The significance of attachment between an infant and a primary caregiver has long been recognised (Ainsworth et al., 1978, cited in Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2015; Bowlby, 1958); in fact, John Bowlby began investigating this idea in the 1950s. Developing a healthy attachment relationship with an educator is also essential for infants and toddlers in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) settings (Bowlby, 2007; Dolby et al., 2013; Swan & Dolby, 2003). As such, educators must understand practices that support attachment relationships in group care settings.

Internationally, the two practices of Primary Caregiving and Continuity of Care are often mentioned as features of high-quality infant-toddler programs (Dalli et al., 2011; Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2015; Page, 2010, cited in Page, 2014) as research shows that they support secure relationships between educators and young children (Colmer et al., 2011; Elfer et al., 2012), as well as holding other benefits for children, families and educators (e.g., Colmer et al., 2011; Shirvanian & Michael, 2017). This article explores what attachment is, why secure attachment is so important, and the guardian behaviours that influence a child’s attachment. The article concludes with some early childhood strategies that can promote secure attachments in children


What is Attachment?

Attachment is an innate system in the human brain that “evolves in ways that influence and organize motivational, emotional and memory processes with respect to significant caregiving figures” (Siegel, 2020, p.167). Significant caregiving figures can be parents, grandparents, foster parents, or any other adult who spends considerable time caring for the infant. An infant can have multiple attachment relationships and attachment is built through regular interactions between the infant and adult (Siegel, 2020). 

Attachment drives the infant to seek out and communicate with their primary caregivers. As they require these adults to live, secure attachment increases the infant’s chance of survival. Because the attachment system is a survival mechanism, it is highly responsive to perceived threats to safety, including separation from an attachment figure (Main et al., 2005). The attachment relationship supports the infant’s brain to organise its processes and can boost positive emotional states and regulate negative emotions when the attachment is secure. Attachment patterns established early in life significantly affect lifelong development and emotional intelligence. However, as attachment is an “internal working model”, the attachment patterns are not set in stone after infancy. Changing conditions and life experiences can change a person’s working attachment model at any stage of life.


The History of Attachment Theory

John Bowlby is known as the Father of Attachment Theory. He had a focus on attachment from the 1950s to the 1980s. He was initially drawn to this idea after experiencing many life events centred around relationships and loss. 

Bowlby studied psychology and pre-clinical sciences at the University of Cambridge. After graduating, he spent time working with children with challenging behaviour and then enrolled in medical school to eventually become a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Bowlby was encouraged to draw on his experiences and develop a different, more considerate way of psychoanalysing children. And so he began researching the patterns of interaction in families that impact healthy and pathological development and how a parent’s own experience from when they were a young child impacts how they relate to and interact with their child. Through observations of children experiencing separation from their parents, both temporary separation within hospitals and permanent separation in orphanages, he theorised that the maternal relationship was critical for a child’s development (Siegel, 2020). 

Bowlby presented the idea that there is an evolutionary pressure within humans to form an attachment for survival and that children with no attachment figure in the first years of life may have a lot of difficulty building relationships later in life (Bowlby, 1969, cited in Siegel, 2020). Bowlby categorised attachment as either secure or insecure.

Mary Ainsworth worked on one of Bowlby’s research teams in the early 1950s. In the 1970s, she created the Strange Situation to assess and classify mother-infant attachment (Ainsworth et al., 1978, cited in Siegel, 2020). Mothers with infants in their first year of life were observed in their homes over one year. After these observations, they visited the laboratory setting for the 20-minute-long Strange Situation procedure. 

This procedure was designed to activate the infant’s attachment system through experiencing stress. During the procedure, the infant experienced being in the room with their mother, being with their mother and a stranger, separating from their mother, being in the room with only the stranger, reuniting with their mother, and being in the room alone (Ainsworth et al., 1978, cited in Siegel, 2020). Through this research, Ainsworth determined three attachment patterns: secure, anxious-ambivalent, and anxious-avoidant. Mary Main, originally one of Ainsworth’s students, later identified a fourth attachment pattern of disorganized/disoriented (Main & Soloman, 1986, cited in Siegel, 2020).


Defining Attachment patterns

Aside from secure and insecure attachment relationships identified by Bowlby, all other attachment relationship patterns were identified through the specific laboratory Strange Situation procedure, where the infant’s attachment system was activated, and behaviours at separation and reunion were observed. The following definitions are focused on the behaviours shown within the procedure. It is important to note that the attachment patterns are context-dependent, and the same child can have different attachment patterns for other caregivers. 

Secure attachment relationships 

When an infant has a secure attachment with the parent, they show engagement and interest in the environment before the separation. Their preference for their parent is evident. During the separations, they show signs of missing the parent (this can include crying). In the reunion stage, the infant actively greets their parent, usually initiating physical contact. After the second separation and reunion, the infant will typically maintain contact with their parent for an extended time before returning to play.

Relevant caregiver behaviors: Parents who are consistently emotionally available, attuned to and responsive to their infant’s cues, needs and emotions support the development of a secure attachment. The infant learns that they are heard and understood and they know their parent will predictably respond to them. Their parent becomes a secure base for them to support their exploration and coregulation.


An organized insecure attachment pattern. Infants with an avoidant attachment pattern are focused on the environment throughout the procedure and usually don’t cry at the separations. At the reunion, they will actively avoid and ignore their parent and show minimal proximity or contact seeking, and appear unemotional in their responses to their parent. 

Relevant caregiver behaviors: Infants with anxious-avoidant attachment patterns have parents who are not emotionally available and are insensitive and unresponsive to their infant’s cues, needs and emotions. The infant learns that their parent is not responsive to their needs, so they will not seek closeness or contact with them.


An organized insecure attachment pattern. An infant with an ambivalent attachment pattern (sometimes called resistant) may not engage in much play, and demonstrate caution or distress even before separation from their parent. Their attention is distracted by their parent throughout the whole procedure, and they find little comfort in their parent upon reunion, usually remaining focused on their parent and crying with no return to play. 

Relevant caregiver behaviors: Parents who are inconsistent in their emotional availability, attunement and responsiveness to their infant, and who often project their own mental state onto their child, tend to have children with ambivalent or resistant attachment patterns. The unpredictability of the parent means that the infant is uncertain how their parent will respond in any given situation and hinders coregulation when the infant is in an anxious state. 


A disorganized insecure attachment pattern. The infant’s behaviours at the reunion stage of the procedure determine this disorganized attachment pattern, with their behaviours at the other stages of the procedure fitting into one of the above three attachment patterns. During their reunion with their parent, infants with this attachment pattern will show disoriented and disorganized behaviours such as freezing like in a trance or crying heavily and clinging to their parent while leaning and looking away from them. 

Relevant adult behaviors: Disorganised/disoriented attachment pattern is associated with infants whose parents show frightened, frightening or disoriented communications with their infant. Less is known about the broader contexts for this pattern, as the behaviors shown by these children outside of the reunion stage of the procedure fall into the other categories. The variance in behaviors that these infants show in the reunion stage suggests uncertainty in how to behave and regulate or organize the self.


What does this mean for early childhood professionals?

The relevant caregiver behaviours described under each of the patterns above highlight how the adult’s availability, predictability, responsiveness and attunement to the infant directly shapes the infant’s attachment relationship. 

Secure attachment takes time and many interactions between the infant and adult before it is formed. So frequently switching between educators takes away the child’s opportunity to build a healthy, secure attachment at the centre. When a child does not have an attachment relationship with an educator, they will have heightened stress levels while at the centre, and their play and learning will be hindered. This means educators must make a conscious effort to support the development of attachments by reducing the number of educators an infant spends time with at the centre. Attachment-based approaches, including Primary Caregiving and Continuity of Care can guide how to do this and support educators working with infants and toddlers.

Primary caregiving

Also known as the ‘key teacher’, ‘key educator’ or ‘key person’ approach, where an educator is assigned a small group of children whom they take the primary responsibilities for in terms of care needs (Elfer et al., 2012; Lally, 2009), relationships with family members and sometimes also documentation requirements (McMullen et al., 2016). The main focus of the primary carer is to build a secure relationship with each individual in their group and know these children and their unique preferences (Elfer et al., 2012; Lally, 2009). Primary care relationships support a child’s sense of security in ECEC settings (Colmer et al., 2011; Ebbeck et al., 2015; Shirvanian & Michael, 2017) when a child feels safe and secure, they can engage in play and exploration (Dolby et al., 2013).

Primary caregiving is a practice recommended by many, including the Program for Infant-Toddler Care (Lally, 2009; Program for Infant-Toddler Care, n.d.; Sosinsky et al., 2016). In England, primary caregiving is considered such an essential practice that it is a legal requirement for ECEC settings (Department for Education, 2017). Primary care relationships are not exclusive. Peter Elfer, who has written much of the literature on this approach, recommends assigning a primary and secondary person to each child so that when the primary person is unavailable, the secondary person is there for them (Elfer et al., 2012; Lally, 2009). 

Continuity of Care

Is the practice of keeping children together with the same educator across their years in an early childhood service (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2015). This can be implemented by having multi-age classrooms where the children and their educators stay for the duration of their time at the service. The more common way to enact Continuity of Care is for the educators to move rooms with the children, also known as ‘looping’ (McMullen et al., 2016). 

The intention of Continuity of Care is to reduce changes in educator for a child during their time in group care while also allowing and encouraging strong, trusting relationships between the educator, child, and family. The extended relationship between educator, child, and family enables the educator to have a depth of understanding that will improve the child’s experience at the early childhood service, leading to better outcomes for all involved. 


Other benefits of attachment-based practices in group care settings

Some educators have expressed increased professional satisfaction due to their involvement in attachment-based practices (Bussey & Hill, 2017; Longstreth et al., 2016). In one study investigating the use of Primary Caregiving as a tool for pre-service students, the researchers stated that the students “acquire[d]…a particular kind of professionalism” (Lee et al., 2016, p. 347). These findings suggest that elements of caregiving and attachment-based practices play a role in how infant-toddler educators view themselves as professionals. 

Research investigating the outcomes of Primary Caregiving and Continuity of Care has found that the practices enhance educators’ additional roles beyond relationship building (Ebbeck et al., 2015; McMullen et al., 2016; Ruprecht et al., 2016). When Ebbeck et al. (2015) gathered data before and after the implementation of Primary Caregiving in two Singaporean early childhood centres, they found educators could better plan for the infants and toddlers in their care when practicing Primary Caregiving. Likewise, a study comparing the practices in Continuity of Care and non-Continuity of Care toddler rooms found educators were notably more involved in responsive interactions with toddlers and had a more comprehensive understanding of each child’s development in Continuity of Care classrooms (Ruprecht et al., 2016). Other research (Ebbeck et al., 2018) used the Child Involvement Scale (Laevers, 1994, cited in Ebbeck et al., 2018) to measure the involvement of children up to three years old in one centre, which introduced a relationship-based curriculum, and another centre, which acted as a control without a relationship focus. The findings showed a measured increase in children’s involvement over time under the relationship-based curriculum and a decrease in the children’s involvement in the control centre (Ebbeck et al., 2018). 

In their study of the lived experiences of stakeholders in programs that have practiced Continuity of Care for several years, Professor Mary McMullen and her team of researchers at Indiana University (McMullen et al., 2016) identified increased knowledge, stable relationships, effective caregiving partnerships and a family-type atmosphere as some of the interconnected themes of Continuity of Care. 

Findings from research out of Purdue and Iowa State universities (Ruprecht et al., 2016) also suggest that Continuity of Care leads to improved outcomes for children. This research found that there was considerably more interactive involvement between toddlers and educators, and educators reported fewer behavioral problems in classrooms practicing Continuity of Care, when compared to classrooms not practicing Continuity of Care.

The growing literature focusing on intersubjectivity in interactions as a feature of high-quality practice for infants and toddlers (Degotardi, 2017; Goouch & Powell, 2013; White et al., 2015), and evidence showing educators’ attunement to an individual’s communication styles supports their ability to understand the infant and respond appropriately (White & Mika, 2013, cited in White et al., 2015), it could be argued the sensitivity the Primary Caregiving relationship fosters, and the attentive time between educator and child the approach requires, create ideal circumstances for intersubjective interactions, including fluid and stable joint attention (Degotardi, 2017). Primary Caregiving also ensures all children receive this focused attention, including the more “low maintenance” children, who are sometimes more easily missed (Lee et al., 2016). 



Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 350–373.

Bowlby, R. (2007). Babies and toddlers in non-parental daycare can avoid stress and anxiety if they develop a lasting secondary attachment bond with one carer who is consistently accessible to them. Attachment & Human Development, 9(4), 307–319. 

Bussey, K. & Hill, D. (2017). Care as curriculum: Investigating teachers’ views on the learning in care. Early Childhood Development and Care, 187(1), 128–137. 

Colmer, K., Rutherford, L., & Murphy, P. (2011). Attachment theory and primary caregiving. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 36(4), 16–20. 

Dalli, C., White, E. J., Rockel, J., & Duhn, I. (2011). Quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds: What should it look like? A literature review. New Zealand Ministry of Education.

Degotardi, S. (2017). Joint attention in infant-toddler early childhood programs: Its dynamics and potential for collaborative learning. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 18(4), 409–421. 

Department for Education. (2017). Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the Standards for Learning, Development and Care for Children from Birth to Five. Department for Education. 

Dolby, R., Hughes, E., & Friezer, B. (2013). Secure transitions: Supporting children to feel secure, confident and included. Early Childhood Australia. 

Ebbeck, M., Phoon, D.M.Y., Tan-Chong, E.C.K., Tan, M.A.B., & Goh, M.L.M. (2015). A research study on secure attachment using the primary caregiving approach. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34, 233–240. 

Ebbeck, M., Warrier, S., & Goh., M. (2018). Early experiences matter: A relationship-based curriculum for the birth-to-three age group. Early Childhood Education Journal, 46, 83–92. 

Elfer, P., Goldschmied, E., & Selleck, D. Y. (2012). Key persons in the early years: Building relationships for quality provision in early years settings and primary schools (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Hoffman, K. T., Marvin, R. S., Cooper, G., & Powell, B. (2006). Changing toddlers’ and preschoolers’ attachment classifications: The Circle of Security Intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1017–1026.

Gonzalez-Mena, J., & Eyer, D.W. (2015). Infants, toddlers, and caregivers – A curriculum of respectful, responsive, relationship-based care and education (10th ed.). McGraw Hill Education. 

Goouch, K. & Powell, S. (2013). The Baby Room: Principles, Policy and Practice. Open University Press.

Lally, J. R. (2009). The science and psychology of infant-toddler care. Zero to Three, 30(2), 47–53.

Lee, S. Y., Shin, M., & Recchia, S. L. (2016). Primary caregiving as a framework for preparing early childhood preservice students to understand and work with infants. Early Education and Development, 27(3), 336–351. 

Longstreth, S., Garrity, S., Ritblatt, S. N., Olson, K., Virgilio, A., Dinh, H., & Padamada, S. (2016). Teacher perspectives on the practice of continuity of care. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 30(4), 554–568. 

Main, M., Hesse, E., & Kaplan, N. (2005). Predictability of attachment behavior and representational processes at 1, 6, and 19 years of age: The Berkeley longitudinal study.. In K. E. Grossman, K. Grossman, & E. Waters (Eds.), Attachment from infancy to adulthood: The major longitudinal studies (pp. 245–304). Guilford Press.

McMullen, M.B., Yun, N.R., Mihai, A., & Hyojin, K. (2016). Experiences of parents and professionals in well-established continuity of care infant toddler programs. Early Education and Development, 27(2), 190–220.

Page, J. (2014). Developing professional love in early childhood settings. In L. J. Harrison & J. Sumison (Eds.), International perspectives on early childhood education and development vol. 11: Lived spaces of infant-toddler education and care: Exploring diverse perspectives on theory, research, and practice (pp. 119–130). Springer.

Program for Infant/Toddler Care (PITC). (n.d.). PITC’s six program policies.

Ruprecht, K., Elicker, J., & Choi, J. Y. (2016). Continuity of care, caregiver-child interactions, and toddler social competence and problem behaviors. Early Education and Development, 27(2), 221–239. 

Shirvanian, N. & Michael, T. (2017). Implementation of attachment theory into early childhood settings. The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 16(2), 97–115. 

Siegel, D. J. (2020). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (3rd ed.). Guilford Press. 

Sosinsky, L., Ruprecht, K., Horm, D., Kriener-Althen, K., Vogel, C., & Halle, T. (2016). Including relationship-based care practices in infant-toddler care: Implications for practice and policy. Brief prepared for the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Swan, B., & Dolby, R. (2003). The First Five Years. Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal, 6, 18–23.

White, E. J., Peter, M., & Redder, B. (2015). Infant and teacher dialogue in education and care: A pedagogical imperative. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 30(1), 160–173. 

Links (article available online on NAEYC website by Ronald Lally and Peter Mangione) (Dr Dan Siegel’s blog) (this is the full article that is linked to in the high-quality blog post above) (free resource from PITC a highly regarded Californian-based organisation) (a bit old and dated, but relevant to attachment and expands into how attachment relationships support other areas of the child’s day in care) (free access chapter in ebook by Peter Elfer, who has done decades of research and work on primary caregiving in UK) (free access journal article by Dr Jools Page, a highly regarded infant/toddler group care academic) (free access article on Circle of Security International website) (online article on attachment and key person, based in UK by Cathy Nutbrown) (online article on primary caregiving in UK during and after Covid)


About the author

Nellie Hodda is a Professional Learning and Development Trainer for Storypark. Nellie has a focus on relational pedagogy and is an advocate for respectful practice with infants and toddlers in group care settings. She is on the board of the Infant and Toddler Advocacy Network Australia (ITANA) and became one of the first Australia RIE® Associates in 2023.

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One Comment

  1. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude for the insightful article on the importance of protecting children and providing them with the opportunity to grow up in a safe and healthy environment. The piece profoundly highlighted the critical need for safeguarding our children’s well-being and the long-term benefits of nurturing their growth in a secure setting. Your thoughtful exploration of this topic has truly resonated with me and underscored the significance of our collective responsibility in ensuring a bright future for the younger generation. Thank you for shedding light on such an important issue and for your dedication to advocating for children’s rights and welfare.


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