Sunday, August 28, 2011

Maternal Attachment and Child Care

      Given the essential role of the mother in the development of maternal-infant attachment, what is the effect on attachment when the infant spends large amounts of time away from the mother?  This is the focus of the research studying attachment patterns of infants in child care.  Because the infant is spending less time in the proximity of his mother and because regular time away from his mother could affect his trust in his mother’s ability to respond to his needs, both of which are measures of security within the Strange Situation, it could be assumed that time in child care could contribute to insecurely attached infants.  On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that the Strange Situation might not have the same effect on infants in child care as separations from the primary caregiver are not as stressful for these infants as it is part of their normal routine. 
            The NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) tested both of these beliefs in a large-scale, multi-city study of the effects of child care on maternal-infant attachment.  Firstly, the results showed that, despite the fact that infants in child care do have exposure to maternal separation on a regular basis, the Strange Situation is still a valid measure of maternal-infant attachment.  Additionally, the results indicated that child care in and of itself does not increase or decrease the likelihood that an infant will be securely or insecurely attached.  Specifically, the quality, amount, or frequency of child care alone are not sufficient to influence the development of maternal-infant attachment . 
However, when combined with low maternal sensitivity, low-quality child care can increase the chances of insecurely attached infants.  However, in high-quality child care situations, low maternal sensitivity is not significantly related to maternal-infant attachment.  More sensitive mothers, despite the quality of care their child receives in the child care facility, are more likely to have securely attached infants.  One possible explanation for the influence of low quality child care is that the infant becomes frustrated by his experiences during the day and become less responsive to his mother in the evening, especially a less sensitive mother.  Along the same lines, a mother who is not able to correctly assess her infant’s needs combined with similarly poor care from the child care facility results in inconsistent care and less secure maternal-infant attachment.  Thus, the research on the influence of child care in maternal-infant attachment has reinforced the findings on the central role of maternal sensitivity in the maternal-infant attachment. 
Conversely, Sagi, Koren-Karie, Gini, Ziv, and Joels (2002) found that child care does negatively affect maternal-infant security attachment.  They found that it was merely the existence of child care that determined the effect, not the frequency, amount, or quality of care.  One explanation for these divergent results could be the differences in their samples of child care facilities.  Whereas the NICHD (1997) conducted their research in various cities across the United States, Sagi et al.’s experiments were conducted in Israel.  As Sagi et al. (2002) noted, Israel’s child care facilities are “extremely low quality” (p. 1184), across all socioeconomic levels of the parents.  Consequently, while quality of care was not a significant factor within the individual research projects, it could be affect the results between the two research projects.     
The effects of child care by relatives, instead of a child care facility, have also been examined.  The NICHD (1997) found no significant relationship between the care provider and security attachment.  In contrast, Sagi et al. (2002) discovered that the child care provider is a significant indicator of security attachment.  Their results indicate that the rate of infant insecurity in infants in child care facilities is twice that of infants with relatives as child care providers.  Beyond this, the opposite is also true; that is, infants with relatives as child care providers are also twice as likely to be securely attached as those in child care facilities. I believe that this finding strengthens the argument that the quality of childcare is the primary factor when determining whether childcare will have a negative influence on maternal-infant attachment.
On the subject of the effects of child care on maternal-infant development, Ainsworth’s mentor Bowlby completed more research than she did.  In his studies of orphanages, Bowlby discovered that being raised in an institution, especially if the care received was poor, had a significantly negative impact on the emotional and social development of the children.  Similarly, Ainsworth discovered a significant relationship between high levels of non-maternal care in the first year of life and insecurely attached infants.  Ainsworth and Bowlby’s research, therefore, counters some of the more current research on the effects that child care in the United States has on maternal-infant attachment.  This could result from the fact that more mothers with infants now work outside of the home, and, because of the increased knowledge of the risks of child care, these mothers may strive to be more sensitive and responsive to their infant, thus reducing the risk of maternal-infant insecurity.  
       Given these findings, I believe that working mothers can rest assured they will still be able to establish strong, secure attachment bonds with their children as long as they seek out quality childcare and are sensitive to their children's needs when they are together- certainly not too difficult of goals!


NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (1997). The effects of infant child care on infant mother attachment security: Results of the NICHD study of early child care. Child Development, 68(5), 860-879. Retrieved from
Sagi, A., Koren-Karie, N., Gini, M., Ziv, Y., & Joels, T. (2002). Shedding further light on the effects of various types and quality of early child care on infant-mother attachment relationship: The Haifa study of early child care. Child Development, 73(4), 1166-1186. Retrieved from


  1. Take 2 at posting a comment--looks like the one I posted form my phone last month didn't take. :( I enjoyed reading this straightforward look at the research (and the overwhelming research gaps) on maternal attachment and infant childcare. Definitely ground for treading carefully, but it's good to read the the research doesn't indicate childcare is automatically bad for attachment. Here are a few links I had read just before your post:

    Thanks for the steady stream of thoughtful research and analysis!

  2. Thanks for the feedback! This topic has seemed to be of the most interest to my working friends as well. I'll be sure to share the links with them!


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