Although this cover story received widespread publicity, attachment parenting isn’t at all a new phenomenon. Nor is it just another variation of helicopter parenting, itself somewhat of a misnomer and often confused with parental involvement in a child's life. Attachment parenting (which I will refer to as AP) has a solid theoretical basis in one of the most widely-accepted theories of personality-social development in all of psychology- namely, the attachment theory of Mary Salter Ainsworth and her colleagues. Over the past 30+ years, attachment theory has become the centerpiece of extensive research on healthy personality, relationships, and even occupational development. Couples therapy based on attachment theory, for example, is shown to be a highly effective way to help people repair damaged close relationships.
Attachment theory emphasizes the nature of the relationship between children and their caregivers (usually the parents). It has its roots in observations made by psychiatrists in World War II who noted the impaired physical, psychological, and social development of infants in hospitals and orphanages who were separated from their parents. After recognizing that these children needed not just food but physical contact, the caregivers noticed vast improvements in their development. Clinical psychologists went on to propose theories of personality development called “object relations” that emphasized these early mother-infant bonds.
The road to present attachment theory was paved by Mary Salter Ainsworth who developed the innovative experimental method known as the “Strange Situation.” The key manipulation in these experiments consisted of having mothers play with their tiny tots in a lab playroom, leave the room, and then returned a few minutes later. Ainsworth and her research team observed how the babies reacted both to the mother’s leaving and then, even more importantly, the reunion. These observations led them to propose different attachment "styles." They categorized the infants into groups of securely and insecurely attached. The securely attached children regarded their mothers as a safe haven from which they could explore their environment. They weren’t overly upset when the mother left the playroom, and they greeted her happily when she returned. The insecurely attached, in contrast, either ignored the returning mother, cried inconsolably the whole time she was gone, or showed some combination of these distraught patterns of behavior.
One of Ainsworth’s most important findings from this research was to show that the behavior of the child in this lab situation strongly predicted the quality of their adjustment by the time they reached early adulthood. The securely attached went on to become well-balanced teens and young adults; the insecurely attached had a much rockier road through life.
At the same time that Ainsworth was discovering the predictive power of attachment style, Berkeley psychology Diana Baumrind identified variations in parenting styles that also contributed to child mental health outcomes. These parenting styles vary in degree of control and demandingess, on one dimension, and support and responsiveness on the other:
Permissive parents are low in control/demandingness but high in support. Authoritarian parents are high in control/demandness but low in support and responsiveness. Authoritative parents (not “authoritarian”) expect a lot out of their children (high in control/demandingess) but also high in support and responsiveness. Finally, neglectful parents are low in both dimensions. The most positive outcomes in terms of children’s behavior occur when parents adopt the authoritative style. This means, for instance, that they show their children they care about them, but they also expect them to follow their advice and guidance- if for no other reason than to keep them safe.
Attachment and parenting style theories provide the foundation for attachment parenting as it's practiced today. The parodies of AP either over-emphasize the permissiveness dimension or regard these parents as over-involved from birth on up. What attachment theory and parenting style theory propose, instead, is that parents provide their children with a firm basis of support (a “safe haven) and adjust their expectations and attention to their needs to the child’s developmental level. Baumrind’s model accounts for the fact that children need a great deal of protection from harm when they’re little and don’t realize the dangers of such situations as hot stoves and ungated stairways. Ainsworth’s emphasizes the need for physical support (touching and comforting) as most important in the infant’s first days, weeks, and months of life. Neither would argue that parents would treat their 10-year-old children the same way they would treat their newborns or even toddlers.
In the decades since these theories were developed and tested, researchers have examined the strengths and weaknesses of each to predict outcomes in children and adults. This research, along with studies of specific facets of AP, became the basis for a comprehensive review conducted back in 2010 by Harvard Medical School researchers Patrice Marie Miller and Michael Lamport Commons in the Behavioral Development Bulletin. Fortunately, you can read the article in its entirety, because it is available to the public for no charge. I would recommend that you do so, because it’s impossible for me to do more than summarize it here. Several additional studies conducted since that time have examined specific aspects of AP, such as co-sleeping and stress in infants and children (e.g. Tollenaar et al., 2012).
This quote from the opening to this article is important to include here because I think it summarizes nicely the correct view of AP:
“AP is identified by some as a fixed approach in which the parent must breast feed exclusively and on demand, hold and carry the baby most of the time, co-sleep, and respond quickly to the baby’s crying. That is not a correct view, however. Sears and Sears (2001) argue instead that parents might work or bottle feed and still be using AP, if their own parenting behavior is still as child centered as possible. These authors also argue that any parenting behavior, including holding, feeding and co-sleeping could be applied in a way that is not responsive to cues from the infant. What is most important is not the specific behavior, but whether or not it is responsive to cues from the infant” (p. 2).
AP for infants involves “child-centered” rather than “parent-centered” parenting. The parents read the cues of their babies and by doing so, provide that safe haven so important from attachment theory's point of view. They are also responsive to their children, as suggested in Baumrind's work on parenting style. These are its 4 key components in the care of infants:
- Co-sleeping- either in the same room as parents or (with appropriate safety precautions) in the same bed. This may involve having bedtime occur on the child’s, not the parent’s, schedule.
- Feeding on demand- allowing the child to set the timing of feeding (whether breast- or bottle-fed), along with self-weaning.
- Holding and touching- keeping the child physically near, whether through cuddling and cradling, or by wearing on a front- or backpack arrangement.
- Responsiveness to crying- not letting the child “cry it out,” but instead intervening early in the crying bout, reacting to the child’s distress before it gets out of control.
You can see why each of these areas of AP would have strong advocates and equally strong critics. Critics would maintain that you're spoiling the child. They ask whether responsiveness to crying will simply reinforce the child’s crying. Doesn't it mean you have to breast-feed your 5-year-old? How about co-sleeping? Isn’t it dangerous? How about the stress on mom? She’ll have no time for herself if she’s constantly shackled with holding this little creature nonstop.
The evidence based on studies of AP in infants shows a wide range of psychological and physical benefits to each of the 4 components of AP. For example, AP-raised infants have lower stress levels, cry less often, and feel more connected to other people as they get older, even showing higher levels of empathy. Again, I’ve abbreviated much that’s in the article, so for more detail, you’ll find that the summary that Miller and Commons provide has a minimum of psych jargon and is thus very helpful.
AP with older infants and children, as I indicated earlier, adapts to the developmental level of the child (which is another reason the Time cover was so misleading). As the infant turns into a toddler, some mothers will still be breast-feeding (though not as frequently as with very young infants). However, more importantly, the parents start to get into territory that many approach with trepidation- namely, the terrible two’s. With AP, however, parents don’t have to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they need to find the balance between encouraging independence and autonomy while still allowing their child to feel safe and secure. Ainsworth believed that a “maximally sensitive mother” (substitute father if you wish) knows how to read the child’s signals and responds appropriately.
As an example, consider how parents respond to the development of fear in their young children such as fear of a barking dog. Consistent with AP’s philosophy, parents would be ready to respond to a child’s emotional distress. You can’t keep all the barking dogs away, nor can you wipe out the memory of a bad experience with a dog from the child’s mind. You can, however, talk to the child about the situation (depending on the child’s cognitive maturity), provide emotional reassurance, and distract the child by providing some alternative activity to occupy his or her mind. These strategies are part of the larger picture of helping children learn to regulate their emotions. The older they get, the more they can control their own emotions, but this early foundation will help ensure they’ll do so successfully. Children with attachment parenting may be less likely as adults to show road rage.
You may still be wondering how mom and dad are faring through all of this. Here they are, constantly holding their children, having to sleep in the same room or on their children’s schedules, ready to soothe their children so early in a crying episode that they have to be within arms’ length at all times. Isn’t this going to make parenthood even rougher than it is already?
Parenthood is never easy, but attachment parenting seems to hold some advantages for alleviating stress in parents. Their kids aren’t crying as often (once they get out of the first 6 weeks or so). They’ll throw fewer tantrums. It’ll be easier for them to adjust to baby sitters or day care. Finally, if what they say about stress is true, their immune systems might function better and they won’t be sick as often. You may not be perfect as an AP parent, but the more you can incorporate some of its principles into the relationships you have with your children, the more likely it is you’ll experience its very real benefits.
The bottom line is that when you separate the popular exaggerations of AP from the more objectively-oriented scientific studies, it’s a sensible approach that fosters physical and psychological health in children. We do know from extensive research on adult attachment style that securely attached adults have happier and less conflict-ridden lives. There’s even research to suggest they may be better parents themselves having received this secure base in their own development. Before you write off AP as lax parenting that spoils children, I hope you will take a look at the evidence to help inform your own choices in whatever role you play in the lives of the young.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Miller, P.M. & Commons, M.L. (2010). The Benefits of Attachment Parenting for Infants and Children: A Behavioral Developmental View, Behavioral Development Bulletin, Vol. 10. 'http://www.baojournal.com/BDB%20WEBSITE/BDB-no-10/A01.pdf
Tollenaar, M. S., Beijers, R., Jansen, J., Riksen-Walraven, J. M. A., & de Weerth, C. (2012). Solitary sleeping in young infants is associated with heightened cortisol reactivity to a bathing session but not to a vaccination. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(2), 167-177. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.03.017
Image credit: http://charterstowers.e-village.com.au/2012/05/23/attachment-parenting-whats-the-problem/