Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Group Care for Infants and Toddlers: Attachment Issues

Becoming attached to caregivers helps babies learn.

Yesterday I commented on some of the aspects of infant-toddler day care discussed by J. Ronald Lally in his recent (November, 2009) Zero to Three article, "The Science and Psychology of Infant-Toddler Care". Lally pointed out that child care centers dealing with very young children are increasingly stressing the use of primary or assigned caregivers, the practice of small-group care, the continuity of care, and the concept of cultural continuity for infants and toddlers. Lally also noted that some of the changes being made in child care practice involve the idea that infants and toddlers need to be helped to make secure emotional attachments to adults.

Young children's need for secure attachments to adults is very well documented, but parents and child care providers often have trouble figuring out exactly what this need is about. What do child care providers or teachers have to do with infant attachment? Isn't attachment something between parents and children? How would a child care provider get a baby to become attached, anyway? And, if a baby is attached to the caregiver, doesn't that mean he or she will stop being attached to the parents?

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1. Why is it a good thing for babies in child care to become attached to caregivers?
There are several advantages in a young child's emotional attachment to caregivers. One is simply that a baby pays a lot of attention to "attachment figures" (people to whom the child feels and acts attached). Paying attention helps the child learn from what the adult does and says-- learning that occurs in a casual way, not through a formal lesson or direct instruction from adult to child. Young children don't learn much from planned lessons because they tend to pay attention only to what interests them at the moment, but they are often interested in what a familiar, emotionally connected adult is doing. You, a stranger, might have trouble teaching a 9-month-old the word "lid", but an attachment figure who casually remarks, "Oh, let's put the lid on this" usually has the child's attention, and learning occurs.

Much of what infants and toddlers learn is about emotional reactions to events. The baby never saw a spider before-- is it scary? Is it funny? Is it just okay? Perhaps he or she never saw a child hit another child-- is this okay, or not? And how about a flight of stairs with the baby gate left open-- okay for a baby to go there, or not? The child learns from adults what to think about such things, and is guided toward developing values and beliefs like those of others in the community. This kind of learning comes from observation of the adult's facial expression, gestures, posture, and voice tone. Infants carefully observe the responses of attachment figures to unfamiliar events. They are not so interested in the ways strangers react. Emotional attachment to child care providers helps infants learn about emotional reactions during the many hours they are at the child care center, just as they would do if cared for at home throughout the day.

Crawlers and toddlers are ready to begin to learn by exploring on their own, but they don't do much of this unless an attachment figure is present to act as a "secure base". When a baby is securely emotionally attached to an adult, the child will make short forays into an unfamiliar environment, periodically returning or just looking back to the adult for emotional refueling. Put in the same unfamiliar place alone or with a stranger, the child is much less likely to explore, and may simply huddle in one place, cry, rock, or suck the thumb. Most parents are quite concerned with the educational opportunities offered by a child care center, but they need to understand that those opportunities are pretty worthless unless a child has had a chance to form an attachment to a caregiver who can act as a secure base while the child explores and learns.

2. Isn't attachment something between parents and children?
Fortunately for the human race, infants and toddlers are able to become emotionally attached to people who are not biologically related. If they could not, the historical frequency of maternal deaths following childbirth would have caused many events of atypical emotional development.

Although young children usually have no more than three or four secure emotional attachments, they can certainly have more than one or two. Developing one or two more attachments does not take away from ongoing attachments to parents who are seen every day. Although a child who has many constantly-changing caregivers will probably not develop a secure attachment to any of them, it is common for infants to have secure attachments to mother and father, to a primary caregiver, and perhaps to another caregiver who regularly comes in when the primary caregiver's shift is over. A well-planned infant-toddler center can foster children's secure attachments to their parents as well as to caregivers, by helping parents understand better how to deal with children's emotional needs and responses to separation.

3. What does a child care provider do in order to help a baby form an attachment?
The child care center itself has policies that will help or hinder attachment. If a caregiver is going to be able to develop an attachment relationship with a baby, she must have the opportunity to spend long periods of time with that child, to be reliably available to respond to the baby's needs and communications, and to have responsibility for a small enough number of children. A caregiver who deals with so many infants that she cannot know them well, or who is frequently called away from what she is doing with one child, or who is discouraged from social and affectionate interactions, will not be able to foster attachment in babies.

Given good policies, the caregiver who wants to encourage attachment will be able to talk to and play with each child for periods of time every day. She will get to know the likes and dislikes, the facial expressions, vocalizations, and other methods of communication used by each infant in her care, and she will respond to infant communications in a helpful, playful, and affectionate way. This regular attention and responsiveness is where attachment-- that robust step in early development-- comes from, assuming always that enough time and opportunities are given.

By the way, one important factor in the development of attachment to child care providers is simply whether we pay caregivers enough. A "worthy wage" is one of the things that allows a caregiver to stay in a job for several years, to act effectively as a primary caregiver, to provide continuity of care, and to allow children to form secure attachments.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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