a set schedule.

But their emotional needs were completely ignored. They were not rocked to sleep, sung to, or picked up when they cried. This was their inability to develop an attachment bond early in life that has lasting consequences.

The Attachment Bond

For the first half of the 20th century, researchers thought that infants were attached to those who provided nourishment.

However, during the 1950s, Harry Harlow, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, made an important and accidental discovery. He was studying learning in monkeys, so to equalize all monkeys’ experiences, he separated monkeys from their mothers at birth and raised them in individual cages.

The accidental discovery was that the monkeys became very attached to their cloth diapers and were very upset when the blankets were taken away for washing.

Harlow was surprised and speculated that the soft cloth might be serving as a substitute for the touch typically provided by their mother. He also recognized that this distress contradicted the idea that attachment was based on its association with nourishment.

Greater Emotional Security

To investigate it further, he created two artificial mothers: a bare wire cylinder with a wooden head that supplied food, and a cylinder wrapped in terrycloth, which did not provide food.

When given a choice, monkeys overwhelmingly preferred the cloth mother. They fed from the nourishing mother but would cling to the cloth mother whenever they were anxious.

The baby monkeys with access to a cloth mother also showed greater emotional security and curiosity than did baby monkeys who only had access to a wire mother that simply provided food. This finding revealed that attachment does not depend on feeding alone; that physical contact is an essential part of developing an attachment bond.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Importance of Touch

For many years, it was thought that preterm infants needed to be kept in fully sterilized environments to protect them, so hospitals typically didn’t encourage any touch at all. But research by Harry Harlow and others showing the benefits of touch led to major changes in how hospitals care for babies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all mothers and babies have skin-to-skin contact within the first few hours of birth and each day thereafter.

This type of contact is especially beneficial for preterm and low birth weight infants, where it is called kangaroo care. In fact, premature babies who receive kangaroo care show greater weight gain, fewer infections, and improved cognitive and motor development.

Not Restricted to Mothers

close up of palms holding the feet of a baby
The attachment bond can be formed with any caregiver irrespective of the relation. (Image: Fizkes/Shutterstock)

Fathers can do skin-to-skin care, too. In fact, there’s nothing about this theory that says the attachment bond can only be with a mother.

Historically, women have been the primary caregiver for children, so this research is almost always done by examining the attachment bond between mothers and babies. But the bond could be with a father, or a grandmother, or an older sibling.

Lack of Attachment

Unfortunately, not all babies have the opportunity to grow up in stable homes, with a responsive caregiver and lots of touch. To study the consequences of a lack of an attachment figure early in life, the researchers chose some babies who had been living in the orphanage since birth and placed them with foster families in the local community.

These families were given financial support by the researchers to cover the child’s care. The children ranged in age from six months to nearly three years old.

The researchers then measured all of the children’s development over time, those who were living with a foster family as well as those who were still in the institution. They also collected data on the same measures from a set of local children living with their families and who had never lived in an institution.

Benefits of Bonds

Of course, kids growing up in families who love them and care about them is good. So, the kids who had never lived in an institution generally had higher scores on all of the measures, including cognitive function, motor development, language development, and social-emotional functioning.

And within the group of kids who had spent at least some time in an institution, moving into a foster family was clearly beneficial.

Compared to the kids who stayed in the orphanage, those who began living with a family showed improvements in language use, IQ, and the ability to express emotions. They were also able to form secure attachments with their caregivers. And younger kids, those placed with a family before age two, showed the biggest gains.

This study illustrates the fundamental importance of developing an attachment bond with a caregiver early in life who responds to their needs and protects them from harm.

Common Questions about the Significance of Attachment Bonds

Q: What were the findings from Harry Harlow’s study on monkeys?

Harry Harlow’s study found that an attachment does not depend on feeding alone; that physical contact is an essential part of developing an attachment bond.

Q: Can an attachment bond be formed only with a mother?

An attachment bond could be with a father, a grandmother, or an older sibling.

Q: Why is kangaroo care beneficial for preterm babies?

Premature babies who receive kangaroo care show greater weight gain, fewer infections, and improved cognitive and motor development.

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