The science of attachment parenting
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Attachment parenting, or AP, 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 AP 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,
Attachment parenting practices
AP is often associated with a set of practices, including
• Breastfeeding on demand
• Extended breastfeeding (i.e., continued breastfeeding after infancy)
• Baby-carrying or "baby-wearing"
• Nurturing touch (including skin-to-skin “kangaroo care” for infants)
• Being responsive to baby’s cries
• Being sensitive and responsive to your child’s emotions (e.g., by helping your child cope with her
• The practice of
, an approach to parental control that emphasizes
parent-child communication, and a rational explanation of rules
In addition, I suspect that
are likely to promote secure attachments.
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).
Medical conditions or 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 (Landry et al 2006).
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).
• 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). In addition, secure attachment relationships may promote emotional availability in kids (see below).
How secure attachments and attachment parenting practices benefit kids
Attachment parenting promotes independence
As noted above, securely-attached children are more likely to explore on their own (Mercer 2006).
Secure attachments promotes emotional availability
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).
Attachment 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 study found 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.
Attachment parenting 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 reduce stress
Research suggests that a variety of attachment parenting practices reduce child distress.
One study reports that infants of more sensitive mothers had lower baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Blair et al 2006).
Other research suggests that skin-to skin contact boosts levels of oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone”) and reduces signs of physiological stress in infants (Uvnas Moberg 2003).
Co-sleeping may be a stress-reducer as well. A British study reports that children (aged 3-8) who slept in their parents’ rooms showed lower daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Waynforth 2007).
And 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).
Attachment parenting is associated with fewer behavior problems
A study of French-Canadian children (aged 5-9 years) found that kids who were securely-attached showed fewer internalizing and externalizing behavior problems (Moss et al 1998).
Another, 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).
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).
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). But breastfeeding isn't the only attachment parenting parenting practice linked with higher IQ.
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 about attachment parenting
Breastfeeding, maternal responsiveness, and secure attachments
Some cheering news for moms who want to breastfeed...but can't:
Although breastfeeding has many health benefits, there is little evidence to suggest that breastfeeding makes mothers more responsive to their babies.
Nor is there evidence to suggest that breastfeeding makes babies more likely to develop secure attachments.
Instead, it appears that women who want to breastfeed are predisposed to show more sensitivity to their infants—and more sensitive mothers are more likely to have securely-attached kids (Britton et al 2006).
In other words, breastfeeding doesn’t cause maternal sensitivity and secure attachments. It’s the other way around. Maternal sensitivity causes moms to breastfeed and to behave in ways that promote secure attachments.
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. More research is needed to resolve the question.
"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.
References: Attachment parenting
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