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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Maternal Attachment and Biological Differences

    Ainsworth’s original Strange Situation included only three classifications of maternal-infant attachment, as discussed in a previous post.  However, research since this time has uncovered that 15% to 85% of infants may not fit into one of these three categories, increasing with respect to the level of risk of the sample.  Infants in this new, fourth category are referred to as disorganized-disoriented or atypical.  During the Strange Situation, these infants lack a single, clearly defined coping strategy.  Instead, they appear confused or exhibit conflicting emotions and behaviors.  Many researchers have looked to biological differences to explain atypical attachment patterns .
            Research has found that biological differences can affect attachment classification.  Infants who have certain medical conditions exhibit behaviors that may alter typical maternal responses and, in the long term, may alter maternal-infant attachment.  An infant with Down Syndrome, for example, may be less emotional towards his caretakers and use different signs of distress.  Consequently, his mother may react differently to his signals.  In the case of some developmental or emotional disorders, biological differences serve as the cause of atypical attachment patterns.
            On the other hand, some biological conditions only have the appearance of affecting attachment patterns.  In the cases of medical conditions that manifest themselves in primarily physical terms, as in cerebral palsy, the physical actions of these infants may appear to mirror those of atypical attachment.  However, these movements are not necessarily indicative of underlying feelings of attachment or relationship patterns.  In cases of physical disabilities resulting in motor impairments, biological differences may attribute to atypical attachment classification, but this classification may reflect the actual maternal-infant attachment pattern. 
            Finally, atypical attachment patterns can physiologically express themselves, again indicating biological differences in the various attachment patterns.  As was previously stated, infants who are atypically attached do not display a single coping strategy during the Strange Situation, instead alternating between multiple patterns of emotion and behavior.  This is a sign of higher levels of stress within the infant.  Hertsgaard, Gunnar, Erickson, and Nachmia (1995) have discovered a significant relationship between the cortisol levels and atypically attached infants.  Cortisol is produced by the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system which often activates when typical coping mechanisms are not sufficient or external coping sources are not available.  Thus, during the Strange Situation atypical infants likely lack individual coping strategies to deal with the stressful circumstances, and they do not view their mothers as a reliable relief.   Hertsgaard’s et al. research did not determine the causality of this relationship, however, so it is not possible to determine if higher levels of cortisol are a cause or effect of atypical attachment with this data. 
However, other studies indicate that regulated levels cortisol are likely the result of secure attachment early in life.  The Aussie mama who blogs at Gullible New Parent did an amazing job analyzing this, so, instead of re-explaining what has already been explored, check out her site here if you are interested.

Barnett, D. Vondra, J.I., Butler, C.M. (1999). Atypical patterns of early attachment: Discussion and future directions. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 64(3), 172-192. Retrieved from 
Hertsgaard, L. Gunnar, M., Erickson, M.F., Nachmias, M. (1995). Adrenocortical responses to the Strange Situation in infants with disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships.  Child Development, 66(4), 1100-1106. Retrieved from 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Maternal Attachment: Characteristics of the Child

  We have defined maternal attachment and looked at the characteristics of different mothering styles.  But, why does it all matter? How does it affect the child?  Below are three patterns of attachment observed by Mary Ainsworth. (Later researchers identified other attachment patterns as some observations show that as many as 15-20% of infants do not meet the below criteria. To read about this "unclassified" infants, check out this post)  If you have not already, be sure to check out the original post about maternal attachment so that you are familiar with the Strange Situation experiment as it used when describing the attachment patterns.

Securely Attached Infants
      Ainsworth considers this the healthy attachment pattern, and studies indicate it describes about 65% of infants in the United States.  Securely attached infants use their mother as a secure base from which to explore.  They play and practice moving about a room but have knowledge of the mother's whereabouts and might look back at her and smile or otherwise interact.  They enjoy physical contact with the mother.  When the mother leaves the room during the Strange Situation experiment, these infants might cry or otherwise become visibly upset. However, no severe signs of anxiety are expressed. and, their mood quickly improves when the mother returns.
     In the home observations, the mothers quickly responded to the baby's needs and happily comforted the baby.  Generally, the babies displayed little sign of stress at home.

Insecure-Avoidant Infants
    Here, the child and the mother seem to not be in-synch with each other.  This relationship is found in about 20% of infants in the United States. At times the mother may want to have physical contact with the child, but the child is engaged in play and is resentful of the mother's interruptions. Likewise, when the child activity seeks affection from the mother, she may ignore the child and continue her activities.  Eventually, the child will cease his attempts.  While the child may occasionally use the mother as a secure base, this is not always the case, and he can seem quite independent at times.  This may lead some to believe that the child is healthy and able to take care of himself. However, it is actually an indicator of detachment from the mother that is likely a result of the times he gave up fighting for her attention.  These children realize that they cannot always depend on their mothers for support and, thus, become self-protective.

Insecure-Ambivalent Infants
    These infants are scared to leave their mothers' side to explore.  When the mother leaves during the Strange Situation, the infant is very distressed and quickly goes to his mother upon her return.  At the same time, however, he is upset with her. He is torn between emotions.  During home observations, it was observed that the mothers to insecure-ambivalent infants were inconsistent in their treatment.  At times, they were loving, while other times, they ignored the infants.  This usually describes 10-15% of infants in the United States.

Ainsworth, Mary. (1970). Criteria for Classification of One-Year-Olds in Terms of the Balance Between Exploratory and Attachment Behavior at Home. Retrieved from
Crain, William. (2011). Theories of Development: Concepts and Application. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Maternal Attachment: Characteristics of the Mother

        As was explained in the previous post, Mary Ainsworth looked at four characteristics, each along a continuum when describing maternal attachment: sensitivity vs. insensitivity to baby's signals, cooperation vs. interference with baby's environment, acceptance vs. rejection of infant's needs, and physical and psychological availability.    What do these descriptions mean, and where does your care-giving style fall along these scales?

Sensitivity vs. Insensitivity to Baby's Signals
      The first aspect of this characteristic is to be able to interpret your child's signals.  Are you aware of your child's attempts to communicate with you, and can you determine his meaning?  If so, do you respond to meet his requests promptly?
      A highly sensitive mother is one that is very aware of her child's communications and is able to determine her child's needs without projecting her own perception or bias in her child's request.  For example, if the mother determines that her child wants to play with a toy, she would be inserting her own bias into his request if she quickly handed him the nearest stuffed animal instead of the set of blocks tucked away in the closet that the child was requesting.  Additionally, the mother must be able to empathize with her child so that she can gain a greater understanding of the child's needs. 
      An example of being sensitive to her child's needs is feeding on demand.  When the child indicates that she is hungry, the mother quickly feeds the child, whatever the hour or however soon after the previous feeding.  In contrast, feeding on a strict schedule is insensitive to a child's needs.

Cooperation vs. Interference with Baby's Environment
 This characteristic analyzes to what extent the mother's actions disrupt the child's activity or current interest.  This can come in the form of physical disruption (constant moving of the child) or a less physical form in which the mother is constantly instructing or dictating the child's actions.
  Mothers that are highly disruptive of a child's environment do not respect the actions or desires of the child; instead, they tend to view the child as an extension of themselves- forcing the child to play when the mother wants to play or sleep when the mother wants to sleep.
  In contrast, a cooperating mother guides her child using his cues.  The mother's decisions take the child's into account, and, if a change in activity is necessary, she waits for an appropriate pause in the activity. These shifts are gradual, respecting the child's current interest.
  Another difference in these styles is seen in the types of play.  The cooperative mother is more spontaneous in play, basing her actions on the child's current mood and desires.  In contrast, the interfering mother has a pre-determined play plan or rules that she will impose on the child, despite the child's current wants.

Physical and Psychological Availability
      This scale primarily  rates the mother's availability and accessibility to her child.  Ainsworth acknowledges that a mother cannot give her 100% attention to her child at all times (there's still cooking, cleaning, husbands, other children, work, etc!) But, the mother is still alert to the child's signals and can respond when needed.
      It is within this scale that instances of a mother suffering from PPD or another psychological disorder become most evident.  In order to cope with her own needs, the mother may find it necessary to tune out those of her child's.  Other less available mothers are simply more interested in their own lives than those of their child. They have their own goals, personal or professional, that they chose to attend to over the needs of child.
      After an extended period of being with an unresponsive mother, the child will most likely essentially stop trying to get his mother's attention.  In these cases, it may not seem as though the mother is available and responding to the child.  However, long periods of silence or lack of interest from the child must be taken into account when judging the mother's accessibility.

Acceptance vs. Rejection of Baby's Needs
      This characteristic looks at how the mother is coping with the positive and negative emotions that dealing with a particular child brings.  There are obvious joys and frustrations of parenthood- love, tenderness, but also times of irritation and exasperation. The accepting mother is loving and accepting towards the child, even in difficult moments.  Of course, even the accepting mother has occasional outbursts and periods of frustration, but she does not target these short-lived emotions at the child.  In contrast, the rejecting mother is overcome with negative emotions and often takes them out on the child, most often, as the name implies, in the form of rejection.

Ainsworth, Mary. (1969). From Mimeograph. Retrieved from 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What is a secure base?

         Developed by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth, the secure base phenomenon describes how the primary caregiver (typically the mama) is attached to her baby or, in more technical terms, maternal-infant attachment patterns.  Within this phenomenon, the primary caregiver, serves as a "secure base" for the baby's exploration of his physical environment.  Ainsworth researched her secure base model in her experiment, the Strange Situation.  Within the Strange Situation experiment, infants 12 months old are observed with their mothers in progressively more stressful situations.  The infants and their mothers are placed in a room with toys for 21 minutes.  During this time, a stranger comes into the room and begins to play with the child; the mother leaves the room and then returns on two occasions, and, lastly, the stranger leaves and again enters the room.  Throughout the experiment, the infants’ behaviors of “proximity seeking, contact maintaining, avoidance [of interactions with the mother], and resistance [to any of the mother’s attempts at interaction]” (Huth-Bocks, Levendosky, Bogat, & von Eye, 2004, p.487) are observed.  Based upon these observations, infants are classified as secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, or disorganized-disoriented.  The Strange Situation was combined with home observations to determine the mother's treatment of the infant during daily routines.
      In the observations, securely attached babies typically only cried when they noticed their mothers were missing, whereas crying by insecurely attached infants was unpredictable and seemingly unrelated to the mother’s actions.  So, securely attached babies look for and depend on their secure bases (mothers) for support in stressful situations, but babies that are not securely attached know that they cannot necessarily depend on their mothers.   
   Based upon these findings (which have been repeated by many researchers), we can conclude that responding to our babies needs is the most effective way to develop a secure attachment pattern with our babies.  Popular "cry it out" methods certainly do not meet this criteria!  

Ainsworth, M. & Marvin, R.S. (1995). On the shaping of attachment theory and research: An interview with Mary D. S.Ainsworth (Fall 1994). Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 60(2/3), 2-21. Retrieved from
Allen, J.P., McElhaney, K.B., Land, D.J., Kuperminc, & Jodl, K.M. (2004). Stability and change in attachment security across adolescence. Child Development, 75(6), 1792-1805. Retrieved from 
Huth-Bocks, A.C., Levendosky, A.A., Bogat, G.B., & von Eye, A. (2004). The impact of maternal characteristics and contextual variables on infant-mother attachment. Child Development, 75(2), 480-496. Retrieved from

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