I’ve had this piece on my mind for quite some time to cover, but it seems the craziness that has erupted over the past week has been my impetus to actually talk about attachment theory versus ‘Attachment Parenting’. I know others have written on this before, but I’m going to throw my hat in the ring for those who haven’t read on the distinction and hope to clarify a few things.
What is attachment theory? Attachment theory began with John Bowlby and was continued in his work with Mary Ainsworth as a theory describing the types of relationships that exist between child and caregiver. It has also been extended to refer to all of our relationships with individuals, but the focus has remained on the parent-child attachment relationship, most likely due to the extreme importance of this initial relationship. As a bit of history, the theory began when Bowlby was asked to study orphaned infants and children after WWII who presented with myriad problems – socially, emotionally, and cognitively – and he determined that the cause of these problems stemmed from a lack of maternal involvement. Now, we know with time that it’s not all about mom, that so long as infants form an attachment with a primary caregiver, they will have the tools to develop in a healthy manner (whether they do or not is a different question entirely as there are many factors that can intervene in the years).
There have been, over the years, four different types of attachment patterns that we can see between infant and parent: secure, avoidant, anxious, and disorganized. Secure attachment is what we strive for and is characterized by a child showing some distress when separated from their parent, happiness at their return, and a generalized preference for their parents over others. Avoidant attachment is characterized by a lack of preference for the parent over other strangers; these children rarely seek out their parents for comfort. Anxious attachment is characterized by distress when separated from the parent, but a lack of comfort upon the parent’s return and may in fact be quite hostile towards the parent upon returning. Finally, disorganized attachment is characterized by a mixture of avoidant and anxious behaviours. The final three attachment patterns cluster together under the term ‘insecure attachment’.
Although not all children with insecure attachments will develop later psychopathologies or generalized problems, the likelihood that they do is far greater than for children with secure attachments. So how do we get our child to be securely attached? Isn’t this the question most parents want the answer to? Well, in one sense the answer is incredibly easy: Respond to your child. But what the means opens up a whole other debate, and this is where attachment parenting seems to come into play.
Though Dr. Sears formalized the term Attachment Parenting, even his 7 B’s were taken from John Bowlby’s work (yes, AP is a Dr. Sears term, but the roots of it go far beyond him). You see, Bowlby in his initial research believed that early attachment was fostered in environments like those of historic and modern hunter-gatherer societies. These societies, as I have focused on here on EP, shared many premises with what Dr. Sears termed Attachment Parenting and what Darcia Narvaez has studied with respect to moral development and infant outcomes. Infants in these societies are typically breastfed on demand, held close to a parent nearly all the time, are responded to immediately when they cry, birth is a natural event free of interventions (and babies are immediately given to mom post-birth), and infants sleep close to their caregivers. In Bowlby’s view, this type of behaviour fostered immediate responsiveness and thus, attachment. Importantly to the discussion at hand, the timing for this attachment to grow was hypothesized to be between six months and two years.
Of course, we know today that infants and children will form secure attachments with myriad parenting practices at play so long as the parent is responsive to his or her child. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you that on average, 70% of children in the United States are securely attached, yet we know that 70% of families do not engage in parenting that would be classified as akin to hunter-gatherer parenting. [UPDATE: New large-scale research on attachment now shows that only about 60% of children are “securely attached”. This is depressing, but sadly isn’t too surprising as many popular parenting methods actually promote detachment instead of attachment.] Additionally, Bowlby’s time frame of six months to two years is correct if taken as a guideline rather than a strict all-or-nothing phase. But yes, the first two years are generally most important to a child’s developing attachment.
What does this mean for Attachment Parenting? Well, first, let’s be clear that the 7 B’s Dr. Sears speaks of (birth bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedding close to a baby, belief in the language value of your baby’s cry, beware baby trainers, and balance) are not all-or-nothing rules for creating attachment (nor does Dr. Sears claim they are). If the work of Bowlby and others means anything, it really tells us that they are practices that can help us develop a healthy attachment. They work by keeping us close to our infants, ensuring a sense of security for the infant, and also by being so close, we become more responsive to our infants, but this does not mean they are the only way. Think of it as learning to run: Most people find the couch to 5K programs to be amazing and they are developed with your body’s physiology in mind, meaning that if you follow them, you will most likely succeed at reaching 5K in your time frame. However, following them to a tee will not work for everyone and many people will tweak a program to suit their needs. And they’ll still run that 5K. Others will try a different program and still end up running the 5K, though perhaps if they completely abandon the premise of the program, they will have, on average, less success. People forget that because these are just tools, if we don’t treat them as tools and instead as rules, we are no longer listening and being responsive and therefore ignoring the basic premise of attachment parenting.
So what is the real premise of attachment theory and attachment parenting? It’s responsiveness. It’s listening to your child and responding to his or her needs. And early in life, all your child has are needs. As your child ages, there will be wants mixed in, but believe it or not, most things that will cause them distress will be needs. And in this we must remember that their needs will be very different from our own and we must not place adult expectations of what they can and cannot handle on our children.
But there are a couple more things. First, often what gets left out of the discussion is child temperament. Some children are just as content sleeping next to a parent versus sleeping in a crib in the same room. Some are highly distressed at not having that physical contact. Some children will happily roll around town in a stroller. Some won’t. Some will love breastfeeding and want to feed for years, loving every second. Some will do it, enjoy it to a degree, and be done much earlier. The 7 B’s of attachment parenting (or what I like to consider just evolutionary parenting, seeing as its roots exist in our history and evolution) are most likely to be helpful for those with these higher needs children. Many parents can be responsive to their children by just believing that their infant’s cries are telling them something and responding appropriately. They may formula feed, have had a traumatic birth, sleep apart from their child, use a stroller, but they believe that their child is telling them something when they cry. They don’t dismiss it and they respond. That responsiveness is what is building their secure attachment. (Although as many parents of high-needs children will tell you, if you believe in that cry, you will almost certainly find yourself doing many of those AP things naturally.) Would many of us suggest they try babywearing or co-sleeping or breastfeeding? Absolutely. But not because their child will lack a secure attachment, but because we believe it to make that process easier for everyone involved. Of course, our belief in that is speaking in generalities, not individual circumstances, and so when you read such suggestions, it’s important to know that we are speaking not specifically to you, but to everyone and as such, we are generalizing.
The second issue is that we have inadvertently limited attachment parenting to those parents of younger children as the 7 B’s focus solely on infancy. Now, I do know that attachment is predominantly built in the first two years; however, we also know it is malleable. Part of why it often doesn’t change beyond two years is that people continue to parent in a similar manner. However, a parent who may have missed the boat for the first five years with respect to responsiveness but turns around and starts to realize that they need to listen to their child and learn how to provide what that child needs is an attachment parent (though it may take longer and be a rougher road to reach the stage where benefits are seen in the child). Similarly, a parent who does all 7 but then stops listening to the child when he or she starts speaking (versus crying) or provides only conditional love is no longer fostering secure attachment.
All this is to say that attachment or evolutionary parenting is there to point out probably the easiest ways to form a healthy and secure attachment for most people. It’s about averages. But by no means does this mean that the specific practices are what define being an attached parent. If you want a definition, think only of responsiveness, because it is that and that alone that will lead to the bonding and secure attachment parents strive for. What that responsiveness looks like, well, it’s up to you.
 Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss, Vol 1: Attachment. New York (1969): Basic Books.
 Ainsworth M, Blehar M, Waters E, Wall S. Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ (1978): Erlbaum.
 Carlson V, Cicchetti D, Barnett D, Braunwald K. Disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships in maltreated infants. Developmental Psychology 1989; 25: 525-531.
 Belsky J, Nezworski T (Eds.). Clinical Implications of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ (1987): Erlbaum.
 Grusec J. Socialization processes in the family: social and emotional development. Annual Reviews in Psychology 2011; 62: 243-269.