Skip main navigation

Building the baby’s mind

In this video Professor Jane Barlow examines the way in which primary caregivers contribute to the baby's developing mind and sense of self.
In the first part of this course we examined the way in which the baby begins to build their brain based on interactions with primary caregivers. In the next part of the course, I want to examine the way in which the interactions with primary caregivers contribute to the baby’s developing mind and sense of self. Doctor Daniel Siegel, who is a psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine, describes the mind as follows, ‘Our minds are created within relationships, including the ones that we have with ourselves.
Each of us has a unique mind: unique thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, beliefs, and attitudes, and a unique set of regulatory patterns. These patterns shape the flow of energy and information inside us and we share them with other minds’. Our minds are as such as important as our brains. And the relationship between the mind and the brain is complex, and one about which we still have a great deal to learn. Doctor Siegel goes on to describe the way in which the difference between the mind and the brain can be illustrated, for example, if we think about drug dependency. The drugs that are consumed as part of such dependency have a well-recognised impact on the individual’s brain.
But it is only by exploring the mind of someone who is dependent on drugs that we can really begin to understand why they became dependent, what role the drug use fulfils, and why they continue to use it rather than trying to stop. We don’t have time here to think in any great detail about the relationship between the brain and the mind, but the key thing for us to note about Doctor Siegel’s quotation is his assertion that the mind is created within relationships.
This course is looking specifically at the way in which the mind is created as a result of relationships during the first two years of life and which contribute in a big way to putting in place the basic building blocks for the infant’s mind. We now know that much of this development takes place as a result of the baby’s attachment relationships. So let’s explore attachment in a bit more detail. Attachment is a bio-behavioural mechanism that is activated by stress and in which the primary goal is to reduce this stress and to restore feelings of security. At a basic level, attachment develops as a mechanism to promote the infant’s safety and survival.
But it also has a key role to play in what is known as the dyadic regulation of affect. This refers to the way in which the dyad jointly regulate the infant’s stress and emotional states. Infants need help from their caregivers to both down regulate and to up regulate their emotional states. The theory of attachment was developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby, who drew one of a variety of disciplines, including cognitive science, developmental psychology, and evolutionary biology to develop his theory about attachment.
Attachment involves two core behavioural systems, proximity seeking - this system is triggered when the infant is experiencing stress and involves the infant seeking security from their primary attachment figure and separation protest - this system involves the infant showing signs of distress and protesting when separated from safety figures. These two biological systems can be observed from around seven months of age, which is when preferential attachment begins. The primary caregiver provides two functions in response to the search for security and comfort. As you can see from this diagram, infants and toddlers need parents to provide a secure base by supporting their exploration, but also to provide a safe haven and to offer them comfort and reassurance when they are distressed.
With sufficiently responsive caregiving, the infant becomes secure enough in their relationship with their primary attachment figure for that person to act as a secure base from which they can begin to explore the world around them. There are four key types of attachment that can result from the different types of early caregiving. And classification is made on the basis of the infant’s response to the strange situation procedure, which you can watch in the next video. Infants who are classified as secure have received caregiving that was responsive when they were distressed. These infants are as such able to be comforted by their caregiver and to use their caregiver as a secure base. Around 2/3 of infants are classified as securely attached.
This means that around 1/3 of infants are classified as being insecurely attached. And there are two types of insecure attachment classification. Anxious-resistant attachment, which is also known as anxious-ambivalent, refers to infants who have received caregiving that was highly erratic when they were distressed. These infants have learned that in order to get their needs met when they are distressed, they need to up regulate their emotional states. These infants, and later toddlers, are often anxious and often show signs of being clingy and demanding of the caregiver, but are unable to be comforted and show signs of being resistant when the caregiver responds. As many as 10% of infants are classified as insecure anxious-resistant.
Infants defined as avoidant have received caregiving that was dismissing, punitive, or intrusive when they were distressed and have learned that they get the best emotional response from their parent when they suppress signs of distress, vulnerability or neediness. Around 10% to 15% of infants are classified as insecure avoidant. In the 1990s, Mary Main discovered that not all infants could be classified in the above ways and as a result, developed a fourth category called disorganised attachment. These infants have received parenting that is frightening and it is, as such, abusive. These children show signs of what is known as fear without resolution, resulting from the fact that the person who should be reassuring them is actually the source of their fear.
Their behaviour in the strange situation shows a conflict between approach and avoidance. As many as 80% of infants who have been maltreated are classified as disorganised. It’s important to note that attachment security develops as a consequence of caregiver behaviours, so an infant could be insecurely attached to a mother who is behaving intrusively postnatally but securely attached to their father who is providing responsive care. Watch the next video to see the way in which the baby’s attachment patterns are classified using the strange situation procedure.

In this video we do two things:

  1. We examine the role of attachment as a bio-behavioural feedback mechanism that enables the infant to regulate his or her stress levels;

  2. We look at the different types of attachment relationship that a child can have with their primary caregivers, distinguishing between infants who are securely or insecurely attached, and infants who have an organised or disorganised attachment, and the different types of parenting that contribute to these different types of attachment.

We will then move on in later sections to examine the concept of ‘internal working models’ (Step 4.18: Glossary), which I will argue are the basic building blocks of the infant’s sense of self, and which are established as a result of the infant’s attachment relationship with primary caregivers.

Copyright for the Circle of Security image shown in this video: 1998 Cooper, Hoffman, Marvin, & Powell

This article is from the free online

Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now