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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Du Plessis

The origins of Attachment theory

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Attachment theory emerged in the 20th century and was pioneered by British psychiatrist John Bowlby. In order to better understand the caregiver-infant relationship and its connection to mental health, Bowlby and his colleagues set out to discover how children's early developmental experiences with caregivers would impact them in later life.

This special bond between caregiver and child is referred to as the attachment bond, or according to Bowlby, the "attachment response". Bowlby had a special focus on genetics and how the attachment response could be linked to our survival as a species – this is important to acknowledge as it points us to how early relationships influence how we develop, thrive and survive as a species.

“Bowlby made his case for the crucial value of attachment-based on evolutionary theory. Like other species, he argued, human beings have a critical period when the attachment response “comes out” (Belsky, 2018. p.107).

The development of attachment during infancy (Milestones)

Infanthood is a challenging time of life, especially when our survival is heavily dependent on the competencies of our caregivers. Bowlby devised that various attacment responses are activated to ensure the survival of the infant, especially when under threat.

An infant will display ‘proximity seeking’ behaviour in order to keep their caregiver close and responsive to their needs and safety. These behaviours typically last until age three if the child can hold a safe internal model or representation of the caregiver in their mind. These attachment phases have been categorised into the sequence below according to John Bowlby's attachment sequence.

The pre-attachment phase

Bowlby believed that there is a pre-attachment phase (the first three months of life), where an infant will not display any preference for a particular caregiver or show any obvious attachment responses. However, Belsky (2018) argues this by mentioning that a baby’s first smile ‘The Social Smile’ (occurring at around 2 months of age), is a significant marker for the attachment journey, as it can evoke a powerful attachment response from the caregiver - it is important to acknowledge that the attachment relationship is bi-directional and the infant cannot be viewed in isolation.

Attachment in the making

The second phase of attachment occurs between four and seven months. This phase is usually present in the first four to five months of life and is referred to as ‘Attachment in the making’. During this phase, babies tend to show a preference for specific caregivers but are still content to be in the care of less familiar people - this is assumed to be due to the infant’s developing brain not yet having the cognitive ability to fully distinguish certain characteristics between objects.

Clear-cut or focused attachment

According to Belsky, the full-blown attachment response becomes apparent at around seven to eight months of age. At this phase, the baby is showing a preference for specific caregivers and may show signs of distress if the caregiver leaves (depending on their attachment style) - This specific kind of distress is referred to as ‘separation anxiety'. This response occurs at the same time the child is beginning to become more mobile and exploring their world – which often comes with bumps and bruises

They will also begin to develop something called ‘stranger anxiety’ as they start to avoid or even become afraid of unfamiliar people. The child is now beginning to recognise their primary caregiver as a secure base and will try to remain close to their attachment figure, especially when they are feeling vulnerable.

As the child begins to develop a curiosity about the world and an urge to explore it, they will naturally check for validation from their caregiver when trying something new or meeting new people to measure whether it is safe or not. This checking back is referred to as ‘social referencing’ and indicates that the infant trusts their caregiver to guide them in making safe decisions.


Belsky, J. (2018). Experiencing childhood and adolescence. New York: Worth Publishers. (ISBN 13: 9781319187743)(Ebook: 9781319188207)

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