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.
My parenthood mantras: attachment parenting of a working mother
Attachment parenting is a philosophy that forms my attitude towards children not a prescription to give up my life .
I am a mother of two very young children: a 1 year old and a three year old boys. I work fulltime; I went back to work when my oldest was 8 months and again when my youngest turned 6 months. I bottle-fed both boys from about 10-12 weeks, but they slept in a co-sleeping cot at our bed for six and nine months respectively. They’ve been looked after by several nannies (we moved countries and had to change nannies twice so far).
I didn’t set out to be a particular type of a parent or to follow a certain ideology of child rearing. In the first couple of months after my eldest son was born all I wanted was to survive. My biggest challenge, my nightmare, was that I didn’t have a clue of what to do (despite all the classes I took during the pregnancy). I had my very liberal believes about equality and respect for children, but this didn’t’ help me to change a nappy or to make baby latch on. Luckily I read Tracy Hogg’s book “The baby whisperer” and the first chapters about listening to your baby, learning the different baby cries (his language), watching his reactions, not jumping to conclusions and going by your baby’s needs and not by the clock- struck the cord with me.
I developed my mantras: “Wait before you pick up your baby! Look at him and try to understand what HE wants, and don’t act upon what you THINK he needs” and the other one that my nannies had to memories was and still is “we eat when we are hungry and we sleep when we are tiered and not when it’s 1pm”. I stopped babywearing when my back begun to hurt, which happened pretty quickly; I started solids with both boys at about 15 weeks. Both children sleep now in their own rooms but our oldest son comes into our bed nearly every night. My take on this is: “they are not going to sleep in our bed until they are 18 and if someone is prepared to walk across a cold dark corridor in the middle of the night to crawl into our bed then he really must need it. And even if this need is more about pleasure and comfort – hey, that’s a valid need too.” I also have to admit that I really like him sleeping by my side.
Our new step into mutual independence happened recently. I discovered that it’ is really great to go travelling without my children. I was quite surprised to find out how well my babies coped with us being away for several nights. I had to admit that the person who struggled the most – was me.
So – how very dare I call myself an attachment parenting parent? How do I know that my approach to parenting helped my children to be securely attached?
Well, I know it by simply watching my children. Bowlby defined several types of attachment and described behaviours typical for each of them. A securely attached child when left to play with a stranger is really happy to see his mother to return but after a short period of greetings, cuddles, etc. he goes back to whatever he was doing when mother arrived. This is a scientific description of a securely attached toddler’s behavior. And as long as my children run to the door to give me kisses and cuddles and return within a minute or two back to playing with the nanny – so long I know that I, fulltime working mother with bottle-fed babies, raised securely attached children.
Central to my approach is to look and listen – trying to understand what my baby needs and not what I think he wants. Dr. Sears says:
“Attachment parenting implies first opening your mind and heart to the individual needs of your baby, and eventually you will develop the wisdom on how to make on-the-spot decisions on what works best for both you and your baby.” I think I got it pretty much spot-on and I like the results.
But to raise that very happy child you need more than a securely formed attachment. Children need to be able to cope with frustrations, they need to be able to delay gratification and they need to develop empathy. Attachment parenting is a philosophy that forms my attitude towards children not a prescription to give up my life .