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Children form secure attachment relationships with caregivers who are emotionally available, responsive, and consistent in meeting their needs.

Secure attachment relationships are the foundation for healthy social and emotional development. Children create special bonds with one or a few adults who are warm, sensitive, responsive, and dependable in meeting their needs. These relationships help children gain trust, confidence, and security, all important in order for children to explore, learn, interact, and build relationships with others.

Attachment relationships first consist of meeting children’s basic needs through sensitive caregiving and synchrony. If these needs are consistently met, trust develops. Once children begin to crawl and walk, they use their attachment figures as a secure base for exploration.1 Children demonstrate proximity seeking behaviors to connect and reconnect to their attachment figures during exploration. They may crawl away for a short time, stop, and crawl back toward their attachment figure in order to “check in.” Once children feel safe and secure, they resume exploring their environment. A normal part of attachment relationships is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety occurs when there is a physical separation between children and their attachment figure. Securely attached children miss their caregiver when separated and welcome their reappearance.

Children’s need for physical proximity lessens as they grow; instead, they use other skills such as language, eye contact, and gestures to stay connected to their attachment figures. Even with these new social skills, children will continue to seek physical closeness to their attachment figures. Secure attachment relationships provide children with feelings of self-worth and confidence. Children feel they are important and special in the lives of others.

Good-enough Parenting

Parenting is influenced by culture, community, and family history.2 Each parent or caregiver has different goals they hope to meet when raising their children. Therefore, when the question arises of what good-enough parenting looks like, there are usually different answers among parents or caregivers. What is consistent is the need for children to form secure attachment relationships with primary caregivers who are emotionally available, responsive, and consistent in meeting their needs. These three characteristics are often said to be “good enough” and contribute to children feeling loved and nurtured.3

A “good-enough parent” also takes into account the individuality of his or her children, and parents to complement these attributes, instead of forcing children to comply with the parent’s own needs and wants.4 This parenting approach demonstrates sensitivity toward children and encourages parents and caregivers to respond thoughtfully in different situations.

Birth to 9 months

Children begin to build trust, initiate interaction, and seek proximity with one (or a few) primary caregiver(s).

Indicators for children include:

  • Establishes, maintains, and disengages eye contact
  • Responds to caregiver(s) by smiling and cooing
  • Seeks comfort from a familiar caregiver
  • Imitates familiar adults’ gestures and sounds
  • Demonstrates preference for familiar adults
  • Exhibits separation anxiety, e.g., does not want to be held by another person when being held by primary caregiver

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide prompt, responsive, and sensitive care to the child’s needs
  • Hold, cuddle, smile, and interact with the child
  • Follow the child’s cues; allow the child to socially disengage when ready
  • Provide a loving and nurturing environment with trustworthy adults, and assign a primary caregiver to consistently take care of the child’s needs

7 months to 18 months

Children trust in, engage with, and seek reassurance from their primary caregiver(s). Children can confidently explore their environment when in close physical proximity to an attachment figure.

Indicators for children include:

  • Distinguishes between primary caregivers and others
  • Attempts to change the situation when separation anxiety occurs, e.g., follows caregiver(s) when he or she leaves the room
  • Uses social referencing with caregiver(s) when in uncertain situations, e.g., will glance at caregiver’s face for cues on how to respond to an unfamiliar person or new situation
  • Uses key adults as a “secure base” when exploring the environment
  • Exhibits stranger anxiety and concern in presence of an unknown person or a new situation
  • Seeks comfort from caregiver(s) and/or a familiar object, e.g., blanket, stuffed animal
  • Initiates and maintains interactions with caregiver(s)

Strategies for interaction

  • Talk and sing to the child often; use opportunities such as diaper changes and feeding time
  • Comfort and reassure the child as needed
  • Follow the child’s lead and read the child’s cues when engaged in interactions
  • When separating from a child, gesture and say good-bye, reassuring the child that you will be returning; in childcare settings, comfort and reassure the child once the primary caregiver has left
  • When reuniting with a child after separation has occurred, allow the child the necessary time to reconnect

16 months to 24 months

Children begin to use nonverbal and verbal communication to connect and reconnect with their attachment figure.

Indicators for children include:

  • Shows an emotional connection with familiar adults other than the primary caregiver
  • Uses imitation and pretend play to make sense of relationships, e.g., uses a toy to “brush” hair, or feeds and rocks a doll
  • Plays physically farther away from primary caregiver with increasing confidence; moves closer as needed
  • Seeks physical closeness when distressed
  • Actively seeks emotional responses from caregiver(s) by waving, hugging, and crying

Strategies for interaction

  • Comfort and acknowledge the child’s feelings of distress; provide words for the emotions the toddler is exhibiting
  • Set appropriate and consistent limits; ensure to take realistic expectations into account
  • Provide ample opportunities for play and interaction with nurturing adults
  • Be physically and emotionally available for the child, especially after reuniting after a separation has occurred
  • Respond to the child’s attempts to seek out a response, e.g., blow a kiss back after the child blows a kiss
  • Model appropriate behaviors, e.g., how to emotionally react in situations, how to speak to peers

21 months to 36 months

Children demonstrate a desire for their attachment figure to share in their feelings, responses, and experiences. Behaviors that demonstrate a need for physical proximity with the primary caregiver decrease, while in certain instances of distress, some children seek to be close to their attachment figure.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses glances and words to stay connected, without having to be physically near or touching the caregiver
  • Initiates activities that are meaningful in the relationship, e.g., brings over a favorite book to be read together
  • Communicates thoughts, feelings, and plans to familiar adults
  • Seeks adult assistance with challenges
  • Separates with assistance from attachment figure with minimal anxiety

Strategies for interaction

  • Show empathy and acknowledge how the child is feeling
  • Genuinely praise the child as he or she shares accomplishments
  • Respond with interest as the child engages in conversation
  • Recognize and respond to the child’s verbal and nonverbal communications
  • Prepare the child for separation by telling him or her good-bye and that you will return


  1. Ainsworth, Mary D. (1970). Criteria for classification of one-year-olds in terms of the balance between exploratory and attachment behavior at home.
  2. Bettleheim, Bruno (1987). A good enough parent. New York: Random House.
  3. Bettleheim, Bruno (1987). A good enough parent. New York: Random House.
  4. Bettleheim, Bruno (1987). A good enough parent. New York: Random House.

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About this resource

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2012