Robin Barker: 8 reasons to rethink attachment parenting

Kinderling News & Features

Our modern fascination with attachment parenting is derived from attachment theory, originally formulated by psychiatrist John Bowlby, in the 1940s/1950s. 

Bowlby and others hypothesised that a break in the continuity of the mother-child relationship at a critical stage in the development of the child’s social responses may result in a permanent impairment of the ability to make relationships.

Bowlby was surprised, however, to discover that children proved far more resilient than he suspected. In a well-known study by Bowlby, Ainsworth, Boston and Rosenbluth involving children separated from their mothers for long periods, it was found that those children’s development and behaviour was only marginally different to a cohort of children who did not experience separation. 

Nothing is cast in concrete

Naturally where there are serious antenatal and or genetic complications, parental alcohol/drug abuse, instability, serious mental health problems and extensive neglect, children are at risk of significant and perhaps lifelong problems. However, studies show that even when this is the case a good number will overcome their adversity. Nothing is cast in concrete.

The main purpose of Bowlby’s work was to urge governments and people to look again at institutions, non-parental care of neglected or orphaned children and the common practises in maternity and children’s hospitals at the time. It is largely thanks to Bowlby that maternity and children’s hospitals changed to the open and humane places they are today. 

Listen to Robin on Kinderling Conversation

Bowlby had very little to say about much-loved babies in good homes. Bowlby’s research doesn’t show us that certain practices, for example, baby-wearing, bed-sharing, instant birth bonding, breastfeeding are crucial to forming a secure attachment.  Unfortunately, Bowlby’s theory and findings, established largely from observation of  extreme cases, have been applied over-enthusiastically to normal life in normal homes with normal babies. 

What is attachment parenting?

Attachment parenting was first coined by American paediatrician, William Sears in the 1970s. It encouraged mothers to breastfeed freely, wear their babies, co-sleep, respond quickly to crying and, above all, to avoid any form of sleep training at any age.  

Sears’ ideas were largely taken up by middle-class mothers whose babies were at very low risk of what is known as ‘attachment disorder’. Attachment disorder describes an affectionless child or adult unable to make continuous stable and co-operative relationships with others as well as a variety of scary personality disorders.   

The anti-routine style of Sears and others in response to the sometimes nonsensical, even inhumane strict-routine approach of the first half of last century was a welcome option for many parents.  Sears’ attachment parenting, however, rapidly moved away from being an option for those attracted to his ideas into a religious-type crusade even - in its most extreme version - a cult of ideal motherhood. 

8 issues with attachment parenting

  1. The label attachment parenting implies that only one style of parenting behaviour – that espoused by Sears and his followers - is possible for ‘proper’ attachment/bonding. In fact, in the normal course of events, babies have no trouble bonding with their mothers whichever ‘expert’ they follow or whether they ignore it all and muddle along in their own way doing what most do, a bit of everything.

  2. Baby wearing, co-sleeping, instant bonding at birth, breastfeeding does not dictate attachment. Normal variations in baby/toddler care do not have a major impact on the development of children from good homes.

  3. Beneath its sweet refrain attachment parenting is fear-based playing on parents’ insecurities by promoting fears of ‘insecure attachment’ or even the dreaded attachment disorder, something which only happens in extreme cases of inattention, rejection, neglect and abuse. Its fear-mongering in relation to sleep-training is alarmist in the extreme.

  4. Attachment parenting markets itself as special and unique, the only way to safely and properly raise children. In fact, most of the recommendations – breastfeeding, interacting positively with babies, cuddling, attentiveness, talking, singing and reading are standard advice and not the sole province of what is known as attachment- parenting.

  5. In selling their creed Sears (and others) make a conga line of unsupported claims for example, that straying from the path of baby-wearing, ‘free-breastfeeding’, bed-sharing, baby-led weaning, anti-sleep-training will lead to all manner of negative outcomes - brain damage, lower IQs, behavioural problems - which will potentially affect children throughout their lives.

  6. On the other hand, do what they advise and, hey presto, babies will grow up smarter, healthier, more attached, more independent, more loving and better behaved with superior language skills and, of course, higher IQs.

  7. The studies Sears uses to support his negative claims are based on rats and nonhuman primates, and on extreme cases of child abuse and neglect. At least two of the authors of the studies he uses – Alicia Lieberman and Joan Kaufman – objected to the use Sears made of their work, which was not referring to routine, brief stressful experiences but to abuse, neglect and pathological parents.

  8. The claims that attachment-parented children (a la Sears) are all-round better than ordinary run-of-the-mill kids is unsupported nonsense. There is no evidence that kids brought up a la Sears turn out any differently from other kids within a stable, loving home environment.

In summary

  • Bed-sharing, baby-wearing, baby-led weaning are options for those for whom this appeals. Sleep-training older babies and toddlers and separate sleeping are also perfectly reasonable options.

  • Professionals and parents who have strong objections to sleep-training are under no obligation to advise or undertake sleep-training but nor do they have a moral obligation to rid the world of sleep-training, frighten parents and cast aspersions on health professionals who have different ideas on the subject.

  • Difficulties in the first years, especially relatively minor housekeeping practicalities such as sleep and holding babies, do not have lifelong consequences, positive or negative. It is mischievous to equate children exposed to serious abuse, neglect and abandonment with children from normal homes with loving parents.

For a full version of this article and complete list of references, head to Robin's website