What is the Attachment Theory in Early Childhood?

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parent and child holding hands

Forming healthy attachments in early childhood is central to helping children develop relationships with caregivers throughout their lives.

In early years, these relationships have a lifelong effect on the lives of children and how they form relationships in the future.

Multiple factors play a part in how a child bonds with their caregivers during the stages of attachment and beyond, such as age, home environment, and individual personality.

Providing the right setting for the children in your care allows them to continue to form bonds at their own pace, in a safe, happy environment.

The Attachment Theory is useful for everyone involved in the development of a child, from parents, to nursery practitioners. Therefore, it is important you have all of the knowledge and skills you need to provide the very best support.

In this blog post, we will explain the importance of the Attachment Theory in early childhood, and how it can be used at home and in the nursery environment.

What Is the Attachment Theory?

Relationships are most important within the first year of a child’s life, therefore it is important to provide environments where children can form quality bonds with caregivers.

The Attachment Theory, originally formed by John Bowlby, outlines that a child’s attachment is characterised by motivations and behavioural patterns behind a child’s actions.

For example if a child is upset, they will seek comfort in their primary caregiver who they have formed an attachment to and who they know will provide them with comfort and care.

There are 4 stages to the Attachment Theory (outlined below) which detail what children need to be given to form quality relationships to prepare them for their next stages of learning and development.

Within each stage, caregivers must be sensitive to the needs of the child and be consistent in responding to those needs so that the child can form a healthy attachment.

parent and child holding hands

The Four Stages of Attachment in the First Year of Life

The first year of life is when children develop attachments and form relationships with their caregivers and others.

It is these bonds that help children develop their sense of self and others, and help them to understand in which environments they are safe and can rely on their caregiver.

It is essential to create the right environment for children to develop their attachment organically, and at their own pace, when they are working through the stages from 0 months to 10 months.

This is to ensure that children go on to progress through the early years settings properly, and are able to form relationships with others when they start nursery.

Pre-attachment (0-3 months)

In their first 3 months after birth, children express no particular attachment to any specific caregiver.

This is called pre-attachment, as children have not yet expressed a preference to any of their caregivers and will acknowledge several people, for example, extended family or family friends.

At this stage in life, children respond well to affectionate gestures, such as calm, soft voices and being held if they are in distress or crying. This helps them to learn who is there for them when they need love and support.

Indiscriminate (6 weeks to 7 months)

In this next early childhood stage, children begin to show some preference to primary and secondary caregivers, this is most likely to be the parents, but not always.

This is because children have started to learn that these caregivers in particular will respond to their needs, for example, holding them when they become agitated or uncomfortable in a certain position or situation.

Although at this stage children will accept care from others, they have begun to distinguish the difference between primary caregivers and other family members or family friends.

Discriminate or Specific (7 months +)

When children pass the 6 month milestone, this is the stage where they begin to have a strong attachment to one specific caregiver.

As a result of this, the child will often protest and get upset when separated from this caregiver (separation anxiety), and display distress or discomfort around strangers (stranger anxiety).

It is important to allow children to move through this stage, avoiding adding any extra pressure when they are already learning to form relationships which can be difficult at such a young age.

Multiple (10 months +)

The fourth and final stage involves children becoming more comfortable with other caregivers, which usually includes family members such as older siblings, grandparents, or reforming a bond with their secondary caregiver.

During this stage, children form stronger bonds with others outside of their primary caregiver. This is an essential step in a child’s development as they are learning to accept the love and care of others.

In turn, this prepares children for their next steps in early childhood, which involves early years settings such as nursery.

This means because children have been allowed to experience attachment at different stages, they will enter early learning settings more willingly and will be open to form bonds with caregivers outside of their home and family.

nursery practitioner and child dancing

Why Is the Attachment Theory Important in Early Childhood?

Although attachment begins at birth, it has an effect upon the nursery setting as primary caregivers are responsible for teaching children social cues. For example, helping children learn how to process their emotions and communicate their own needs.

Learning how to process and communicate is one of the very first steps of childhood development. As a result, as children transition into a nursery setting and away from their primary caregiver, it’s vital they are able to use the social cues they have learnt.

It is therefore essential that children are provided with a safe base to return to and ask questions, or for help, after exploring more of the world around them.

In order to help children further develop the skills they have learnt through early childhood, there are areas of attachment you can help children to build on throughout their learning.

We have covered these in detail below to help you understand what is involved in the process.

Cognitive Development

The Attachment Theory helps children to develop people skills and perceive the feelings of others.

Cognitive development in particular focuses on a child’s:

  • Sense of self
  • Sense of others
  • Relationships with themselves and others

This helps to enhance how children interact with others, for example it helps to ensure they are comfortable having multiple new caregivers when they reach the nursery stage of their development.

Emotional Regulation

If a child is provided with an emotionally secure environment from birth, this makes processing and informing others of their emotions easier in years to come.

Children will be more likely to be open about how they’re feeling, and be able to start to regulate feelings if they are consistently provided with a safe space where caregivers respond to their emotions.

For example, if a child consistently receives attention when they are upset, by their primary caregiver picking them up, and checking if they are hungry or tired, from this children begin to understand that their emotions and feelings are being recognised and supported.

Exploratory Play and Curiosity

When children feel secure, they are more likely to start forming independence early on and will start exploring new parts of their environment.

Building strong relationships with their primary caregiver will help prepare children for their next step, as they will learn to build this type of relationship with their caregiver at nursery.

In turn, when children feel safe in the nursery setting, they will be able to explore the world around them further, for example, by increased outdoor play or by asking more questions.

Building Social Skills

If a child has engaged in warm, happy relationships from birth, this should have a positive effect upon the way they form relationships in the future.

Therefore, this is an important priority before the next stages of early learning. These relationships provide a foundation to how children will interact with their nursery caregivers and other children.

nursery arts and crafts table

Applying the Attachment Theory to Early Childhood and Early Learning Settings

Attachment theory goes beyond the first year of a child’s life. Therefore, it is important to take this into consideration when creating a safe and secure nursery environment.

Attachment within children will continue to develop in a healthy way, if they are provided with consistent, attentive care that caters to their needs.

There are things you can do to ensure each child is appreciated, cared for, and forming relationships in a safe, happy environment – we have outlined these points below, so make sure to give these a read when creating your early years setting.

Enthusiasm for Every Child

In the nursery setting, children are within your care for the majority of their day. This means that you greet them in the morning, and say goodbye in the evening when their parents or caregivers come to pick them up.

Greeting the children in your care with happiness and a smile in the morning helps to foster a good relationship, and shows them that you are happy to see them.

When it comes to hometime, ensure children have a consistent routine such as singing a song, as small things like this can mean a lot to young children.

Letting children know that you will see them tomorrow, prevents them from feeling separation anxiety, and instead, they will slowly become more comfortable with the process of leaving and returning to nursery.

Make Time for Personal Connection

When children have just joined the early years setting, it is important that they feel welcomed and cared for on an individual level.

Engage in personal conversation with children about what they are doing, what is happening outside, and what others are doing. Whilst doing this, it is important to make eye contact and smile back at children to demonstrate that you are listening to them.

This helps children to understand that you care about their individual development and needs, and that you are there to build a relationship with them.

Learn the Individuals Needs of Each Child

Every child is different, and every child expresses themselves in different ways, for example, expressions and movements can mean very different things from one child to another..

If a child is upset or distressed and begins to cry, this may be due to a number of factors such as hunger, tiredness or needing the toilet.

Therefore, it is important to understand exactly how each child expresses their feelings and frustrations so you can provide the support they need.

This also helps parents to feel reassured that as a key caregiver, you can build a secure secondary attachment with their child, and provide them with care and a safe environment.

nursery practitioner and children around a table

What is the Attachment Theory in Early Childhood?

To recap, we have highlighted exactly what the Attachment Theory is, why it is so important in early childhood, and how all caregivers can ensure children are building healthy relationships from birth to starting nursery.

Allowing children the time to organically work through each stage of attachment prepares them for the rest of their early learning development.

As a caregiver, it is your job to create the correct environment, providing consistent care and responding to a child’s feelings and emotions.

This environment becomes the base for each and every child, as they learn that the caregiver they have formed a bond with, is dependable.

Attachment continues into early learning settings, meaning all caregivers must be on board to support each child’s relationship development. This is where Learning Journals can help, as our platform allows caregivers to stay in touch and update one another by documenting every step of a child’s development.

Parents, guardians, and nursery practitioners are all able to communicate via our platform with the ability to share images and regular updates. We make it easier for all caregivers to demonstrate how children are continuing to form healthy bonds and secondary attachments, in a safe and secure way.

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