Attachment Theory: how early learning and care affects infant attachment
For parents leaving their babies or young toddlers in care for the first time, it can be a stressful experience. When the paid maternity leave ends, parents must make the decision of whether or not both parents will work outside the home. The choice to leave their young child in early learning and care can create a number of concerns, one big one being how their relationship with their young child will be affected if the parent is not spending the majority of the child’s time with them. These are valid concerns, but research has suggested infant attachment to their parents is not generally affected by being in care, so long as the parents have a strong bond with the child when they are with them.
Understanding Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was first introduced by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist in the 20th Century. Bowlby observed that early attachments could significantly affect a child’s emotional development and adult relationships in later life. He concluded that children between six and 30 months were very likely to form emotional attachments to familiar caregivers, especially if the adults are sensitive and responsive to child communications. This led him to propose the Attachment Theory after he studied the negative impact of maternal deprivation on young children.
Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist who worked under Bowlby early in her career, later devised an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC) to investigate how attachments might vary between children. Her research in Uganda, then her well-known Baltimore Study in the 1960s, in which she noticed distinct individual differences in the quality of mother-infant interactions over time, led her to categorise these different attachment styles into three types: secure attachment styles, insecure attachment styles, and not-yet attached. She found a connection between maternal sensitivity and secure attachments. Sensitive mothers were familiar with their babies, provided spontaneous and specific detail about their children, and babies of sensitive mothers cried less and felt free to explore in the presence of their mother. Generally, she concluded that babies of sensitive mothers have secure attachments.
Attachment and Caregivers
While Bowlby’s initial findings focused on maternal deprivation, later studies have contradicted his emphasis. Schaffer & Emerson (1964) found that specific attachments started at about eight months and shortly thereafter, the infants became attached to other people. By 18 months, very few (13%) were attached to only one person, and some had five or more attachments. Rutter (1972) noted that several indicators of attachment, such as protest or distress when an attached person leaves, have been shown for various attachment figures – fathers, siblings, peers, and even inanimate objects. Weisner, & Gallimore (1977) found that mothers are the exclusive carers in only a very small percentage of human societies, and often there are a number of people involved in the care of children, such as relations and friends. Van Ijzendoorn, & Tavecchio (1987) argue that a stable network of attachment figures is more important than the number of figures.
The Positive Effects of Early Learning and Care
Some studies in the 1970s and 1980s found negative effects on young children in daycare and attachment, but arguments against those studies included that few mothers worked outside the home during those times, and the quality of the care facilities themselves were perhaps lower than you’d see today. Since then, much has changed, and research has shown many positive effects of early learning and care for young children, including social relationship development.
One study conducted in Norway found that infants who were in early learning settings scored higher on tests measuring cognitive and language development than infants who were cared for at home. Another study conducted in Canada found that children who attended high-quality care were more likely to to have better cognitive and language development than those who attended lower-quality care or stayed at home.
Both the Norwegian and Canadian studies highlight the importance of high-quality early learning for children’s cognitive and language development. High-quality early learning centres provide a safe and stimulating environment where children can learn and develop essential skills. They also offer opportunities for children to interact with other children and adults, helping them develop social skills and emotional intelligence.
In Australian early learning settings, we follow a National Quality Standard which lays out seven quality areas on which centres should meet or exceed. The fifth quality area is ‘relationships with children’ and its intent is to promote relationships with children that are responsive, respectful and promote children’s sense of security and belonging. Relationships of this kind free children up to explore the environment and engage in play and learning.
Please rest assured, when you’re leaving your child at one of our campuses, your child’s wellbeing is our number one priority. We support children to develop in a holistic manner, including socially, cognitively, physically and emotionally. If there are tears (from either of you!), we’re here for both of you, and know it means your relationship with your child is not only in tact, but flourishing.