Last reviewed 27 February 2017

With the Government’s introduction of 30-hour funded childcare being rolled out nationally from September 2017, many children will be spending longer within childcare provisions. Liz Hodgman, Childcare Consultant, explores the importance of bonds of attachment and how practitioners can support these to develop even when children are apart from their parents for extended periods of time.

Over the years, there have been concerns that if a baby or child spends considerable time away from their home and builds good attachments with their keyworker then their attachments at home will be reduced. However, research indicates that if a child who has been experiencing difficulties with attachments at home makes good attachments within a provision, it can actually help to improve those at home.

What do we understand about attachment?

John Bowlby was a British child psychiatrist who developed a theory on attachment. He described attachment as a long-lasting psychological connection with a special person that results in pleasure while interacting and is able to soothe them when distressed. He believed that all babies are born with a need to form attachments as part of a survival instinct.

Bowlby believed that there were stages of attachment: pre-attachment; attachment-in-the-making ; clear-cut attachment and formation of reciprocal relationships. He believed that a newborn to six-week-old baby was not yet attached but knows how to attract the adults in its life through crying and eye contact. They are soothed by adults’ presence. Between six weeks and eight months the baby begins to develop a sense of trust in their mother; she will provide for their needs, they are likely to be calmed quicker by her and interact more with her. During the period of eight months to two years, Bowlby believed that attachment was established. The child prefers his or her mother over everyone and becomes upset when she leaves. From 18 months to two years onwards as the child’s language develops their anxiety declines. The child understands that his or her departing mother will return and has developed a sense of security.

Different types of attachment

American Psychologist Mary Ainsworth’s research into attachment published in 1970 provides a good understanding of the three types of attachment in a child: secure, ambivalent and avoidant. To explain them I have used the mother as the attached adult, however, this could be a practitioner or another relative.

Where a child has a secure attachment they are likely to become upset when their mother leaves them, avoid contact with strangers unless their mother is present, show happiness when their mother returns and use their mother as a safe base from which to explore.

In an avoidant attachment, the child will show no stress when their mother leaves them, shows no concerns about strangers, shows no reaction when mother returns and can be comforted by mother or stranger equally.

The ambivalent attachment child will become very distressed when their mother leaves them, will show fear of strangers at all times, when reunited with mother will approach her but then push her away and spend less time exploring and more time crying.

Although more recently there has been criticism of both Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s research as many of their theories were based on very small sections of society and just on mothers as the main care givers, the basic theories are still very much influencing early years practice and underpin the personal, social and emotional focus of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Elinor Goldschmied, author of Organising for Intimacy used the research of Bowlby to champion the keyworker approach for early years settings which we have today.

Cross cultural attachment

Research shows that while attachment occurs across all cultures, some have higher percentages of avoidant or ambivalent than others. For example, Israeli children have ambivalent attachment as a result of being reared in a Kibbutz and being used to separating from their mothers. Many Japanese children are also ambivalent in attachment as a result of rarely being left by their mother. German children are more likely to have avoidant attachment. This is due to German’s style of parenting, seeking to have children who are independent, non-clingy and non-demand making, but obedient to commands.

Break down of attachments

Research has shown that children who did not have secure bonds were more likely to have literacy and behaviour problems. As they grow up they are more likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET) and unlikely to gain good jobs. It is estimated that around one in four children will avoid their parent when they are upset, as they have ignored their needs, therefore a learnt behaviour. Some may show symptoms of affectionless psychopathy (a situation in which the person is not concerned about the feelings of others), this can result in anti-social behaviour as the individual has no or little regard for the consequences of their actions.

It is thought that one of the strongest predictors for children having insecure attachments is for parents to have poor or insecure attachments themselves.

Supporting attachment within a provision

It is vital for all practitioners to recognise the importance of attachment for each child within their provision. Insecure attachments are not found only within troubled or financially deprived families, but from across all walks of life. Researchers believe that as many as one in three children from high-income families have insecure bonds with their parents.

Having high-quality, trained and experienced staff within the baby room can really help with early attachment. They will have a greater understanding of the needs of the children and how to meet them.

Home visits and/or meetings with parents before children start in a childcare provision are very important to build relationships and gain an understanding of parenting styles, expectations and attachments.

A keyworker system helps with children being able to bond with one named adult within the provision. The provision needs to consider how to support the children when a keyworker is off sick, on annual leave or only works part time. Managers also need to look at how they can minimise staff turnover so that children are not being constantly allocated new keyworkers as staff are replaced.

Babies and young children need positive physical contact to feel cared for and loved. Having a clear policy on physical contact and what is expected and acceptable will ensure that safeguarding is robust but the children feel safe and cared for. This should be shared with parents and any concerns discussed with them. This is particularly important if your families come from different ethnic backgrounds as they may have different views on this. This also needs to be included in the induction process of all new staff and volunteers.

Practitioners can support parents to develop bonds by role modelling good practice; for example being sensitive to their child’s needs and responding. If a parent is insensitive and rushed with the child at drop off or collection time, try to find ways of encouraging them to be more aware of their child’s emotional needs and meeting them.

Regular supervision sessions with each keyworker can help support attachment, giving practitioners a safe space to explore their thoughts around individual children’s needs and their relationship with their family. Any concerns regarding attachment can be raised and ideas to support can be discussed.

Provide information on attachment on the provision’s website and how your team of practitioners are supporting this.