Toddler Attachment and Social Relationships

child wearing pink scrunchies

An important part of toddler development is the ability to form attachments and social relationships. A toddler’s ability to form an emotional attachment begins in their first year of life as an infant, when they bond with their primary caregiver. As a child enters into the toddler years, they become capable of forming social relationships with other people.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is based on the assumption that all infants (and parents) are biologically predisposed to form attachments. It is one of the most influential theories of parent-child and other close relationships, and was formulated by the psychiatrist John Bowlby.

According to this theory, an attachment is a strong affectional tie that bonds a person to an intimate companion. It also states that it is normal to need other people throughout the life span.

Development of Toddler Attachments

The first three years of life are a critical period for forming attachments. Attachments do not occur automatically. They are influenced by the ongoing interaction between the child and their caregiver, and by the ability for them to respond to each other’s signals.

Quality of Attachments

Quality of parent-infant attachments were assessed by the researcher Mary Ainsworth. She devised four different types of attachment styles in infants and toddlers.

  • Secure Attachment: Represents approximately 60-70% of 12 month olds. These infants will actively explore a room when alone with their mother because they view her as a secure base. They will be upset when separated from their mother, but greets her when she returns and welcomes physical contact.
  • Resistant Attachment: Represents approximately 10% of 12 month olds. These infants are quite anxious and do not explore a room even when the mother is present. They become very distressed when their mother leaves. On her return they are ambivalent, avoid physical contact, and may even hit her in anger.
  • Avoidant Attachment: Represents approximately 15% of 12 month olds. These infants are uninterested in exploring a room when the mother is present. They do not get upset when she leaves and avoid contact with her when she returns.
  • Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment: Represents approximately 15% of 12 month olds. Occurs mostly in high risk families. When reunited with their mothers after a separation, they act dazed and freeze. They may seek contact with her but then abruptly move away. They seem frightened of their parent, and confused about whether to approach or avoid them.

Toddler Attachment Milestones

  • 14-18 months: toddler experiences separation anxiety when separated from primary caregiver
  • by 18 months: most toddlers are able to form more than one attachment
  • by 36 months: the toddler is capable of taking a parent’s plans into consideration and adjust their behavior in order to stay close to them. For example: they can understand when a parent is going somewhere and can adjust their emotions in order to cope until the parent returns

Toddler Social Relationships

Although infants may show an interest in other babies, they do not really start interacting with other children until after their first year of life. Toddlers will experience three stages of early sociability between the age of 12 and 24 months.

  • Object-centered stage: two toddlers may both focus on the same toy, but pay more attention to the toy than to each other.
  • Simple interactive stage: toddlers will obviously influence each other and respond to each other’s behavior.
  • Complementary stage: by about 18 months of age toddler’s interactions with each other are clearly social and reciprocal, they may imitate each other and play social games.

Toddler development and the ability to form attachments and social relationships

This article is intended for informational purposes only. Many toddlers may form attachments and social relationships at an earlier or later age than outlined above. If you have any concerns about your child’s social development, please consult your doctor or early childhood nurse.


Sigelman, Carol K. and Elizabeth A. Rider. Life-Span Human Development. California: Wadsworth.

Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachments and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books.

Ainsworth, M. D. S. The Development of Infant-Mother Attachment. Review of Child Development Research (Vol. 3). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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