Stages of attachment development - Attachment

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Stages of attachment development


The development of infants’ attachments occurs in 4 universal, distinct stages.

1 The development of infants’ attachments occurs in 4 universal, distinct stages.

2 The second stage, the indiscriminate attachment phase, lasts from 3 to 7 or 8 months of age. Infants start to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar people, smiling more at people they know. They still allow strangers to handle and look after them though.

3 The third stage, the discriminate attachment phase, lasts from 7 to 8 months onwards. Infants develop specific attachments, staying close to preferred people, showing distress and anxiety when separated from them. They avoid unfamiliar people and protest when strangers handle them.

4 The final stage is the multiple attachment phase, occurring from 9 months onwards. Infants develop strong, emotional bonds with other major caregivers, like grandparents, and non-caregivers, like siblings. Fear of strangers weakens, but the prime attachment to the mother figure is still the strongest.


Fig 3.2 Most children develop multiple attachments to other people, such as grandparents

Focal study

Schaffer & Emerson (1964) investigated whether there was a common pattern of attachment formation. Sixty newborn infants were studied each month in their own homes, with their mothers, for 12 months. They were studied again at 18 months of age. Interviews were conducted with mothers, and questions were asked about whom infants smiled at, whom they responded to, and who and what caused them distress. Observations were also made on the monthly visits. Most infants began showing separation protest (see page 48) from their main caregiver at between 6 and 8 months of age, with stranger anxiety following a month later. Mothers of strongly attached infants responded more quickly to their needs and gave more opportunities for interactions. Most infants developed multiple attachments — at 18 months, 87 per cent had at least 2 attachments and 31 per cent had 5 or more. Infants behaved similarly to different attachment figures. 39 per cent of prime attachments were not to the main caregiver. This suggests there is a common pattern of attachment formation and that attachments are more easily made with those showing sensitive responsiveness. Multiple attachments are the norm and of similar quality.


• Carpenter (1975) gave infants unfamiliar and familiar voices and faces. Sometimes the face and the voice were of the same person and sometimes not. It was found that 2-week-old babies looked at a face longer when it was their mother’s accompanied by her voice and showed distress when it was her face accompanied by a different voice. This suggests that infants can recognise and are attracted to their mothers from an early age, which contradicts Schaffer & Emerson’s (1964) finding that infants were initially attracted to anyone who interacted with them.

• Lamb et al. (1982) studied the relationships and attachments that infants had to people like fathers, grandparents and siblings, and found that different attachments served different purposes but were of equal strength. This supports Schaffer & Emerson’s finding that multiple attachments are of similar quality.

• Rutter (1981) found that multiple attachments were the norm, supporting Schaffer & Emerson’s similar findings.

Positive evaluation

Image Children with multiple attachments have an advantage, as they are more able to form and conduct social relationships. This is because they have more experience of doing so than children without multiple attachments. They are further advantaged in that if they lose an attachment figure they have several others to turn to.

Image The common pattern of attachment development implies that it is biologically controlled and has evolved. Developing the ability to prefer those who are sensitive to your needs and being wary of those who are unfamiliar would have a survival value.

Image Schaffer & Emerson’s study was conducted under real-life conditions, so the conclusions drawn can be seen to have external validity.

Negative evaluation

Image Schaffer & Emerson’s findings came from observations made by the researchers and the children’s mothers, which may have been affected by bias and inaccuracies. This would lower the validity of conclusions drawn from the study.

Image There were quite large individual differences in when attachments formed in Schaffer & Emerson’s study, which casts doubt about whether the process of attachment development is under biological control.

Image Research findings that multiple attachments are of equal quality goes against Bowlby’s idea of monotropy (see page 45) that sees infants as having one prime attachment, superior and stronger to other secondary attachments.

Practical application

The main practical application drawn from research into attachment formation is that to develop strong, secure attachments caregivers should show sensitive responsiveness, recognising and responding appropriately to their infants’ needs.