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What is Attachment Parenting | The Science Behind

Attachment Parenting is a child-rearing practice that builds on the well-known Attachment Theory, which has been proven in many scientific studies. But is Attachment Parenting itself proven by science? In this article, we will look at what new parents who want to adopt this parenting practice should know before embracing Attachment Parenting in its fullness.

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 come from 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, small children form distinct attachment patterns in early childhood depending on how the parents respond to children’s needs. Different attachment styles are associated with different outcomes in children.

There are four different attachment stylessecure, avoidant, resistant, and disorganized attachment​1​, the latter three are insecure attachments.

Of all the infant-parent attachment styles, secure attachment is overwhelmingly believed to be the best attachment by developmental scientists worldwide.

When a parent is highly sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs, they become the secure attachment figure and a safe haven. The child feels safe and confident to explore from the safe base. They extend into the world knowing they could always retreat to their secure base​2​.

A baby’s secure attachment has proven to be associated with many positive outcomes​3​ such as better emotion regulation​4​ and cognitive development​5​.

Babies who are securely attached 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 development​6​. They are also happier and healthier​7​.

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 parenting approach.

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

In order to achieve this strong attachment, the caregiver shows higher levels of emotional sensitivity and emotional responsiveness to their baby’s needs.

However, if you talk to parents who have been following the “attachment parenting movement“, the term attachment parenting means something different, not completely different, but 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

To many parents, Attachment Parenting (AP) is often known as the term American paediatrician William Sears (1993) has used in his book. In his Attachment Parenting book, Sears used Attachment Theory as the basis of this “new” parenting style.

Sears’ Attachment Parenting is loosely defined by eight principles​8​:

  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 of a 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”​9–11​.

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.

Another example is babywearing, encouraged in AP. Studies show that sensitive parents who use responsive parenting and provide emotional support to help children regulate their negative emotions can form a close attachment with them. Therefore, the constant contact provided by baby-wearing is not necessary to form a secure attachment​12​.

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, the guideline issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics 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)​13​.

Perhaps the most damaging claim in Sear’s version of attachment parenting is that if a child is not met with the 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​14​.

These children grew up without any physical or emotional contact with people for years​15​.

Their RADs were not the result of working mothers who couldn’t breastfeed on cue until they were 5​16​.

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 a prescribed set of rules and it is not controversial. The style of parenting described by the Attachment Theory has stood the test of time.

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

The points most people are confused about are:

  • Attachment Theory is not controversial. Attachment parenting practice prescribed in the name of Attachment theory is.
  • Attachment Theory is not a set of rules.
  • 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.
  • Parenting style based on the Attachment Theory was originally developed in the 1960s, not a new parenting theory created by Sears.

Is Attachment Parenting Bad Then?

Attachment theory asserts that when a primary caregiver is consistently and appropriately responsive and sensitive to their child’s needs in early experiences, secure attachment develops.

Attachment Parenting championed by Dr. Sears in his book, however, does not represent the scientific view of attachment. No later research shows that the recommended methods represent the appropriate amount of responsiveness of the caregiver.

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

The goal of healthy 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​17​. Your child can still grow up happy and healthy. You will still have a close relationship. The strong connection will last a lifetime.

That’s all that matters.

Baby sleeps peacefully on bed - bowlby attachment theory

References

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    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. Published online May 19, 2015:261-284. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21729
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    Kennedy JH, Kennedy CE. Attachment theory: Implications for school psychology. Psychol Schs. Published online 2004:247-259. doi:10.1002/pits.10153
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    Bretherton I. The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1992:759-775. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.759
  4. 4.
    Schore JR, Schore AN. Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment. Clin Soc Work J. Published online September 8, 2007:9-20. doi:10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7
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    Bergman K, Sarkar P, Glover V, O’Connor TG. Maternal Prenatal Cortisol and Infant Cognitive Development: Moderation by Infant–Mother Attachment. Biological Psychiatry. Published online June 2010:1026-1032. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.01.002
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    Bretherton I. Attachment Theory: Retrospect and Prospect. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:3. doi:10.2307/3333824
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    Attachment Parenting I. API’s Eight Principles of Parenting. API Attachment Parenting International. .
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    Turck D. Allaitement maternel : les bénéfices pour la santé de l’enfant et de sa mère. Archives de Pédiatrie. Published online December 2005:S145-S165. doi:10.1016/j.arcped.2005.10.006
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    Heinig MJ, Dewey KG. Health Advantages of Breast Feeding for Infants: a Critical Review. Nutr Res Rev. Published online January 1996:89-110. doi:10.1079/nrr19960007
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    McCrory C, Murray A. The Effect of Breastfeeding on Neuro-Development in Infancy. Matern Child Health J. Published online November 8, 2012:1680-1688. doi:10.1007/s10995-012-1182-9
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    Landry SH, Smith KE, Swank PR. Responsive parenting: Establishing early foundations for social, communication, and independent problem-solving skills. Developmental Psychology. Published online July 2006:627-642. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.4.627
  13. 13.
    DEVITT M. AAP Expands Recommendations on SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Deaths. Am Fam Physician. 2012;85(9):918-923. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0501/p918.html
  14. 14.
    Zeanah CH, Smyke AT, Koga SF, Carlson E. Attachment in Institutionalized and Community Children in Romania. Child Development. Published online September 2005:1015-1028. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00894.x
  15. 15.
    Hornor G. Reactive Attachment Disorder. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. Published online July 2008:234-239. doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2007.07.003
  16. 16.
    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. Published online March 13, 2006:363-364. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcm007
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    HOGHUGHI M, SPEIGHT ANP. Good enough parenting for all children—a strategy for a healthier society. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Published online April 1, 1998:293-296. doi:10.1136/adc.78.4.293

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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