Module 3: Neurobiology and developmental psychology for BabyCalm

In this module we will go through the foundation of knowledge that forms BabyCalm theory. We will take a look at the structure of the human brain, how it functions, and how it develops. We will then look at how this knowledge assists us in understanding human behaviour, particularly relating to babies under 12 months, before looking more deeply into developmental psychology.

Neuropsychology for BabyCalm


Introduction to neuropsychology

Neuropsychology studies the structure and function of the brain as they relate to specific psychological processes and behavioursWhereas classical neuroscience focuses on the physiology of the nervous system and classical psychology focuses only on behaviour, neuropsychology seeks to discover how the brain correlates with the mind.

The brain

The triune brain

The human brain can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective as being made of three parts  - the concept known as the Triune Brain. The Triune Brain model was proposed by US neuroscientist Paul D.MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s and propounded it at length in his 1990 book, ‘The Triune Brain in Evolution’.

His theory is that as we have evolved, the brain has effectively been added to. This was developed as parts of our brain are very similar to more primitive animals. The bottom of our brain (and most internal) we share with almost all vertebrates, he named "the reptilian brain". Covering this, yet still internal in our brains, is a collection of brain structures that make up what he named "the paleo-mammalian brain". We share these with all mammals. The largest and highest part of the human brain, he named the "neo-mammalian complex". This is not unique to humans, but is largest in humans and is only shared with "higher mammals".

He theorised that those areas of the brain "control" or are responsible for different types of cognition.

  1. Reptilian brain: the survival brain, controlling essential body functions such as breathing, temperature regulation, hunger and thirst, and fight or flight responses.

  2. Paleo-mammalian brain: the emotional brain, giving us the capacity to feel and give love.

  3. Neo-mammalian brain (the new-rational brain): Critical thinking, rational decision-making, empathy, language, and long term memory.

Although this theory has been revised (and as neurological anatomy is better understood it is known to be increasingly complex), it still stands up to scrutiny in its basic form. However, neuroscientists and psychologists commonly refer to the 3 sections of the brain as the reptilian brain, the limbic brain (or system), and the neocortex.

Modern neuroscience

The human brain is hugely interconnected but three major components can be identified: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem.


This includes the medulla, the pons, and the midbrain. It controls breathing, digestion, heart rate, and other autonomic processes, as well as fight or flight responses. It connects the brain with the spinal cord and the rest of the body. 

(For those paying attention this is the Reptilian Brain)


The cerebellum plays an important role in balance and motor control, but is also involved in some cognitive functions such as attention, basic communication, emotional functions, and in the processing of procedural memories. 

(This is the Paleo-mammalian Brain)


The cerebrum (or neocortex), which makes up 75% of the brain by volume and 85% by weight, is divided by a large groove, known as the longitudinal fissure, into two distinct hemispheres. The left and right hemispheres ("left" and "right" refer to the owner's point of view, not an outside viewer's) are linked by a large bundle of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum, and also by other smaller connections called commissures.

Most of the important elements of the cerebrum are split into symmetrical pairs in the left and right hemispheres. The two hemispheres look similar, but are slightly different in structure and perform different functions. The right hemisphere generally controls the left side of the body, and vice versa, although popular notions that logic and creativity etc are restricted to the left or right hemispheres are largely simplistic and unfounded.

The cerebrum is covered by a sheet of neural tissue known as the cerebral cortex, which envelops other brain organs such as the thalamus (which evolved to help relay information from the brain stem and spinal cord to the cerebral cortex) and the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (which control visceral functions, body temperature, and behavioural responses such as feeding, drinking, sexual response, aggression, and pleasure). The cerebral cortex itself is only 2-4 mm thick, and contains six distinct but interconnected layers. It is intricately grooved and folded into the familiar convoluted pattern of folds, or gyri, allowing a large surface area (typically almost 2 metre squared) to fit within the confines of the skull. Consequently, more than two-thirds of the cerebral cortex is buried in the grooves, or sulci.

The cerebral cortex plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. It is divided into four main regions or lobes, which cover both hemispheres:

The frontal lobe is involved in conscious thought and higher mental functions such as decision-making, particularly in that part of the frontal lobe known as the prefrontal cortex, and plays an important part in processing short-term memories and retaining longer-term memories which are not task-based.

The parietal lobe is involved in integrating sensory information from the various senses, and in the manipulation of objects in determining spatial sense and navigation.

The temporal lobe is involved with the senses of smell and sound, the processing of semantics in both speech and vision (including the processing of complex stimuli like faces and scenes), and plays a key role in the formation of long-term memories.

The medial temporal lobe  is the inner part of the temporal lobe, near the divide between the left and right hemispheres, and is thought to be involved in specific memory functions. Deep inside the medial temporal lobe is the region of the brain known as the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus, the amygdala, the cingulate gyrus, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the epithalamus, the mammillary body, and other organs, many of which are of particular relevance to the processing of memory.

The hippocampus, for example, is essential for memory function, particularly the transference from short to long-term memory and control of spatial memory and behaviour. The hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain capable of actually growing new neurons, although this ability is impaired by stress-related glucocorticoids. The amygdala also performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions and social and sexual behaviour, as well as regulating the sense of smell.

Another sub-cortical system (inside the cerebral cortex) which is essential to memory function is the basal ganglia system, particularly the striatum (or neostriatum) which is important in the formation and retrieval of procedural memory.

This, believe it or not, is a simple tour of the brain structure and function and is useful to get a sense of. We do not expect you to be able to (or want to) go into this much detail with parents but there are small elements of this we use within our workshops and a basic understanding is helpful.

Brain development

Brains are built over time, from the bottom up (or the inside out)

The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Imagine that the brain is made up of lots of plugs and sockets and during pregnancy all of these are rapidly formed but most are left unconnected (but not all). 

These "plugs and sockets" connect to form neural pathways or connections, forming the architecture of the brain over the early years of life.  Early experiences affect the quality of that architecture by establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the learning, health and behaviour that follow. The more a connection or pathway is used and reinforced, the stronger it becomes. In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed every second.

 After this period of rapid growth, the formation of new connections slows but also connections that are weak (rarely used), and those that remain unused, are lost through a process called "pruning", so that the structure of the brain is more efficient.

Babies are born with all the connections they need in the reptilian brain as these are necessary for basic survival (homeostasis, fight or flight). They also have many connections in the mammalian brain (guiding emotion and the ability to love), though some are more primitive at birth. It is the neocortex that is almost completely "unconnected" at birth.

Some senses (like touch and taste) develop in the womb but neural pathways related other senses, like those for vision and hearing, are the first to develop after birth and this happens fast. Development of the senses peaks between 2 and 6 months, by which time senses are not just as formed as an adult's, but are more sensitive.

The neural connections that develop early communication and language skills also connect quickly after birth peaking between 4 and 10 months.

Higher cognitive function pathways develop more slowly with peak development lasting from 10 months to 4-5 years before tailing off slowly through the teen years. Pathways connect and prune in a prescribed order, with later, more complex neural pathways built upon earlier, simpler ones.

In the proliferation and pruning process, simpler neural connections form first, followed by more complex circuits. The timing is genetic, but early experiences determine whether the circuits are strong or weak. Source: C.A. Nelson (2000). Credit: Center on the Developing Child

The interactive influences of genes and experience shape the developing brain.

Scientists now know a major ingredient in this developmental process is the "serve and return" or reciprocal relationship between children and their parents and other caregivers in the family or community. Young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalising and gesturing back at them. In the absence of such responses, or if the responses are unreliable or inappropriate, the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior.

The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age.

The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialised to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganising and adapting to new or unexpected challenges. For example, by the first year, the parts of the brain that differentiate sound are becoming specialised to the language the baby has been exposed to; at the same time, the brain is already starting to lose the ability to recognise different sounds found in other languages. Although the “window” for language learning and other skills remain open, these brain circuits become increasingly difficult to alter over time. Early plasticity means it’s easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years.

Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course.

The brain is a highly interrelated organ, and its multiple functions operate in a richly coordinated fashion. Emotional well-being and social competence provide a strong foundation for emerging cognitive abilities, and together they are the bricks and mortar that comprise the foundation of human development. The emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success and wellbeing.

Prolonged stress damages developing brain architecture, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

Scientists now know that chronic stress in early childhood, caused by poverty,  abuse, or a severe lack of attachment (resulted from severe maternal depression for example), can be toxic to the developing brain. While positive stress (mild, short-lived physiological responses to uncomfortable experiences) is an important and necessary aspect of healthy development. Toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system. In the absence of the buffering protection of adult support, toxic stress becomes built into the body by processes that shape the architecture of the developing brain.

Brains subjected to toxic stress have underdeveloped neural connections in areas of the brain most important for successful learning and behavior in school and the workplace. Source: Radley et al (2004); Bock et al (2005). Credit: Center on the Developing Child.


  • The basic principles of neuroscience indicate that brain connections can be created and reinforced in early childhood more easily than later in life and that weak or unused connections are pruned ("if you don't use it, you lose it").
  • Emotional and social development is so interconnected with higher brain function that it must be nurtured to allow for optimum cognitive development.
  • Babies’ brains require stable, caring, interactive relationships with adults. Supportive relationships and positive reciprocal interaction provide essential learning experiences for optimum brain development.
  • Science clearly demonstrates that, in situations where babies are subjected to continued and unsupported stress responses, damage can be done to the developing brain, having a detrimental effect on long-term well-being and cognitive function.

A reminder of the Hippocampus

A recap on the Hippocampus

Size matters when it comes to the hippocampus.  Having a small hippocampus increases your risk for many psychological disorders including depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus plays a large role in how we are able to handle stress and how we will remember our life. The hippocampus is crucial for our ability to form and store personal memories. It is highly important for restraining the body’s stress and inflammatory responses, both of which can induce significant damage to bodily organs and the brain if not properly reigned in.

Babies' brains

Looking specifically at the brains of babies

Here we discuss briefly the consequences of the way that our brains develop, looking at how brains of babies allow them to experience the world, and how that shapes behaviour and personality.

As mentioned, when a baby is born its reptilian brain is well formed ensuring survival, with the limbic system (the emotional brain) also fairly well developed, allowing for early attachment to be created (we will discuss this again in the psychology sections). In contrast the neocortex is underdeveloped in terms of neural connections, and most of the sophisticated functions of it do not really come into play until over the age of 4 or 5 years. 

Babies therefore feel emotions such as love, but their brains cannot perform more complex processes such as rational thinking, logic and reasoning, long term memory (including habit forming) and empathy or theory of mind. This means they have no ability to form habits or to manipulate.

A baby cannot yet form long term memories, this being something that develops between the second and fourth year of life and so will never remember the earliest experiences of their life. However, our inability to remember our baby and toddler years, has no bearing on their importance. In fact they are the ones that shape us and our future behaviour permanently.

From birth through the toddler years the brain is incredibly active (at 3 years old the brain is approximately twice as active as that of an adult) and by the age of 3 years the brain has formed about 1,000 trillion connections (again about twice as many as adults).

The brain will retain these connections until around the age of 10 or 11, when the brain prunes the extra, unused, connections – on the “use it or lose it” principle; if a connection is used repeatedly in the early years of the child's life it becomes permanent, if the connection is not reinforced it is lost. These remaining connections are very powerful and efficient and difficult to change. For instance the part of the brain that regulates emotion, the amygdala, is shaped very early on. Early nurturing is vitally important to the child's future learning of empathy, happiness, hopefulness and resiliency.

The make-up of the brain means that during a child's first three years they experience the world in a more complete, multi-sensory way than they will during the rest of their life. Therefore the baby's social, emotional, cognitive, physical and language development are stimulated during multi-sensory experiences meaning that they need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with stimulating sights, sounds, touch, taste and smells.

The most important factor in developing the brain is reciprocal interaction and responsiveness between the infant and caregiver(s). Neuroscientists describe early interactions as a process of "serve and return" in which caregiver and infant interact building and strengthening neural pathways. Serve and return forms the very basic foundations of brain development, ensuring the brain development that occurs afterwards and throughout the formative years happens more easily and effectively.

Conversely to the positive interactions, a baby who does not receive responsiveness and interaction, or does not have their needs met (physiological, psychological, developmental and emotional) will produce a stress response. This baby who has had their stress response triggered and maintained (using their primitive responses to fear and stress in a frequent and sustained way) may well have long lasting behavioural and mental difficulties due to a less well connected neocortex. All sustained exposure to high levels of cortisol affect the brain's ability to develop.

Social development (self-awareness and ability to interact with others) occurs in stages as neural pathways start to form. For instance, a child does not really develop the social development necessary to share until around the age of 3 onwards. The networks are just not there in their brain. The neocortex does not begin to really form until later infancy and into the toddler years, meaning that important skills such as impulse control, empathy and consequences are impossible. No matter how much we tell them or expect them to learn, the brain is incapable of it at this early stage. Reasoning with your tantruming toddler in Tesco is not only embarrassing, it's pointless. So what can we do? 

Now you can see that we are have strayed from neurobiology, to neuropsychology and are now falling down the rabbit hole of true psychology. Next we will look at key psychological theories that help us deepen our understanding of toddler behaviour and our ability to optimise their development and help them with their daily struggles.

Developmental spurts

Developmental spurts

There is a popular theory that suggests that our brains do not develop in a linear way but that infant brains (and possibly toddlers and beyond as well) develop in spurts or leaps at specific times.

Frans Plooij conducted research that suggested that this was the case and he used his research and studies of many children to identify 10 specific leaps in infant development within the first 18 months of life. His work was originally published in Dutch in 1992 in the book Oei, ik groei! (literal translation: Ai, i'm growing), with his name and that of Hetty van de Rijt as the authors. The book and it's translations have sold 200,000 copies world wide, in English is called "The Wonder Weeks". There is also a corresponding app for parents to track their baby's leaps.

The book is a very interesting read and an important concept to understand as many parents have heard of it and consider it helpful (some treat it as gospel).

The book goes into a lot of detail (pages and pages) for each of the 10 leaps, suggesting basic calming methods but also activities to enhance brain development in the particular area concerned with that leap. This is a very brief description of the leaps. Bear in mind the weeks are approximate:

It is clear in their material that babies do not display all of these behaviours immediately following a leap. These are the earliest that these may occur.

The book describes in general that leaps in brain development cause babies to suddenly perceive the world differently making them feel anxious, requiring more parental reassurance and comfort during these times. It describes babies as being generally more fussy, using their three Cs (crying, clinging and crankiness) as well as waking more often and being more difficult to soothe at night. The book implies that the way to solve this is with increased physical contact, increased breastfeeding, movement, and general responsiveness.

Following the research undertaken, one of their PhD students, Carolina de Weerth tried to replicate the research. When attempts failed to gain the same results, it is claimed (and we have no hard evidence for the truth of this) that she was treated badly, and Professor Plooij acted in an unprofessional way. This has led some people to criticise the work he did and doubt his findings, and allegedly caused him to resign his position as professor.

The BabyCalm perspective on this is simply to understand the science a little:

The study that was done originally was a very small sample and was based on parental self reporting. It was done to prove a belief rather than gain knowledge, so there is a fair chance that it was somewhat biased. De Weerth's research was more valid, combining maternal report with longitudinal observations of mothers and infants and physiological stress tests on both parties. Her results showed definite variations in stress levels and mother-infant interaction. However they found absolutely no evidence for predictable leaps across her study.

There is a wealth of research in neurology, psychology and all other areas of child development that show that there are a number of developmental transitions that occur in infants. Furthermore, there is much agreement that surrounding these transitions are periods of apparent developmental regression preceding developmental advance. What is widely disputed is how many of these transitions there are and the reasons for regression. What De Weerth concluded most definitely is that human brain development is too complex to allow for absolutely fixed and predictable transitions based on physical maturation. Factors other than time (parental input, environment, to name just two) will affect how and when babies' brains develop.

So, what do we take from all of this?

We take that the fundamental principles of the Wonder Weeks in asserting that babies' brains develop in a less linear way, advancing in developmental transitions is valid and that during these times (or preceding developmental advance) babies are likely to regress their development for a time, needing more parental reassurance is equally valid. What we cannot endorse is the strict or predictable timeline for this.

Furthermore, The Wonder Weeks provides an invaluable tool for parents as it is a widely accepted, mainstream method of helping them to understand that infant fussiness is neither the fault of the baby nor the parent. The concept reminds parents that there are other things going on for babies and that they are not "acting out" or "being difficult", and equally that parents are not "failing". We also love that Wonder Weeks promotes responsive night-time parenting, physical contact, touching, carrying, movement and breastfeeding.

Sometimes the prescriptive nature of the timings and calendar can add stress to parents, so whilst we think it is good information to share with parents, we would do well to let them know about the alternative research and state that it is mostly the timings that are disputed. This should liberate parents to understand the concept without any pressure and empower them to identify their own babies behaviour changes, being the experts in their babies' development.

Nature vs nurture

We have looked now at the brain, its structure and how it is formed and develops. What we need to understand now is how this relates to how our "minds" are formed, namely our personality traits and our regular behaviour patterns.

The nurture debate and the tabula rasa 

Tabula rasa = blank slate

"The little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences."  John Locke 

Locke was a 17th century physician and philosopher and has been credited as the first to describe “consciousness” in his essay "Concerning Human Understanding" (1690). He described the self as "that conscious thinking thing (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends”. 

Locke believed that the self of a newborn baby was a blank slate at birth and that our experiences of the world from birth would shape our adult personality. Locke stated these early experiences and markings on the tabular rasa were much more important than the experiences and learnings of adulthood, in particular warning parents not to let their child develop negative associations.  

This fits to some extent with our understanding that at birth most of the baby's brain cells are formed but the connections between the cells are made only during early childhood. These connections are enormously influenced by a child's environment (using pathways through reciprocal relations), over and above genetic influence. A child's brain growth does not follow a biologically predetermined path, instead being influenced by their early experiences.

Current genetic research gives weight to this psychological theory as it has moved away from a belief that genetic make-up is fixed and our personalities predetermined, to consider that genes can be activated or switched on and off. It is believed that at least some of our genes are not fixed and can be either triggered, or not, by our environment.

This helps us to understand that although genetics play their part in the formation of both the brain and our personalities (mind), even with the "potentials" in place from our genetic make-up, our environment and relationships determine what is retained and activated and what is not.

Now it is important to look at how environment, interaction and circumstances determine how our mind functions, which we will do in the following section.

Name the parts of the triune brain

Drag the names of the parts of the brain to line up with the correct markers


  • Reptilian Complex
  • Limbic System
  • Neo-Cortex

Which bit does what?

Please match the function with the structure of the brain

  • Reptilian complex
    Autonomic functions (E.g. respiratory, fight/flight, homeostasis)
  • Limbic system
    Emotions, base communication, balance, moving
  • Neocortex
    Thought, imagination, language, empathy

Which area of the brain is capable of growing new neurons?

  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Pre-frontal cortex
  • Basal ganglia

What can impair the process of new neuron growth in the Hippocampus?

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • TV
  • Stress

Please complete the statements by choosing the correct words where appropriate

  • Brain connections can be in early childhood more easily than created later in life.
  • or connections are pruned later in childhood.
  • Emotional and social development is so interconnected with higher brain function that it must be to allow for optimum cognitive development.
  • Babies’ and toddlers' brains require stable, caring, interactive with adults.
  • Science clearly demonstrates that, in situations where babies and toddlers are subjected to continued and unsupported responses, can be done to the developing brain having a detrimental effect on long-term ,

Please select whether these statements about the brain are true or false

  • The peak development period of the neocortex is 10 months to 5 years approximately
  • The peak development period for the neocortex is 3 months to 12 months approximately
  • The senses develop quickly after birth followed by steep language development in the first year
  • Babies can form habits and manipulate their parents
  • Babies and toddlers are incapable of true empathy
  • Babies need close, nurturing interaction and responsive experiences to build neural pathways
  • Baby's senses aren't as well developed as adults
  • Children whose early years were spent producing a stress response in their reptilian brain have a higher chance of having behavioural and mental health problems
  • We know that babies' brains develop leaps that are fixed and predictable
  • A child's ability to develop empathy and resilience depends highly on nurturing during their early years
  • Brain connections that are less well used or not used will be weak but can be developed at a later stage

What does the information regarding sustained stress responses tell you?

How does our knowledge of the process of brain development help us when we think about caring for a baby?

Developmental psychology for BabyCalm


What is developmental psychology

Developmental psychology is a scientific approach which aims to explain how children and adults change over time. 

A significant proportion of theories within this discipline focus upon development during childhood, as this is the period during an individual's lifespan when the most change occurs.

The three goals of developmental psychology are to describe, explain, and to optimize development (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980).

The emergence of developmental psychology as a specific discipline can be traced back to 1882 when Wilhelm Preyer (a German physiologist) published a book entitled "The mind of the Child". In the book Preyer describes the development of his own daughter from birth to two and a half years. Importantly, Preyer used rigorous scientific procedure throughout studying the many abilities of his daughter.

During the 1900s key figures have dominated the field with their extensive theories of human development, namely Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), and John Bowlby  (1907-1990). Indeed, much of the current research continues to be influenced by these three theorists. In the rest of the sections of this module we will cover the work of these psychologists and will also cover theorists that discuss human needs, human connection, behaviour control, and motivation.

Stages of development

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget, a Swiss philosopher and psychologist, is credited as being the founding father of developmental psychology. Piaget was famous for proposing that children moved from a position of egocentrism (incomplete differentiation of the self and the world and other people) - in other words that they think that everyone in the world thinks feels and sees things the same as them) - to sociocentrism (they understand that people see things differently and can feel differently about things).  Piaget noticed that children gradually progressed from being intuitive to scientific and socially acceptable. He believed they did this because of social interaction. An egocentric child is not a selfish child, rather one who is too young (under 7) to have learned that others may have different beliefs and opinions to them. This theory again fits with our understading of the development process of the brain and the lack of connection in the area that enables empathy.

Piaget divided childhood development into 4 stages:

Stage one: Sensorimotor stage from birth to age 2

Children experience the world through movement and senses (use five senses to explore the world). During the sensorimotor stage children are extremely egocentric, meaning they cannot perceive the world from others' view points. 

The sensorimotor stage is divided into six sub stages:

1. Simple reflexes (birth to 1 month old). Babies use reflexes such as rooting and sucking.

2. First habits and primary circular reactions* (1-4months).

3. Secondary circular reactions (4-8monthths) e.g. accidentally shaking a rattle, then trying to do it on purpose; this is the age babies become interested in other objects, not themselves.

4. Coordination of secondary circular reactions (8-12months); baby can control the reactions. Object Permanence also takes place now (babies realise something exists when it's not there).

5. Tertiary circular reactions (12-18months); ‘little explorers’, trying new things to get results. Trial and error experiments. “If I throw my food from my highchair mum makes a funny shrieking sound.”

6. Internalization of schemes (18-24months); thinking shifts.*circular reaction = child accidentally sucks his thumb and then tries to do it purposefully.

Out of interest, Piaget's other stages are:

Stage two: Pre operational stage from ages 2 to 7

Children start this stage strongly egocentric. Language development is one of the hallmarks of this period. Piaget noted that children in this stage do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information, and are unable to take the point of view of other people, which he termed egocentrism. From our point of view this means that children in this stage cannot use logical thinking (why it is pointless reasoning with a toddler) or use empathy.

Stage three: Concrete operational stage from ages 7 to 12

Children can now conserve and think logically but only with practical aids. Egocentrism weakens. Empathy begins to show.

Stage four: Formal operational stage from age 12 onwards

It is during this stage that children develop the ability to think about abstract concepts and acquires kills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning.

Social learning theory by Bandura

Albert Bandura

Bandura's early research studied the foundations of human learning by analysing the ability of children to imitate behaviour observed in others. Bandura also studied ways of treating aggressive children by identifying sources of violence in their lives (negative imitated behaviour). Perhaps Bandura's most famous experiment is “The Bobo doll” (a blow up clown). This research (in 1961) sparked the beginning of the debate of the effect of violent media on children.

In the experiment 72 children were split into 3 groups:

1. Aggressive modelling; half same sex adult pairing, half different

2. Non aggressive modelling; half same sex adult pairing, half different

3. Control group

Children were led into a room with their adult; one side contained the child's toys (quiet craft), the other the adult toys; a hammer, an inflatable (bobo) doll and some small toys…the child was always told “do not touch the adult toys". 

In the aggressive group the adult hit the bobo doll (with their hands and the hammer); in the non-aggressive group the adult just played with the small toys and ignored the doll. After 10 minutes the child was removed from the room. The child enters a new room with lots of interesting and fun toys, after 2 minutes however the experimenter told the child they were no longer allowed the toys (in order to build up frustration) but could play with the toys in the experiment room and led the child back into the original room.

The experimenter then observed the following:

1. How many times the child was violent to the bobo doll

2. How many times the child was verbally violent

3. How many times the child was violent with the hammer


Unsurprisingly, Bandura found that the children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to act in physically aggressive ways than those who were not exposed to the aggressive model, boys were 3 times more likely to be violent than girls.

Children pay attention to these people (models) and encode their behaviour, imitating that behaviour at a later time. Although children did copy models regardless of gender there were a number of processes that made it more likely that a child will reproduce the behaviour:

First, the child is more likely to attend to and imitate those people it perceives as similar to itself. Consequently, it is more likely to imitate behavior modeled by people of the same sex. The results also confirmed Bandura's hypothesis that children are more influenced by same-sex models. Boys exhibited more aggression when exposed to aggressive male models than boys exposed to aggressive female models.

Second, the people around the child will respond to the behaviour it imitates with either reinforcement or punishment.  If a child imitates a model’s behavior and the consequences are rewarding, the child is likely to continue performing the behaviour.  If parent sees a little girl consoling her teddy bear and says “what a kind girl you are”, this is rewarding for the child and makes it more likely that she will repeat the behaviour.  Her behaviour has been reinforced (i.e. strengthened).

Reinforcement can be external or internal and can be positive or negative.  If a child wants approval from parents or peers, this approval is an external reinforcement, but feeling happy about being approved of is an internal reinforcement.  A child will behave in a way which it believes will earn approval because it desires approval.  

Third, the child will also take into account of what happens to other people when deciding whether or not to copy someone’s actions.  A person learns by observing the consequences of another person’s (i.e. models) behaviour e.g. a younger sister observing an older sister being rewarded for a particular behaviour is more likely to repeat that behaviour herself.  This is known as vicarious reinforcement.

This relates to attachment to specific models that possess qualities seen as rewarding. Children will have a number of models with whom they identify. These may be people in their immediate world, such as parents or older siblings, or could be fantasy characters or people in the media. The motivation to identify with a particular model is that they have a quality which the individual would like to possess.

There are four processes proposed by Bandura:

  1. Attention: The extent to which we are exposed/notice the behaviour. For a behaviour to be imitated it has to grab our attention. We observe many behaviours on a daily basis and many of these are not noteworthy. Attention is therefore extremely important in whether a behaviour has an influence in others imitating it.

  2. Retention: How well the behaviour is remembered. The behaviour may be noticed, but is it not always remembered which obviously prevents imitation. It is important therefore that a memory of the behaviour is formed to be performed later by the observer. 

    Much of social learning is not immediate so this process is especially vital in those cases. Even if the behaviour is reproduced shortly after seeing it, there needs to be a memory to refer to. Repetition is a factor here. If the behaviour is observed many times over a longer period, it is more likely to be retained.

  3. Reproduction: This is the ability to perform the behaviour that the model has just demonstrated. We see much behaviour on a daily basis that we would like to be able to imitate but that this not always possible. We are limited by our physical ability and for that reason, even if we wish to reproduce the behaviour, we cannot. 

    This influences our decisions whether to try and imitate it or not. Imagine the scenario of a 90-year-old-lady, who struggles to walk, watching Dancing on Ice. She may appreciate that the skill is desirable, but she will not attempt to imitate it because she physically cannot do it.

  4. Motivation: The will to perform the behaviour. The rewards and punishment that follow a behaviour will be considered by the observer. If the perceived rewards outweighs the perceived costs (if there are any) then the behaviour will be more likely to be imitated by the observer. If the vicarious reinforcement is not seen to be important enough to the observer then they will not imitate the behaviour.

Social development theory

Lev Vygotsky

The work of Lev Vygotsky (1934) has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as Social Development Theory.

Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning."

Unlike Piaget's notion that childrens' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, "learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function" (1978, p. 90).  In other words, social learning tends to preceed (i.e. come before) development.

Vygotsky has developed a sociocultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his ideas (1920's and 30's), but he died at the age of 38 and so his theories are incomplete - although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian.

No single principle can account for development. Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes. This supports our understanding of babies creating neural pathways by social interaction.

Reciprocity & interaction


Early mother-infant reciprocity.

Brazelton TB, Tronick E, Adamson L, Als H, Wise S.


"By three weeks of age, the human neonate demonstrates behaviours which are quite different with an object and with a human interactant. He also demonstrates an expectancy for interaction with his caregiver which has clearly defined limits, as demonstrated behaviourally. In microanalysis of videotape, we saw regularly a set of interactive behaviours which were demonstrable in optimal face-to-face interaction between infants and their mothers. All parts of the infant's body move in smooth circular patterns as he attends to her. His face-to-face attention to her is rhythmic with approach-withdrawal cycling of extremities. The attention phase and build-up to her cues are followed by turning away and a recovery phase in a rhythm of attention-non-attention which seems to define a cyclical homeostatic curve of attention, averaging several cycles per minute. When she violates his expectancy for rhythmic interaction by presenting a still, unresponsive face to him, he becomes visibly concerned, his movements become jerky, he averts his face, then attempts to draw her into interaction. When repeated attempts fail, he finally withdraws into an attitude of helplessness, face averted, body curled up and motionless. If she returns to her usual interactive responses, he comes alive after an initial puzzled period, and returns to his rhythmic cyclical behaviour which has previously characterized their ongoing face-to-face interaction. This attentional cycling may be diagnostic of optimal mother-infant interactions and seems not to be present in more disturbed interactions."


Form the abstract above we can say that reciprocal interaction between care-giver and infant are essential for healthy development. In BabyCalm we look at this in a little more detail and understand the "dance of reciprocity". For ToddlerCalm this is less relevant. However, the concept of reciprocity (reciprocal interaction) is very relevant.

Isabella and Belsky (1991) hypothesised that caregiver-baby pairs that developed secure attachment relationships would display more synchronous behaviour than babies with insecure relationships. Babies were observed at 3 and 9 months and the secure group interacted in a well-timed, reciprocal, and mutually rewarding manner.

In contrast caregiver-baby pairs classed as insecure were characterized by interactions that were minimally involved, unresponsive and intrusive. Avoidant pairs displayed maternal intrusiveness and overstimulation, while resistant pairs were poorly coordinated, under-involved and inconsistent. Isabella and Belsky concluded that different interactional behaviours predicted attachment quality. When babies fail to elicit responses or are overwhelmed by intrusive responses, they will eventually stop trying to engage.

This is no different with toddlers. Reciprocal interactions with a parent help toddlers learn to be sociable, to see themselves as others see them, to learn how to effectively communicate, how to think, and how to cope in their world. A sound reciprocal relationship also helps care-givers to gain self-confidence. Strong reciprocal relationships help parents learn about their toddler's needs and provide opportunities for understanding, communication and assisting with feelings.  This helps the parent to spur their toddler's intellectual, social, emotional, language, and memory development by strengthening connections in the right parts of the brain. When a parent immediately responds to his or her signals of need, the child learns to expect the world to be predictable and responsive. The toddler learns that he or she can have some control in their world. This encourages toddlers to explore new situations and people, and helps them to grow and experience mastery.

Similarly toddlers who do not experience meaningful reciprocal interactions with their caregivers, will be less likely to develop in a  healthy way. They may be more withdrawn, less confident, independent and less able to manage their emotions.

What does Piaget tell us about babies and how does this relate to the common perception of babies' capabilities?

What does social learning theory tell us about how babies learn?

How would this knowledge help parents?

Psychological needs of human babies

Hierarchy of Needs

What do humans need?

In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” Maslow introduced a model now known across the world, and used in all aspects of learning, as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It basically shows the common needs of humans and places those needs in a system where some it is critical to have certain needs met before others can be. It is displayed as a pyramid with the most essential needs forming the base.

The theory is that a strong foundation must be built in order for the other levels to build upon one another.  Each foundation level must be strong to get to the next level, and so on.  If one level is weak, then the needs above that level will be very difficult to develop.

If you consider what we have learned in regard to building the brain from the bottom up, we can see that we must meet our babies' basic needs first, and then their emotional needs before we can have any hope of developing their abilities in the higher brain. This supports the theory that it is necessary for our babies to be completely dependent in order to learn to be independent.

The BabyCalm Hierarchy of Needs*

In relation to babies

1. Starting at the bottom (physiological) the most important needs of babies are basic physical requirements that allow them to be comfortable, being fed whenever they are hungry, changed whenever they are uncomfortable and helped to sleep when they are tired, regardless of schedule.

2. Next is the need for safety and the need to feel safe, in a safe physical situation. Babies pretty much only feel safe when they are in physical contact with or are in very close proximity to a familiar caregiver. This is an evolutionary safety measure.

3. Next is the need to feel loved. A baby needs to feel loved on a physiological and psychological level. They need to build a secure attachment to at least one caregiver. Please note that after basic physiological needs and safety, love and unconditional acceptance (belonging) are essential, without which babies brains cannot develop.

4. Babies feel respected and accepted when they have regular reciprocal interactions. The serve and return process shows them that you recognise them as worthy of your attention and enjoy their company. Also, understanding your baby's abilities and emerging skills is an important factor here. If you understand which activities are most stimulating to their current and upcoming developmental progress, interaction will provide their first senses of confidence and achievement. 

5. Only at the top of the pyramid, when all the other needs are met, can babies set their minds to the accumulation of knowledge, learning and understanding about the world.

*Based on the work of Abraham Maslow and his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ (1943)

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers was a Humanistic Psychologist. Rogers agreed with much of Maslow’s theories, but added that for somebody to really grow, they needed an environment that provided them with “genuineness” (openness and self-disclosure), “acceptance” (being seen with unconditional positive regard), and “empathy” (being listened to and understood). 

Rogers believed without these elements that a healthy personality would not grow as it should. He also believed that everybody had the ability to achieve those goals in life and that when they did a process called Self Actualisation took place. 

"The organism has one basic tendency and striving - to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism” (Rogers, 1951). 

Rogers believed that our one basic motive in life was to “self-actualize” - i.e. to fulfil our potential and achieve the highest level of 'human-beingness' we can.  Like a flower that will grow to its full potential if the conditions are right, but which is constrained by its environment. Rogers also believed that we are all inherently good and creative; destructive behaviour occurring only when we develop a poor self concept or external constraints override our self-valuing.  Rogers also believe that the main determinant of whether we will become self-actualised is our experience of childhood.

How does Maslow's hierarchy important for parents understanding of infant development?

Please identify the three factors that Rogers says are essential for actualisation.

  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Genuineness
  • Acceptance
  • Love
  • Discipline

Psycho-analysts and attachment theory

John Bowlby's evolutionary attachment theory

John Bowlby (Attachment)

Attachment theory in psychology originates with the seminal work of John Bowlby (1958).  In the 1930’s John Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist in a Child Guidance Clinic in London, where he treated many emotionally disturbed children.  

This experience led Bowlby to consider the importance of the child’s relationship with their mother in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development.  Specifically, it shaped his belief about the link between early infant separations with the mother and later maladjustment, and led Bowlby to formulate his attachment theory.

Bowlby, working alongside James Robertson (1952) observed that children experienced intense distress when separated from their mothers.  Even when such children were fed by other caregivers, this did not diminish the child’s anxiety.  

These findings contradicted the dominant behavioural theory of attachment (Dollard and Miller, 1950) which was shown to underestimate the child’s bond with their mother.  The behavioral theory of attachment stated that the child becomes attached to the mother because she fed the infant.

The evolutionary theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive.  The infant produces innate ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying and smiling that stimulate innate caregiving responses from adults.  The determinant of attachment is not food, but care and responsiveness. 

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment (monotropy) and that the attachment figure acted as a secure base for exploring the world.  The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences.

This theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing an attachment (about 0 -5 years).  If an attachment has not developed during this period, then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.

He devoted most of his career to the study of healthy and pathological attachment in infants and adults and believed that attachment was an evolutionary survival strategy for protecting the infant from predators. In 1951 he wrote a publication for the World Health Organisation (WHO): Maternal Care and Mental Health, in which he stated “The infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment and that not to do so may have significant and irreversible mental health consequences”.

Bowlby's main idea was that the child has a need for a secure relationship with his adult caregiver, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur. Once this secure attachment is formed, as the toddler grows, he uses his attachment figure as a "secure base" from which to explore the world and has a tendency to seek proximity to those people, especially in times of distress.

Bowlby believed that this process was not gender specific and that babies form attachments to any consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to their needs, he believed that the quality of the social engagement was more influential than the amount of time spent with the baby.

Bowlby stated that  abrupt separation of the baby from familiar people or the inability of his caregivers to be sensitive and responsive to him have short-term and possibly long-term negative impacts on the child's emotional life. Stating that "It is this complex rich and rewarding relationship with the mother in the early years, varied in countless ways by relations with the father and with siblings that child psychiatrists and many others now believe to underlie the development of character and mental health."

Bowlby believed society should take a larger role in the raising of children and particular in supporting the family saying that "if a community values its children it must cherish its parents".  He also believed that parents of children under the age of 3 should be supported to care for the child at home rather than the child be left in inadequate care whilst the mother sought work.

"It is this complex rich and rewarding relationship with the mother in the early years varied in countless ways by relations with the father and with siblings that child psychiatrists and many others now believe to underlie the development of character and mental health." (Bowlby)

The publication for the WHO had great effects on the institutionalised care of children and visiting access to children in hospital by parents, however the publication was not well received by government who wanted to boost the UK economy and encourage mothers back to work and leave their children in daycare nurseries.

However, Bowlby's famous trilogy of work 1) The Nature of the Child’s Tie to His Mother (1958), 2) Separation Anxiety (1959), and 3) Grief and Mourning in Infancy and Early Childhood (1960) paved the way for new thinking in Psychoanalytic developmental psychology.

Stages of attachment

Attachment stages:

Most researchers believe that attachment develops through a series of stages:

Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson (1964) studied 60 babies at monthly intervals for the first 18 months of life (this is known as a longitudinal study). The children were all studied in their own home and a regular pattern was identified in the development of attachment.

The babies were visited monthly for approximately one year, their interactions with their carers were observed, and carers were interviewed.  A diary was kept by the mother to examine evidence for the development of an attachment. Three measures were recorded:

  • Stranger Anxiety - response to arrival of a stranger.
  • Separation Anxiety - distress level when separated from carer, degree of comfort needed on return.
  • Social Referencing - degree that child looks at carer to check how they should respond to something new (secure base).

They discovered that babies' attachments develop in the following sequence:

0-6 weeks Asocial

Very young infants are asocial in that many kinds of stimuli, both social and non-social, produce a favourable reaction, such as a smile.

6 weeks - 7 months Indiscriminate attachments

Infants indiscriminately enjoy human company and most babies respond equally to any caregiver. They get upset when an individual ceases to interact with them. 

From 3 months infants smile more at familiar faces and can be easily comfortable by a regular caregiver.

7-9 months Specific attachments

Special preference for a single attachment figure.  The baby looks to particular people for security, comfort and protection.  It shows fear of strangers (stranger fear) and unhappiness when separated from a special person (separation anxiety).  

Some babies show stranger fear and separation anxiety much more frequently and intensely than others, but nevertheless they are seen as evidence that the baby has formed an attachment.  This has usually developed by one year of age.

10 months + Multiple attachments

The baby becomes increasingly independent and forms several attachments. By 18 months the majority of infants have formed multiple attachments.

The results of the study indicated that attachments were most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby's signals, not the person they spent more time with.  Schaffer and Emerson called this sensitive responsiveness. 

Intensely attached infants had mothers who responded quickly to their demands and interacted with their child. Infants who were weakly attached had mothers who failed to interact.

The strange situation experiments

Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) and her “Strange Situation”

Mary Ainsworth continued John Bowlby's work on attachment theory and is most famous for her “strange situation” experiment. Ainsworth's experiment was designed to assess the strength of attachment a child had with its caregiver and was looking to assess as ‘healthy attachment response’.

The experiment follows the following events:

1.   The caregiver and child enter the experimental room.

2.   The caregiver and child are left alone.  The child plays and explores (no caregiver involvement)

3.   A stranger enters and talks with the caregiver and then approaches the child. The caregiver leaves.

4.   First separation episode: The stranger adjusts their behaviour to that of the child.

5.   First reunion episode: The caregiver returns, greets and comforts the infant, leaves again.

6.   Second separation episode: Infant is left completely alone in the room.

7.   Continuation of second separation episode: The stranger enters again adjusting their behaviour to the child.

8.   The Second reunion episode: The caregiver enters, greets the child and picks them up. The stranger leaves inconspicuously.

Whilst this is occurring the infant's behaviour is observed in particular 1) their play and exploration of the room and 2) their response to their caregiver when they re-enter the room.

Based on these observations the child is then placed into one of the following categories:

1.   Secure attachment

The infant will explore and play whilst caregiver is present, will engage with the stranger, will be upset when the caregiver leaves and happy once the caregiver returns. This is normal, healthy attachment in infants. Seen in approximately 70% of children. The child prefers their caregiver to the stranger. As adults this group will show good self-esteem and be able to form trusting and lasting relationships

2.   Anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment

The infant is anxious in their exploration and their engagement with the stranger, even with the presence of their caregiver. They are very distressed when the caregiver leaves (much more so than above) and are ambivalent to their return, although they will remain close to him/her they seem resentful. This is an abnormal attachment pattern.  As adults this group will be reluctant to become close to others, will worry if their partner really loves them and will be overly distraught when a relationship ends.

3.   Anxious-avoidant insecure attachment

This child will also not explore much but will also not engage very much with the caregiver or the stranger (the stranger will be treated with little difference to the caregiver). They will not respond much when the caregiver departs or when they return, they show very little emotion. This is also an abnormal attachment pattern. Seen in approximately 15% of children. This child shows little preference between the caregiver and a stranger. As an adult they show problems with intimacy, invest little emotions into relationships and are unable or unwilling to share their feelings with others.

Harlow's monkeys

Harlow (1905-1981) and Harlow’s Monkeys

Psychologist Harry Harlow is most famous for his attachment research with rhesus monkeys “The nature of love”, 1958. In his experiment Harlow separated 60 newborn (between 6-12hours old) monkeys from their mothers. The baby monkeys were moved into cages with 2 “surrogate mothers”constructed from a tube of wire. One “mother” was left as a tubular wire cage – the other had a cloth nappy folded over it. The baby monkeys were observed with their “mothers” for 165 days.

The wire monkey held a teat by which the baby could suckle milk whilst the cloth monkey did not provide food. Psychologists until this time believed that food was a primary drive for an animal and comfort/love a secondary drive and that babies formed ties with their mothers as a secondary response to the food they provided (i.e. they didn't bond with the mother just for comfort/because they loved her; they only bonded with her because she provided food - “cupboard love” you might say).

Harlow's monkey experimental results proved quite ground-breaking in that they turned all that we knew on its head. The monkeys seemed to prefer the cloth mothers (the ones with no food) to the wire mother (the one with the milk teat), as soon as they finished nursing they would abandon the wire monkey in favour of the cloth one. According to psychological beliefs about love and bonding that pre-existed, the monkeys should be more bonded with the wire (milk giving) mothers, but this was not the case! The baby monkeys preferred contact comfort (the cloth monkey) to food/nursing (the wire monkey) and would spend far more of their time with their cloth mother and it was the cloth mother they clung to when they were scared.

The results also indicated that without “contact comfort” the monkeys only formed a weak bond with their “mother”. Sadly though, neither monkey provided an adequate mother replacement and the experimental monkeys all grew up with severe emotional and behavioural problems, described at the time as “autistic like” (rocking, social withdrawal, self-clasping); several died. Harlow described this as saying “you are not really a monkey unless raised in an interactive monkey environment”.

Ethical issues

Harlow’s work has been criticized.  His experiments have been seen as unnecessarily cruel (unethical) and of limited value in attempting to understand the effects of deprivation on human infants. 

It was clear that the monkeys in this study suffered from emotional harm from being reared in isolation.  This was evident when the monkeys were placed with a normal monkey (reared by a mother), they sat huddled in a corner in a state of persistent fear and depression.

In addition Harlow created a state of anxiety in female monkeys which had implications once they became parents.  Such monkeys became so neurotic that they smashed their infant's face into the floor and rubbed it back and forth.

Harlow's experiment is sometimes justified as providing a valuable insight into the development of attachment and social behavior. At the time of the research there was a dominant belief that attachment was related to physical (i.e. food) rather than emotional care. 

It could be argued that the benefits of the research outweigh the costs (the suffering of the animals).  For example, the research influenced the theoretical work of John Bowlby, the most important psychologist in attachment theory.  It could also be seen a vital in convincing people about the importance of emotional care in hospitals, children's homes and day care.


Separation versus separation anxiety disorder

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of healthy development for babies who are securely attached which occurs as babies begin to understand their concept of self and understand that they are a separate object from their caregiver; it tends to occur around 8 months of age with the effects lasting until around 18 months. Once a baby understands this concept they realise that they can be separated from their primary caregiver however what they do not understand is that their caregiver will return, compounded by the fact that they have no concept of time. This realisation causes a normal and healthy anxious reaction. It is important to understand that this is not a problem that needs to be solved; it is normal, healthy behaviour which actually indicates that the child is psychologically healthy.

Separation Anxiety disorder on the other hand is an abnormal separation anxiety which is said to affect around 4% of children and 7% of adults. Symptoms include severe anxiety when away from the source of attachment, severe worry about being separated from the source of attachment (e.g. fear of being alone, fear of adult leaving the child, fear of adult dying, inability to sleep unless next to the caregiver, recurrent separation themed nightmares etc..). Separation disorder in children has also been linked with ADHD, panic and bipolar disorder.

Attachment theory vs Attachment Parenting

Attachment Theory or Attachment Parenting?

Attachment theory is a scientific theory about psychological development. Attachment Parenting suggests methods that can assist in forming good attachment. Whilst we agree that these methods can be helpful for healthy attachment, we are keen not to make assumptions about lifestyle choices, and recognise that attachment can be achieved using a variety of methods.

Attachment Parenting is a lifestyle choice made up of eight core beliefs:

  1. Prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenting

  2. Feed with love and respect

  3. Respond with sensitivity

  4. Use nurturing touch

  5. Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally

  6. Provide consistent loving care

  7. Practice positive discipline

  8. Strive for balance in personal and family life.

We, CalmFamily, feel that this is a wonderful set of values and so work in cooperation with APUK. If you want to know more about Attachment Parenting, please do so here:

However, the media, and some parents, seem to believe that to be an "Attachment Parent" you must use "the three B’s": breastfeeding, bed-sharing and baby wearing. There is a perception that parents that follow this method "never put their babies down".

At CalmFamily we inform parents about the science of attachment theory, rather than promote the attachment parenting lifestyle. Our focus is empathy, evidence and empowerment. We welcome equally parents who breastfeed and bottle-feed, bed-share or cot sleep, babywear or use buggies. Our aim is to be all-inclusive and mainstream in order to spread the calm parenting word as far as possible.

Donald Winnicott's development and transition

Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English Paediatrician who studied psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein. He viewed the key aspect of healthy development as rooted in relationships and micro-interactions with other people, so taking particular interest in Object Relations Theory. He is well-known partly because he used everyday language, and also from his BBC broadcasts:

  • The transition object
  • The good enough mother
  • True self/false self
  • Winnicott's developmental stages
  • Play

We will highlight three of these key areas in brief here:

Winnicott's developmental stages:  

1. Undifferentiated unity: The baby has an illusion of being connected with, and not separated from, the mother. They psychologically feel in complete control of the mother when the mother responds to their needs. 

2. Transition: If the baby's 'connection' illusion is undone suddenly it can be a traumatic shock for the baby, therefore it needs to happen as gently as possible, and the transition should be gentle. 

3. Relative independence: If the transition to independence is gentle the child will develop a healthy sense of self. Otherwise, the child remains uncomfortable with itself. 

Transitional object

Winnicott believed a transitional object (such as a soft toy) helped an infant to cope with separation (acting as a “mother substitute”) and was therefore a vital aspect of healthy development of independence.  Often they are warm and soft and reminiscent to the child of the mother's chest. He believed that by cuddling the transitional object a child feels they are cuddling their mother and thus feel comforted. Winnicott said that taking away the object from the child can cause great anxiety as they are now truly without their mother and suffer great feelings of loss and aloneness.

Continue for the concept of "The Good Enough Mother"...

The Good Enough Mother

The Good Enough Mother

Winnicott interacted with thousands of mothers and their babies. Through these experiences, he came to believe that the way to be a good mother was to be "good enough".

Winnicott's good enough mother is highly focused on being a mother. She attends to her baby at all times, providing a holding environment for them in their early months. She tends to both physical and emotional needs and provides security. When he fails, she tried again. She weathers painful feelings and makes sacrifices. Winnicott's good enough mother is not so much a goddess as she is a gardener; she tends to her baby with love, patience, effort and care.

The most important factor of the good enough mother is the ever changing nature of what good enough looks like and the fact that it is necessary for mothers to be imperfect in order for their children to develop, so in those moments when needs cannot be met (which increase over time), children learn to be more independent in a natural and incremental way. In Winnicott's words:

A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother .. starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.

What we like about Winnicott’s picture of the good enough mother is that she is a three-dimensional human being. She is a mother under pressure and strain. She is full of ambivalence about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-interested. She turns toward her child and turns away from him. She is capable of great dedication yet she is also prone to resentment. Winnicott even dares to say that the good enough mother loves her child but also has room to hate him. She is not boundless.  She is real.

Real mothers are the best kind of mothers (and the only kind!). It takes an imperfect mother to raise a child well. Children learn about life through real experiences; dealing with disappointments and frustrations. They will outgrow the stage where they can be the centre of the universe. They need to eventually develop to be able to respect the needs and limitations of other people, including their mothers, and they need to learn to do things for themselves, but in a natural, unforced way, through the normal order of things.

At BabyCalm we think this concept is of very high importance. We understand that being a good enough mother (or parent) is hard work and painful as well as joyful. If you have a difficult relationship with your parents, or with being a parent, you are at home with us. Being a parent is a wonderful and dreadful thing. Rather than idealising parenting, at CalmFamily we honour the complexity of it; finding reasons to be grateful for great moments at the same time as forgiving our failures and looking for opportunities to grow ourselves.

According to attachment theory, how can we help children become independent?

Please choose true or false for each of the following statements regarding attachment

  • Attachment happens automatically
  • Attachment is created through reciprocity (serve and return) interactions with a caregiver
  • Babies are programmed to form attachments
  • It doesn't matter if babies and young children don't form attachments
  • Primary attachment is usually to the mother because she provides nutrition
  • Primary attachment is usually to the mother because babies and mothers usually interact the most
  • Secure attachment means having a baby that will never go to others
  • After 10 months of age, it is likely a baby will have formed multiple attachments (assuming good relationships are in place)
  • At 7-9 months, babies with secure attachment usually struggle with separation anxiety
  • Parents must baby wear, breastfeed and bed-share in order to create a secure attachment
  • Harlow's experiments were unethical (as viewed by today's standards) but remain very useful
  • Attachment Parenting UK and CalmFamily are very different

How would you describe the concept of the Good Enough Mother to parents in your sessions?



Behaviourists and control

To understand the basis of most popular/mainstream baby theories and methods, particularly those surrounding routines, we must understand the work of early behaviourist psychologists. Behaviourists view all human actions as objective behaviours which can be scientifically studied. Behaviourism is used frequently in common child-rearing advice. We will look here at the theories of the most prominent thinkers in this area and consider them critically.

Watson (1878-1958) & "Little Albert"

Watson (1878-1958) & “Little Albert”


John B. Watson, an American Psychologist believed that “nothing is instinctual; rather everything is built into a child through the interaction with their environment. Parents therefore hold complete responsibility since they choose what environment to allow their child to develop in”.

In 1920 Watson constructed his famous experiment “Little Albert”, a classic experiment looking at classical conditioning and fear in human infants.  “Little Albert” was a perfectly (psychologically) healthy 8 month old baby, his mother was a wet nurse at the hospital Watson worked at. Initially Watson exposed Little Albert to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, face masks, cotton wool and burning newspaper – Little Albert showed no fear of these objects. At 11 months little Albert was presented with a rat and allowed to play with it, however when he did Watson banged a steel bar loudly with a hammer which made Albert cry (unconditional response to the alarming noise). After repetition of this Albert became clearly distressed whenever the rat (with the absence of the alarming sound) was introduced into the room. Watson had conditioned fear to the rat (conditioned response) through the pairing of an alarming sound. Moreover Little Albert became fearful of all small furry animals, a fur coat and a furry Santa Claus mask.

Sadly Little Albert was never de-sensitised and died 5years later of hydrocephalus, though Watson had planned to see if he could remove the conditioned fear responses (what we now know as systematic desensitisation in modern day CBT therapy).

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)

B.F. Skinner

In perhaps his most famous experiment B.F. Skinner placed pigeons (which were starved) in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behaviour." From this he discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions. 

For instance “One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return”.

Skinner believed that his pigeons were behaving as if they were influencing the delivery of food and also believed that this experiment could shed light on human behaviour: 

“The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behaviour and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behaviour. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favourable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behaviour in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviours have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing, or more strictly speaking, did something else”. 

Superstition' in the Pigeon, B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

Ivan Pavlov

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov carried out perhaps the most famous behaviourist experiment of all, his “conditioned reflex” experiment. Pavlov noticed that laboratory dogs did not just salivate when food was presented but also when the lab assistant who fed them appeared. This led to the famous experiment that coined the term “classical conditioning” in 1927. Pavlov initially starved the dogs and rang a bell whenever he introduced food to them, over time he noticed that the dogs salivated (saliva collected in a cannula inserted into their salivary gland) in response to the bell, even in the absence of food.

Pavlov termed these reactions the unconditioned stimulus (US); The bell and the unconditioned response (UR); salivation. If the neutral stimulus (the food) was presented along with the unconditioned stimulus (the bell) it would become a conditioned stimulus (CS). If the CS and the US are repeatedly paired, eventually the two stimuli become associated and the organism begins to produce a behavioural response (in this case salivation) to the CS. Pavlov called this the conditioned response (CR) which gave rise to the term “classical conditioning”.  This theory is still widely practiced, particularly in dog training. For instance to get a dog to sit we may use an edible treat and the word “sit” (the US). When the dog does indeed sit (the UR) he is rewarded with a treat, the word “sit” therefore because a conditioned stimulus (CS) if paired with the US (the food) enough times, with the conditioned response being the sitting.

Seligman and the theory of Learned Helplessness

In the 1970's Seligman restrained dogs in a Pavlovian harness and administered several electric shocks (UCS) paired with a conditioned stimulus (CS); a bell. The dogs were then placed in a shuttle box (a box divided into two halves with a hurdle to jump in the middle) where they could avoid a shock just by jumping over a barrier. 

Most of the dogs however failed to learn to avoid shock by jumping the hurdle, they just accepted it; they learnt to be helpless. 

Seligman argued that the prior exposure to the inescapable shock (whilst harnessed) interfered with the dog's ability to learn in a situation where avoidance or escape was possible. Seligman used the term Learned Helplessness to describe this phenomenon. The dogs didn't think they could get away so they didn't even try; does it mean they were content to be shocked because they quietly stood there and let the shock happen?

What does Pavlov's behavioural conditioning allow us to do with babies?

Do you think that behavioural conditioning is always helpful? Explain your answer

Do you think babies learn to self-settle? Explain your answer

Match the psychologist to the theory

  • Albert Bandura
    Social learning theory
  • Jean Piaget
  • John Bowlby
    Attachment theory
  • BF Skinner
    Operant conditioning
  • Abraham Maslow
    Hierarchy of needs
  • Donald Winnicott
    The concept of holding
  • Melanie Klien