Attachment parenting is contradicted by everything we know about attachment

harlow monkey

Scientists have found that the average infant needs approximately 100 kcal/kg/day dropping down to about 80 kcal/kg/day during the toddler years. That works out to about 430 kcal/day for newborns to nearly 1000 kcal/day for toddlers.

Imagine that as a result of that finding, parenting gurus wrote books and ran websites advocating that infants and small children should be offered 2000 kcal of food each day, claiming that if some calories are good, more calories are better. But wait, you say! Just because there is a minimum amount of food that is necessary each day doesn’t mean that lots of food is better. In fact, in many cases it’s worse, resulting in overweight, obesity and associated health problems. Offering massive amounts of food to infants and small children is contradicted by everything that we know about nutrition.

You’re right. Now consider:

Attachment parenting is the emotional equivalent of offering babies and toddlers 2000 kcal of food each day. Far from representing a better way to raise children, it is directly contradicted by everything we know about attachment.

What do we know about attachment between infants and small children and their parents? The field of attachment theory was defined by a trio of intellectual giants, John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott and Harry Harlow. Each  studied the minimal requirements for infants and small children to form attachments to a parent or caregiver. To do so, they looked at extreme emotional deprivation.

In 1949, Bowlby’s earlier work on delinquent and affectionless children and the effects of hospitalised and institutionalised care lead to his being commissioned to write the World Health Organization’s report on the mental health of homeless children in post-war Europe. The result was Maternal Care and Mental Health published in 1951.

… The 1951 WHO publication was highly influential in causing widespread changes in the practices and prevalence of institutional care for infants and children, and in changing practices relating to the visiting of infants and small children in hospitals by parents…

In other words, by studying children who had experienced extreme emotional deprivation, Bowlby identified what he believed to be minimal requirements for maternal-child attachment.

According to attachment theory, attachment in infants is primarily a process of proximity seeking to an identified attachment figure in situations of perceived distress or alarm for the purpose of survival. Infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant, and who remain as consistent caregivers for some months during the period from about 6 months to two years of age… In Bowlby’s approach, the human infant is considered to have a need for a secure relationship with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur.

As the toddler grows, it uses its attachment figure or figures as a “secure base” from which to explore. Mary Ainsworth used this feature plus “stranger wariness” and reunion behaviours, other features of attachment behaviour, to develop a research tool called the “Strange Situation Procedure” for developing and classifying different attachment styles.

The attachment process is not gender specific as infants will form attachments to any consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant. The quality of the social engagement appears to be more influential than amount of time spent.

Winnicott refined attachment theory with his concept of the “good enough” mother:

He thought that parents did not need to be perfectly attuned, but just “ordinarily devoted” or “good enough” to protect the baby from often experiencing overwhelming extremes of discomfort and distress, emotional or physical.

Harlow looked at extreme deprivation in primates:

… Dr. Harlow created inanimate surrogate mothers for the rhesus infants from wire and wood.[8] Each infant became attached to its particular mother, recognizing its unique face and preferring it above all others. Harlow next chose to investigate if the infants had a preference for bare wire mothers or cloth covered mothers. For this experiment he presented the infants with a cloth mother and a wire mother under two conditions. In one situation, the wire mother held a bottle with food and the cloth mother held no food. In the other situation, the cloth mother held the bottle and the wire mother had nothing.[8]

Overwhelmingly, the infant macaques preferred spending their time clinging to the cloth mother. Even when only the wire mother could provide nourishment, the monkeys visited her only to feed. Harlow concluded that there was much more to the mother/infant relationship than milk and that this “contact comfort” was essential to the psychological development and health of infant monkeys and children. It was this research that gave strong, empirical support to Bowlby’s assertions on the importance of love and mother/child interaction.

Harlow also looked at monkeys raised in total social isolation:

In the total isolation experiments baby monkeys would be left alone for three, six, 12, or 24 months of “total social deprivation.” The experiments produced monkeys that were severely psychologically disturbed. Harlow wrote:

No monkey has died during isolation. When initially removed from total social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by … autistic self-clutching and rocking. One of six monkeys isolated for 3 months refused to eat after release and died 5 days later. The autopsy report attributed death to emotional anorexia.

… The effects of 6 months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that 12 months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; 12 months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially …

Bowlby, Winnicott and Harlow elucidated important principles: simply attending to the bodily needs of infants and children is not enough to ensure health; infants and small children must be given the opportunity to form an attachment to a caregiver; the caregiver does NOT need to be extraordinarily attuned to the child’s needs, merely “good enough”; and total social deprivation of infant primates leads to deranged behavior.

Attachment parenting, as described by William Sears and others, is supposed to be based on attachment theory, but clearly has little if anything to do with it.

Attachment parenting is designed to increase a child’s attachment security through specific practices including unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeeding, baby wearing, and infant co-sleeping. Yet everything we know about infant attachment tells us that unmedicated vaginal birth, breastfeeding, baby wearing and infant co-sleeping are NOT required for secure infant attachment. Indeed, attachment of the infant to the mother (or other primary caregiver) is virtually guaranteed in all but the most extreme cases of abuse and neglect. Moreover, there is nothing in attachment theory that suggests that attachment security can be increased or needs to be increased above the attachment that all infants and children will naturally form with their caregivers.

Attachment parenting is, in fact, a perversion of attachment theory. Attachment theory tells us that all that is necessary for secure attachment is a “good enough” mother. Attachment parenting warns that anything less than a perfect mother poses a risk to secure attachment.

Attachment parenting is the equivalent of advising parents to offer infants and small children massive amounts of food on the theory that if some food is necessary, lots of food is better. Yet we know, when it comes to food, that more food isn’t simply NOT better, but can actually be worse. Similarly, attachment parenting may be more than simply NOT better. It might actually be worse.