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British psychoanalyst John Bowlby was interested in the emotional bond between infants and their primary caregiver, and the profound distress infants experience when separated from this caregiver – whom he called an attachment figure.

An infant’s primary attachment figure is most often his or her birth mother, but can be an alternative caregiver to whom the infant makes a life-sustaining emotional bond. Bowlby developed his attachment theory from his original research into this relationship, and the particular attachment behaviors infants use to avoid separation from and reestablish closeness to their attachment figure.


Mother Infant Eye Gazing

Infants are dependent upon the emotional and physical availability and responsiveness of their attachment figures.

The ideal caregiver-child relationship is one in which the child can trust that his or her needs will be met by the caregiver.  If a child perceives his or her caregiver to be attentive, responsive, and protective, the child will feel loved, secure, and self-assured, and will be more likely to feel confident exploring the environment and socializing with others.

However, if the infant’s caregiver is unresponsive, distant, or absent, the infant will experience extreme anxiety in which he or she will frantically seek proximity to the caregiver.  Infants do this in 4 basic ways.


take a child's hand


The four behavioral components of attachment:

  • Proximity maintenance is the infant’s desire to remain close to his or her caregiver. Attachment behaviors that infants utilize to connect with their caregivers include crying, smiling, sucking, clinging, and following.  Proximity maintenance behaviors most typically occur when the infant is faced with a need, stressor, danger, or new situation.
  • Safe Haven – During threatening and dangerous events, infants can rely on the trustworthy and available caregiver, their “safe haven”, to comfort and protect them.
  • Secure Base – When infants are assured that their safe haven exists, they are then able to perceive the attachment figure as a “secure base” from which they can explore the world independently.  
  • Separation Distress – When infants are disconnected or separated from their attachment figure, they experience profound anxiety and fear, what Bowlby referred to as “separation distress”.

Bowlby discovered a predictable sequence of emotional and behavioral reactions by children who were separated from their attachment figure for extended periods of time.

  • First, infants protest, by crying, actively searching for their caregiver, and refusing others’ efforts to soothe them and calm them down.
  • When they realize their attachment figures are not returning, they experience acute feelings of depression, helplessness, and despair.
  • Finally, infants defensively use emotional detachment as a method of self-protection against the painful loss.

These attachment behaviors are common to many other mammalian species, leading to Bowlby’s belief that attachment is needed for survival and may have an evolutionary function to protect infants from danger.


The Internal Working Model:

Infants become acclimated to the response patterns of their caregiver, and in doing so, they develop expectations of how their attachment figures will respond to them in times of need, which Bowlby coined an “internal working model of other”.  Simultaneously, infants develop an “internal working model of self”.

A child’s beliefs about the self, particularly his or her feelings of self-worth, are dependent upon the accessibility of the caregiver.  If a child’s attachment figure is available and supportive, the child is likely to feel valued and worthy of love.  On the other hand, if the child’s pleas for attention and assistance have been consistently rejected or ignored, it is probable that the child will feel inadequate and undeserving of love and affection.

Internal working models ingrained in infancy influence individuals’ expectations and perceptions of future relationships with extra-familial significant others, including romantic partners.   Bowlby believed that working models remain relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime, although they can be revised with experience.



If you are interested in how to apply attachment theory to your life, please refer to my article “Attachment Theory: How to Feel More Secure in Your Romantic Relationships” to learn more.


About the Author

Kira Hoffman, PsyD is a Clinical Psychologist at Well Clinic in San Francisco. Her specialties include individual therapy, couples counseling and premarital counseling.

According to Kira, ” believe that the relationships with those that we care about — family members, friends, and romantic partners — form a significant portion, even a majority, of our lifelong happiness and sense of fulfillment.”


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