Attachment is a term which is used to describe the bond that forms between a baby and its main carers.

This early relationship is a very important foundation to mental health and a child’s development.

Babies with secure attachment usually go on to be confident children who are more resilient and less prone to mental health issues.

Attachment behaviour

Attachment behaviour is when babies and toddlers try to get comfort and protection from the people they are attached to. All human babies have this behaviour in order to protect themselves from danger.

They do this by smiling and cooing, crawling and following, holding out their arms, crying and many other signals that parents and carers learn to understand.

When a child gets an appropriate response such as eye contact, a smile, a touch or a quick cuddle, and feels safe, the attachment seeking stops and the child is free to relax, play, explore and learn again.

If there is not an appropriate response, for example if the baby is ignored or chastised, the baby continues to feel anxious or afraid and continues the attachment behaviour.

Some babies who are very afraid will give up trying. For example, if a parent thinks a child should be brave and encourages the child to leave the safety and closeness of an adult before they are ready, the child is more than likely to respond by feeling more afraid and clinging more.

Helping children to feel safe first is the best way to encourage them to be brave.

Who babies attach to

Babies develop attachment relationships with their main caregivers over the first few months of life.

They can form attachments with more than one person. If there is a problem with the relationship with the main caregiver, e.g. if they are depressed or distracted, a secure attachment relationship with another caring person can help balance this and give a baby a positive relationship model.

Insecure attachment and attachment disorders

If secure attachment doesn’t occur with sufficient regularity in infancy and early childhood, a child won’t have the experiences they need to grow up feeling confident in themselves and to have trust in others.

Instead, insecure attachments will form that could lead to attachment disorders.

These disorders may be reflected in learning problems, social problems, mental health issues and failed personal and interpersonal relationships.

Avoidant attachment

When the main caregiver is emotionally unavailable, rejecting or absent for an extremely long period, a child may become “avoidantly" attached, meaning that the child adapts by avoiding closeness and emotional connection.

This child may appear to be very independent but their self-reliance is a cover for insecurity.

Disorganised attachment

When a main caregiver’s actions and responses to a child are mixed or unclear, the child may develop a “disorganised attachment” to their caregiver.

This child may seem dazed or confused and show a mixture of resistant and apprehensive behaviours as they are unsure how the main caregiver will react.

Ambivalent attachment

An “ambivalently” attached child experiences distress at the departure of the main caregiver, however they are not comforted by their return and may even reject any comforting offered.

The major causes of attachment disorders are:

  • Neglect, including emotional neglect
  • Abuse, physical or sexual
  • Separation from the primary caregiver
  • Change of primary caregiver
  • Inconsistency of care
  • Isolation
  • Traumatic experiences such as death of a parent or disaster
  • Maternal depression
  • Maternal use of drugs or alcohol
  • Undiagnosed, isolating, painful illness such as colic or ear infections


Signs and symptoms of attachment disorders

Insecure attachments influence the developing brain which in turn affects future interactions with others, self-esteem, self-control and the ability to learn well and to achieve optimum mental and physical health.

Symptoms of insecure attachment may mirror common developmental problems including ADHD and autistic spectrum disorder.

Physical problems

  • Prone to chronic illness
  • Obsession with food, hoarding food, gorging, refusing to eat, eating strange things
  • Learning problems
  • Behavioural problems at school
  • Speech and language problems
  • Incessant chatter and questions
  • Difficulty learning
  • Hyperactivity or concentration problems

Social problems

  • Lack of self-control
  • Inability to develop and maintain friendships
  • Alienation from parents, carers and other authority figures
  • Aggression and violence
  • Difficulty with genuine trust, intimacy and affection
  • Lack of empathy, compassion or remorse
  • Negative, hopeless, pessimistic view of self, family and society

Emotional problems

  • Low self-esteem
  • Being needy, clingy
  • Pretence of being independent
  • Inability to deal with stress
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Aversion to physical affection
  • Emotionally & socially immature


Repairing attachment disorders

It’s never too late to create positive change in a child’s life – or in an adult’s for that matter.

Relationships with relatives, teachers and childcare providers can supply a valuable source of connection and strength for a child’s developing mind.

Remember attachment is an interactive process. Our brains are structured in such a way to link up with each other but what makes attachment so unique is that the older, more experienced parent attunes and follows the lead of the younger, less experienced, more vulnerable child.

Following a child’s lead does not mean that they make all the decisions but it does mean that the care-taker follows and responds to the child’s emotional needs and defers to their emotional needs when appropriate.

Attachment is also a non-verbal process which takes place many months or even years before speech and thought develop. Eye contact, facial expressions, posture, gestures and body movements, tone of voice, speech rhythm and intensity can convey understanding and caring.

There is no “one size fits all” for children. As adults it is up to us to follow the non-verbal clues given by a child and different children vary in what they find soothing. It helps with babies and toddlers to talk to your health visitor who may be able to support you to become more in tune with your child.

Positive emotional experiences are as important to share as negative ones. Sharing experiences of joy and happiness are as important to the attachment bond as the shared negative emotional experiences of fear, sadness, anger or shame.

As adults some of us find it difficult to do this so we may need help for ourselves first – you can always talk to your family GP about it.

Remember, no matter how much we love our children, there comes a point where we are not in agreement with them, where we have to set limits or say no.

This conflict temporarily breaks the attachment, for instance when the child angrily protests. This is fine and to be expected – the key is to be able to reconnect when the child is ready to do so.

From time to time we will be the cause of the disconnection when we do something to hurt, disrespect or shame our child – again we need to be able to say sorry in order for the attachment to reconnect.