Father-child attachment

Photo: Tokyo Butterfly. Creative Commons.

There is much talk about mother-child attachment, but we have learned over 40 years of research that father-child attachment is vitally important also.

There is much talk about mother-child attachment, in particular in relation to breastfeeding. But we have learned over 40 years of research that father-child attachment is vitally important also.

“Attachment” was first described by John Bowlby in the early 1950s. He proposed that infants are biologically predisposed to emit signals, such as cries and smiles, to which adults are biologically predisposed to respond. When adults respond promptly and appropriately to the infant’s signals, the infant comes to perceive them as predictable or reliable, and secure adult-infant attachment is the result.

The formation of these relationships requires interaction of both quality and quantity. It is not possible to develop quality if there is no time to do it, but no amount of quantity can compensate for poor quality.

Mother-infant and father-infant attachments do not compete with each other – they develop in parallel and on similar schedules. Infants are predisposed biologically to enjoy multiple attachments. And fathers experience similar hormonal changes to women when engaging with infants (increasing levels of prolactin and cortisol and decreased levels of testosterone and estradiol).

Many experiments in the 1990s showed that men are skilled carers of infants if they get the time and opportunity to learn. For example:

  • They can recognise their babies when blindfolded by touching their hands, after only 60 minutes of contact with the newborn.
  • They adjust their speech when interacting with their babies, as mothers do: speaking more slowly, using shorter phrases, imitating and repeating themselves more often than when talking to adults.
  • They increase the pitch of their voices when talking to two year olds, sometimes more than mothers do.

Researchers have tried to find whether mothers are generically more sensitive to infants than fathers. But the main reasons for differences between mothers and fathers appear to be the amount of time they have had to “practice” and other factors such as mental health.

Fathers who are more sensitive to their infants are more likely (but by no means necessarily) to have the following:

  • A close relationship in the past with their own father.
  • Greater involvement in the responsibility for caring for the child.
  • Greater hormonal changes in response to being close to the baby.

But interestingly, babies seem to attach not just to those who actively care for them, but to those they interact with regularly. So infants can be strongly attached, for example, to a father who works full-time but engages with the child enough outside of working hours. This video of infants welcoming back home their working fathers illustrates this:

A test of attachment used by researchers involves separating the infant from the mother/father for a few minutes in an unfamiliar environment – the “strange situation” test. Infants reliably protest when left alone by either their mother or father, but much less if the other parent remains present. A distressed child will seek reassurance from whichever parent is present, though if both parents are present, the child is more likely to turn to the parent who does most caring, usually the mother. The way infants seek and obtain reassurance from the parents when distressed reveals the quality of the attachment relationships.