4 Stages of Attachment, Explained! (Bowlby’s Theory)

attachment theory examples definition

British psychologist John Bowlby (1969) proposed a theory of attachment that explains how and why a newborn becomes so emotionally connected with its mother.

According to Bowlby, an infant is born with a biologically driven propensity to form a strong emotional bond with its mother.

In his own words:

“The instinctual responses mature at different times during the first year of life and develop at different rates; they serve the function of binding the child to mother and contribute to the reciprocal dynamic of binding mother to child” (Bowlby, 1958, p. 351).

Over the course of infancy to around 2.5 years of age and onward, a child can form a variety of attachments to different individuals.

Bowlby’s 4 Stages of Attachment

1. Pre-attachment (newborn to 6 weeks)

The first stage of attachment is from birth to 6 weeks. There is no attachment to any specific individual at this time.

The infant does not show any preferences for adults and will not fuss when being picked up by strangers.

During those first few weeks the infant exhibits many actions to get the attention of the caregiver. This can include crying and smiling, which will illicit immediate action from the primary caregiver.

Although not fully and exclusively attached to the caregiver at this time, the bond is beginning to form. The caregiver’s reactions to the infant’s signals, and the positive responses from the infant, begin to create a strong emotional attachment between the two.

2. Attachment in Making (6 weeks to 6-8 months)

In this stage, the infant begins to show preferences for caregivers over strangers. The primary caregiver, such as the mother, begins to have a powerful effect on the infant’s behavior.

The mother can soothe the baby more easily than others and illicit more frequent and sustained smiles because the baby is developing social referencing skills.

If the mother is responsive to the infant’s needs, then a sense of trust is established. The infant learns that the primary caregiver can satisfy their basic biological needs.

At this stage, even though the bond is becoming stronger, the infant will not yet exhibit separation anxiety and protest when separated from the primary caregiver.

3. Clear-cut Attachment (6-8 months to 18-24 months)

As the name suggests, during this stage, there is a clear attachment bond between the infant and primary caregiver. The bond can be quite strong.

The infant will show strong protest when separated from the caregiver that can include crying loudly and quick bursts of random physical movements.

The infant has a firm understanding of who to depend on when in need and shows a strong preference for that person over all others. Strangers will create a fear response in the infant that includes strong protest and distress. The infant is very likely to refuse being held by others and will resist being held by anyone other than the mother.

4. Formation of Reciprocal Relationships (24 months +)

As the child’s cognitive development progresses, they develop mental representations of others.

This may lead to the formation of multiple attachments, including secondary caregivers such as the father, relatives, or babysitters.

They also develop a fuller understanding of circumstances that influence the caregiver’s behavior, which makes their world more predictable and less stressful. This understanding makes them less likely to show strong separation anxiety as they have learned that the primary caregiver will return.

Verbal skills and other communication techniques also develop and will allow the child to express their needs and wants more clearly, at least in ways other than crying.

Attachment Theory Strengths

1. Universality of Attachment

Bowlby was heavily influenced by the work on imprinting (Lorenz, 1935) and bonding (Harlow, 1961) in animal studies. He saw the value of applying the research findings to the study of human infants and maternal attachment.

It was a dramatic insight into human development.

The notion that attachment processes between human infants and mothers are pre-programmed biologically is supported by the universality of attachment.

As Grossman and Grossman state:

“…attachment is a universal genetic program valid in all cultures, despite clearly observable variations in parental care-giving behaviors between existing cultures, and within cultures in different epochs” (2005, p. 6).

Whenever social scientists see a phenomenon occur across cultures, it is convincing evidence that the construct is a function of biology.

2. Internal Working Model   

Bowlby postulated that the early interactions between infant and the primary caregiver help the infant form an internal working model of human relationships.

This mental representation significantly affects how the infant reacts to other human beings it encounters. If the internal working model is positive, then the infant will automatically respond to other human beings in a positive manner. 

This notion has been widely accepted in psychology and has proven very useful in our understanding of human behavior.

3. Incredible Impact  

The problem with being one of the first to identify and study a psychological phenomenon is that one doesn’t have the benefit of other people’s research.

Moreover, developing a psychological theory in the 1950’s and 60’s means that there is a lot of time for others to research your theory and find everything that is wrong with it.

Although no theory is perfect, Bowlby’s work has had a tremendous impact on the entire field of psychology. His work has application in clinical therapy, educational psychology, as well as child care and parenting practices.

According to a study published in the Review of General Psychology, John Bowlby is the 49th most influential psychologist of the 20th century. 

Related: 5 Types of Childhood Development

Attachment Theory Criticisms

1. Uncertainty about the ‘Critical Period’

Originally, Bowlby proposed that if an infant did not form an attachment with another human being before the age of 2.5, they would probably never do so. That age was later extended to the age of five years old.

He further stated that maternal deprivation during the critical period would lead to adults developing dysfunctional personality characteristics. Although there is ample evidence that shows early neglect can lead to severe problems, other research has identified exceptions.

For example, Rutter (1979) reviewed evidence that it is possible for children that did not form secure attachments in those first years to still form healthy emotional attachments to others later in life.

2. Role of the Father is Ignored

Bowlby wrote almost exclusively about the infant’s interactions with the mother as the primary caregiver.

This makes sense because at that time in society, caregiving was considered to be the responsibility of the mother. Therefore, Bowlby did not spend significant time examining the role of the father.

However, later research has shown that fathers can and do play a significant role in the formation of healthy attachments. The way that attachment look may be slightly different than the interactions displayed between the mother and child.

For example, fathers are more likely to engage in playful and humorous interactions with infants and toddlers (see Bretherton, 2010).

3. Overemphasis on Infant Temperament  

Bowlby’s theory is often criticized for being overly focused on the role of the primary caregiver. Research in later years has been much more extensive, and therefore many insights have come to light.

For example, the infant’s temperament can have a profound impact on the attachment style between mother and infant.

Some babies are born with a heightened reactivity that makes them more easily prone to being upset and crying.

Today, this temperament is referred to as “fussy”. This type of temperament can make it very difficult for a secure attachment to form, as the baby does not always respond positively to the mother’s attempts to sooth or satisfy their biological needs.

Read About Four other Theories of Social Development

More from Attachment Theory


The four states of attachment represent a linear theory of child development that is akin to the linear theories devised by Kohlberg (see: Theory of Moral Development) and Piaget. However, Bowlby focuses on the very early years. While we know the early years are critical, the sheer amount of emphasis that Bowlby places on them mirrors other criticized theories like Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Nevertheless, this theory has been highly valuable in early childhood studies research to explore the importance of bonding between parent and child.


Bretherton, I. (2010). Fathers in attachment theory and research: A review. Early Child Development and Care, 180(1), 9-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430903414661

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Attachment (Vol. 1). New York: Basic.

Bowlby J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Grossmann, Karin & Grossmann, Klaus. (2005). Universality of Human Social Attachment as an Adaptive Process. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252879627_Universality_of_Human_Social_Attachment_as_an_Adaptive_Process

Grossmann, K.E. & Grossmann, K. (2005). Universality of human social attachment as an adaptive process. In C.S. Carter, L. Ahnert, K.E. Grossmann, S.B. Hrdy, M.E. Lamb, S.W. Porges, and N. Sachser (Hrsg.), Attachment and bonding: A new synthesis. Dahlem Workshop Report 92 (S.199-229) Cambridge; MA: The MIT Press.

Haggbloom, S. et. al. (2002). The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2): 139–152. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139

Harlow, H.F. (1961). The development of affectional patterns in infant monkeys. In: Determinants of Infant Behavior, ed. B.M. Foss, vol. 1, pp. 75–97. New York: Wiley.

Keller, H. (2018). Universality claim of attachment theory: Children’s socioemotional development across cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115. 201720325. https:/doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1720325115

Rutter, M. (1979). Maternal deprivation, 1972-1978: New findings, new concepts, new approaches. Child Development, 283-305.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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