The 6 stages of attachment

by Consuela Hendriks

How do children develop attachment relationships, when conditions are conducive?


Based on the developmental and relational approach of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, attachment unfolds in six sequential stages. Each new stage provides the answers to the questions: How do I deal with separation from my primary attachment figure? How can I still feel connected while separated?


If all conditions are conducive, children go through the stages in the first six years of life. However, these are not so-called critical periods (a period in which the child is susceptible to specific development i.e., it is now or never). Even later in life, you can still reach and deepen certain stages of attachment. Children with challenges in terms of development, disease, trauma, neurodiversity etc. will not always reach these stages according to the years but follow their own timeline. So, it is not a tight schedule in which children ‘have to’ achieve a certain stage. Many adults don’t even reach all the stages.


1 Attachment through the senses


The first year of life (0-1) is all about attaching through the senses. Babies orient themselves through the senses. Smell, sound, physical touch, seeing and tasting the primary caregiver provide a sense of orientation in space and enhance a feeling of safety. Sensory proximity regulates stress in the baby. Babies attach to the primairy caregiver through the senses. By being and staying in sight, hearing, smell and touch, there’s an ongoing connection between the baby and caregiver. This is how they can stay close and in contact.


Implications for sleep


Often, we see babies who don’t want to sleep alone. Not being connected through the senses makes them feel unsafe. It alarms their nervous system and causes them to signal. They want to restore connection. This is why babies often want to sleep in contact.


If ‘being with’ is the way to attach, not being with (separation) can be alarming to the child. By maintaining close proximity (rooming-in/ safe co-sleeping/ contact sleep) babies can smell, see, hear, feel and/or taste the primary caregiver.


If, for some reason, the caregiver can’t stay close to the baby, connection can be maintained by, for example, adding the primary caregivers smell: sleep on the baby’s bedding, impregnate it in a way with your scent. Make sure the baby can hear your sounds, sing songs and lullabies, make sure you stay close and make sure you’re available for cuddles and physical contact.


2 Sameness/ Being like


In the second year of life (1-2), children want to be like the person(s) to whom they are attached. They want to be the same, take on the same form. Children start imitating sounds, gestures, and customs. They want to eat the same food, they talk the way you talk, and they do household chores exactly the way you do. They want to be like you.


‘Being like’ is the brain’s response to not being able to connect trough the senses. Toddlers start crawling / walking and thus come to a greater sensory distance from the attachment figure. If you can’t see, smell or touch the primary caregiver, you can still stay connected by making the same sounds or being ‘the same’.


If all goes well, a child under the age of two, can attach through senses and being like. But we still see older children (and adults) attaching in this way. Often, children prefer the same clothes or imitate their friend’s language. Adults who like each other very much imitate each other’s language and body language.


Implications for sleep


If children cannot sleep close to parent(s)/caregiver(s), it’s important to still apply the tips discussed in stage 1. If ‘being like’ is the way to attach in this stage, being different can be alarming. Connection can be maintained by stressing the things you have in common. Think about wearing the same pajamas (or having the same stuffed animal), or dressing a favorite doll in the same pajamas, telling that you’ll both dream about … or that you both like to sleep in a particular position.


3 Belonging and loyalty


In the third year of life (2-3), children become aware of differences between people. It occurs to them that they are not the same as those to whom they are attached. This is a piece of the individuation process; the child starts to realize they are a separate being.


The brain’s answer to not being able to ‘be like’ anymore is belonging and loyalty. Children start to become possessive (It’s my mom, my toy). They start to take sides. They stand up for the attachment figure and want to protect them. They are very loyal and want to serve and obey. This is how they feel connected.


Implications for sleep


To maintain connection during night-time, apply the tips discussed in the previous stages. If belonging and loyalty are the ways to attach in this stage, not belonging or someone not taking your side can be alarming. Stressing that the child belongs and showing loyalty to the child can help: Show the child that they belong to the family (you are my dearest) and name the items the child is attached to (that is your special bed, your beautiful blanket). Give the child something ‘important’ of yours to take care of at night (speaks to loyalty).


4 Significance


In the fourth year of life (3-4) it becomes clear to the child that mom and dad (or other attachment figures) are attached to what is special to them. So, they want to be special too! They want to be dear to you, they want to matter, they want to make you proud. They basically want to be the most special person in your life.


Implications for sleep


Not feeling special, not counting, not mattering can be alarming. Make sure there is genuine quality time before bedtime. Make the child feel super special. Make sure to prioritize the child, without distractions. So, no phones, no opening doors to anyone, no toilet visits, no making yourself a cup of tea. Prioritize special time for the child. This makes children feel there’s nothing more important than them. It also makes room to reconnect after possible daytime separation.


5 Love


In the fifth year of life (4-5), children enter the stage of giving their heart to you. It is the stage of deep emotional love. Children start drawing hearts and kisses and there is an (even greater) urge for emotional intimacy. Children want to marry you and crave feeling loved. It is a very vulnerable phase, giving someone your heart can be scary. They risk a broken heart. Trust is particularly important to support the process. Emphasizing that your love is unconditional, and they don’t have to earn it, can help build trust.


Implications for sleep


Not feeling loved and lack of emotional warmth can be alarming to children in this stage. You can show children that they are being loved by giving them something tangible that they can hold on to, which reminds them of the attachment figure. Think of giving them your picture to hold on to, coloring a heart on their hand, giving them something of yours to take care of. Verbally tell them how important they are to you, that they’re loved, no matter what.


6 Being known


The last stage of attachment in the sixth year of life (5-6) is being known. This stage is about psychological intimacy. Children want to be known inside out. They want to feel seen, heard, and known. Children want to notice that you know exactly what they do or don’t like, what makes them happy, sad, scared or angry. They feel loved and connected when they notice that you’ve put in the effort to something that’s important to them. Sharing secrets gives an intimate layer and contributes to the feeling of knowing someone inside out.


Implications for sleep


Children want to feel seen and heard. Not feeling understood is alarming in this stage. It helps to really listen to the child. By attentive listening to what is going on in the child’s life, they feel seen and heard. This gives peace of mind and breeds calm.


Think of:

What does the child like/dislike (not those pajamas with the irritating seams but the soft ones); What is going on in the child’s life? (I see you’re having trouble sleeping after what happened at school today); Are there any worries or fears that need to be addressed (Shall I stay with you for a while (or longer) tonight?).




A person can only attach to people at the level of the stage they are in. For example, if someone gets stuck in stage 3 ‘belonging’ then attachment will mainly present at the level of wanting to be alike.


Children develop appropriate attachment relations spontaneously when the conditions are conducive. This particularly requires an invitation to exist in your presence and a soft heart that is not defended (i.e. every emotion can be felt).




MacNamara, D. (2016). Rest play grow. Vancouver: Aona.


Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2013). Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. Vintage Books Canada.