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Session 2/13

Page 2/5: Topic introduction A: Basic Attachment Theory and the Attachment System

Topic introduction A: Basic Attachment Theory and The Attachment System


John Bowlby was an English child psychiatrist who studied grief reactions in children and babies who had been abandoned by their parents in World War 2. From these experiences, he formed the Attachment Theory of human child development.
His first question was: “Why are children attached to their parents for so long after birth and while growing up?



  • In the primitive forms of life (reptiles, fish, insects) the “mother” has a lot of offspring at one time. One gold fish may lay thousands of eggs in one hour. But the “mother” does not care a lot for her offspring once they are out of the egg. This is because the “baby development” of the brain is finished while the foetus is still inside the egg. So when the “baby” comes out of the egg, it is ready to function at once – it can crawl or swim or hunt or eat immediately. It does not need “maternal caretaking” – the brain development is already completed before hatching happens.
  • Mammals (animals who breastfeed their offspring, such as cats, dogs, whales, gorillas and humans) have a very different strategy and a much more complex brain. They have much fewer babies when pregnant, and they care much for each baby. Human babies are born with very immature brains, and the parents can form and program the brain because it is immature for many years. Children can learn from adults to read, to think, to be social, to solve problems, etc. You “build your brain” through upbringing and care from caregivers.
  • It takes 16-17 years before the human brain is fully developed, and in all those years you need care and support from caregivers.


5 minutes

  • Do you have domestic animals? How do the parents care for their offspring after birth?
  • What do they do when caring for their offspring? How long do they keep them before they can do for themselves?


  • There is one big problem with this survival strategy in mammals: the brain of the new-born is not able to function very well, so the baby is helpless – it’s life depends completely on external adult caregivers, especially for the first years of life.
  • This is why humans have an attachment system: feeling attached gives the baby security, protection and care. So attachment behaviour is:
    • The baby’s tendency to seek for protection, food and nursing from adult caregivers.
  • If caregivers leave the baby, it will die. Therefore babies tend to avoid physical separation and respond by attachment behaviour. The attachment system becomes active:
    • The attachment system is activated by separation and even only fear of separation.
    • Avoiding physical separation is the baby’s only chance for survival.
    • The baby avoids separation by clinging, crying, searching for the caregiver, becoming depressed and sad, protesting when the caregiver leaves.
  • This is normal and healthy attachment behaviour. Babies who do not respond when the caregivers leave may have given up looking for care (resignation). They may be described as “very calm”, but this behaviour is not normal. Babies who become extremely panicked when caregivers leave may have experienced very difficult and anxious separations. These are not so healthy reactions, and you often see these reactions in orphans whose biological parents were not able to care for them.


5 minutes

  • Can you think of seeing your own children show healthy attachment behaviour – cry when you left or cling, scream, become sad, etc.?
  • When do you see this behaviour in the children you work with? Are there any children who don’t react when caretakers leave? Are there children who go into long time panic when the caretaker leaves?


20 minutes

  • What are our practices when children show normal attachment behaviours?
  • How do we respond (sooth them, scold them, think of them as “disturbing”, do we get stressed when they cry? Or…?).
  • What will parents do in our local culture when children show attachment behaviour?
  • What did your mothers say about how to handle clinging babies? – your fathers?


  • Who formed the Attachment Theory?
  • Why do only mammals (especially humans) have the attachment system?
  • Describe normal attachment behaviour with an everyday example from your work.
  • Describe children with very little or with panicking attachment behaviours from your work?


Use your mobile or a camera to record normal attachment behaviour in your daily professional child care. How do different children respond when the caregiver leaves? See it and discuss the reaction of various children and the typical response from various caretakers in the staff.