Four in ten babies don’t develop the strong emotional bonds – what psychologists call “secure attachment” – with their parents that are crucial to success later in life. Disadvantaged children are more likely to face educational and behavioural problems when they grow older as a result, new Sutton Trust research finds today.

The review of international studies of attachment, Baby Bonds, by Sophie Moullin (Princeton University), Professor Jane Waldfogel (Colombia University and the London School of Economics) and Dr Liz Washbrook (University of Bristol), finds infants aged under three who do not form strong bonds with their mother or father are more likely to suffer from aggression, defiance and hyperactivity when they get older.

The Trust is urging the government to do more through health visitors and Children’s Centres, with their strong focus on improved outcomes for disadvantaged families, to support parents with babies and toddlers.

About 60 per cent of children develop strong parental bonds. The 40 per cent who lack such secure attachment are split into 25 per cent who avoid their parents when they are upset, because they ignore their needs, and 15 per cent who resist their parents because they cause them distress.

This is an issue for families from all social classes, but where families have multiple problems up to two-thirds of children have weak parental attachment. The report finds that boys’ behaviour is more affected than girls’ by early parenting.

The research finds that insecure attachment is associated with poorer language and behaviour before school. The effect continues into later life, with insecure children more likely to leave school without further education, employment or training. In one US study of disadvantaged children, the quality of parent care and attachment in the first years was a strong predictor of graduating from high school, alone predicting with 77% accuracy whether children graduated or not. Neither IQ nor test scores improved upon this prediction.

The report also finds that securely attached children are more resilient to poverty, family instability, parental stress and depression. Boys growing up in poverty are two and a half times less likely to display behaviour problems at school if they formed secure attachments with parents in their early years.

Where mothers have weak bonds with their babies, research suggests their children are also more likely to be obese as they enter adolescence. Parents who were insecurely attached themselves, are living in poverty or with poor mental health find it hardest to provide sensitive parenting and bond with their babies.

Today’s report explains how sensitive and responsive parenting in the first years of life is crucial to attachment.  Simple, and often instinctive, actions such as holding a baby lovingly, and responding to their needs, are key to the development of attachment. Equally important might be acknowledging a baby’s unhappiness with facial expressions and then reassuring them with warm, happy smiles and soothing tones.

Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust said:

“Better bonding between parents and babies could lead to more social mobility, as there is such a clear link to education, behaviour and future employment. The educational divide emerges early in life, with a 19 month school readiness gap between the most and least advantaged children by the age of five.

“This report clearly identifies the fundamental role secure attachment could have in narrowing that school readiness gap and improving children’s life chances. More support from health visitors, children’s centres and local authorities in helping parents improve how they bond with young children could play a role in narrowing the education gap.”

Jane Waldfogel, Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said:

“Parents are an important influence on young children’s development and their chances in life. Mothers and fathers influence development through the resources they invest in their children, and the home learning environment they offer. But the emotional bonds they forge with their children also matter. A secure bond or attachment to the parent helps the child manage their behaviour and learn.

“Policy can promote secure attachment by reducing the broader risk factors that undermine parents’ ability to care for their children.  Targeted interventions can also be highly effective in helping parents develop the behaviours that foster secure attachment. Supporting families who are at risk for poor parenting ideally starts early – at birth or even before.”

The report recommends:

·         Children’s Centres focus more on parenting, especially for the under-threes.

·         Health visitors and other health services play a stronger role in supporting attachment and parenting.

·         Local authorities and health services enhance home visiting and offer parenting programmes for higher risk families with babies and toddlers, through the government’s Early Intervention and Troubled Families agendas. Evidenced-based programmes can cost as little as £500 per family, and generate savings to public services later on.


1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.

2. The report Baby Bonds by Sophie Moullin, Professor Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook is available on the Sutton Trust website here.

3. Attachment refers to the impact children’s early parent care has on their social and emotional development. When a parent responds to a child in a warm, sensitive and responsive way – such as picking up the child when they cry, and holding and reassuring them – the child feels secure that their needs will be met. The infant, when distressed, knows the parent will respond sensitively and so can safely express negative emotion, seek proximity to the caregiver, and expect to feel better. This is what’s called a secure attachment. There are two main types of insecure attachment. Avoidant attachmentoccurs when parents consistently respond to their child’s distress in insensitive or ‘rejecting’ ways, such as ignoring or becoming annoyed with them. Infants that regularly experience this learn to minimise expressions of their negative emotions and needs, and avoid the parent when distressed. Disorganised attachment results from inconsistent and unpredictable parenting, responding harshly to a child’s distress or making it worse. Infants that experience this struggle to manage their feelings, and so often develop behaviour problems.

4. The statistic that 40% of children are insecurely attached is consistently found across studies that use reliable measures of attachment, and have nationally representative samples. Specifically, a major nationally representative US study of children born in 2001, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-B), found 58% of children are securely attached. This has a sample-size of 14,000 and could be seen as equivalent to the Millennium Cohort Study.  A review of studies across North America and Europe with a combined sample size of over 2,000 found 62% of children are securely attached.
The 40% insecurely attached refers to a general population. In the ECLS-B study, 46% percent of low-income toddlers had an insecure attachment, compared to 32% of higher income toddlers.

5. A Sutton Trust Social Mobility Report in 2012 found a 19 month gap in school readiness between the richest and poorest four and five year olds in the UK.

Another recent Sutton Trust report called for improvements in the quality of childcare available to the poorest 20% of two year olds in order for them to gain developmental benefits.

6. The Parents Early Education Partnership (PEEP) in Oxford offers a ‘Reflective Parenting’ programme which works from pregnancy and focuses explicitly on developing attachment and a parent’s ability to tune into their baby’s feelings and respond sensitively. The programme begins in the third trimester of pregnancy with a home visit and group sessions,  which are followed by small group sessions soon after the baby is born.  PEEP has been supported by the Sutton Trust.

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