Presentation delivered by Sir Richard Bowlby, on Saturday 6th February 2016, to the International Attachment Network in London N19.

Written by Dr Sue Chantrell

Sir Richard Bowlby addressed a very well attended IAN Saturday Workshop on Attachment and Detachment in Day Care. Richard has had a career mainly as a photographer and not as a clinician or researcher in the field of attachment theory. However he has taken a deep interest in the work of his father, Sir John Bowlby, and has met and collaborated with most of the leading figures in the field. Thus his presentation was an engaging mixture of personal reminiscences, theory explained in an accessible way, and thoughts on his subject and life more generally.

Richard told the workshop about his father’s upbringing in a well-to-do family, in which he was ‘brought up’ by a Nanny called Minnie, who left to work with another family when John was aged 4. John described his upbringing as ‘opulent neglect’. Richard described his own upbringing and that of his children, in which he and then his children were ‘brought up’ by their mothers. Using all these examples of family life, Richard explained the concepts of: ‘primary attachment figure’ (usually mother); ‘secondary attachment figures’ (for example, father and grandparents, who a baby gets to know and can be left with comfortably); ‘tertiary’ attachment figures’ (such as friends of the family, who a baby might know but would not be happy to be left with); and ‘strangers’ (everyone else).

Richard outlined that there are three factors in situations which can be stressful for a baby or small child. These are: absence of an attachment figure; the presence of strangers; and an unfamiliar location. He explained that when babies are stressed, they cannot fight or flee, but instead freeze or dissociate. Richard went on to discuss a baby’s early days in ‘day care’ (nursery), as potentially containing all the aforementioned stressful factors. Babies can be traumatised by ill thought out day care arrangements. If babies are to be left in day care, then there is a need for thoughtful, careful arrangements to help the baby to develop a secondary attachment with a consistent key person in the setting. Richard discussed the difficulties in achieving such arrangements in a day care setting. Alternatively this can be easier to achieve when babies are cared for in the extended family or by childminders.

There was a lively discussion about the implications of all this. How might good quality day care be arranged and provided? Are the needs of babies and young children, to be cared for by primary and secondary attachment figures, an ‘inconvenient truth’ which does not fit with the demands and economics of modern working families and society? What might be the long-term effects of not getting this right?

Overall, it was a stimulating and inspiring morning.

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