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Stages of Parent-Infant Attachment Bonds

Posted by darryl thompson on


This is the first in a series of three UA Matters posts focusing on the importance of parent-infant attachment bonds, as well as specific ways fathers can develop a stronger bond with baby. (by Dr. Mary Elizabeth Curtner-Smith)

What is a parent-infant attachment bond? An attachment is an enduring emotional bond between two people. It is that euphoric, deep love that parents feel for their baby. It lasts a lifetime, and it exists when the two people are separated by distance and even by death.

The primary purpose of attachment is to motivate the adult to meet the infant’s survival needs. It also causes the infant to want to be close to his parent. Another purpose of attachment is to provide the infant with a secure base that serves as a source of comfort when distressed and as a base of exploration when learning about the world.

The parent-infant attachment relationship also serves as a model for a loving relationship. Children come to see themselves as worthy of being loved based on the quality of the parent-infant relationship.

Moreover, the parent-child relationship provides the child with a template or model of what to expect in all other relationships across the lifespan, including romantic relationships during adolescence, marriage in adulthood and relationships with the next generation of children.

The development of parent-infant attachment bonds occurs through repeated interactions over time, and it takes place in context of caregiving (changing diapers, bathing, dressing, feeding, soothing and comforting) and playing with the baby.

The University of Alabama’s Dr. Mary Elizabeth Curtner-Smith says the stages of the development of parent-infant attachment are:

  • Stage 1: (birth to 10 weeks) Indiscriminate responsiveness — baby is fairly pleased to be held by just about anyone.
  • Stage 2: (10 weeks to 6 months) Discriminating social responsiveness — baby shows clear preferences for close companions through smiles, laughs and cries but is still friendly to most anyone.
  • Stage 3: (6 months to 36 months) True attachment — baby demonstrates a clear emotional bond, first with mother and then with father. Evidence of attachment to a parent is seen when the infant becomes distressed when separated from the parent, joy when reunited with the parent and wanting to be in close proximity to parents by following and lifting arms as a request to be held. This is a very important stage of social-emotional development for the child. Attachments promote exploratory behavior because the parents become the secure base or source of security that allows the child a sense of freedom to explore and try new things.
  • Stage 4: (3+ years) Goal corrected partnership — At this point the child can tolerate longer periods of separation from the parent, and the child can understand that parent may have other important things to do. Thus, the child can adjust his plans to be in company of the parent according to the parent’s goals. For example, the child can understand that, “Daddy has to cut the grass right now, but he will take me to the park when he is finished.”

In Western Culture, mothers are primarily responsible for infant caregiving, therefore, mothers often emerge as the baby’s first attachment figure. However, babies are capable of forming multiple noncompeting attachments with a small network of people (mother, father, brother, sister, grandparents, child care provider).

Thus, babies develop strong attachments to their fathers within a few weeks after they have established their attachment to their mothers. In families in which fathers provide most of the infant caregiving, fathers emerge as the primary attachment figure and mothers as second attachment figures.

Curtner-Smith is an associate professor in UA’s College of Human Environmental Sciences’ department of human development and family studies.

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