When my son was five months old, I was on my last nerve with his sleep habits. My husband and I had clocked a combined total of 500 hours bouncing him on the yoga ball, but he’d still wake up after 30 minutes of slumber. At work, I told a friend that we were planning to do sleep training (the kind that involved crying), and she agreed it was the best call – she had done it with her baby to great success. But then she added, “In every other way, I followed the attachment-parenting model. This was an exception.”
The comment bothered me. She was saying that my decision to take a firm stance on sleep and my being an “attached” parent were at odds. I didn’t buy it.
But with hindsight, I realize where her comment was coming from: the concept of attachment has almost been completely co-opted by the attachment-parenting philosophy, which entails specific practices like baby-wearing and co-sleeping. As a grad student in psychology I loved attachment theory – it made intuitive, evolutionary sense. But as a mom the label attachment parenting turned me off because it seemed to be defined by distinct lifestyle choices. Even though Dr. Sears says in the first chapter of The Baby Book, “You will grow and develop your own style,” that message gets lost in the translation.
The historical fact, however, is that attachment theory came first and was the culmination of decades of psychological research. And more recently, it’s been bolstered by advancements in neuroscience. It has taught us a huge amount about how babies grow, and how their first relationships shape who they become. But these ideas and the attachment parenting method are not one in the same. The parenting method resonates with a lot of moms and dads (parts of it, like nursing on demand and the baby sling, resonated with me as well), but if you diverge from Dr. Sears, does it mean you’re a less attached parent? Absolutely not. You just need to know the full attachment story.
The History of Attachment
“Attachment” is a developmental psychology concept coined by the psychiatrist John Bowlby in the mid-1900’s. Bowlby’s ideas – that children need consistent emotional and physical closeness to at least one primary caretaker – were revolutionary at the time, when prevailing wisdom told moms and dads not to “spoil” their kids with attention.
Before Bowlby, psychologists like John Watson had the ear of most parents. He believed emotional detachment was the key to raising well-adjusted kids. Watson is now famous for the “Little Albert” experiment, in which he trained an 11-month-old boy to fear white rats by simultaneously banging a steel bar with a hammer right next to the infant while exposing him to the rodents. According to Watson, instinct and biology didn’t matter – children could be conditioned to do anything through rewards and punishments. In his first book on parenting, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, he stated that children should be treated like adults and that too much affection was dangerous. “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.” His book sold 100,000 copies within a few months of its release.
The medical community, too, held the belief that minimal contact was best for kids. But it was in hospital settings that Bowlby found the evidence he needed to turn the tide and build his theory of attachment. At the time, visits to hospitalized children were strictly limited (as late as the 1960’s to typically one hour per week), and babies and toddlers would go weeks and months without much contact from their parents. Bowlby documented kids crying and protesting the separation, falling into despair, and eventually becoming sad and withdrawn. When he presented his findings at medical conferences, doctors were mostly dismissive.
But eventually the evidence started to pile up, coming in from other scientific fields as well. Researchers were finding evidence of attachment systems in other species: ducklings were found to instinctively imprint and follow their parent immediately after hatching, and Harry Harlow’s famous mid-1950’s “wire-mother” experiments showed that baby monkeys are programmed for soft, cuddly touch. Cooing, smiling, crying, clinging, following – all were understood to be a baby’s innate ways of keeping parents close.
As the tide turned and attachment theory grew, popular parenting philosophies shifted. Dr. Spock gave the shocking news that parents should toss out rigid schedules, saying, “Trust yourself” and “There is no such thing as too much love.” Parents listened.
Enter the Attachment Parenting Philosophy
So when Dr. Sears coined the term “attachment parenting” in the 1980’s, it wasn’t a revelation, it was a new presentation of ideas that had been around for decades. The idea that babies thrive on cuddles, responsiveness, and a caregiver they trust was something doctors and researchers before them had been saying for a long time.
What is it, then, about the philosophy that causes so much tension? For one, attachment parenting has the reputation of having a gold standard – involving around-the-clock baby-wearing, nursing on demand, and co-sleeping – all of which make many moms feel like they can never do enough. But there is nothing in the research that says any of these individual practices make or break your relationship with your child. Attachment theory (and our good old-fashioned parenting instincts) says to touch, to respond, and to be consistent. But how you do that – share sleep, tickle and roughhouse, holds hands, read books – can be as individual as each parent’s relationship with their child. It’s not as important how we make contact with our children as it is whether we make contact.
Recent neuroscience is teaching us even more. For example, Dr. Allan Schore of UCLA, one of the leading researchers in the field, has shown how a young child’s right brain (housing the emotional centers) is affected by interactions with mom and dad. A responsive, soothing parent literally helps build the child’s emotion-regulation centers (later key to our kids learning empathy and building relationships).
But Schore also explains that attachment is a two-way street, and babies are exquisitely tuned in to their parents’ emotions as well. To me, this means that mom and dad’s self care is really important, because our little ones are always picking up on our feelings. Of course we give our newborns 24/7 attention (while we forget to eat or take a shower), but as the months and years go on, tending to our own happiness doesn’t necessarily detract from healthy attachment, it might actually be integral to it.
In fact, one of the cornerstones of attachment theory is that the parent is a “secure base” – a concept developed by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970’s. Mom or dad is the stable, consistent, available source of comfort that the child will check in with, and then he or she will get busy exploring the world. Seen from this vantage, sleep training my son actually helped my attachment to him because I ultimately had more energy and attention to offer.
Julie Wright, MFT, who runs popular mommy-and-me classes in Los Angeles, says that a lot of moms in her groups struggle with the idea that attachment means having to constantly be “on” with their babies: “I hear a collective sigh of relief when I talk about giving yourself and your baby some space.”
But not only is space okay, Wright believes it’s actually fundamental to the baby’s development. “You know those adults who can’t stand to be alone?” she jokes. “I believe it starts early. We want our babies to develop the capacity to self-regulate.”
She has started to use the word “attuned” instead of “attached,” precisely because a lot of moms associate “attached” with constant interaction. “If your baby is cooing and playing with her feet in her crib, then maybe scooping her up isn’t what the moment calls for. What she’s telling you is that she’s happily exploring on her own.”
It’s unfortunate that attachment has become synonymous with one particular parenting philosophy, because the concept doesn’t belong to the followers of Dr. Sears alone nor does it need to imply a particular set of lifestyle choices or parenting practices. Our kids’ happiness does not hinge on any one “technique” in our parenting repertoire. Strong relationships are built in the subtle interactions and moments we have together – the eye contact, the giggles, the soothing touches. That’s how we get to know our kids and see their little budding personalities grow.