John Bowlby

JohnBowlby

Frequently Asked Questions and Further Information about Attachment Theory

What is attachment?

Are attachment and bonding the same thing?

What is attachment theory?

What is the Bowlby/Ainsworth ethological theory of attachment?

Is skin-to-skin contact essential for bonding to take place?

What is attachment parenting?

 

Question:

What is attachment?

Answer: Attachment usually refers to the special nature of relationships that are very close. People can become attached to each other at any age but prototypical attachment relationships are often thought of as being those between infants and their main caregivers. Attachment relationships are characterised by strong feelings and play a large part in laying down patterns for other social interactions.

 

Question:

Are attachment and bonding the same thing?

 

Answer: This is a tricky question! Some people reserve the use of the term 'bonding' for the parent's relationship to the child rather than the child's to the parent but in common use, 'bonding' and 'attachment' tend to be used interchangeably. But there are some differences worth thinking about. For example, an insecurely attached child who is constantly worried about the availability of attachment figures, or a parent who is so deeply depressed that they are unable to bear their child being near them may each still have some kind of attachment relationship. But can these infant-mother pairs be said to have 'bonded'? In a way, they can, because even poor attachment relationships are still attachment relationships and the individuals involved are still of more importance to each other than most other people. But there is another difference between the mechanisms involved in bonding and those involved in the attachment system. Bowlby explained how, under conditions of threat, the attachment system is activated so that attachment behaviours come into play.

 

These include signalling behaviours such as crying, calling, babbling, smiling, clinging, non-nutritional sucking, and motoric behaviours such as approaching, following and seeking. All these behaviours are designed to increase proximity between infants and significant others and to engage the others' attention. Responses from carers to these behaviours produce the dynamic interchange or "dance" that is played between infants and their attachment figures. These interactions occur within ongoing, developing and changing attachment relationships throughout the lifespan. Bonding processes are sometimes described as occurring early in the relationship between mothers and infants, close to the actual birth and at a time when mothers are still experiencing hormonal and other bodily changes.

There is less research on bonding than on attachment patterns and the construct of the parental bond has received less attention from research workers. However, instruments have been developed which attempt to measure the nature of the bond between parents and children. One of these is the Parental Bonding Instrument. This is a questionnaire containing 25 statements about carers, e.g. "Spoke to me with a warm and friendly voice", "did not talk with me very much", "was overprotective of me", "tried to control everything I did." Children, reflecting on their relationship with their main carers, have to say whether their male or female carer was "very like", "moderately like", "moderately unlike" or "very unlike" each statement. Scores are computed on two scales: caregiving and over-protectiveness. It could be expected that children who are securely attached to their parents might rate parents more highly on caregiving than children with insecure attachment relationships though this is not always the case because some insecure children havea self-protective over-romantic picture of their parents and so might rate a relatively neglecting parent better on caregiving than they really were.

 

Question:

What is attachment theory?

Answer: Many theories have been put forward to explain the salience and intensity of attachment relationships. Early explanations included behaviourist and learning theories as well as theories to do with imprinting. For example, Anna Freud suggested that a child's first 'love' was connected with being fed, that this love gradually became associated with the breast or bottle and that, finally, it became associated with the person feeding the baby. Dollard and Miller proposed another, quite similar, theory, arguing that attachment arose in consequence of the infant's experience of being cared for physically: in their view, attachments occurred because the infant first associated being physically cared for with pleasurable experiences and, secondarily, associated the person caring for them as important and rewarding.

 

Scott extended this idea and argued that fear of separation from key familiar people was the main motivation for investing in close attachment relationships. Other behaviour theorists have also sought to explain early social relationships as governed by principles of reward and punishment: infants turn to those people who give the most consistently positive rewards. Still others have drawn attention to the similarity between the behaviour of human infants and other baby animals and have suggested that, just as some baby birds will imprint on the first object they see (seeking to be close to that object and being distressed when separated from it), so human infants imprint on the first person they experience who is, usually, their mother. Most of these early theories have been challenged on various grounds. For example, research has shown that other aspects of attachment relationships, such as the ability of a carer to soothe and calm in the face of danger, are more important than being fed. It has also been found that infants will form close attachments with people who are not providing physical care and that close attachments do not depend on gentle caregiving: abused children (and animals) can also form close attachments with their tormenting parents (or owners). John Bowlby would have been aware of many of these early theories when he, along with his Canadian student, Mary Ainsworth, put forward an 'ethological' theory of attachment. It is the Bowlby/Ainsworth theory which is often referred to nowadays as "attachment theory." However, the discussion about what attachment relationships actually involve continues and so attachment theory continues to evolve. Even during Bowlby's lifetime, some aspects of his initial theory were challenged and he was quick to modify his views in the light of new research evidence. Since he died in 1990, researchers have continued to use the tools that he and Mary Ainsworth developed to explore the nature of attachment. They have also expanded the field of attachment research so that more aspects of his theory can be tested. Often, this research has not been carried out just to test Bowlby's theories but, rather, to expand our understanding of the nature of attachment relationships throughout the lifespan and across different cultures as well as to explore more widely how attachment relationships impact on social relationships, emotional life and mental health. Therefore, debates about John Bowlby's theory of attachment continue and additional mechanisms and explanations continue to be proposed to account for the special properties of attachment relationships (e.g. Allan Schore has argued that particular attachment behaviours enable the development of those parts of the brain associated with social and emotional understanding and that lack of this experience produces lifelong deficits). For more information about the Bowlby/Ainsworth ethological theory of attachment, please go the the Question 'What is the Bowlby/Ainsworth ethological theory of attachment?

 

Question:

What is the Bowlby/Ainsworth ethological theory of attachment?

 

Answer: Bowlby's theory of attachment drew upon ideas within several disciplines, including biological theories about preservation of species, theories about cognitive development, psychoanalytic theories and control systems theories. Bowlby was particularly interested in the connection between poor social relationships and psychopathology and the experience of neglect or traumatic separation in early life. In trying to understand the causes of delinquency (Bowlby, 1944), nature of the child's tie to his mother (Bowlby, 1958), the meaning of separation anxiety (Bowlby, 1960a) and the significance of grief and mourning for young children (Bowlby, 1960b), he began to devise the theories which he later propounded and illustrated in three books which have since become famous best-sellers: Attachment: Attachment and Loss (Bowlby, 1969), Separation: Anxiety and Anger (Bowlby, 1973) and Loss: Sadness and Depression (Bowlby, 1980). Essentially, Bowlby thought that the attachment relationship formed between infants and their main carers was formed because humans, like other species, need a mechanism to ensure survival. Infants cling to key people because those people can protect them against danger and can help infants to learn to protect themselves. Bowlby noticed that, towards the end of the first year of life and even more clearly by 18 months, infants had usually begun to form a very close relationship with one person or a few chosen people. He called this phenomenon the principle of monotropy (the tendency to turn to one person). At this time, separation from key attachment figures causes most infants considerable distress and it is not until the child is about three that he or she can begin to tolerate separation and keep alive a sense that the caregiver, though absent, is still available. He observed that the child's attachment figure appeared to provide a secure base from which the infant could safely explore and to which they could return if tired, stressed or in other form of danger or need. The attachment figure was key in helping the infant to make sense of the social world and their availability was essential for the child's wellbeing. Bowlby theorised that, within their early attachment relationships, infants must form a sense of themselves in relation to others and particularly in relation to the most significant others.

This sense of self-in-relation-to-others, which is encoded preverbally, develops into what Bowlby called an INTERNAL WORKING MODEL of social relating. Infants, and older children and adults, base their understanding of social behaviour on these models. They use them to guide their social interactions and to inform their understanding of other people. Although internal working models (IWMs) can be revised in the light of experience, parts are not easily available to conscious examination and control, having been laid down so early in the child's development. Also, infants can have more than one working model which can contradict each other. So some internal working models enable successful social interactions while others might predispose children to difficulties. Generally, when children have a model of themselves as valued and understood and a model of key others as validating, responsive and predictable, they will have a greater sense of 'felt security', more effective strategies for getting help when they need it and so a more optimistic view of social relationships accompanied by higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence. These qualities characterise children who are securely attached.

Bowlby at first asserted that there was a critical period of infant development during which secure attachment patterns emerged. Missing crucial experiences in early life would lead to detrimental social development later. He claimed that this was likely to happen in 40% of children. Later, he modified this view and stated that there might be a sensitive, as opposed to a critical, period for the development of secure attachment so that, for example, adopted or fostered children who have had very poor early but good later experiences may yet develop the capacity to make secure attachment relationships. Researchers currently are still seeking to find out more about these issues. Bowlby initially met with considerable resistance to his ideas, both from colleagues in the psychoanalytic world, from other professionals and from large sections of society where his views were considered chauvinistic. Indeed, even at the time of his death, and after, his theories continued to provoke controversy. However, the climate was in some degree ripe for the main thrust of his arguments, eventually, to be heard. When he and social work colleagues, James and Joyce Robertson, produced film footage of children's responses to separation and showed in clear and very moving images the sequence of increasing distress and despair, views among those in the medical professions and elsewhere began to change. Policies on adoption and fostering and practices relating to hospitalisation of children and parents (e.g. forbidding sick children to be visited by parents and not allowing contact between children and hospitalised parents) have since been revised as have ways of working with youth and older adult offenders. Gradually, the implications and value of Bowlby's theories for therapeutic work and for more general understanding of relationships is beginning to be seen, even if only because they raise useful questions which might help us to be more open to many different ways of understanding the complex and varied strategies that all sorts of people use as they try to make and sustain good, close relationships with others.

Bowlby, J. (1944) Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25, 19-52; 107-127. Bowlby, J. (1958) The nature of the child's tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-373. Bowlby, J. (1960a) Separation anxiety. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 89-113. Bowlby, J. (1960b) Grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 15, 9-52. Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment: Attachment and Loss,Volume 1. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. (also a Pelican paperback) Bowlby, J. (1973) Separation: Anxiety and Anger, Volume 2. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. (also a Pelican paperback) Bowlby, J. (1980) Loss: Sadness and Depression, Volume 3. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis (also a Pelican paperback).

 

Question:

Is skin-to-skin contact essential for bonding to take place?

Answer: Until recently, research on skin-to-skin contact within the first weeks after birth has consistently failed to show that skin-to-skin contact at this point in development is necessary for good relationships to develop between parents and infants. At the most, it has shown that parents sometimes retain regrets. The results of a systematic view are now available from the Cochrane Library. It does not provide an answer to the question of whether skin-to-skin contact is essential but does suggest that it may be beneficial (see below for more details).

Anderson GC, Moore E, Hepworth J, Bergman N. Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 2, 2003. Oxford: Update Software. Date of most recent amendment: 21 February 2003 Date of most recent substantive amendment: 17 February 2003

 

Anderson et al assessed the effects of early skin-to-skin contact on breastfeeding, behavior, and physiology in mothers and their healthy newborn infants. Defining early skin-to-skin contact as “placing the naked baby prone on the mother's bare chest at birth or soon afterwards (< 24 hour)”, they looked at 17 randomized and quasi-randomized clinical trials (806 participants) which compared this kind of contact with usual hospital care. They noted that routine separation shortly after hospital birth is a uniquely Western cultural phenomenon which is possibly associated with harmful effects including discouragement of successful breastfeeding. They concluded that the studies showed that early skin-to-skin contact appears to have some clinical benefit especially regarding breastfeeding outcomes and infant crying and has no apparent short or long-term negative effects, for example, they found statistically significant and positive effects of early skin-to-skin contact on breastfeeding at one to three months postbirth, length of breastfeeding, maintenance of infant temperature in the neutral thermal range and better results for early skin contact infants in relation to infant blood glucose levels and crying (infants with contact cried less). They also found that mothers with early skin-to-skin contact had higher summary scores of maternal affectionate love/touch during an observed breastfeeding within the first few days postbirth. However, they found no statistically significant benefit of early skin-to-skin contact for breastmilk maturation, maternal chest circumference or infant heart rate and they also pointed out that their conclusions had been limited by the methodological quality of the studies as well as variations in methods and measures. They recommend that future studies should be carried out in order to test these conclusions further. This research does not provide any evidence with regard to long-term effects of early skin-to-skin contact in later childhood.

 

Question:

What is attachment parenting?

Answer: Information about "Attachment Parenting" can be found at other websites. Some adherents of the "Attachment Parenting" movement have very strong beliefs about how parenting should be done, for example, they think that skin-to-skin contact is essential for good attachment relationships to form, or that parents should behave in particular ways towards their children or that day care is bad for children. While IAN accepts that responsive and sensitive parenting is important for healthy social and emotional development, we shy away from advocating hard-and-fast general principles because we recognise that relationships between parents and children depend on the unique characteristics (temperament, lifestyle, social situation, support systems, quality of adult relationships, family size, culture, etc..) of individual relationships.

 

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