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 parenting practices--such as baby-wearing and co-sleeping--have deep roots in our evolutionary past (Konner 2005).

But does attachment caregiving really make a difference?

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

Here I ignore politics, the "attachment parenting movement," 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, also known as "AP," 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 her cope with  nighttime fears)
  • Co-sleeping

I addition, attachment parenting advocates often promote "positive parenting," an approach to discipline that attempts to guide children by emotion coaching, reasoning, and constructive problem solving.

However, proponents of AP--like William and Martha Sears, who coined the term “attachment parenting"--note that there is no checklist of rules that parents must follow to qualify as “attachment parents" (Sears and Sears 2001).

Family circumstances may prevent parents from carrying out every AP practice. What’s really important, argues these authors, is sensitive, responsive parenting-— understanding and addressing your child’s needs in an affectionate way.

Similarly, the founders of Attachment Parenting International argue that that attachment parenting is really about adapting a few general principles--like providing kids with a consistent, loving, primary caregiver--to the particular needs of your family.

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 responsive parenting benefit kids. Here’s a sample.

The link 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 children’s’ 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 recent 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).
  • 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 attachment parenting practices benefit kids

Secure attachments promote independence

As noted above, securely-attached children are more likely to explore on their own (Mercer 2006).

Secure attachments promote emotional skills

Researchers at Tufts University followed 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).

Emotionally supportive parenting promotes better moods and better emotional coping

A study of American kids, aged 9-11 years, evaluated their ability to cope with their emotions in school and at home. 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 that parents who were responsive to their children's distress had kids who were better at regulating their own, negative emotions (Davidov and Grusec 1996). The same study found that maternal warmth was associated with better regulation of positive emotions.

Sensitive communication contributes to a child's moral development

Researchers report that kids who engaged in mutually responsive, positive interactions with their mothers during the toddler and preschool years had more developed consciences when they reach school age (Kochanska and Murray 2000). These kids were also more likely to comply with adult instructions.

Another study found that kids with more responsive mothers exhibited more empathy and prosocial behavior (Davidov and Grusec 1996).

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 hasn't been replicated, so the jury is still out. But meanwhile there are hints that other attachment parenting practices are linked with higher intellectual achievement.

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 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-mindness"...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, browse the Parenting Science index on the left side of the screen.

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