Last updated: 06.01.16

Human attachment and brain development

Human beings have a biological need for emotional connection to other people. That sense of connection has an impact on our behaviour, our cognitive abilities, our ability to self-regulate and on our health. If we don?t feel connected, we suffer.

This is the central insight to emerge from research studies of attachment, especially when linked with discoveries in neuroscience. Babies are born with brains that anticipate the attention and care of other people. They are so dependent on that care because brains are very incomplete at birth. Infancy is a time of rapid brain development. In fact, brains develop more rapidly in the first 3 years of life than will ever be the case again. And, crucially, the emotional exchanges babies experience with other people have a dramatic impact on the way that a brain develops.

The connected baby suite of e-courses is designed to help those who care for young children to understand these scientific discoveries. The courses knit together an explanation of brain development with an updated account of attachment theory, and then go on to apply these insights to everyday situations faced by young children and their carers. Our goal is to ensure that practitioners confidently understand this information and can make use of it in nurturing resilience within the children they care for.

Attachment Theory

Most professionals who work with children will have received training in Attachment Theory are some point, either during their training qualifications or in later continuing professional development sessions. This is a good starting point for understanding children?s need for emotional connection, although the body of scientific knowledge about attachment now extends well beyond John Bowlby's original theoretical framework.

John Bowlby is the paediatric psychiatrist credited with developing Attachment Theory. During the 1940s, he operated a child guidance clinic in London, where he and his colleagues provided treatment for emotionally troubled children. Bowlby came to realise from his detailed observations that a child?s early relationships with a primary caregiver — mother, father, grandparent, nanny or other childcare professional — play a fundamental role in how a child becomes able to cope with anxiety. Bowlby recognised that the most intense anxieties babies carry revolve around separation and novelty - or what he came to call 'separation anxiety' and 'stranger anxiety'. By the 1970s, with the help of colleagues such as James Robertson and Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby had developed a coherent theory about young children's needs for relationship. We have come to know this as 'Attachment Theory'.

One of the most significant aspects of Bowlby's work was the systematic evidence he and colleagues were able to gather to support his theory, using procedures such as the 'Strange Situation Paradigm'. Their research studies showed clearly that young children experience high levels of distress when they are separated from primary caregivers. If the caregiver is able to comfort that distress, the child comes to view the world as a safe place, where they can seek help if they are feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, if the caregiver is not able to comfort the child?s distress, then they develop a physiology that is primed for distress. This is the core difference between 'secure' and 'insecure' attachment patterns.

The source of attachment needs

Bowlby argued that human beings? attachment needs are the result of evolutionary forces. Because babies are unable to walk independently until about one year of age, and can?t run steadily until about 4 years of age, they are dependent on adults to keep them safe. Certainly this would have been the case in our evolutionary history, when infants would have been at risk from predators.

Bowlby saw attachment as an adaptive reaction that improves the infant?s chances of survival. The closer you can stay to your caregiver, the safer you are from danger. That?s why all human infants have a need to be close to their caregiver when they are upset or feel threatened. The proximity to their caregiver prompts a sense of safety. That results in a flood of relaxation hormones, and the baby can begin to calm down because they no longer feel under threat.

Children who develop secure attachment patterns to their caregiver have had enough experiences of safety and comfort. They can draw on their trust to explore the wider world, using the presence of their primary caregiver as a 'safe base'. In contrast, children who develop insecure attachment patterns have learned how to cope with a caregiver who isn't able, for whatever reason, to provide enough emotional safety. The world feels a more threatening, scary place to them. That knowledge has become integrated into their physiological system. One of the fascinating insights from decades of attachment research is that these patterns are largely in place by the time a child is one year of age - before they can walk or talk!

Why are attachment patterns important?

Attachment patterns become physiological responses to anxiety, and they can easily last a lifetime. Do we feel comfortable seeking help if we are feeling overwhelmed? Do we trust others to help or not? Do we feel comfortable in emotional intimacy with loved ones and can we cope with separation without feelings of abandonment rising? These are examples of the unconscious strategies the brain develops for managing anxiety.

Response to anxiety is what underlies mental health and much aspects of physical health. A number of reports have recently highlighted a worrying rise in mental health problems, especially for young people and adolescents. Attachment Theory helps us realise that the source of many of these problems is distress during early relationships. That is why so many policymakers and practitioners are now interest in early years investment and interventions.

Training in attachment

It is crucial for all those who care for young children - parents and professionals alike - to understand the attachment process. That understanding enables one to make better choices about how to support children?s emotional development. It is easy to overlook important practices, simply because we don't realise how fast brains are growing or how alert babies are to their environment.

That is why Virtual College has worked with Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk, an internationally recognised authority in infants' innate ability to connect, to develop training in attachment. Our e-courses are suitable for all professionals who care directly for babies and young children and for anyone charged with creating policy for children. The connected baby suite of three interlinked online courses provides an introduction to brain development and a thorough explanation of attachment, accompanied by live film footage that enables learners to see these the principles in action. Our aim is not just to provide information, but to help put it into practice in everyday situations.

To find out more about Suzanne click here, or if you would like to find out more about the connected baby suite click here.