Attachment: Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony

In this post I will attempt to clarify the use of the terms reciprocity and interactional synchrony.

The new specification for AQA places more emphasis on the formation of attachments and has removed the need to explore the impact of day care. The topic of “Attachment” now starts by exploring the early interactions between infant and caregiver that are the building blocks for the development of this bond.

babyAlthough the introduction of the concepts of reciprocity and interactional synchrony are welcome additions, the newly published textbooks seem to offer a blurry and, sometimes interchangeable, definition of these concepts. This is particularly important to point out because even the AQA approved books seem to offer slightly different definitions to the historically popular books (e.g. the companion series). I queried this with AQA and was told that candidates need to be aware that the concepts overlap but that they should be able to define the terms separately. They were very helpful and the senior examiner recommends referring to Condon and Sander (1974) which is on page 16 of the Scheme of Work on the AQA website and is discussed further below.

The Over Lap

The concepts in this area are describing the metaphorical dance between infant and caregiver. It looks, feels and acts like a conversation between infant and caregiver. Though no words may be uttered (not on the baby’s part anyway) this two-way interaction has two active contributors. The interactions will be rhythmic and mutual; infant and caregiver are likely to appear to be in harmony as they take turns in this attachment promoting conversation which is likely to involve the infant and caregiver responding to each other with similar sounds, emotions and behaviours. Infant and caregiver are able to anticipate how each other will behave and can elicit a particular response from the other.

What does it look like? The caregiver who smiles at their baby in response to a smile-like facial movement from the infant or who opens their mouth in mock surprise when the infant scrunches up their face, is engaged in this two-way pattern of interaction and is laying the foundations for an attachment to form. The infant that cries and elicits a sad expression and look of upset on their caregivers face or the caregiver who laughs in response to their infants giggling sound and tickles them, is experiencing synchronised interaction.

Defining the Terms Separately


The word reciprocal means two-way, or something that is mutual. Infant and caregiver are both active contributors in the interaction and are responding to each other. This is referred to as reciprocity.

Interactional synchrony

The word synchrony means a simultaneous action or occurrence. Interactional synchrony relates to the timing and pattern of the interaction. The interaction is rhythmic and can include infant and caregiver mirroring each other’s behaviour and emotion.  The infant and caregiver’s behaviours and affect are synchronised because they are moving in the same, or a similar, pattern.

Condon and Sander (1974) have investigated interactions between infants and caregivers in particular in relation to responses to adult speech. In their paper they report “As early as the first day of life, the human neonate moves in precise and sustained segments of movement that are synchronous with the articulated structure of adult speech”.

According to research by Meltzoff and Moore (1983) infants as young as 3 days imitate the facial expression of adults. This implies that this ability to mirror is an innate behaviour.

Beyond the course

Learners may be interested in the applications of this knowledge in Psychology. Music therapists and other therapists who work with parents and infants/children who have experienced disruption in their attachment formation (e.g. when children are adopted and attachments with foster carers need to be transferred to adoptive parents) recognise the importance of reciprocity and interactional synchrony in their therapeutic work. For example, caregivers are encouraged to mirror and share their child’s emotion by imitating facial expressions and engaging in reciprocal behaviour in response to music or other stimuli.


10 thoughts on “Attachment: Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony

  1. Thanks for this info on reciprocity and interactional synchrony. Have been struggling with the vague explanations in the textbooks. This is so helpful.

  2. Thanks as a student this was very helpful, I would also appreciate it if you could explain how the Codon and Sander experiment isn’t to do with reciprocity opposed to Interactional synchrony because they are having a conversation not copying one and other.

      1. Sorry, what I mean is that on the link for Condon and Sander it is under the sub-heading ‘interactional synchrony’ but it mainly references reciprocity. I was wondering if you knew how it was evidence for interactional synchrony.

      2. Interactional synchrony is about being in tune with each other rather than just turn taking so the idea that the infant responds predictably to adult speech shows evidence for being synchronised and in tune rather than simply acting in a mutual way. Hope this helps.

  3. Wow, that has actually helped so much. I asked my teacher before and we were both quite confused. Can I clarify? So basically its not that they are ‘having a conversation’ in a conscious way but can communicate without trying to because in Codon and Sanders there is no physical mother so what would the child be gaining, it is just naturally in sync? – If I am wrong please correct me, I am just revising now and really want to get my head around this.

    1. You are correct, they are not literally having a conversation but the infant appears to change their behaviour in response to the adult speech. This just shows that this is one way in which the infant and caregiver become synchronised in their interactions. Trying to infer what this means is open to interpretation and so at this level of study I would not delve too deep as you are likely to confuse yourself.

  4. This is excellent, thank you so much for sharing. Text books are confusing, and the two I am using give different definitions, with one saying reciprocity is turn-taking, the other saying that interactional synchrony is turn-taking. What you have presented here has hugely clarified a confusing area.

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