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What is Attachment Parenting & Why It Doesn’t Represent Attachment Theory

Attachment Parenting is a child-rearing practice that builds on the well-known Attachment Theory but it is not proven by science. In this article, we will look at why new parents who want to adopt this parenting practice should know before embracing all the recommendations in Attachment Parenting.

What Is Attachment

In developmental psychology, attachment refers to the tie or bond formed between a child and the primary caregiver, usually the mother but is equally possible to be the father or other caregivers.

For babies, attachments to a caregiver is a biological instinct to stay as close to the caregiver as possible for safety and survival.

Woman carries a sleepy baby in a carrier - what is attachment parenting and its effect on brain development

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory — originally developed by psychiatrist and psychologist John Bowlby (1969), and later on extended and categorized by developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth. Under Ainsworth and Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, children formed distinct attachment patterns depending on how the mothers responded to the baby’s needs. Different attachment styles were associated with different outcomes in children. There are four different attachment stylessecure, avoidant, resistant and disorganized attachment​1​.

Among these, secure attachment is overwhelmingly believed to be the ideal attachment by psychologists worldwide.

When the mothers are highly sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs, the sensitive mother becomes a secure-attachment figure and a safe haven for the child to explore from. The child feels safe and confident to extend to the world knowing they could always retreat to the mother as the secure base.

Babies who are securely attached are observed to cry less, cooperate more, enjoy their mother’s company more and have fewer behavioral problems. When these children grow up, they tend to have better emotional regulation. They are happier and healthier.

Therefore, if you talk to a psychologist or a psychiatrist about attachment parenting, they would most likely agree that this is the best type of attachment.

What they are referring to is the parenting style that can result in a healthy secure attachment.

In order to achieve this strong early attachment style, the caregiver should be sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs.

However, if you talk to parents who have been following the “attachment parenting” movement, you may get a different view, not completely different, but it’s taking the real definition of attachment parenting to a different level — an extreme level.

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Mom happily breastfeeds baby - secure attachment

What is Attachment Parenting and What is Not

Attachment Parenting was coined by American paediatrician William Sears (1993). In his Attachment Parenting book, Sears used Attachment Theory as the basis of this popular parenting style.

Sears’ Attachment Parenting is loosely defined by eight principles​2​:

  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 and loving care
  7. Practice positive discipline
  8. Strive for balance in your personal and family life

At first glance, these 8 principles do have scientific studies to prove that they are associated with secure attachment. So those are not controversial.

The problems come from the specific advice prescribed for these principles in Sears’ book.

Critics of Attachment Parenting point out that those practices are unrealistic and extreme.

They also lack extensive peer-reviewed scientific studies to support their effectiveness when parents raise their kids this way.

For example, Sears encourages extended breastfeeding the baby after infancy until the child decides to stop. 

Although studies have shown the benefits of breastfeeding, most of them were done on babies who were breastfed for 3 to 9 months only, not for “as long as the child wants”​3–5​.

Many working mothers won’t be able to breastfeed so extensively once they return to work unless their employers are supportive and provide actual space and time for them to do so.

Unfortunately, most employers, especially those of blue-collar jobs, are not. It is simply not practical, nor is it scientifically proven to be beneficial.

Mom and baby co-sleep - attachment theory and attachment parenting examples

Sears also promotes co-sleeping or sharing the same bed.

Having close physical contact does provide lots of benefits to the baby, which is what the co-sleeping advice is based on. However, an expanded guideline issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 recommends that babies should sleep in the same room as the attachment parents, but not in the same bed, to prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

Perhaps the most damaging claim in Sear’s version of attachment parenting is that if a child is not met with parent’s responsiveness, then they will develop Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a psychiatric condition described as markedly disturbed and developmentally inappropriate social relatedness in young children.

In reality, RAD is a result of severe physical and emotional deprivation often experienced by institutionalized children, such as orphans in Romanian orphanages​6​.

These children grew up without any physical or emotional contact with people for years​7​.

Their RADs were not the result of working mothers who couldn’t breastfeed on cue until they were 5​8​.

So stretching results of RAD research to prove the value of this extreme form of attachment parenting styles significantly undermines its credibility.

Mother wears sleeping infant in a carrier - ainsworth attachment parenting styles psychology
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Is Attachment Parenting Really Controversial?

It’s unfortunate that such a generic name was coined and confused with the actual attachment theory which has been monumental in our understanding of child development.

Let’s try to clear some confusion.

Attachment theory itself is not controversial.

Attachment theory and the style of parenting described by the theory have stood the test of time.

Many attachment research and experiments have been repeatedly done throughout the world by many psychologists and psychiatrists on human and similar results were obtained.

Sadly, even respectable websites can get this wrong.

The points most people are confused about are:

  • Attachment theory is not controversial. Attachment parenting practice prescribed in the name of Attachment theory is.
  • Although the original conceptualization by Bowlby was inspired by animal attachment, the attachment theory we know today was developed through Ainsworth’s in-depth observation of human babies in Uganda. This model has been verified through many human-based studies worldwide.
  • Attachment theory was originally developed in the 1960s, not a new parenting theory created by Sears.

When incorrect information is spread like wildfire even by authoritative websites, it is not surprising that many people get confused about the two similar names.

Is Attachment Parenting Bad Then?

Attachment theory posits that when a primary caregiver is consistently and appropriately responsive and sensitive to their child’s need, secure attachment develops.

However, no research shows that the recommended methods provide an appropriate amount of maternal sensitivity or responsiveness.

It’s important that attachment parents take extremes as just that, extremes.

The goal of attachment forming is so that our children will develop secure relationships with us. Extreme measures are not necessary to achieve that. Moderation, common sense and consideration of your own circumstances should be used to strike a balanced life and make the best use of the attachment experience.

So, even if you are not baby wearing or having skin-to-skin contact around the clock, or you don’t co-sleep with them in the same bed, as long as you’re responsive and sensitive to their emotional needs consistently, the secure attachment will still form.

You’re still a good enough parent​9​. Your child can still grow up happy and healthy. You will still have a close relationship. The strong connection will last a life time.

That’s all that matters.

Baby sleeps peacefully on bed - bowlby attachment theory

References

  1. 1.
    Van Rosmalen L, Van der Veer R, Van der Horst F. AINSWORTH’S STRANGE SITUATION PROCEDURE: THE ORIGIN OF AN INSTRUMENT. J Hist Behav Sci. May 2015:261-284. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21729
  2. 2.
    Attachment Parenting I. API’s Eight Principles of Parenting. API Attachment Parenting International. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/api.
  3. 3.
    Turck D. Allaitement maternel : les bénéfices pour la santé de l’enfant et de sa mère. Archives de Pédiatrie. December 2005:S145-S165. doi:10.1016/j.arcped.2005.10.006
  4. 4.
    Heinig MJ, Dewey KG. Health Advantages of Breast Feeding for Infants: a Critical Review. Nutr Res Rev. January 1996:89-110. doi:10.1079/nrr19960007
  5. 5.
    McCrory C, Murray A. The Effect of Breastfeeding on Neuro-Development in Infancy. Matern Child Health J. November 2012:1680-1688. doi:10.1007/s10995-012-1182-9
  6. 6.
    Zeanah CH, Smyke AT, Koga SF, Carlson E. Attachment in Institutionalized and Community Children in Romania. Child Development. September 2005:1015-1028. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00894.x
  7. 7.
    Hornor G. Reactive Attachment Disorder. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. July 2008:234-239. doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2007.07.003
  8. 8.
    Smith PK. Understanding Attachment and Attachment Disorders: Theory, Practice and Evidence, * Vivien Prior and Danya Glaser, * London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006, pp. 288, ISBN 1-84310-245-5,  19.99. British Journal of Social Work. March 2006:363-364. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcm007
  9. 9.
    HOGHUGHI M, SPEIGHT ANP. Good enough parenting for all children—a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of Disease in Childhood. April 1998:293-296. doi:10.1136/adc.78.4.293

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