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Infants and Toddlers: The Importance of Bonding and Attachment
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin, M. Ed

Attachment can be described as an establishment of an emotionally positive and mutually rewarding relationship between an infant and its parent or other caretaker (Gander and Gardiner, 1981). (Berk, 1999) defines attachment in Infants, Children and Adolescents as the strong, affectional tie we feel for special people in our lives that leads us to feel pleasure and joy when we interact with them and to be comforted by their nearness during times of stress.

Schaffer, (1977) believes that the infant goes through three steps: discerning the difference between humans and objects, distinguishing mother from other humans, and showing signs of missing the mother when she leaves. Stranger anxiety develops at about seven months.

Bonding is the process whereby parents and child determine that they are special to each other. Early psychologists thought bonding must take place immediately after birth. However, (Spezzano & Waterman, 1977) have modified this belief and state that bonding does not have to take place at one critical moment. However, a strong bond is the foundation for later development or attachment (Fogel, 1997).

Historical Review of Innate Factors that Contribute to Successful Bonding
Ethologists, those who study animal behavior and behavioral tendencies that help to perpetuate their particular species, draw attention to the possibility that innate factors related to survival may also be operating in parent-infant bonding in human beings.

Early researchers provided the following studies on innate behavior which continue to influence modern day psychologists.
• An optimal period, exists shortly after birth for the establishment of the relationship between parent and offspring (Scott, 1958). Goslings, for example, form an attachment to the first moving object they see, usually their mother, and follow it faithfully until they can strike out on their own. This kind of attachment, which also occurs in chicks and ducklings, is called imprinting (Lorenz, 1958). It evolved because of its survival value and is not a special “social” behavior, since it is initiated by the stimulus of any moving object, not necessarily by the mother.
• In mammals, the establishment of an infant’s attachment to its mother is usually less stereotypical . However, optimal periods and instinctive behaviors, which differ from species to species, do appear to be important. In puppies, which are born blind and deaf, the optimal time seems to be about three to eight weeks of age (Scott, 1958). In several mammal species, mothers bond most effectively to their newborns right after giving birth. If cows and goats are separated from their offspring at birth, the mother may reject the young and not allow them to nurse when they are reunited later.
• The higher a species is on the evolutionary scale, the more learning and experience influence parental behavior. In a well-known experiment, Harlow & Zimmerman (1959) showed that rhesus monkeys reared with terrycloth and wire mesh “surrogate mothers” spent their days clinging to the terrycloth substitute even though the wire mesh “mother” held the bottle and infants had to climb on it to be fed. Yet such objects have never played a role in infant feeding. Separated from their mothers, the infant monkeys were raised in comparative isolation. As adults, the monkeys were incapable of normal sexual behavior; when they were artificially inseminated and gave birth; they did not form attachments to their offspring or nurture them and afterward abused them.
• Observation from human infants also reveal that they become attached to family members who seldom, if ever, feed them, including fathers, siblings, and grandparents. It has been observed that toddlers in Western cultures who sleep alone and experience frequent daytime separations from their parents sometimes develop strong emotional ties to cuddly objects, such as blankets or teddy bears. (Passman, 1987).

Father’s Involvement in Bonding and Attachment
Traditionally, mothers are considered the primary caregivers. However, male roles are being redefined in all cultures. Even a few decades ago, fathers waited out the birth of their child in a “father’s waiting room.” Today, they participate in the birth and may be the first to hold their newborn. They are encouraged to take a more active role in the infant’s caregiving. With more mothers being employed outside the home, fathers are assuming more responsibility at home, including feeding, bathing, and diapering the baby. A father’s role in play may be different from the mother. When fathers play, they are more physical and rough. Mothers play quieter games, like “peek-a-boo.” Children whose fathers spend a lot of time playing with them are found to be better adjusted to strange situations. There is also a positive relationship between father’s playing and later cognitive development Sawin, 1981).

Factors That Affect Attachment Security
What factors affect attachment security? Are there some issues greater than others?
(1) First, having the opportunity to develop a close personal relationship with one or only a few caregivers is crucially important.
(2) Warm responsive parenting should lead to greater attachment security.
(3) As babies actively contribute to the attachment relationship, an infant’s characteristics should make a difference in how well he/she develops.
(4) Family circumstances influence attachment quality. Stressors, such as anxiety and instability, job loss, failing marriage, financial difficulties, may interfere with the sensitivity of parental care. (Berk, 1999, p. 274).

Emotional/Social Development Milestones
The following chart lists the emotional and social milestones that correlate with attachment of babies through toddlers at 24 months. (Berk, 1999, pp. 290-291).

Birth to six months
• Shows signs of almost all basic emotions (happiness, interest, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust).
• Social smile and laughter emerge.
• Matches adults’ emotional expressions during face-to-face interaction.
• I - self, emerges.

Seven to twelve months
• Anger and fear increase in frequency and intensity.
• Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety appear.
• Uses caregiver as a secure base for exploration.
• Engages in social referencing.
• Shows “clear-cut” attachment to familiar caregivers.

Thirteen to eighteen months
• Joins in play with familiar adults and siblings.
• Recognizes image of self in mirrors.
• Begins to realize others’ emotional reactions may differ from one’s own.
• Shows signs of empathy.
• Complies with simple directives.
• Engages in imitative, turn-taking games with playmates.

Nineteen to twenty-four months
• Self-conscious emotions (shame, embarrassment, and pride emerge.)
• Acquires a vocabulary of emotional terms.
• Starts to use language to assist with emotional self-regulation.
• Begins to tolerate caregiver’s absences more easily.
• Starts to use words to influence a playmate’s behavior.
• Uses own name or personal pronoun to label image of self.
• Categorizes the self and others on the basis of age, sex, and positive and negative behavior.
• Self-control appears.


The following list provides only a few of the available books that will help readers understand the process of attachment and bonding.
Nurturing Your Baby, by William and Martha Sears
Stay-At-Home Dads, by Libby Gill
The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year, by A. Brott
Understanding Preschool Development, by Margaret B. Puckett


Berk, L. (1999) Infants, children and adolescents. Needham Heights, MA:
   Allyn & Bacon.
Gander, M. & Gardiner, H. (1981). Child and adolescent development.
   Boston: Little Brown and Company.
Gavidia-Payne, S., & Stoneman, Z. (1997). Family predictors of maternal
   and paternal involvement in programs for young children with disabilities.
   Child Development, 68, 701-717.
Fogel, A. (1997). Infancy: Infant, family, and society. Minneapolis/St. Paul:
Hewlett, B.S. (1992). Father-child relations: Cultural and biosocial context
    (pp.153-176). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Harlow, H. R.,  Zimmerman, R. (1959). Affectional responses in the
    infant monkey. Science, 130, 421-432.
Lorenz, K. (1958). “The evolution of Behavior,” Scientific American
   199: 67-68.
Passman, R.H. (1987). Attachment to inanimate objects: Are children who
    have security blankets insecure?: Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 825-830.
Sawin, D.B. (1981). Father’s interactions with infants. In B. Weissboard &
    J.S. Musick (Eds.), Infants: Their social environments (pp. 169-184).
Schaffer, R. (1977). Mothering. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
Spezzano. C., & Waterman, J. (1977). The first day of life. Psychology
, 11, 110-116.
Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young
Scott, J. P. (1958). Critical periods in the development of social behavior in
    puppies, Psychosomatic Medicine 20, No. 1: 42-54.

Carolyn Ross Tomlin, M. Ed., Jackson, TN has been a preschool director,  kindergarten teacher and taught early childhood education at Union University. She contributes to numerous education publications.