The riddle at the heart of attachment parenting


If there’s one thing that natural childbirth advocates are sure of, it’s that unhindered birth is best. Women and babies are “designed” for birth, and if they only trust birth, it will turn out fine. That’s why some natural childbirth advocates choose homebirth and a smaller group choose unassisted homebirth. They want to give birth “their way” and whatever way feels safest to them is safe. In other words, babies and mothers know how to handle birth; complications happen when we try to interfere with the process.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=””]Aren’t women and babies designed to bond spontaneously after birth?[/pullquote]

So why aren’t women and babies designed to bond spontaneously after birth?

Nearly all attachment parenting advocates are natural childbirth advocates, too. That makes the riddle at the heart of attachment parenting even more surprising. The same people who insist that birth happens naturally then turn around and claim that bonding does NOT happen naturally. It must be prodded and controlled in a series of ritualized behaviors (skin to skin at birth, breastfeeding only, baby wearing) otherwise children will presumably end up “detached.”

Why can childbirth be trusted to happen spontaneously, but bonding be considered an imminent disaster aveted only if you do exactly what the attachment parenting experts tell you to do?

Ironically, given that attachment parenting is promoted as “natural,” the idea that maternal-infant attachment occurs naturally, that mother and child might love each other simply because they belong to each other, is rejected out of hand, Instead, specific practices must be employed and mothers must be taught these practices by an army of experts including parenting gurus, midwives, doulas and lactation consultants, among others.

As Charlotte Faircloth notes in the essay The Problem of ‘Attachment’: the ‘Detached’ Parent in the book Parenting Culture Studies:

It hardly seems controversial to say that, today, we have a cultural concern with how ‘attached’ parents are to their children. Midwives encourage mothers to try ‘skin-to-skin’ contact with their babies to improve ‘bonding’ after childbirth, a wealth of experts advocate ‘natural’ parenting styles which encourage ‘attachment’ with infants…

Previously a mother’s love for her child had been romanticized and ascribed to inherent characteristics of women, mother love has now been medicalized, requiring participation in rituals prescribed by experts.

As I’ve noted before, attachment parenting is not based on attachment theory, which tells us that the “good enough” mother is all that any child needs. So where did it come from? It certainly did not come from an epidemic of “detached” children. Until recently it was accepted as obvious that children remained unattached only in the most severe cases of abuse and neglect.

It came not from the study of humans, but of non-primate animals. Animals like ducklings had been shown to “imprint” on whatever caretaker they saw first during an “attachment window.” Attachment parenting theorists simply extrapolated, theorizing that infants “bonded” to their mothers during an attachment window around birth.

Faircloth explains:

Initially, the focus was on the critical period immediately after birth, though this later expanded to the period around birth as a whole. The argument was that a child’s first hours, weeks, and months of life had a lasting impact on the entire course of the child’s development. Birth, in particular, was singled out as one of the ‘critical moments’ for bonding to take place. After birth, new mothers were told to look into the eyes of their infant, hold their naked child, preferably with skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeed for optimal bonding…

From the outset, successful bonding thus required both a set of behaviours that maintained proximity with one’s child and an emotional bond …

This belief is the result of the medicalizing and the pathologizing of bonding.

…[C]oncern with detachment as part of a broader trend in the twentieth century towards the medicalization of parenthood: in particular, the medicalization of maternal emotion and mother love itself. Where, for example, mothers’ love was promoted and idealized in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an extension of women’s inherent virtue, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, maternal emotion came under much greater scrutiny … Mothers’ own ‘instincts’ were increasingly considered inferior to the findings of experts, who based their guidance to mothers on a more rational account as to what promoted the emotional well-being of children.

It’s rather surprising considering that natural childbirth advocates rail again the medicalizing and pathologizing of birth.

But then natural parenting is, in large part, about looking at the medical evidence and then rejecting it. This defiance of authority is lauded as transgressive and empowering. So if obstetricians point out that childbirth is inherently dangerous, natural childbirth advocates insist that it is safe. If psychologists point out that maternal child bonding happens spontaneously as long as the mother is not abusive or neglectful, attachment parenting advocates insist that it is contingent. It will not occur unless women follow a formalized set of behaviors prescribed by attachment parenting advocates.

The truth is that bonding is not contingent and does happen spontaneously (as any father or adoptive parent could tell you). It does not depend on a formalized set of behaviors; indeed, it has NOTHING to do with those behaviors at all (as anyone who has adopted a child beyond infancy can tell you).

There’s nothing wrong or harmful about the behaviors prescribed by attachment parenting gurus if (and it’s a big “if’) that’s what works best for you, your child and your family. But they are not in any way required for bonding. As a general matter, bonding happens spontaneously when you put a mother and her child together. It does not depend on specific rituals; it arises from mutual love and need.

Vitually all children will bond to their mothers in the absence of abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, attachment parenting gurus have medicalized and pathologized bonding. They promote a fear based view of bonding, hinting at dire consequences if you don’t follow their advice. And that leads to a lot of unnecessary guilt on the part of mothers who did not or could not follow attachment parenting prescriptions.

Considering the close association between attachment parenting and natural childbirth, it’s ironic, isn’t it?