The Secondary Attachment: A Look at Bowlby’s Theory

By Sir Richard Bowlby, Bt, member of API’s Advisory Council

**Originally published in the Summer 2007 Secondary Attachments issue of The Journal of API

Father and BabyI remember my father saying to me in 1968, “You know this business about the instinct for a small child to stay close to its mother, and the intimate bond they form? Well, I believe that it’s the same instinct to form close bonds that stays with us all our lives, and we, as adults, suffer the same feelings of loss when a loved one dies, as a child feels who’s lost its mother.”

My father focused mostly on the primary attachment relationship between an infant and the person raising him because the limited data he had at the time pointed toward its greater significance to the long-term mental health outcome of the child than to any other relationship.

But what about other relationships? For instance, what’s the difference between adults who are close friends and adults who have a secondary attachment bond to each other, such as siblings or close relatives? There are several differences, but one is that friends usually share a particular activity or interest that maintains their friendship (work or pleasure), whereas simply being in the company of a secondary attachment figure is usually sufficient in itself for both people to feel content.

There are gender differences, as well. Women tend to make bonds with friends as confidants and to seek their comfort and support in times of stress while men tend to have more of a fight-or-flight response to stress (although the “buddy” system in the U.S. Army can develop into a supportive attachment bond especially in times of great danger).

Secondary attachment relationships are a great asset. Children who develop three or more secondary attachment bonds (not counting parents) are usually more resilient, have higher self-esteem, and fewer mental-health problems than children with fewer secondary bonds. Having close bonds with a supportive group of committed people is very reassuring and has real practical value in times of difficulty.

Who Are You Going To Call?

A class of mature students took part in a quick survey. They were asked to imagine they had been in a serious accident and were very shaken up but not physically hurt. The students were asked to imagine whom they would telephone first to say they were OK and to get reassurance and comfort.

The answers from these students fell into two broad groups:

  • The first were those who said they would phone their mother first, and the second who said they would phone their partner first. It emerged that those in the first group were not in long-term relationships or had only recently started one. They saw their mother as their main source of comfort.
  • Those in the second group were in long-term relationships and had developed a new attachment bond to their partner over a period of time, a bond that was more significant in this situation than their original primary attachment bond to their mother.

How long was it necessary for the students to be in a relationship before they expected to phone their partner first rather than phone their mother first? On average, students in this group had been in a stable relationship for two years or longer. Those who had been in a relationship fewer than two years still said they would phone their mother first.

Most simply, what we see is the development of a secondary attachment bond between two strangers. Over time, this secondary attachment bond develops into a primary attachment bond as their relationship deepens.

This “new” primary attachment bond is not usually based on the unequal infant-parent relationship of an adult care provider and an infant-care recipient. Instead it’s a more equal partnership, with times when one or the other partner can give comfort and support to his mate.

For couples with well-established and happy relationships, the death or divorce of their partner is of far greater significance than it would be for someone being dumped by a short-term boyfriend or girlfriend who would normally still be a secondary attachment figure. However the relationship with the original “parental” primary attachment figure usually remains important, and their death is often a very painful event, especially if it’s sudden, premature, or traumatic.

Who Raised You?

The Adult Attachment Interview is a structured, semi-clinical interview focusing on early attachment experiences and their lasting effects. The first question in the Adult Attachment Interview is “Who would you say raised you?” The interviewer uses the answer to help determine who should be considered the primary attachment figure during childhood and on whom the interview will mostly focus.

Howard Steele, associate professor and Director of Graduate Studies at The New School for Social Research, is experienced in administering the interview. He told me that in the normal adult population, 99 out of 100 people have a clear image of who it was that raised them. One in 100 say it is rather more complex for them, which is often the case in clinical groups.

This simple question establishes that the great majority of people think of one individual as being the person who raised them. My father talked about children having a “pyramid of carers,” a hierarchy of people who they knew and ranked one above the other. The highest-ranking person in a child’s affections takes on a special significance as their primary attachment figure, with whom they have a primary attachment bond. That’s usually the person who provides the great majority of care for the child, and in my father’s language, will become the infants “mother figure.”


The origin of my father’s motivation for working on the conundrum of the parent-child attachment bond probably stems from a traumatic childhood event he experienced when he was about four years old. His father, my grandfather, was a successful surgeon who lived in a large London townhouse with his wife and six children. The normal arrangement for childcare at that time was to have a senior nanny and one or two additional nursemaids as more children were born.

My father was the fourth child, and he had a nursemaid called Minnie who had day-to-day responsibility for him. The children rarely saw their father except on Sundays and holidays and only saw their mother for one hour each day between 5 and 6 P.M., and even then, the children went to see her all together so there wasn’t exactly individual quality time. (Effectively, the children had 23 hours a day of good quality, non-parental care).

My father grew to love Minnie, and Minnie once told my father’s sister, Evelyn, that John was her favorite. My father must have become attached to Minnie, and I have little doubt that Minnie was his surrogate primary attachment figure in preference to his own mother, but when he was four years old, Minnie left the family. He lost his “mother figure,” and his primary attachment bond was broken.

Not only was his mother physically and emotionally unavailable, but my father was sent away to boarding school when he was eight years old. I think one thing that saved him was that he did have those four years of secure attachment with Minnie – the only person in the household to play with the children, a very significant detail as we’ll see later.

My father occasionally spoke of these childhood events and said that he was sufficiently hurt to feel the pain of separation but was not so damaged that he couldn’t face working with it on a daily basis. His other salvation was the love of a good woman, a long and happy marriage to my mother!

What did Dr. Bowlby Mean by a ‘Continuous Relationship’?

John Bowlby often used the word “continuous” in describing a relationship but never defined it, which was at the root of much misunderstanding. Sir Richard Bowlby said the proper definition is: “an enduring relationship lasting many years where periods of separation are shorter than would cause the child distress or trauma. The length of these periods will depend on the age of the child, with whom they are left, where they are left, how often they are left, the child’s temperament, and the quality of their relationship with their principal attachment figure.”

Can I Leave my Baby?

In 1958, my father wrote a pamphlet called Can I Leave My Baby? which contains this passage: “Mothers sometimes ask: ‘Then, can we never leave our small children?’ I do not believe that anyone has ever suggested that they should not. It is an excellent plan to accustom babies and small children to being cared for now and then by someone else – father, for instance, or granny, or some other relation or neighbor. … And in this way, mother can have some freedom too–for an afternoon’s shopping in peace, visits to the doctor or dentist, to the cinema, or to tea with friends.

Leaving a small child while you go out to work needs much more care. If your own mother is living nearby or a dependable neighbor can be daily guardian, it may work out all right. But it needs regularity, and it must be the same woman who cares for him.

It’s the same with nannies. … Well, nannies are valuable people, provided they are good ones, and provided they stay. It is the chopping and changing of people in charge of a young child that upsets him. And if a mother hands over her baby completely to a nanny, [as my father was] she should realize that in her child’s eyes, Nanny will be the real mother figure and not Mommy. This may be no bad thing, always provided that the care is continuous. But for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny, and then for her to leave when he is two or three years old, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother.”

This is why I must understand the conundrum of how an infant establishes the hierarchy of different attachment figures, and the criteria infants use when they select their primary attachment figure. I’m going to look at the everyday interactions that a baby uses to assess various caregivers’ capacity to best meet their instinctive, driven need to select one primary attachment figure.

Under most circumstances, the infant’s primary attachment figure is the person who spends the most time with them from the moment they are born and demonstrates the most commitment, which in humans is most likely to be the birth mother. But as we know, human babies a few days old can be adopted very successfully, and as we’ve seen, children can develop a primary attachment bond to a nanny, so it’s well established that the birth mother is not inevitably the baby’s primary attachment figure.

But this is not at all straightforward, because a child can spend long hours in non-parental care and yet still have a primary attachment bond with a parent whom they see relatively little, (although this did not work out in my father’s case).

Who Becomes the Primary Attachment Figure?

So what are the essential experiences that an infant needs to set their primary attachment figure apart from their other secondary ones? The two most significant factors to influence a baby of a few months old in their selection of a primary attachment figure are: the adults’ rapid response to the baby’s crying, and lots of lively playful social interaction, particularly interaction that’s initiated by the adult.

Rapid response to crying and initiating social play are the two experiences that are the greatest promoters of attachment behavior during the first seven months. This would normally lead the baby to develop a primary attachment bond with the person the baby experiences as most involved in these activities. This does not depend either on the location of these experiences, or whether the adult and baby are related to each other, and they don’t have much to do with the day-to-day physical needs of the baby.

Let’s take a brief look at the different phases of development that a baby goes through in the first year of life, while their early attachment bonds are forming:

0 to 3 Months – A baby’s born with a number of functioning behavioral systems that will form the building blocks of later attachment behavior such as crying, clinging, looking, and sucking; and then a few weeks later they’re smiling and babbling, as well. From birth, babies have good hearing and sense of smell, which is how they discriminate one person from another, and they respond more favorably to a human voice, to a human face, and to human touch than to other such stimuli.

Newborn babies have a natural propensity to prefer and seek out stimuli that are familiar to them; and they may develop a preference for a familiar person to care for them early on. However, for the first two, or even three, months the infant has not developed proper attachment behavior and his attempts at social interaction are very primitive.

3 to 7 Months – After about three months, babies begin to differentiate between the people around them and they become selective about who they “socialize” with most. Mary Ainsworth writes: “One feature of attachment behavior that struck me especially was the extent to which the infant himself takes the initiative in seeking an interaction. At least from two [or more often three] months of age onwards, and increasingly through the first year of life, these infants were not so much passive recipients, as active in seeking interaction.”

This period from about three months to seven months is when the babies work out who’s who in their lives and increasingly select one person. It’s during this phase that most infants are in a high state of
sensitivity for developing attachment behavior toward a “mother figure,” and her lively and sensitive response to the baby’s signals and approaches for interaction will be very important.

7 to 12 Months – When they’re six or seven months old, the infants become increasingly discriminating in the way they treat people and have a repertoire of responses including following a departing mother figure, greeting her on her return, and using her as a base from which to explore. Although the rather indiscriminate friendly response to everyone else diminishes, certain people are selected to become secondary attachment figures but not others. Although most babies show the beginnings of attachment behavior at six or seven months, the start may be delayed until after the first birthday, especially in infants who have little contact with their main attachment figure.

So the period that a baby uses to select a primary attachment figure stretches from as young as 2 months to over 12 months, with most infants making up their minds in the period between three months and seven months.

The baby will focus on the person who’s most often there for them when needed and who most often gets it right. The person who’s learned best to tune in to their emotional state and gives them joy; the person most sensitive to their needs and whose behavior the baby has learned to predict most reliably will ultimately become the primary attachment figure. As my father put it on the first page of Child Care and the Growth of Love, the primary attachment will be established with “the one person who steadily ‘mothers’ the baby.”

Factors in Establishing Primary and Secondary Attachment

The more readily the mother responds to his cries and the more interaction she initiates, the more strongly her infant will tend to be attached to her at 18 months old. But there are other important interactions. For instance, when an infant is distressed, bodily contact seems vital, whether it’s to soothe a crying infant during the early months or, when he’s a bit older, to comfort him when he’s frightened.

Regular rituals, especially those associated with nighttime parenting, seem important when establishing the primary attachment bond. Feeding, bathing, being put to bed, being comforted during the night, waking up in the morning, and getting dressed are all interactions when an infant has the opportunity to assess the availability, sensitivity, responsiveness, and commitment of their carer.

Schaffer and Emerson write about the development of attachment bonds in a study of 58 children in Scotland. They reported that some mothers who were available all day were not responsive or sociable with their infants, whereas some fathers who were not frequently available interacted strongly with their infants whenever they were with them. In such families, a child tended to become more intensely attached to father than to mother.

Schaffer and Emerson explain: “… several of the mothers complained their policy of not spoiling was being ruined by their husbands, and the infant who was quite undemanding as long as only the mother was about, would make intense demands for his fathers presence and attention during holiday periods, weekends, and evenings. … One child whose mother was in full-time work chose grandmother [as their primary attachment figure], who looked after him most of the day.”

Writing about secondary attachment figures, Schaffer and Emerson reported that the “father was the most frequent other figure to elicit attachment behavior, next in frequency were older children, not only very much older children, … but also preschool children. We found no evidence that attachment to mother was less intense when attachment behavior was directed to other figures; on the contrary, in the early months of attachment the greater number of figures to whom a child was attached the more intense was his attachment to his mother as his principal figure likely to be.”

The person who measures up second-best will usually become the most significant secondary attachment figure. However, it takes time for a baby to form secondary attachment bonds and assess other people’s attributes, and unless there are regular and prolonged opportunities to interact with them, the secondary attachment bond will have little substance. Well-developed secondary attachment bonds are a great safety net for a child if anything should befall their primary attachment figure or if they become emotionally or physically unavailable.

For most people, the longest attachment relationship they will ever have in their life is with a sibling, and it’s normally a secondary attachment (but it can be primary). The duration of a sibling relationship is usually longer than with parents, grandparents, nanny, or even a partner, and family bonds whether primary or secondary can be a great support and last over several generations especially if regular contact is maintained. A particular case in point is twins, with identical twins (and especially conjoined twins) well known for their intense and often devoted lifelong bonds.

Children only have a limited amount of resilience, and making new secondary attachment bonds only to have them broken again is very troubling. However with care and discretion it’s not too difficult for a child to separate from a secondary attachment figure, certainly far less difficult compared to separating from a primary one! But the more often any attachment bond is broken, the harder it becomes for the child!

But my role today is not to advise you about childcare arrangements. It’s to inform you of the little discussed research findings about how infants come to select a primary attachment figure and the value of having additional secondary attachment figures. The illustrations I’ve given you are intended to show the emotionally significant differences between a primary attachment figure and a secondary attachment figure.

However valuable secondary attachment figures are, the child will have a unique emotional intensity with their primary attachment figure throughout their life. The decisions of how to use this knowledge I leave up to you. I cannot pretend to make your decisions easier, but I think we must give proper weight to this scientifically rigorous body of research work when we consider care arrangements for very small babies and young children.

5 thoughts on “The Secondary Attachment: A Look at Bowlby’s Theory”

  1. Interesting article. I’m a mother to a nine month old daughter who I stay at home with and am undoubtedly the primary attachment figure to, gladly. I’ve wondered lately if I was also the primary attachment figure to my younger sister when she was a baby. She’s now 14 years old, I’m 25, and we’ve talked about it quite a bit lately. Long story short, we grew up in a pretty unhealthy home environment, with a rage-filled, aggressive and physically and emotionally abusive father and very passive, distant mother. She did have more attached relationships with us as babies, because she breastfed and was much more affectionate and loving while we were babies. But even so, the majority of the time, us siblings were expected to care for the babies (there are 11 children total). I felt so much love for my sister when she was born, and made a conscious decision to give her the best care I possibly could. I spent every second I could with her. Now she’s a very compassionate, confident and sweet person, and her and I wonder if her stable mental health is partly because of the attachment we had when she was just a baby (especially after researching Attachment Theory). After reading this article, I think I may have been the primary attachment figure to her.

  2. Another bit of proof showing care givers for working parents should be paid more than minimum wage,have lots of training and be people that LOVE & LIKE children. Also the government should implement something so a parent can stay home at least the first year. How many issues like drug abuse, murder,suicide, etc would not be so prevalent if our children were able to have strong secure bonds that supported them throughout life? Why should a family be forced to put their child in high turn over care so they can eat and have basic needs met? I wish something more could be done cause things like this make it obvious what will benefit our children.

    Lovely article and site.


  3. I am looking for information to help justify my instinct to insist upon keeping my twins in the same Kindergarden class. Can anyone help?

  4. This is a lovely article that has addressed many of my questions for which I couldn’t find relevant information elsewhere on the net – even questions I didn’t know I had! Thank you for keeping the article up here even after all these years since its original publication.

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