Parent-infant Bonding: Attachment styles in the ‘strange situation’

Parent-infant Bonding

For an attachment to parents to occur, infants must know who their parents are. The process of bonding with caring begins before birth. In the first few days of life, newborns use various senses to learn who their carers are. It is important, therefore, for parents to engage in behaviors which maximize this multi-sensory input for their children as follows:

Physical contact: mothers should be encouraged to keep babies in contact with them as much as possible to provide sensory input in the form of touch, warmth, smell, sound, and sight.

Smell: babies quickly learn to associate their mother’s smell with comfort, pleasure, and nourishment.

Sound: from an early age, babies can distinguish between their mother’s voice and the voices of other people, and will prefer their mother’s voice to similarly pitched female voices.

Sight: even though their focal distance is only around 25cm, three-day-old babies can visually distinguish between their mothers and others.

Although most of the research has focused on mothers, bonding with fathers is important and the principles described above also apply. Parent-infant bonding in the first days sets an important foundation for subsequent parent-child interaction. However, all is not formed with children who must spend time in incubators and between parents and adopted children.

Attachment styles in the ‘strange situation’

Attachment styleChild’s behavior when the mother leavesMother’s parenting style
Secure attachmentThe child gets upset when the mother leaves but calms down quickly when she returns and explores the environment when she is there.Mother is quick to respond to the physical and emotional needs of the child. It helps the child to cope with their stress.
Avoidant attachmentThe child explores the environment and does not respond when the mother leaves or returns.The mother does not respond when the child is upset. Tries to stop the child from crying and encourages independence and exploration.
Ambivalent attachmentThe child gets upset when the mother leaves but can be comforted by a stranger. When the mother returns the child will act ambivalently and resist contact or appear angry.Mother is inconsistent – varies between responding quickly and appropriately on some occasions and not responding on other occasions. The child is therefore preoccupied with whether the mother is available before they can use her as a secure base.
Disorganized attachmentIt can be secure, ambivalent, or avoidant but also shows some difficulty coping when the mother returns with behavior such as rocking themselves or freezing.Mother’s behavior can be negative, withdrawn, inappropriate, roles not clearly defined, sometimes child maltreatment.

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