The Truth About “Attachment” Parenting: From Failed BabyWearing to Daycare

If you practice “attachment” parenting as developed by Dr. William Sears and it works well for you and your family, I support you. I did not practice “attachment” parenting and there are parts of it that do and do not make sense to me. What I don’t support is the phrase “attachment” parenting because it implies that other ways to be a parent that don’t ascribe to his model would somehow create less of an attachment between parent and child. This is simply not true.

The concept of parents’ responsiveness to their baby's needs as developing an attachment is not only instinctual for most with uncomplicated family histories (eg, NOT severely neglectful or abusive parents), but has been tested across decades of psychological research. Most of us are building secure attachments with our babies by doing exactly what we are doing. Other types of attachment are much less common, and related to abnormal circumstances such as drug use, abuse, and trauma. Yelling at your toddler out of frustration or leaving your baby to cry when you have to shower does not constitute risk for a non-secure attachment.

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The principles of “attachment” parenting developed by Dr. Sears absolutely promote important components of developing a secure attachment, but these components should not distinguish a parent as an “attachment parent” or not.  If you as a mother do not map onto what Dr. Sears describes as an “attachment mother,” it does NOT mean you are not achieving closeness with your baby. There are many aspects of this approach that seem pretty natural to most parents, and there are some theories that were helpful to debunk when it came along in the 80s, but there are also ways “attachment” parenting is promoted and described that worry me about how it might impact new moms.

I wasn’t purposefully following “attachment” parenting when I failed at what I now know is one of its top recommendations: babywearing. I naturally experienced the calming effect of skin-to-skin contact from the moment each of my babies came to my chest seconds after delivery. My absolute favorite part of maternity leave was taking naps chest to chest with each one of my brand new miracles. It was the calmest time of my whole day, and I would remember the feeling vividly when having trouble relaxing into sleep later.

With that said, I never, ever got the hang of babywearing. I tried with several different wraps, watched the how-to videos, took walks with a tentatively-wrapped baby that ended up slipping down to my stomach, sending my fragile hormones into panic mode. With my first baby, I sobbed about it and felt like a failure if I couldn’t figure out this simple act. With my second, I jealously watched other moms who sauntered around the park and potlucks, practically forgetting they had a baby strapped on. With my third, I let myself off the hook and let it be.

My experience speaks to the larger danger of internalizing messages of doom and failure from well-intended parenting theories when we are tired, weepy, and genuinely doing our best as moms to new babies. For example, its website has a claim that “attachment” parenting, including as much time close to baby as possible, “promotes brain development” by “helping the developing brain make the right connections.”

So, since I had all three of my babies in daycare from the age of 12 weeks, are their brains not as well developed? There is absolutely no controlled study I know of showing these differences. There are A LOT of kids who have grown up in daycare because of working parents (myself included) and studies have repeatedly shown no negative long-term impact. In my research, I could not find actual studies or data to back up claims about how “attachment” parenting results in "better" brains compared to parents raising their babies without following these specific practices.

The attachment pioneers, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, did groundbreaking research to substantiate attachment theory with studies demonstrating different types of attachment. This foundational concept has been continuously tested across cultures and from many different perspectives. As mentioned in the breastfeeding blog post, our interactions with our newborn and growing child are constantly building an attachment, and secure attachments – as defined by decades of research – is by far the most common and most typical.  There is absolutely not a base of evidence that the specific parenting practices championed by Sears and framed in the language of “attachment” does anything to differentiate between other healthy parents not using these practices.

I take on “attachment” parenting because these types of highly publicized, marketed, sometimes trendy approaches to parenting not only are largely theoretical, but can result in more guilt and stress for mothers feeling like they can’t do it “right.” The postpartum period is full of hormones, sleep deprivation, a loss of your former life and identity, along with a surrender of your mind and body never before experienced and wholly depleting.

In fact, a mother with serious depression does pose a risk of attachment problems for their infants, but some of these unrealistic expectations may make it more likely a mother becomes depressed, undermining the whole point. Again, many parts of this approach do make sense and I appreciate many parents have benefitted from it, but I also see risk.

The idea of an “attachment” mother being more connected to her baby than I am just doesn’t make sense. As I grow with my own three children, in times of contented harmony and times of challenging conflict, there is no question that we are close and connected. All of my children come to me with their fears and disappointments, easily comforted by silent hugs. I hurt when they hurt and every fiber of me wants to protect them from the pain of life and the world. All this love is as natural and part of me as my muscles and bones, always present and coursing through my blood.

Even though I could never wear the damn baby wrap.

Resource:

Attachment Parenting by Science, Science Vs Podcast, Gimlet Media (Great interviews with attachment researchers!)