Attechment Theory: Research and Politics
This article looks into attachment theory research as well as current trend to politicize something that wasn’t intended to be political at all.
Attachment theory and research
Over 50 years ago John Bowlby, a British psychologist and physiotherapist, suggested that based on his research, there is a critical period for developing attachment (about 0 -5 years). If an attachment has not developed during this period then the child will suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression.
More current research suggests that the critical period lasts for only two to three years.
Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson (1964) continued Bowlby’s work and studied 60 babies at monthly intervals for the first 18 months of their life. The results of the study indicated that attachments were most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby’s signals, not the person they spent most time with.
It was the quality of care and not the quantity that helped to form healthy attachment in children.
Schaffer and Emerson called this sensitive responsiveness. Many of the babies had several attachments by 10 months, including attachments to mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and neighbors. 39% of the infants had a primary attachment with someone other than the person who usually fed, bathed and changed them.
This research also has shown that children were developing multiple attachments simultaneously and not, how Bowlby initially suggested, only to one person.
Recognizing the need for attachment is not new. Skinner, Adler, Locke, Watson and other behaviorists recognized its importance. But in their advice on how to raise children they suggest to withhold the attachment until the child behaves appropriately.
Attachment parenting is based on the idea that babies learn to trust and thrive when their needs are consistently (not constantly!) met by a caregiver (who ever that might be) early in life.
The most famous and influential Attachment parenting ambassador is Dr. Sears. He describes attachment as a feeling that
“is so strong that, at least in the early months, the attached mother feels complete when she is with her baby and incomplete if they are apart.<…> Attachment means that a mother and baby are in harmony with each other”
Using attachment parenting advise to promote a particular agenda
Google attachment parenting and your first couple of entries are all well respected and research sources.
But then there is a plethora of “me-too” parenting sites who interpret attachment parenting the way it suites their ideology. This is where you can read things like
“…This results in your baby forming a healthy bond to you that will make her feel happy and protected. With this as the motivation, more and more mammas decide to be a stay home mom . <…> Dr. Sears is a big advocate of co-sleeping, baby wearing, homeschooling and the breastfeeding toddler scenario.”
I tried to find a trace of “strong advocacy” of toddler breastfeeding at Dr. Sears’s or at the AP International sites – I failed. I tried to find an outspoken advice to stay home with your child instead of returning to work – I couldn’t find anything like that weather in the API’s nor Dr. Sear’s principles… And how homeschooling got wrapped up into attachment parenting – I will never know.
At times it feels like the advise on the fine-tuning and bonding period of the first 8-12 weeks got “copy-pasted” across all years of childhood.
There are a lot of people who are obsessed with the mother being central to child’s happiness and attachment. This trend has a name: Momism.
This is what Susan Douglas and Meredith Michels describe as
“the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children”.
That I call “prison”, and not the attachment parenting approach.
Such narrow approach would exclude step-parents, adopted children and baby in intensive care from being able to develop healthy attachment. And yet, Dr. Sears acknowledges that the now-or-never idea of attachment is not correct.
While Dr. Sears and API support co-sleeping they also recognise the need for parents to be well rested. Sears’ and API’s principles include strong advice to parents to balance parenting, marriage, and their own health and emotional needs.
From where I am looking at it – attachment parenting is a set of guidelines and it’s up to you what you make out of it.