Bowlby's ethological theory

Bowlby's ethological theory

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Currently the Bowlby's ethological theory Referral to attachment is the most widely accepted explanation of the baby's emotional bond with their caregiver. Bowlby was the first to apply this idea to the child-caregiver bond.

This author, although originally a psychoanalyst, He was also inspired by Lorenz's studies on the imprint of geese. He suggested that the baby, like the offspring of other animal species, is endowed with a series of programmed behaviors that help maintain the closeness of the parents, thus increasing their protection.


  • 1 Bowlby's ethological theory
  • 2 The development of attachment within Bowlby's ethological theory
  • 3 Final Comments

Bowlby's ethological theory

Bowlbyargued that babies' attachment behaviors to their mothers were in the form of smiles, babbles, hugs and cries. In fact, they are social signals that stimulate the mother's approach to the child.

Contact with parents also ensures the child's feeding, although Bowlby was careful to indicate that feeding is not the basis of attachment. While the attachment bond has strong biological roots, can be better understood in a context in which the survival of the species is of paramount importance.

Although the Bowlby's ethological theory was stimulated by the evidence of the imprint, this process alone does not serve to adequately explain human attachment.

Unlike the goose poyuelos, whose development phase is short, human children have a long period of immaturity and an extraordinary capacity for learning.

As a result, the child's relationship with his parents is not fixed but changes over time. According to Bowlby, this relationship begins as a set of innate signals that lead the adult close to the child.

Over time, a true emotional bond develops, which is based on new cognitive and emotional abilities, as well as the previous history of sensitive care.

The development of attachment within Bowlby's ethological theory

The development of attachment takes place in four phases:

1. Preapego

The first phase is the pre-attachment (or indiscriminate social sensitivity) and goes from birth to six weeks.

At this time there are different programmed signals (such as smile, crying, adult gaze tracking, grabbing, etc.) that help the newborn to get in touch with other humans.

Once the adult responds, the child stimulates him to stay close. In addition, the child frequently protests when they leave. At this time, children recognize their mother's voice and smell. Nevertheless, are not yet attached to her, since they do not have a special preference for her over any other adult.

2. Construction of attachment

The second phase is the construction of attachment (or differentiated social sensitivity), and it goes from six weeks to six or eight months.

During this phase the children begin to respond differentially to a family caregiver and a stranger.

For example, the child smiles, laughs and babbles more frequently when interacting with the mother. In addition, he stays calm faster when it is she who takes it.

As the baby is involved in face-to-face interactions with the parents and experiences decreases in discomfort, He learns that his own actions affect the behavior of those around him. As a result, they begin to develop expectations that the caregiver will respond when they are told.

However, the children still do not protest when they are separated from their mother, although they can recognize and distinguish unfamiliar people.

3. Centered attachment

The third phase is that of centered attachment (or the active search for proximity) it goes from six or eight months to eighteen or twenty four months.

At this time the attachment to the family caregiver is evident. Children in this period show separation anxiety, and they feel very upset when the adult they live with leaves.

Separation anxiety appears universally after 6 months and increases to 15. Its appearance suggests that children have a clear understanding that the parent continues to exist even when it is not in sight.

In addition to protesting the father's departure, children deliberately act to maintain their presence. In this period, they employ the mother as a safe base from which to explore the environment.

4. Formation of the reciprocal relationship

The fourth phase of the formation of a reciprocal relationship, takes place from eighteen or twenty four months onwards.

At the end of the second year, the rapid growth in representation skills and language It allows children to understand some of the factors that influence parents to come and go. Too, they begin to be able to predict when they will return.

As a result, separation protests decrease. In this phase the children begin to negotiate with the caregiver, using requests and persuasion to reach their goals (eg, being close to their mother) instead of just chasing or holding on to their parent.

Final comments

According to Bowlby, From the experiences in these four phases, children build a lasting emotional bond with the caregiver

Once firmly established, preschoolers do not need to engage in behaviors to maintain the caregiver's closeness as insistently as they did before.

This internal representation of the child-father bond becomes a vital part of the personality. It serves as a model of internal functioning, or set of expectations regarding the availability of attachment figures.

For example, the likelihood of providing support during times of stress, and self interaction (the self) with those figures. This model It will affect all future relationships throughout childhood and adolescence and even in adult life.


Bowlby, J. (1993).The affective bond. Paidós Iberian.

Bowlby, J. (1976).Attachment and loss: Affective separation. Paidós

Delgado, A. O., & Oliva Delgado, A. (2004). Current state of attachment theory.Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology4(1), 65-81.

Marrone, M., Diamond, N., Juri, L., & Bleichmar, H. (2001).Attachment theory: a current approach. Madrid: Psimática.