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Attachment in the early years
Attachment in the early years

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Mother as single attachment figure?

It is a common misapprehension that Bowlby believed that a child basically needs a single attachment, ideally to the biological mother. Although Bowlby believed that healthy attachment in infants is based on relatively long-term, stable relationships with carers, he did not see a single attachment as necessarily being the best and only way of achieving this. Indeed, he explicitly recognised that the attachment to a ‘father’ can complement and support an infant’s attachment to their ‘mother’ and that other people in an infant’s social world can also play important roles. He also came to the conclusion that there is nothing sacrosanct about this ongoing care being provided by the biological parents and that it can equally well be provided by other consistently and reliably available people. Indeed, he argued that a variety of attachment objects could lead to a more fully developed and differentiated IWM, since it would encompass relations with different people, better preparing the child for forming relationships with a wider range of people later on in life.

Understanding this aspect of attachment theory has a number of important practical implications. For example, it suggests that fathers or other male caregivers can provide a perfectly adequate attachment figure, as can female caregivers, other than the biological mother. Hence, a belief that only the mother can be an effective caregiver is not supported by attachment theory, which is relevant for views about mothers working while their children are very young, or for social workers concerned about placing children who are at risk.

Infants form attachments with those people around them who care for them sensitively and consistently. The more frequently, sensitively and consistently a person cares for an infant, the higher that person becomes in the infant’s ‘hierarchy of attachment figures’, and the more likely it is that this is the person who will be turned to by the infant in times of stress. Looking at this globally, most infants are embedded in a network of ‘carers’, including not only siblings, grandparents and other relatives, but also other members of the community.

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Figure 9 An extended family