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Child development: Bowlby

2015 July 26
by nannyjob

John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a psychoanalyst best known for his work on attachment. He thought that many mental health and behavioural problems stemmed from the first years of life, and that babies are born with an inbuilt need to form an attachment to one figure – usually the mother. This primary bond was the most important attachment and formed the pattern for all other relationships in a person’s life. Children should be cared for by this person up until the age of 2, ideally the age of 5, and any disruption avoided. Short term separation, he thought, led to distress which was separated into 3 stages.


A child cries when their attachment figure leaves and clings to them.


The child stops protesting but although outwardly calm remains upset. Other people are unable to comfort the child.


The child begins to interact with other people, but rejects or displays anger towards their attachment figure when they come back.

Bowlby thought that a child’s attachment led to an ‘internal working model’ which comes from the primary carer’s behaviour. If a child feel positive love they develop a secure attachment. If they are rejected they become avoidant. If they experience confusion or anger they become resistant to attachments.

Bowlby also believed that being wary of strangers was a survival mechanism and that humans evolved to be close to their mothers because babies who remained close had the highest change of surviving and reproducing.

How can we apply Bowlby today?

Bowlby’s theories have had a lot of influence in childcare. The key worker system enables children to develop a secure attachment to a member of nursery staff and many parents are aware of Bowlby’s theory and choose a nanny or childminder to provide their child with a secure attachment figure. It is also relevant for maternity nurses who encourage parents to spend time with their children so babies can create that primary bond. Although Bowlby was focused on just one primary carer the idea of a network of attachments is found across the world – his idea of secure vs unsecure or avoidant attachment and the first relationship forming a pattern for all others is relevant even when a mother (or father) chooses to use some form of childcare.

This is part of a series of blog posts on child development. You can find other posts using the child development tag or here: Freud, Piaget, Erik Erikson, Gesell.

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