The science of attachment parenting

© 2008 - 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

"Attachment parenting" is an approach to child-rearing intended to forge strong, secure attachments between parents and children.

For many parents, this approach feels intuitive. And anthropological research suggests that some attachment parenting practices--such as baby-wearing and co-sleeping--have deep roots in our evolutionary past (Konner 2005).

But does it really make a difference?

Not surprisingly, it depends on how you define your terms.

Here I ignore politics, and various romantic or religious notions about "natural" parenting. 

Instead, I review the scientific research that supports physical closeness, sensitivity, and responsiveness in parents. For information about books, websites, and organizations that offer support to parents committed to these principles, click here.

What attachment parents do

Attachment parenting is associated with a number of practices, including 

  • Baby-carrying or "baby-wearing"
  • Breastfeeding on cue
  • Nurturing touch (including skin-to-skin "kangaroo care" for infants)
  • Being responsive to a baby's cries
  • Being sensitive and responsive to a child's emotions (e.g., by helping him or her cope with nighttime fears)
  • Co-sleeping

In addition, care-givers attempt handle misbehavior through emotion coaching, reasoning, and constructive problem solving. 

But William and Martha Sears, who coined the term "attachment parenting"--note that there is no checklist of rules that parents must follow (Sears and Sears 2001).

Family circumstances may prevent parents from carrying out every attachment parenting practice. What's important, argues these authors, is that parents strive to be sensitive and responsive --addressing children's true needs in an affectionate way.

This is not the same as being overly-protective. By definition, securely-attached kids are not overly clingy or helpless. They are the kids who feel confident to explore the world on their own. They can do this because they trust that their parents will be there for them (Mercer 2006).

The scientific case for attachment parenting 

Advocates of attachment parenting make two major claims:

1. sensitive, responsive parenting leads kids to form secure attachments, and

2. securely-attached kids are healthier and happier

Some writers have attempted to support these claims with studies of extremely deprived infants (both human and nonhuman). For instance, research demonstrates that kids who are terribly neglected and abused—like children raised in the infamous Romanian orphanages—suffer neurocognitive impairment and socio-emotional problems (Chugani et al 2001).

While such research confirms that chronic stress and trauma are bad for the brain, it's a stretch to cite these studies as proof that attachment parenting is superior to "mainstream" Western parenting. As a result, some critics have argued that the attachment parenting movement is based on overblown or fallacious claims (Hayes 1998; Warner 2006).

This is unfortunate, because there is a lot of scientific evidence supporting the idea that secure attachments and attachment parenting practices benefit kids. Here's a sample.

Links between attachment parenting practices and secure attachment

Several aspects of responsive parenting have been associated with the development of secure attachments.

These include:

  • High-quality communication. A study of Dogon mothers in Mali found that the quality of communication between mother and infant was associated with more secure attachment relationships (True et al 2001).
  • Maternal sensitivity during infant play. A study of premature infants reports that infants whose mothers were unresponsive or more controlling during playtime were more likely to be insecurely attached (Fuertes et al 2006). Securely-attached infants were more likely to have mothers who were sensitive to their childrens' interests and needs (Fuertes et al 2006).
  • Insight into a child's mental and emotional states. A study of mothers and their 12 month old infants reports that mothers who showed greater insight about their babies' psychological experiences were rated as more sensitive and were more likely to have securely-attached infants (Koren-Karie 2002). Another study reports that mothers who showed a more accurate understanding of their infants' mental states at 6 months were more likely to have securely-attached infants at 12 months (Meins et al 2001). Read more about these links here.
  • Sensitivity to an infant's distress. A study analyzing data collected by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reports that American mothers who showed greater sensitivity to their infants' distress at 6 months were more likely to have securely attached toddlers at 15 months (McElwain and Booth-Laforce 2006). By contrast, infants are more likely to develop insecure attachments when mothers "close up their faces" -- looking away from the baby, and failing to respond with sympathetic facial expressions (Beebe and Steele 2013).
  • Baby-wearing. An experimental study randomly assigned American mothers of low socioeconomic status to either wear their newborns in soft baby carriers or to carry their babies in portable infant seats. At 13 months, babies in the soft-carrier group were more likely to be securely-attached to their mothers (Anisfeld et al 1990).
  • Emotional availability. Research suggests a link between secure attachment and emotional availability—being open to discuss emotions, and being ready to respond sensitively and appropriately to the emotions of others (Easterbrooks et al 2000). An Israeli study observed mothers interacting with their infants and found that moms rated as more emotionally available were more likely to have securely attached children (Ziv et al 2000).

How secure attachments and responsive parenting practices benefit children

Secure attachments and responsive parenting promote independence

As noted above, securely-attached children are more likely to explore on their own (Mercer 2006). In addition, infants are less likely to develop fearful tendencies if their mothers show higher levels of emotional sensitivity and responsiveness during parent-child interactions (Gartstein et al 2017). 

Secure attachments and emotionally supportive parenting promotes better child moods and socio-emotional development.

When researchers tracked 45 mother-child pairs from infancy to age 7, they found that infants who were securely-attached during infancy were more likely to demonstrate emotional availability at age 7 (Easterbrooks et al 2000).

Why? Secure attachments may be intrinsically helpful, but it's also likely that specific parenting characteristics play a role.

For instance, in a study of American children (aged 9-11 years), researchers found that kids with secure attachment relationships--and greater levels of maternal support--showed "higher levels of positive mood, more constructive coping, and better regulation of emotion in the classroom." (Kerns et al 2007).

Another study found that parents who were responsive to their children's distress had kids who were better at regulating their own, negative emotions. In addition, children showed an improved ability to regulate their positive emotions if their mothers showed higher levels of warmth (Davidov and Grusec 1996). 

Warm, flexible, sensitive communication contributes to a child's moral development

Do attachment parenting behaviors promote cooperation and moral reasoning? There's reason to think so. In a study that followed children throughout early childhood, toddlers who engaged in mutually responsive, positive interactions with their mothers had more developed consciences when they reach school age. These children were also more likely to comply with adult instructions (Kochanska and Murray 2000). 

And research has found links between responsive parenting and empathy. Kids with more responsive mothers tend to show more empathy and prosocial behavior towards others (Davidov and Grusec 1996). 

Is it the communication that really matters in these cases? Or are the links simply a reflection of something else -- like a shared genetic tendency to be sensitive and cooperative?

As with all developmental phenomenon, a child's moral reasoning is affected by an interaction of genetic and environmental influences. But research supports our intuitions on this point: Kids are affected by our behavior, and benefit when we tailor our responses to fit their personalities.

For instance, in a study tracking children from the age of two, researchers noticed that sensitive mothers used different tactics depending on their children's temperaments, and these adjustments predicted higher levels of moral reasoning at age five.

In particular, children with exuberant, outgoing temperaments turned out better if their mothers responded to toddler misbehavior by using redirection and distraction. These kids also responded well to gentle but firm prohibitions about what they shouldn't do. Reasoning with them was less effective.

By contrast, the use of commands was unhelpful for children with fearful or inhibited temperaments. They responded better to reasoning (Augustine and Stifter 2015).

Results like these underscore why it's counter-productive to re-define attachment parenting as a set of required practices. In its original formulation, "attachment parenting" was another name for being sensitive and responsive. Not every child needs the same thing, and there is often more than one way to solve a problem.

Attachment parenting practices buffer children from the effects of toxic stress

As I note in this article about stress in babies, there is a lot we can do to keep babies calm and happy. It's true for older children too. But do these things make a big difference? I think they so, particularly for children who are very sensitive, emotionally reactive, anxious, or exposed to high levels of environmental stress.

For example, there is compelling evidence that skin-to-skin contact benefits young infants.

In one study comparing two groups of preterm infants, researchers found that children who'd received skin-to-skin contact in the first weeks postpartum had developed, by age 10, more healthy stress response systems, improved sleep patterns, and better cognitive control (Feldman et al 2014).

In another recent study, newborns at high risk for developing abnormal stress responses showed no evidence of such problems at 7 months -- not if their mothers reported giving their babies lots of caresses (Sharp et al 2012).

Co-sleeping may also reduce stress. Researchers have reported that British children (aged 3-8) who slept in their parents’ rooms showed lower daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Waynforth 2007). In a study of Dutch infants, co-sleeping babies experienced lower spikes in the stress hormone cortisol when they were subjected to psychologically distressing situations (Beijers et al 2013). And an experiment testing newborns' responses to bathing found that, compared to co-sleepers, babies who slept alone experienced sharper spikes in cortisol levels (Tollenaar et al 2012).

But perhaps the most dramatic evidence comes from research that measures emotional sensitivity and responsiveness. As I note in this article, people who grow up in poverty experience high levels of stress, and may therefore be at high risk of developing stress-related diseases,  atherosclerosis, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But studies suggest that kids who have highly nurturing parents are protected from these risks.

The advantage may begin early in life. One study reports that infants of more sensitive mothers had lower baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Blair et al 2006). Other research, which I discuss in this blog post, suggests that babies with "difficult" temperaments may turn into particularly well-adjusted kids if they receive warm, sensitive parenting (Stright et al 2008; Pluess and Belsky 2010).

And recently, researchers have found evidence that warm, sensitive parenting protects young children from brain-shrinking stress. Joan Luby and her colleagues found that poverty-stressed kids with warm, positive, emotionally-supportive parents had better brain development. Unlike peers with less sensitive parents, these kids developed normal-sized hippocampi and amygdale—brain structures that play a key role in spatial learning, memory consolidation, stress reactivity, and the processing of emotion (Luby et al 2013).

Finally, positive discipline may help kids cope better with stress. One study of kids living in highly-stressed urban settings found that parents who identified themselves as practitioners of positive discipline were more likely to have children who were stress-resilient (Wyman et al 1991).

Sensitive, responsive care reduces behavior problems

Observational studies show that securely-attached children are less likely to develop behavior problems (Madigan et al 2015). But this link reflects, in part, the fact that some kids suffer from conditions that put them at higher risk for both behavior problems and difficulties forming attachment relationships. As a result, such studies can't tell us how much of the link is caused by parenting practices.

Likewise, research indicates that children have better outcomes when they receive sensitive, responsive parenting. For instance, a longitudinal study tracking the development of 544 babies found that children with more sensitive mothers were less likely to experience executive function problems (including problems with attention, focus, and impulse control) when they were four years old (Kok et al 2013). But maternal sensitivity is partly influenced by genes (Cents et al 2014), so we must consider the possibility that children with insensitive mothers are more likely to inherit genes that increase their risk for executive function problems.

How can we pin down causation? Controlled experiments can help clarify matters, and support the idea that our sensitive, responsive parenting prevents behavior problems.

For example, one experimental study reports that children living in stressed families (characterized by marital conflict and frequent daily hassles) showed fewer overactive problem behaviors if their parents had been trained in positive parenting and sensitive discipline techniques (van Zeijl et al 2006).

Another controlled study reported a "strong decrease in child conduct problems" after parents were coached in positive parenting tactics (Stattin et al 2015). A study of foster children found these kids developed better cognitive flexibility and perspective-taking skills if their caregivers had been trained to "follow the child's lead" by delivering sensitive, responsive, nurturing care (Lewis-Morrarty 2013). And when researchers taught parents how to improve their emotional coaching skills, kids experienced fewer behavior problems at school (Havighurst et al 2013).

Breastfeeding is associated with fewer infections and allergies

Breastfeeding, particularly long-term or extended breastfeeding, appears to protect children from infections and the development of allergies. A recent study of Qatari children reports that children breastfed for more than 6 months had a reduced risk of allergic diseases and ear infections than kids who were breastfed for less than 6 months (Bener et al 2007).

Similar results have been reported in a variety of international studies of breastfeeding (Kramer and Kakuma 2006; Minitti et al 2014).

Attachment parenting practices are associated with higher IQ and academic performance

You might have heard that breastfeeding boosts a child’s IQ-—if, like 90% of the population, he carries the FADS2 gene (Caspi et al 2007). That result wasn't replicated by a subsequent study, so the jury is still out (Steer et al 2010).

One possibility is that breastfeeding is really just a marker of other parental behaviors and favorable environmental factors. For instance, breast-feeding mothers tend to be better educated and more affluent. Another possibility it's really the content of breast milk that matters -- that milk with higher levels of DHA fatty acid (docosahexaenoic acid) is responsible for the link (Bernard et al 2017). 

But while we wait for more research to clear these matters up, there are hints that other attachment parenting practices are linked with higher intellectual achievement.

For example, a British study of 36 middle-class mothers and their three-year-olds found that securely-attached children scored 12 points higher on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test than did insecurely attached children (Crandell and Hobson 1999).

Another study tracking 108 French-Canadian children found that kids who were securely-attached at age 6 scored higher on communication, cognitive engagement, and motivation to master new skills at age 8 (Moss et al 1998).

Of course, correlation doesn't prove causation. It might be that smarter kids have an easier time forming secure attachments.

But there are also experimental studies reporting a more direct link between responsive parenting and cognitive development. In these experiments, some mothers were randomly assigned to receive training in responsive parenting techniques. The infants of trained mothers showed greater growth in cognitive skills than did the infants of control moms (Landry et al 2003; 2006).

Unproven claims and unanswered questions

Baby-wearing and crying

As noted above, baby-wearing may be associated with higher rates of secure attachment. It also may help prevent plagiocephaly, the flattening of the back of the head caused by leaving babies on their backs for extended periods (Littlefield 2003).

But does baby-wearing reduce crying?

Intuitively, it seems that it should. However, with the exception of one study conducted in 1986 (Hunziger and Barr 1986), there isn’t much scientific evidence to support the idea. For example, a 1995 study reports that “supplemental carrying" of infants had little effect on crying rates (St James-Roberts et al 1995). Possibly, results depend on the temperament of the individual infant. For an overview of research about crying, see this Parenting Science guide.

"Mind-mindedness"...the crucial factor?

"Mind-minded" parents treat their children--no matter how young-- as individuals with minds, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of their own.

Psychologist Elizabeth Meins and her colleagues have shown that mind-minded parenting is linked with with the development of stronger empathy and perspective-taking skills in children.

It's also linked with more secure attachment relationships. In one longitudinal study, mind-minded parenting at 6 months was correlated with more secure attachments at 12 months. Indeed, mind-minded parenting was a better predictor of secure attachment than were any other variables, including "responsive, sensitive parenting" (Meins et al 2001).

This makes me wonder. Is mind-mindedness the true foundation of attachment parenting? For more information, check out this article.








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For other, fully-referenced articles about issues related to attachment parenting, see these discussions of the authoritative parenting style and other approaches to child-rearing.

Content last modified 10/14/2017