The idea that parenting matters for early child development is now widely accepted. We also now know a great deal about the role of parenting in social inequalities in development. Parents with more resources can invest more in activities and goods for their children from the start. For example, parents with more education expose their children to a much wider vocabulary.
A parent, however, is not only the child’s first teacher, but also their first caregiver. Mothers and fathers influence their children’s development, not only through the resources they invest in their children and the linguistic and cognitive stimulation they offer, but also through the attachment or bond they forge with their children.
The central idea of attachment is that good social and emotional development depends on sensitive and responsive caregiving in infancy and early childhood. A secure attachment to a parent gives a child a secure base from which to explore, learn, relate to others, and flourish. But not all children develop a secure attachment.
Types of attachment
When a parent, most of the time, responds to a child in a sensitive and responsive way – picking up the child when they cry, and holding and reassuring them – the child feels secure that a parent will meet his or her needs. The infant, when distressed, knows what to do and how the parent will respond: the infant can safely express negative emotion and seek proximity to the caregiver – and can expect to feel better. This is what is called a secure attachment. About 60% of children in the general population are securely attached.
However, about 40% of children do not develop this kind of secure attachment, based on a review of the best evidence available, mainly from the US. Some parents respond to their child’s distress in insensitive or “rejecting” ways, such as ignoring or becoming annoyed with them.
Experiencing this on a regular basis, as about 25% do, infants can learn to minimise expressions of their negative emotions and needs and avoid the parent when distressed, displaying avoidant attachment.
In other cases, parents are inconsistent and unpredictable in their response to their infant’s distress. Experiencing this, as about 15% of infants do, infants can develop what is called disorganised attachment.
The proportions of children with insecure attachment vary by the sample and measures used. In very high-risk populations, where families face multiple problems, up to two-thirds of children may be insecurely attached. Children who have been abused are nearly always also insecurely attached. The prevalence of insecure attachment is also higher among low income and teen parent families than in the general population.
Improved life chances
Our recent review for the Sutton Trust has shown how secure attachment in the first three years of life can serve as a “secure base” for children’s later development and life chances, and hence social mobility. At the same time, insecure attachment places children at risk in key developmental areas including cognitive and language development and educational attainment, as well as social and emotional development. We have recommended that promoting secure attachment should be a focus for policy and services for families with children under the age of three.
Policy in the UK has already addressed some of the factors that threaten good early parenting and secure attachment. For example, initiatives under New Labour to make child benefit and other types of supports more generous for families with young children, and to extend paid maternity and paternity leave, reduced pressures on families with newborns and young children. But more can be done.
In particular, there is a group of families whose children are at risk for insecure attachment, but not (yet) indicating problem development, who could benefit from increased service engagement and parent training. In addition, early interventions with very high-risk or troubled families with children under three can promote secure attachment and development, especially when skilled practitioners train parents and model sensitive and responsive care. Expanding such programmes would be a sound preventive investment.