Stages of Attachment

If you're having a rough day, you may prefer to receive a nice big hug from your mother more than a random stranger on the street. Chances are, you formed a secure attachment to her from a young age. However, the case may also be that a hug from your mother offers no such comfort, indicating that you may have developed a more insecure attachment. But what are the stages of attachment, and how do they develop?

Stages of Attachment Stages of Attachment

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Contents
Table of contents
    • We will first try to answer the question, what are the stages of attachment in psychology?
    • Then, let's discuss the stages of attachment theory.
    • What are the stages of attachment in development?
    • Then we will look at the stages of infants that Schaffer and Emerson proposed.
    • Finally, we will delve into the evaluation of Schaffer and Emerson's stages of attachment.

    Stages of Attachment in Psychology

    The stages of attachment in infants are the developmental stages in which infants form attachments to their primary caregiver and others in their environment.

    Attachment is an emotional bond or tie between two people that provides security and closeness.

    Before we dive into the stages of attachment, let's first understand the components of attachment. This includes:

    • Safe Haven: the child goes to their caregiver for comfort or soothing if they feel threatened.

    • Proximity Maintenance: the child desires to stay close to their caregiver, who provides a sense of safety.

    • Secure Base: as a child explores the new world around them, they can depend on their caregiver to provide security.

    • Separation Distress: if the child is ever separated from their caregiver, they become distressed and upset by their absence.

    Several researchers in psychology have designed studies to understand better how these stages develop and what they are. Below, we'll discuss how essential psychologists, including Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby, Rudolf Schaffer, and Peggy Emerson, understood the stages of attachment.

    Stages of Attachment Theory

    Psychologists theorise attachment in several different ways. One important question they ask is why we develop an attachment bond with our caregivers and under what circumstances. John Bowlby, one of the first to suggest stages of attachment theory, introduced the idea of an infant-caregiver bond in his ethological theory of attachment.

    Ethological theory of attachment: suggests that an infant's emotional bond to their caregiver is an evolutionary response that promotes survival.

    However, Bowlby stressed that feeding does not facilitate attachment but is rather used for comfort or soothing.

    Take a study by Harlow (1958). He observed eight rhesus monkeys and their responses to two types of surrogate mothers. One surrogate was covered by a soft cloth while the other simply dispensed food.

    While it would be easy to assume the monkey would be more attached to the mother dispensing food for survival reasons, they found that the monkeys preferred the surrogate with a cloth.

    The research suggests infants form stronger attachments to caregivers who offer comfort than food.

    Both Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth believed that how well a child is attached to their caregiver can greatly affect that child's sense of security and ability to form trustworthy relationships. Ainsworth included two primary attachment types in her attachment theory: secure and insecure.

    The insecure attachment can be further subdivided into insecure-ambivalent and insecure-avoidant attachment styles.

    Stages of Attachment, African American mother and father laying on bed with infant, StudySmarterFig 1. The infant-caregiver attachment influences the child's behaviour.

    Stages of Attachment Development

    Later, we'll discuss the stages of attachment in infants according to Schaffer and Emerson (1964). But according to Bowlby, there are also stages of attachment development.

    According to Bowlby, there are four attachment development stages, summarised in the table below.

    Stage of Attachment Development"AgeDescription
    Pre-Attachment PhaseBirth to 6 weeks
    • Signals include crying, smiling and grasping to catch the caregiver's attention.
    • Baby responds positively, and the caregiver stays proximally close; this comforts the infant.
    • The baby begins recognising the mother's features, such as her face, fragrance, and voice.
    • The infant may not yet be attached to the mother and usually does not react when left with unfamiliar adults.
    "Attachment in Making" Phase6 Weeks to 6-8 Months
    • Baby responds differently to caregivers than strangers (i.e. smiles when the mother enters the room).
    • The baby begins to recognise that their actions impact their environment and the behaviour of those around them.
    • Baby develops a sense of trust in the expectations of the caregiver.
    • May recognise strangers but do not become distressed when separated from the caregiver.
    "Clear Cut" Attachment Phase6-8 Months to 18 Months- 2 Years
    • Attachment to the caregiver becomes more evident.
    • Baby begins to develop "separation anxiety" and becomes upset when their caregiver leaves the room.
    • The child becomes distressed when the caregiver goes.
    Formation of Reciprocal Relationship18 months - 2 years +
    • The child does not depend on the caregiver as they age.
    • The child can negotiate needs and goals with the caregiver.

    Stages of Attachment in Infants

    Rudolf Schaffer and Peggy Emerson (1964) sought to formulate clear stages of attachment in infants.

    They designed a study to examine how infants become attached to their caregivers, from asocial attachments to multiple attachments.

    Stages of Attachment: Procedure

    Schaffer and Emerson wanted to determine at what age infants begin to form attachments. They also wanted to find out to whom these attachments infants form and how strong they are.

    The researchers sampled 60 infants from a working-class neighbourhood in the Scottish city of Glasgow. As part of a longitudinal study, the researchers observed the babies in their homes at the following intervals:

    • Every four weeks during the baby's first year of life.

    • Once at 18 months of age.

    The researchers measured attachment by observing the baby's behaviour in the following scenarios:

    Separation anxiety: The researchers separated the baby from the primary caregiver. A distressed response from the baby indicates that attachment exists.

    Stranger anxiety: The researchers left the baby with an unfamiliar person. A distressed reaction from the baby indicates that they recognise a familiar and unfamiliar face.

    Stages of Attachment: Results

    Schaffer and Emerson found that babies develop a primary attachment to their mothers at 6-7 months. A secondary attachment to the father and other family members developed at about ten months.

    By 18 months, 31% of babies had formed attachments to siblings, grandparents, neighbours, or other relatives.

    From these observations, Schaffer and Emerson concluded that infants go through the following stages of attachment.

    Stage of AttachmentAgeDescription

    Asocial Stage

    0-6 weeks

    Infants' behaviours, such as crying or smiling, are simply for attention and are not directed toward a specific person. Infants do not discriminate between people but may prefer people over other species.

    Indiscriminate attachment stage

    6 weeks 6 months

    Babies are usually happy to receive attention from anyone and do not yet resist strangers or unfamiliar people. However, they respond more strongly to people familiar with the baby.

    Specific attachment stage

    7-9 months

    Infants begin to experience and show separation anxiety from their primary caregivers.

    A fear of strangers develops at this age.

    Multiple attachments stage

    10 months+

    Infants become interested in and attached to other people, such as grandparents, siblings, or familiar adults.

    Stages of Attachment: Conclusion

    Schaffer and Emerson concluded that infants go through each of the above attachment stages and that infants' mothers are still the most crucial attachment figures at 18 months of age. Infants had a 'hierarchy' of other attachments based on how important each attachment was to the infant. The sensitive responsiveness of the adult determined the importance.

    Sensitive responsiveness means responding to the infant's signals, i.e., communicating with the infant, playing with the infant, and responding to the infant's needs, such as crying for attention or asking for something (e.g., a toy or a favourite TV programme).

    The researchers concluded that sensitive responsiveness is more critical in infants than in those who spend more time with the infant.

    Stages of attachment, Four stages of attachment, StudySmarterFig. 2 Schaffer and Emerson's theorised there are four stages of attachment in infants,

    Evaluation of Schaffer and Emerson Stages of Attachment

    This study has impacted the field of developmental psychology, but how can we evaluate Schaffer and Emerson's study on the stages of attachment?

    First, since the infants were observed in their own homes and their behaviour was more natural, this observational study had high external validity.

    A study with high external validity can easily apply to real-life situations and to other children from similar demographics.

    However, the study lacked population validity. The sample consisted of only 60 Glasgow working families, which is not representative of a broader population. Thus, the results are not generalisable to caregivers and babies from different backgrounds or countries.

    Finally, mothers who reported their child's behaviour may not have reported the most accurate information. Many had a case of social desirability bias, so they wanted to appear favourable to the researcher. As a result, they may have altered their responses.

    The results show that only 31% of infants had established multiple attachments by 18 months. This finding suggests that not all infants go through the same stages of attachment. Therefore, it can be inferred that attachment theories do not account for individual differences.


    Stages of attachment: Schaffer & Emerson (1964) - Key takeaways

    • The stages of attachment in infants are the developmental stages in which infants form attachments with their primary caregiver and others in their environment. Attachment is an emotional bond or ties with another person, providing security and closeness.
    • The ethological theory of attachment suggests that an infant's emotional bond to their caregiver is an evolutionary response that promotes survival.

    • According to Bowlby, there are four stages of attachment development: the pre-attachment phase, the "attachment in the making" phase, the "clear-cut" attachment phase, formation of reciprocal relationships.
    • From their observations, Schaffer and Emerson concluded that infants go through the following stages of attachment: asocial stage, indiscriminate attachment stage, specific attachment stage, and multiple attachment stage.
    • While Schaffer and Emerson (1964) had high external validity, it lacked population validity, and social desirability bias may have occurred.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Stages of Attachment

    What are the stages of disruption of attachment?

    The stages of attachment disruption begin with severe and prolonged issues in a caregiver's responsiveness or prolonged separation from the caregiver. Not attending to it can lead to the breakdown of the attachment.

    What age are attachment styles formed?

    Attachment styles to a caregiver begin to form within the first 18 months of the child's life; this is known as the critical period.

    What are the stages of attachment?

    According to Bowlby, the stages of attachments in infants are:

    1. Pre-attachment Phase.

    2. "Attachment in the Making" Phase.

    3. "Clear Cut" Attachment Phase.

    4. Formation of Reciprocal Relationship.

    What is the most common attachment style?

    The most common attachment style is secure attachment. 

    What are the four stages of attachment?

    Schaffer and Emerson's (1964) four stages of attachment are: 

    • Asocial (0-6 weeks).
    • Indiscriminate attachment (6 weeks  – 7 months).
    • Specific attachment (7-9 months).
    • Multiple attachments (10 months +).

    What did Schaffer and Emerson investigate?

    Schaffer and Emerson (1964) conducted a study on 60 babies from Glasgow monthly for the first 18 months of life using a longitudinal method. The study aimed to investigate the stages and characteristics of attachments.

    What are Schaffers' stages of attachments?

    Schaffer and Emerson theorised that there are four stages of attachment development: asocial stage (0-6 weeks), Indiscriminate attachment stage (6 weeks to 6 months), specific attachment stage (7-9 months) and multiple attachment stage (10+months).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    At 18 months, what percentage of infants had multiple attachments formed with siblings, grandparents, neighbours, etc.?

    True or False: The stages of attachment in infants are the developmental stages in which infants form attachments to their primary caregiver and others in their environment.  

    Fill in the blank: A(n) _________ reaction from the baby indicates that they recognise familiar and unfamiliar faces. 

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