Attachment in children: Gender of primary care giver

Although the stay at home dad is still considered an unusual phenomenon, with the current trend in unemployment and redundancies, traditional gender roles are increasingly changing and more men are becoming the primary care givers for their children.

Just thirty years ago the typical Irish mother stayed at home looking after house and family and the father was the sole provider for the family. Today less than forty per cent of mothers work full time in the home. The Irish mammy also goes out to work and employs someone else to do at least some of the cooking, cleaning and child minding.

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According to the most recent National Household Survey by the Central Statistics Office, there are approximately 7,500 men in Ireland occupied full time in “home duties”.

With the current economic situation in Ireland, and as more men start to join in the struggle on how to juggle family and home, coupled with rising unemployment-unemployment rates for men in 2010 were 16.7 per cent -we can assume more men are going to be full time in the home, and many will become primary care givers to their children. With this in mind, the aim of my research proposal is to find out if the gender of the primary care giver affects the type of attachment relationship between the care giver and the child.


John Bowlby (1907-1990) originally devised the basic tenets of attachment theory. He devoted extensive research to the concept of attachment, describing it as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. Bowlby shared the psychoanalytic view that early experiences in childhood have an important influence on development and behaviour in later life .Our early attachment styles are established in childhood through the relationship between the infant and the caregiver.

The central theme of attachment theory is that care givers who are available and responsive to their infant’s needs, establish a sense of security. The infant knows that the care giver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to explore the world.

According to Bowlby, proximity seeking to the attachment figure in the face of threat is the “set goal of the attachment behaviour system”. (Danya, 2006)

Early steps in attachment most easily take place if the infant has one primary care giver or the occasional care of a small number of other people (J, 1958) Bowlby felt that children have more than one figure towards whom they direct attachment behaviour, but that these figures are not treated alike.

He believed that there was one fundamental attachment relationship and that this was between the infant and the mother. He termed this relationship monotropism. He also believed that there is a critical period between six months and thirty six months, when this attachment must be maintained.

It has been suggested that the timing of Bowlbys research is significant in that male soldiers were returning from World War 11 and the government hoped to encourage women to give up their jobs to the returning soldiers. By suggesting that children would be damaged by the absence of their mothers, they hoped to discourage mothers from working outside the home.

Researchers and theorists have abandoned this concept and current thinking posits that attachment theory is not gender specific and that the availability of a consistant, sensitive and loving care giver is what infants need to develop a secure attachment, regardless of gender of care giver.

Harry Harlow’s experiments on the effects of maternal deprivation on rhesus monkeys (Harlow, 1958) consisted of removing newborn monkeys from their mothers and raising them in isolation. In their cage they had access to two wire mothers. One was made of wire mesh and had a feeding bottle attached, the other a wire frame covered in a soft tactile material but which offered no opportunity for the baby monkey to feed. Harlow noted that when the baby monkeys were given the choice of the two mothers , the babies chose the soft mother to cling to. It had been thought that the motivation for mammals to attach had been for survival and feeding. However Harlow’s experiments indicated that monkeys sought comfort contact and that this was as, if not more, important than feeding. Also when the monkeys were later re-introduced into the troupe they displayed frightened, anxious behaviours, indicating that their early experiences had created difficulties for them in developing social relationships with others.

This research came to shape some of Bowlby’s theory of attachment.

Another of Bowlby’s colleagues Mary Ainsworth developed a way of testing the quality of the attachment between infant and caregiver. She conducted extensive observational research on infant/parent dyads in Uganda during the childs first year. She combined home visits with the study of behaviours in particular situations. Her research was published in 1967 in a book titled “Infancy in Uganda”. In it she identified three types of attachment styles. These were secure, avoidant/insecure, and ambivilant/resistant. Further research by Mary Main at the University of California added a fourth style identified as disorganised/disoriented.

Mary Ainsworth developed an experiment called the Strange Situation Procedure to identify infants attachment types. The experiment places the infant under a small amount of stress and the attachment type can be measured from the infanfs reaction to its parent during the reunion phase of the experiment. The infants are stressed through being in a strange envoirnment, being in the presence of a stranger and being separated from their parents.

Bowlby believed that parental sensitivity was important for the development of attachment.Follow up studies have confirmed that sensitive mothers and fathers tend to have securely attached infantsaˆ¦cite myers pg 190

In her book “Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation” Mary Ainsworth found that four scales were strongly linked to secure attachment. These were sensitivity, acceptance, co-operation and accessibility. Also De Wolff & Van Ijzendoorn (1997) found that ‘playing’ was an important factor in promoting attachment.

Results of attachment theory research suggest that experiences of attachment and relationships in early childhood influence the development of mental structures which Bowlby refers to as internal working models. He believed that the child represents its relationship with its parents internally, and it is thought that this model serves as a template for future relationships. An infant who experiences sensitive caregiving will develop a positive working model of herself and of her caregiver. These models are developing in infants between the ages of 6 months and twenty four months so it is very important that they receive sensitive, consistent care giving at this time.

Infants who have been classified as having a secure attachment type are associated with sensitive and responsive primary care. Those classified with an insecure/avoidant attachment type are associated with unresponsive primary care and those classified with an insecure/resistant attachment type are associated with inconsistent primary care. It has been wondered what explains this correlation.

Is it parenting style that affects the type of attachment pattern or does an infant’ s temprement influence the style of parenting they receive? Dutch researcher Dymphna van den Boom( 1990, 1995 ) designed an experiment to try to answer these questions. She assigned one hundred 6- to 9month old temperamentally difficult infants into two groups. In the first group, the experimental-condition group, the mothe’rs received personal training in sensitive responding, whereas in the second group, the experimental-control group the mothers received no training. When retested at 12 months old, 68 per cent of the first group were rated securely attached, as were only 28 per cent of the second group. Other research studies have also found that intervention supports the notion of a causal role of sensitivity in shaping attachment.

That so much research has been done on mothers in relation to their children is indicative of our attitude towards parenting, in which we place fathers in a lesser role. The following literature review attempts to answer the hypothesis : Does the gender of the primary care giver affect the attachment type in children?

I reviewed five studies: These were

1 Sensitivity and attachment: A meta-analysis on parental antecedents of infant attachments (De Wolff & van Ijzendoorn 1997)

2 The Importance of Father Love- History and Contemporary Evidence (Rohner & Veneziano 2001)

3 Early fathers and mothers involvement and child’s later educational outcomes (Flouri & Buchanan 2004)

4 Parenthood experiences during the child’s first year (Barclay & Lupton 1999)

5 The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding ( Barry S. Hewlett)

The first article included sixty six studies on parental antecedents of attachment

security. It questioned whether maternal sensitivity is associated with infant attachment security, and while it was concluded that maternal sensitivity was a factor for secure attachment, it also concluded that social class had an impact on maternal sensitivity as the stress and strains of lower class life may overburden potentially sensitive mothers.

The main findings in the second study “The importance of Father Love – History and Contemporary Evidence” was that the influence of father love on their children’s development seems to be as great and occasionally greater than mother love. Overall father love seems to be as heavily implicated as mother love in their children’s well being, health and development. It is also as heavily implicated in an array of their children’s psychological and behavioural problems. The role of fathers has changed greatly over time from that of a stern patriarch in the 1700s to the distant breadwinner of the 1900s and on to the genial playmate dad and gender role model of the 1970s. The ideal image of today’s father is said to be of a co-parent sharing equally in the care of his children. This shows how cultural conceptions of fatherhood have changed over time. In the third study I reviewed, researchers concluded that early father involvement can be a protective factor in counteracting some risk conditions that might later lead to low educational attainment, while in “Parenthood experiences during the child’s first year” some of the men interviewed said that they didn’t consider that household tasks and child care held the same status as paid employment. It was found that first time fathering in western society requires men to be simultaneously provider, household help and nurturer. The demands of these roles caused stress and tension between them and their partners and made them re-evaluate the meaning and place of work in their lives and their sense of self as competent adults. Almost all of the men found the first weeks and months of fatherhood more uncomfortable than rewarding despite looking forward to it positively. Their experiences seemed to be more closely linked to their difficulties in keeping up with social expectations than with individual deficits.

The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding provides a contrast between Aka pygmies from the rain forests of central Africa and fathers in western cultures. The Aka father-infant bonding is embedded in a cultural nexus- it influences,and is influenced by a complex cultural system. Aka father involvement is exceptional. They are within arms reach of their infants more than fifty per cent of the day. Fathers seek out their infants and vice versa. Fathers pick up their infants because they intrinsically enjoy being close to them. Infants are carried by either parent on the net-hunt. They are carried on the hip, which makes feeding and face to face interaction possible. Fathers know the cues from their infants because they spend so much time with them. Gender equality pervades Aka culture, beliefs and practises. Both men and women are valued for their different but complementary roles. There is flexibility in these roles and holding and caring for infants is not considered women’s work. By contrast western fathers are usually out at work during the day and cannot provide this type of care. If infants attach to their mothers through regular, sensitive care giving, does this mean that these fathers do not bond with their infants? The critical factor that has emerged in over fifty studies is vigorous play. Some researchers have indicated a biological basis (Clark- Steward 1980) The idea is that mother-infant bonding develops as a result of the frequency and intensity of the relationship, and the father-infant bond occurs because of this highly stimulating interaction. Western fathers are not bad fathers because they do as much direct caregiving as Aka fathers. Fathers around the world enrich their children’s lives in diverse ways. This paper identifies cultural factors that influence father-infant attachment.

Reviewing these papers would suggest to me that gender does not affect attachment type and that both mothers and fathers bring their own qualities to their children’s lives to develop secure attachments with them.


Participants will be recruited from mother and baby groups and also from, a website for fathers and fathers-to-be.

The experiment will be explained to the participants, and their consent received.

The participants are told they can stop the experiment at any time if they are concerned for their infants welfare.

The sample would comprise 15 mother and infant pairs and 15 father and infant pairs.

The independent variable is the gender of the primary care giver.

The dependant variable is the infant attachment type.

The infant attachment type is measured using the Ainsworth Strange Situation Procedure, according to the classification instructions(Patterns of Attachments. Ainsworth M.D.S. 1978 pp59-63 )

The experiment is conducted when the infants are 12 months old.

All procedures are videotaped and all responses are measured from these tapes.

At the end of the procedure the participants are thanked for participating and told they will be given the results when all the data is analysed.

The procedure has seven stages. It takes approximately twenty minutes and is conducted in a laboratory setting. It is overseen by qualified researchers and proceeds in a standard order for all participants. The sequence of the procedure is arranged so that the infant experiences a series of increasingly mildly stressful situations. These are: a strange room, an unfamiliar adult, separation from the mother/father but in the company of an unfamiliar adult and finally being left alone.

Parent and child enter an unfamiliar room which has lots of toys in it. The parent does not interact with the child but if the child signals that he/she wants interaction, then the parent responds. Otherwise the parent allows the child to explore the environment by herself.

A Stranger enters the room and attempts to interact with the child.

Parent leaves the room. The stranger attempts to comfort the child.

Parent returns and comforts the child.The stranger leaves the room.

Parent leaves the room. The child is left alone.

The stranger returns and attempts to comfort the child.

Parent returns and comforts the child.

Data Analyses

The attachment type is measured according to the classification instructions ( Patterns of Attachment.Ainsworth M.D. S. 1978 pp 59-63)

Classifications of attachment type are labelled as follows:



Insecure/resistant =C

The securely attached child becomes visibly upset when separated from the parent and greets him/her warmly upon reunion. The child is comforted by the parent and feels able to return to exploration and play.

The insecure/avoidant attached child shows little distress when the parent leaves and either completely ignores the parent or displays avoidance behaviours such as turning away or avoiding eye contact upon reunion.

The insecure/resistant child is very distressed by the separation from its parent. However on reunion with the parent the child displays angry behaviours . If the parent tries to comfort her the child resists and tries to struggle free.

The disorganised/disoriented attachment type relates to children who display

disorganised/disoriented patterns of behaviour that do not fit in with the other categories.

Ainsworth et al (1978) tested many infants and concluded that a typical ratio for America was approximately: 20 per cent attachment type A insecure/avoidant attachment, 70 per cent attachment type B secure attachment and 10 per cent attachment type C insecure/resistant attachment. This has come to be used as a standard against which other samples are measured.

If this research were to be conducted and using Ainsworth’s standard as a measure, we can presume our results would be comparable.

The parent’s of the infants classified as A,C or D(the disorganised/disoriented attachment type)

would be offered personal training in sensitive responding,as studies have found that intervention programs can increase parental sensitivity and to a lesser extent infant attachment security(Bakermans-Kranenburg et al.,2003 Van Zeijl et al., 2006)

Mary Ainsworths conclusions were based on mother/infant pairs and not father/infant pairs, so although it is onlikely that the results from the father/infant sample would differ greatly from the mother/infant sample, if it did then specific research would need to be targeted at this area of attachment theory.

This particular sample however is too small and a larger sample would be required to collect sufficient data and the financial costs could be substantial.


Just as the timing of John Bowlby’s research on attachment theory and his views on maternal deprivation were considered significant, so too is the timing for research on the effect of the gender of the primary care giver on children, not as a weapon to push working mothers out of the work force and back into the home, but rather as a tool for parents to use to realise how important both mothers and fathers are to their children’s development of secure attachments. While we may pay lip service to the notion of equality among parents, one only has to stand at school gates and listen to mother’s conversations to realise that parenting is still largely in the women’s domain. However, due to the recent economic down turn ,there are growing clusters of men waiting at play group and school gates to collect their children. This would be an opportune time to reaffirm their equal status as parents with the backing of strong research in this area.

Attachment relationships play a key role in a child’s development, their perceptions of relatedness with others, their concept of themselves and their life experiences. When an infant receives consistent, sensitive care giving from their primary care giver- regardless of gender- they develop secure attachments and also develop positive internal working models of themselves and their care giver. Their concept of themselves as good ,safe, loveable, capable and deserving and their concept of others as reliable, understanding, responsive, safe and trustworthy, fixes a belief in them that their care givers are a safe haven from which they can go and explore their environment.

Developmental theorist Eric Erickson(1902-1994) said that securely attached children approach life with basic trust- a sense that the world is predictable and reliable. He theorised that infants blessed with sensitive, loving care givers form a lifelong attitude of trust rather than fear (Myers,D.) There is ongoing debate among researchers as to whether early attachments form the basis of our adult relationships but the Aka pygmies would seem to confirm the theory .Attachment style is also associated with motivation, note Andrew Elliot and Harry Reis(2003). Securely attached people exhibit less fear of failure and a greater drive to achieve (Myers,D.).

In the Ireland of the 1990s when couples felt pressureised into buying expensive property, often a distance away from friends and family, economics dictated that both parents went out to work, and their children were left in the care of others.Now in 2011 with the current downturn in the economy many families are facing unemployment and redundancy,and children will no longer be cared for outside the home but rather at home with one or other parent as primary care giver. Now is the time to deliver research that underscores the value of both parents in their childs development, so that they know that each one has as an important impact on their children as the other and that it doesn’t matter what the gender is of the who’s left holding the the baby.

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