Caregiver-infant Interactions

Attachment is a reciprocal (two-way) bond between two individuals. In this context, the bond between a parent (usually the mother) and their child.

Attachment, figure 1

Reciprocity: The idea that attachments are interactional, and that mothers and infant initiate and respond to each other in a meaningful way. Both get something out of the interaction, for example pleasure, comfort, security and so on.

Interactional synchrony: ‘Synchronised’ means carrying out the same actions at the same time. In this case, mothers and infants act in a way that mirrors each other. This has been shown in even very young infants, where gestures or actions of the parent are associated with a particular response. Research has shown that high levels of synchrony are linked with better quality attachment.


  • It is impossible to know when studying interactions if the infant attaches any meaning to the gestures, or if they are simply imitating them. This weakens the idea that infants already show signs of a deep emotional bond with mothers.
  • Observations of interactions are generally well-controlled, allowing researchers to study behaviour in a systematic way. This enhances the validity of the studies and the conclusions drawn from them.

Attachment Figures

Parent-infant attachment: Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that infants tend to become attached to the mother first, then form attachments with other figures (such as the father) later on- usually by the age of 18 months.

Role of the father: Grossman (2002) found that the quality of mother-child attachment was important when assessing the quality of attachment into adolescence, but this was not the case for father-child attachment, suggesting the role of the father is less important. However, it was also found that the quality of father’s play was related to the quality of attachment, suggesting the father’s role may be more of a stimulatory one.

Fathers as primary carers: Field (1978) found that fathers who were primary attachment figures acted in very similar ways to mothers who were primary attachment figures towards their children. This suggests that fathers are able, if required, to take on the more caring, nurturing role usually associated with the mother.


  • Findings on the role of the father have been inconsistent- some studies showing fathers have a nurturing role, some suggesting they have a different role. Therefore, it is hard to make a conclusion on what the role of the father is.
  • MacCallum and Golombok (2004) found that children growing up in single-parent (or same-sex) families do not develop any differently from those who grow up in more ‘conventional’ families, suggesting that the role of the father is not significant in attachment.
  • It is unknown whether fathers don’t become primary attachment figures more often because of the different traditional social roles of men and women, or because women have a biological predisposition towards the primary role.

‘Stages of attachment’ refers to how the behaviour of babies and infants changes and progresses as they age. Particular behaviours should be seen at particular ages.

Schaffer & Emerson(1964)

Aim: To investigate the formation of early attachments

Procedure: 60 babies were assessed at regular intervals by asking the mothers questions about their behaviour when separated from the mother (separation anxiety), and towards strangers (stranger anxiety).

Findings: around half of the babies showed separation anxiety between the ages of 25-32 weeks. Attachment generally formed with the mother primarily (known as specific attachment), although the babies tended to become attached to the caregiver who responded most sensitively to them, rather than who they spent most time with. By 40 weeks, most babies had a specific attachment, and 30% had multiple attachments (to others, e.g. the father).

Conclusions: Infant attachments develop through a number of stages (proposed in the ‘seven stages of attachment’).


  • The observation was carried out by the parents whilst the babies were behaving naturally, meaning the research was high in external validity- it was measuring normal, everyday behaviour.
  • The sample was limited- the babies were all raised in one area of Glasgow and were all from similar social backgrounds, meaning that the results may not be reflected in other areas (where child-rearing practices may be different).
  • The longitudinal aspect of the study allowed the same infants to be studied over time, increasing the internal validity of the research.

Stages of Attachment

Stage 1: Asocial: Babies recognise their carers, like the company of humans, but do not act much differently towards human than non-human objects.

Stage 2: Indiscriminate: From around 2-7 months old, babies start to prefer familiar adults, accept comfort from any adult, and show little or no stranger/separation anxiety.

Stage 3: Specific: From around 7 months, babies start to show stranger anxiety and anxiety when separated from one particular carer (usually the mother). This adult becomes the specific attachment figure, and is the person who responds most sensitively to the baby.

Stage 4: Multiple: Babies extend their attachment behaviour to other adults, forming multiple attachments. For most babies, this has happened by the time they are 1 year-old.

Attachment, figure 1


  • It is hard to judge behaviour in the very early stages, as there is little observable and recordable behaviour demonstrated by babies at this stage. Therefore, it is hard to test the accuracy of these stages.
  • Some research suggests multiple attachments are formed after forming one attachment first, but other research (cross-cultural) suggests it is the other way round. This means the explanation of the attachment stages may not be true for all infants.
  • It is hard to know whether a baby is truly attached to secondary attachment figures, as they may display some separation anxiety, but this does not mean they have formed an attachment. Therefore, it is hard to know if the explanation is true.

Animal Studies of Attachment

Lorenz: Lorenz investigated imprinting- an innate need to attach to a living creature in order to survive. He found that when he was the first living creature seen by a group of newly-hatched goslings, the goslings followed him around everywhere- they had imprinted on him. Lorenz suggested there is a critical period in which this must happen, or it will not happen at all. He also found that birds who had imprinted on a human displayed courtship rituals towards humans- he described this as ‘sexual imprinting’.


  • Lorenz’s research was useful in investigating animals, but is far less applicable to human attachment behaviour, due to the added roles of emotion, for example.
  • There is research to suggest that the consequences of imprinting may be ‘unlearned’, for example, Guiton et al.’s study showed that chickens who had imprinted on yellow rubber gloves showed courtship behaviour towards gloves at first (and tried to mate with them), but then learned to mate with other chickens. This suggests Lorenz overstated the effects of imprinting.

Harlow: Harlow tested the effect of contact comfort in attachment formation with rhesus monkeys. 16 baby monkeys were reared with two wire ‘mothers’, equipped with a feeding bottle, with one covered in soft cloth. It was found that the monkeys sought comfort from the cloth mother when frightened, and spent more time cuddling it, suggesting that comfort was a more important factor in attachment than food. Harlow also found that the monkeys involved in the study had problems as adults, for example social dysfunction, aggression, problems mating, and poor parenting skills. This suggests that being maternally deprived as an infant will have lifelong consequences. Harlow also concluded that there is a critical period when attachment must be formed (90 days for monkeys), or it will never form.


  • This research has had important implications for the understanding of attachment, for example that comfort is more important than food, and the consequences of not forming an attachment. This increases its usefulness.
  • The lessons from the research has led to practical applications, for example how animals are reared in captivity, but also in humans (for example, how to understand and prevent risk and abuse of children).
  • It has been argued that Harlow’s research was ethically unjustifiable, due to the suffering caused by the monkeys and the long-term damage. However, the findings were arguably important enough to justify this harm.
Describe one study of animal attachment. Outline what was done and what was found. (4 marks- around 1-2 paragraphs)
Your answer should include: Lorenz / Sexual / Imprinting / Comfort