Bonding and attachment are both cornerstones of human development. They are essential to a child’s stable functioning as she grows.

Bonding and attachment are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, the stages of infancy and toddlerhood are more accurately portrayed by distinguishing bonding from attachment.

Bonding is the basic link of trust between the infant and the caretaker, usually the mother. It develops from repeated completions, particularly during the first six months, of the following cycle: infant need> crying> rage reaction> parental action to meet need> satisfaction> relaxation. Successful bonding results in an infant acquiring a basic trust in others as responsive, in the world as a benign place, and in self as able to communicate needs.

As infants approach toddlerhood, they begin to encounter parental limits for the first time. This initiates a second bonding cycle: child behavior> adult limit> frustration and shame> adult restates intention to keep child safe. As a result of this cycle, a child develops trust in adult authority and limits. However, for this second cycle to be successful, the shame that is a natural part of the young toddler’s reaction to limits needs addressing. Usually a parent-initiated, positive interaction shortly after the limit-setting is all that is required to protect both bonding and attachment from the disruptive effects of shame.

These two bonding cycles form the foundation out of which attachment grows. While bonding is about trust, attachment is about affection. Attachment can be defined as a person-specific relationship that is dominated by affectionate interchanges. It is not a prisoner of immediate time and space, but extends beyond that. Attachment initially grows out of many instances of a young infant experiencing her parent as reflecting her emotional state. As a child grows, other mutually satisfying interactions add to the parent-child attachment.

The quality of an infant’s initial attachment is enormously important because it influences all subsequent development. Attachment has been identified as playing a vital role in all of the following: maintaining the bonds of trust; attaining full intellectual potential; acquiring a conscience; developing relationships with others; gaining identity and self-esteem; learning to regulate feelings; and developing language, brain structures, and organization of the nervous system.

Attachment at Different Ages

The indications that bonding and attachment are progressing in a healthy manner vary as an infant grows. In the first month of life, an infant experiences herself as one with the surrounding environment. The basic developmental task is for an infant to achieve a physiological balance and rhythm. This balance evolves out of numerous completions of the infant bonding cycle and prepares the way for bonding and attachment.

From months two to six, an infant’s experience shifts from feeling merged with her environment to feeling “one” with the parent. There now appear a number of signs of an infant’s developing attachment to his primary caretaker: smiling, making eye contact that expands from a few seconds to a few minutes during this period, a preoccupation with the parent’s face, and making happy noises. By the sixth month, an attaching infant is showing the full range of emotions, is responsive to parental wooing, and initiates wooing exchanges.

By month six or seven, an infant has usually begun to experience stranger anxiety. Paradoxically, stranger anxiety testifies to the strength of an infant’s attachment to her parent. It is this attachment that defines everyone else as strangers. Without an attachment, there are no strangers; everyone is of equal emotional importance or unimportance. Behaviorally, this anxiety manifests as distress in the presence of strangers and a checking back in with the parent for reassurance. Over the next two to three months, stranger anxiety intensifies before fading into its successor: separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety usually begins at 9 to 10 months, peaks between 12 and 15 months, and can last until somewhere between 24 and 36 months. Separation anxiety emerges from the infant’s growing awareness of separateness from her parent. It is yet further testimony to the strength of the infant’s attachment.

There is a range of behavioral reactions to separation anxiety. Some children cry in protest and cling to the parent; others withdraw from the world until the parent returns; still others protest by becoming angry and aggressive. While these behaviors may seem troublesome at the moment, they are proof that the work of attachment has proceeded well to this point.

The period of 10 to 18 months comprises the well-known “love affair with the world.” The fundamental developmental task is exploring the world while refining blossoming motor skills. Attachment shows up here as repeated “checking in” with the parent amid the child’s explorations. A child will go to the edge of her comfort zone and return to check in with her parent before venturing out farther.

At this age, children begin to invest significant emotional energy in the father and other family members. Indicating the value of the initial attachment, the child naturally begins to multiply her attachments. Despite this change, a child generally turns to his mother when hurt, tired, or sick– an indication that this attachment still predominates. Other signs of healthy attachment at this age include: experiencing joy in accomplishments; accepting comfort; and beginning self-comforting skills with the aid of transitional objects, such as the well-known blanket.

A child’s exploration of the world increases her awareness of being separate from mother. For the 15-to 24-month-old, this greater awareness gives rise to wooing and coercion as well as shadowing and darting. Wooing is solicitous behavior designed to draw mother’s attention. Wooing behaviors usually intensify with time; and at some point, a mother usually comes to experience wooing as a coercive demand rather than an invitation.

Like wooing, shadowing and darting are attempts by the toddler to reconcile the seeming impossible dilemma of extending autonomy while preserving attachment. Shadowing refers to a child’s following the parents practically everywhere while darting refers to rapidly moving towards and away from the parent. Both are signs of healthy attachment.

The final building blocks of bonding and attachment are put in place between 24 and 36 months with the accomplishment of self and object constancy. Self constancy is the child’s experience that she is the same person across different emotional states and situations. Object constancy is the child’s experience of others as predictable and available. Much of object constancy comes from a child’s mental images of others. Self and object constancy serve to quiet separation anxiety as well as strengthen a child’s ability to delay gratification and accept discipline.

When all goes well, the foundations for bonding and attachment are laid by 36 months. However not all children successfully negotiate these steps. The results can range from mild developmental delays to a diagnosable attachment disorder. The good news is that what work has been missed by a child can sometimes be “made up” later.

Lawrence B Smith L.C.S.W. – C., L.I.C.S.W. Lawrence Smith is a child, adolescent, adult, and family therapist in private practice in Silver Spring, MD.

9305 Mintwood Street
Silver Springs, MD 20901
301 589-3780
Fax 301 588-1933
Used with permission