Mothers matter more than milk

Mother holding her baby boy

One of the great ironies of the philosophy of attachment parenting is that is contradicts what we know about infant attachment.

The founding studies of Attachment Theory were led by scientists like John Bowlby, Harry Harlow and D.W. Winnicott. Their most critical finding was that human contact was more important than any particular parenting practice. For example, Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments demonstrated beyond doubt that mothers matter more than milk.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Breastfeeding doesn’t create the bond between mother and child, comfort does.

We produced a perfectly proportioned streamlined body stripped of unnecessary bulges and appendices… The surrogate was made from a block of wood, covered with sponge rubber, and sheathed in tan cotton terry cloth. A light bulb behind her radiated heat. The result was a mother, soft, warm, and tender …

Harlow also constructed wire monkey mother-substitutes.

…[W]e also designed and constructed a second mother surrogate, a surrogate in which we deliberately built less than the maximal capability for contact comfort. This surrogate mother … is made of wire-mesh, a substance entirely adequate to provide postural support and nursing capability, and she is warmed by radiant heat. Her body differs in no essential way from that of the cloth mother surrogate other than in the quality of the contact comfort which she can supply.

The babies had access to both the cloth and wire-mother substitutes:


Harlow varied which substitute could feed the babies:

This is what he found:


The babies greatly preferred the cloth mother even when the wire mother was the only one that could provide food.

He wrote:

These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance. With age and opportunity to learn, subjects with the lactating wire mother showed decreasing responsiveness to her and increasing responsiveness to the nonlactating cloth mother …

Interestingly, the baby monkeys fed on formula were much healthier than their breastfed peers:

We had separated more than 60 of these animals from their mothers 6 to 12 hours after birth and suckled them on tiny bottles. The infant mortality was only a small fraction of what would have obtained had we let the monkey mothers raise their infants. Our bottle- fed babies were healthier and heavier than monkey-mother-reared infants … thanks to synthetic diets, vitamins, iron extracts, penicillin, chloromycetin, 5% glucose, and constant, tender, loving care.

What can we learn from Harlow’s monkey experiments, experiments that are at the heart of the core of Attachment Theory?

Mothers matter more than milk.

Babies become attached to whomever offers comfort, not to whomever offers milk. Breastfeeding (or formula feeding) doesn’t create the bond between mother and child, comfort does.

Why do lactivists and attachment parenting advocates ignore this central finding of Attachment Theory? It’s because lactivism isn’t about what’s good for babies; it’s about forcing women to breastfeed. Attachment parenting isn’t about what’s good for babies, either; it’s about forcing women back into the home occupied by only by traditional parenting practices. It’s at heart a religious philosophy, not the product of scientific evidence.

What does this mean for mothers?

It means that your baby needs YOU, not your breastmilk. If you want to breastfeed, go right ahead, but if you don’t want to breastfeed, there’s no evidence that formula feeding has any impact on the mother-infant bond. And if you are having trouble breastfeeding, there is no value in letting your baby go hungry or enduring pain or sacrificing your mental health in an effort to provide the supposed “extra” benefit of breastfeeding. The supposed extra benefit is trivial.

The real benefit of infant feeding comes from the mother, not from the milk.

25 Responses to “Mothers matter more than milk”

  1. February 17, 2018 at 7:54 am #

    Until I started reading up on it, Attachment Parenting seemed like a great idea… because I thought it was going to be based in Attachment Theory, which it’s not. Ugh. Now what do we call Parenting that’s ACTUALLY based in what we know about Infant Attachment?

  2. Petticoat Philosopher
    November 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm #

    There’s also nothing in attachment theory that would logically lead to the “you must always wear your baby and your child must be in literal physical contact with you at all times until they go to college” attitude you see among the most extreme attachment parenting advocates. The implication of attachment theory–which makes a lot of sense–is that children grow up more emotionally healthy if they are cared for by people who are responsive to their needs in early life and thus learn to feel secure that their needs will be met. A baby doesn’t need to be tied to you at all times in order to have her needs met. Babies have pretty effective ways of communicating when they need something. Caregivers who are present and attentive are quite sufficient, no need to agonize over how you’re ever going to manage to take a shower or pee without ever removing your baby from constant physical contact.

  3. Petticoat Philosopher
    November 9, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    So, in other words, parents matter more than milk. A parent of any gender, with or without breasts or breast milk, can provide comfort.

  4. EmbraceYourInnerCrone
    November 9, 2017 at 10:50 am #

    An then there’s this selfish moron who is using Exclusive Breast Feeding as a bludgeon to keep her ex from having custody. Because Waaaahhhhhh!! her desire to EBF is more important than her child having a relationship with the father. Please note the “infant” in question is 30 months old (that’s 2 and a half years old to the rest of us) she has been using EBF (with the emphasis on EXCLUSIVE!!eleventy!) since the kid was six months old

    When Shane was awarded joint custody, Harper was six months old.

    “He had never had a bottle before, and then all of a sudden that was his only option while he was with his dad. I had no idea that a judge could say, ‘You’re court ordered to not feed your exclusively breastfed child,'” Curtis says. “It’s important that children have both of their parents. But [preventing] me from breastfeeding my child just so he can see the dad is not right.”

    Sure because having some Evil Formula is so much worse that having no time with one of his parents.(or since he is over two how’s about some cows milk in a damn cup)

    Way to keep the kid dependent on you, does she even make sure this kid gets actual table food at all??or at least baby food?

    • Petticoat Philosopher
      November 9, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

      A lot of the hardcore EBF types seem to be under the impression that breast milk meets all of a child’s nutritional needs for years.

    • aurora
      November 11, 2017 at 1:22 pm #

      I just read this the other day and was shocked. She put that out there to get the standing ovation from the ebf crazies. Her child will suffer the most at the end.

    • AA
      November 11, 2017 at 2:26 pm #

      FYI, it seems that this woman is currently feeding her child breastmilk in addition to other foods ”

      “Nicole Curtis has gotten used to getting heat about her choice to continue breastfeeding her 2 1/2-year-old son, Harper.

      “I keep saying, it’s not like he’s 7 or 8 — he’s still a baby,” she
      says, as the 30-month-old pushes away his lunch of pasta, and reaches
      for her breast to nurse during a PEOPLE photoshoot at her home in
      Detroit this summer. “

  5. crazy mama, PhD
    November 8, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Also worth noting: it doesn’t have to be mother. If attachment doesn’t come from milk or “maternal instinct” or magical birth whatever, that means that babies can form strong attachments with fathers and grandparents and other loving caregivers. And babies do.

  6. Bugsy
    November 8, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    This is heartbreaking…and reminds me that I just wish my friend diagnosed w/ aggressive thyroid cancer were willing to listen to medicine. She opted for alternative medicine in part because she wasn’t ready to give up breastfeeding her toddler.

    • Daleth
      November 8, 2017 at 11:03 am #

      Omg. That’s horrifying. I’m so sorry for her family, and you.

  7. Allie
    November 7, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    Those experiments are just heartbreaking. Shouldn’t need a study to prove care = love. The anecdotal data is overwhelmingly convincing.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa
      November 7, 2017 at 11:31 pm #

      Yeah, I would say the same thing. The data is crazy convincing, but the experiments themselves are cruel.

      I can’t be the only one reading it and thinking, “Those poor monkeys!”

      • mabelcruet
        November 8, 2017 at 6:24 am #

        I remember reading years ago about the ‘pit of despair’ he created for the babies. Heartbreaking. And then the follow up experiments where he wanted to see if the isolated monkeys were capable of parenting, but they were incapable of having sexual relations, so he tied them to a rape rack instead. The history of medicine is deeply shameful at times.

      • Petticoat Philosopher
        November 9, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

        No, I think that was the universal response from my classmates (and me) when I first read it in college.

        • kilda
          November 9, 2017 at 2:53 pm #

          yeah, me too. those experiments make me so sad.

    • November 8, 2017 at 5:44 am #

      Unfortunately weak data in science is a problem, and while animal studies still present moral issues, understanding social behavior really well is important to understanding our own issues.

      This study also isn’t nearly as bad as some which use primate models. I mean, look at what we do in order to test drugs for safety, etc before testing them on humans.

    • TheArtistFormerlyKnownAsYoya
      November 8, 2017 at 9:25 am #

      I feel sad whenever I’m reminded of them.

      • Petticoat Philosopher
        November 9, 2017 at 2:35 pm #

        Yeah, they are brutal to read about.

  8. Emilie Bishop
    November 7, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

    I wish you’d written this and I had read it on January 19, 2015, so I could have it fresh in my mind before giving birth the next afternoon. I took high school and college psychology classes, I read about this experiment I don’t know how many times, yet I let the lactivists do their evil thing and we suffered. My son cried every time I put him down so I could pump. He napped in my arms for weeks and didn’t care how or what he ate as long as I held him. It’s true for monkeys and it’s true for my Curious-George-obsessed preschooler who thinks he is a monkey–babies just want to be loved. Cuddles are love.

  9. CSN0116
    November 7, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

    “The infant mortality was only a small fraction of what would have obtained had we let the monkey mothers raise their infants. Our bottle- fed babies were healthier and heavier than monkey-mother-reared infants … thanks to synthetic diets, vitamins, iron extracts, penicillin, chloromycetin, 5% glucose, and constant, tender, loving care.”

    Well isn’t that freaking fascinating. It’s almost as if they circumvented all of the ethical limitations and socio-economic confounders that prohibit or plague human breastfeeding studies and ended up finding “the impossible.”

    • Roadstergal
      November 7, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

      I remember reading a study a while back that captive wolves fed chow live longer than captive wolves fed meat… it’s almost as if Nature is Barely Adequate rather than Perfect, but we all know that this isn’t possible!

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
        November 7, 2017 at 4:03 pm #

        Makes sense, captive wolves are probably consuming far fewer parasites and are getting a fully balanced diet. Also less competition for limited resources. Having fostered semi-feral young kittens that were half dead from parasites I can verify that sometimes nature sucks..

        • Wren
          November 8, 2017 at 3:44 am #

          But both groups Roadstergal referred to were captive.

      • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild
        November 7, 2017 at 10:00 pm #

        Many animals live longer in captivity. Apparently an endless supply of food, modern medicine, & not being eaten by other animals is beneficial to their health! Crazy, huh?

        • Gæst
          November 8, 2017 at 11:30 am #

          Oh yeah, pet birds have the potential to live longer in captivity, although it depends on good care, so I’m not sure how their average stacks up against wild birds. But without risk of predation and less exposure to disease due to isolation from other birds, it makes sense. I think the food is only part of it.

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