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What is attachment theory?

Attachment theory is a key concept within child development that focuses on relationships and bonds. Attachment is one of the first bonds that babies experience and has a huge impact on their lives.

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. 

There is also a neurological implication to this developmental process. Research shows that children who have secure attachments establish strong connections within the brain’s neurons, leading to well-developed brains. 

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

 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. 

As this bond grows, separation anxiety is reduced. However, it’s important to remember that this growing relationship between children and carers at the nursery in no way diminishes the bond that children have with their primary caregivers. 

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.