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What is attachment theory?

A dad holding his son on his shoulders

Attachment theory, a foundational concept in child psychology and development, is essential in shaping children’s early experiences and relationships. Developed by John Bowlby and furthered by Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory explores how the bond between children and their primary caregivers impacts their emotional, social, and mental health, setting the stage for their future.

Attachment theory in child development

Attachment theorist John Bowlby described attachment as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. Bowlby believed that the attachment children develop with carers is the biggest influence on the security of children and their ability to form relationships during their lives. 

The neurological impact of secure attachments

Emerging research in developmental psychology emphasises the neurological effects of attachment styles. Children who establish secure attachments with their caregivers tend to develop more robust neural connections. This fosters healthier brain development and significantly impacts their social behaviours and emotional well-being.

The four phases of attachment theory

Bowlby describes the first three years of a child’s life as sensitive periods for attachment. He explains that children go through four phases of attachment during this time.

1. Pre-attachment phase

From birth to six weeks, babies initiate signals with their main caregiver by crying, smiling, making noises and trying to focus on their face.

During this period, although babies will recognise the smell and voice of their main caregiver, they are not yet attached solely to that person and so don’t mind being left with unfamiliar adults. 

2. Attachment-in-making phase

Between six weeks and six to eight months, babies start to respond differently to their main caregiver and strangers. They will babble and smile at their main caregiver and be comforted by their responses. Babies also start to realise that their actions influence the behaviours of those caring for them. 

A sense of trust is established in this period, and babies learn to expect a reaction from their carer. Babies will still not protest if separated from their main caregiver, provided their needs are being met. 

3. Clear cut attachment phase

From six to eight months until two years, children may display separation anxiety when their main caregiver leaves. Unfortunately, this timing often coincides with parents returning to work after parental leave. 

Children experience separation anxiety because they have formed secure attachments with their main caregivers. The relationships with secondary caregivers, such as a key person at nursery, are crucial at this time, providing additional close attachments for children. 

4. Formation of reciprocal relationships phase

Between 18 months and two years, children will acquire language skills and better understand the pattern of carers leaving and returning. 

Knowing that a caregiver is accessible if needed allows children to develop confidence in their surroundings. You will often see children go off to play and explore independently, then return to their carer at intervals to ‘check in’ before going off to play again. 


Bonding at nursery

In environments like the UK nursery, secondary caregivers play a vital role. A child’s key person will support them during their settling-in period and provide consistent care and support by developing a genuine bond and understanding their character. We call this ‘tuning in’, as the carer becomes familiar with an individual child’s needs, behaviours, temperament and interests. 

Attachment styles and their influence

Different attachment styles – secure, avoidant, disorganised, and anxious – significantly influence behaviour in both early and adult life. Understanding these styles can provide insights into a child’s social interactions and their approach to relationships later in life.

Attachment theory and parenting styles

Parents’ understanding of attachment theory can profoundly impact their approach to parenting. Recognising the importance of forming secure attachments can guide parents in fostering their child’s emotional and mental health.

The evolution of attachment theory

Attachment theory has evolved significantly since its inception, with key contributions from figures like Mary Ainsworth. Understanding the historical context of this theory provides a deeper insight into its importance in modern child psychology.

The understanding of attachment theory is crucial in child development, highlighting the profound impact of early relationships on an individual’s life. By recognising the importance of these early bonds, caregivers and parents can better support the healthy development of their children.

At N Family Club, we recognise the importance of the emotional bonds between children and their carers. This is why we have such a strong focus on the role of each child’s key person, especially in their first years with us.