Attachment - balancing safety and independence

Attachment styles are like the glasses through which people see the world.


From the moment your baby is born, the bond she has with her mother matters (if you want to measure this, download our free app and you will see it clearly!) Sometimes it's clearly there: love at first sight, butterflies in the stomach and all. Sometimes it is less evident, it takes its time and it can make us worry.


The dynamics between mother and infant are among the most intriguing aspects of developmental psychology and are defined by scientists as ‘attachment bonds.’ The mother-infant attachment bond is universal. It is not only observed in a specific culture and it does not depend on the infant's gender, the mother's age or any social-economic state.

When a psychological phenomenon is so pervasive and equal among all of all humans, it is usually something that we need for our evolution. In fact, even animals establish this special bond.

In animals, physical closeness between pups and mothers is fundamental to assure that little ones will survive the first months of life -- avoiding predators while gaining nutrition and comfort. Even in animals, though, the function of mother-infant attachment is not just physical. Apparently, love and care are necessary to survive in the jungle as well! A pivotal study by Harlow run in 1950s showed how newborn monkeys preferred a soft, warm cloth-made mother-surrogate to a mother-surrogate made out of cold hard wire (see picture below). The amazing thing is that the soft mother-surrogate did not give any milk, while the cold, hard one did! In other words, baby monkeys preferred softness and warmth over milk! So, it’s not all about physical sustenance, is it?


The mother-child attachment can be defined as a motivational and behavioural system that has two main aspects: exploration of the environment and support from the caregiver. On one hand, this connection to the mother directs the infants’ behaviour to seek proximity when they feel insecure or alarmed about environment. They expect physical, psychological and emotional contact from the mother.

On the other hand, because of the strength of the connection with the mother, the infant feels secure and free to explore the environment. They can experience the world around, knowing there will be someone behind in case they need it. It’s fundamental for the mother to answer to his/her needs consistently, helping the child to live and understand internal states and emotions.


A balanced relationship with a right dose of proximity and exploration will lead to a ‘secure attachment style.’ In this case, the infant trusts him/herself and his/her capabilities, and trusts others, whom he/she considers positive and trustworthy.


An unbalanced mixture of exploration and proximity might generate an insecure attachment style. This can be avoidant, if there is an excess of infant exploration and the mother does not offer good support. It could also be anxious/ambivalent if there is an excess of proximity and if the mother overreact to the child’s needs or give ambivalent signals about their availability for him/her.


Our relationships with our mothers is the first key we use to read our world. It is like the glasses we use to read the world. Considering this to be the most primitive and primary form of human social relationship, several psychologists claim this will actually shape the way we are going to live all our future relationships.

A baby's bond with mummy allows him/her to learn how to behave in relationships, what to expect from others and what to think others think of us. This ‘magic’ bond created from birth can be measured well before the age of 1. For example, if we have been ‘shaped’ by an excess of proximity, we might tend to see the world as frightening and explore it less because we experience others as threatening. On the other hand, if we are used to having a lot of support, we might feel constantly rejected by others because they are not constantly praising and rewarding us.


Mums, do feel too much pressure though*! Recently, this idea is being reconsidered. It is true that this relationship is fundamental and influences how we interact with the world and with others, but it is not the only factor that determines our relational style. A lot of other features, such as personality or past experiences will also affect it.

Recent studies have indicated how the role of other substantial figures are actually fundamental for determining our future vision of the world and of relationships. First and foremost, fathers play a central role in raising their children and establishing a significant relationship with them from a young age. They have an important role even during pregnancy, and this is beginning to be reflected in how our society supports families (paternity leave, flexible working hours etc).

What about the brain? A recent study reviewed the body of knowledge related to the ‘attachment-caregiving social bond’ in mothers and infants. Those that have explored the attachment system have found activity in various areas such as the amygdala, anterior cingulate, and parts of the limbic system that are important for emotion activation and recognition. Partially overlapping areas in the limbic system are also related to activation of the caregiving system. This suggests that attachment bonds are strongly linked to emotion.

The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. NeuroImage, 21(3), 1155–1166.


We hope that this brief article helped you understand why it is important to be a ‘secure base’ for your little one from the very beginning. However, there is so much more to be said about ‘attachment bonds’ and how they affect our relational lives and other important psychological domains. How might attachment be related to emotional regulation? How can attachment be modified throughout the course of our lives? Is there a link between our attachment style and the partner we are going to choose? Is there any link between the attachment style we established with our mum and the one that we are going to establish with our child? Researchers are working hard to try and answer all these questions!

We are glad if we stimulated your curiosity on this topic, and we encourage you to learn and read more about this. Be aware that the ‘attachment bond’ is really popular topic in psychology, it’s not uncommon to find ‘rubbish’ literature about it. If you want to learn more about attachment, we suggest one of these two books (one, two), in addition to the Babybrains app.


Happy reading and - most importantly - happy bonding!


*If you do feel the pressure and it does not seem possible to escape it by yourself, remember that you can always ask for help. Sometimes friends and family can help, other times psychotherapists are able to do a much better job. Did you know that nowadays you can even attend therapy online?

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