Attachment parenting and the attachment theory

By Kate, 3rd March 2020

It is vitally important, before discussing attachment theory and its influence, to define it. There has been significant confusion about the meaning of the term since the introduction of the “attachment parenting” philosophy. They are however two completely different things. 

Attachment parenting

Attachment parenting is a term coined by Doctor William and Martha Sears. It refers to a specific parenting approach. Advocating, among other things, baby-wearing, bed-sharing, and breastfeeding on demand. The popularity of Doctor Sears’ book has caused some confusion about the differences between this parenting style and the scientific notion of attachment theory.

Because of Sears’ adherence to co-sleeping, nursing on demand, and responding immediately to a baby when they’re fussing. It’s easy to see how some parents arrived at the conclusion that disregarding these tenets by helping their babies learn to sleep independently could damage the “attachment” between a baby and their caregiver. But again, attachment theory and attachment parenting are in no way related to each other in anything other than name. 

Different attachment theories

Alan Sroufe, a psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota, defines attachment as “a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulations and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.” At its origin, attachment theory was developed by British psychologist John Bowlby, and greatly expanded upon and tested by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth.

Four categories of attachment theory

In its current understanding, it states that there are four categories of attachment between a baby and their caregivers.

Secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant, and insecure-disorganised. 

Children with a secure attachment to their primary caregiver feel safe expressing distress or discomfort. Exploring unfamiliar areas around them confidently so long as the caregiver is nearby. The child tends to become distressed when their caregiver leaves the vicinity, but respond positively when they return. 

Insecure attachments avoid their caregiver when distressed and minimise displays of negative emotion in their presence. Presumably because the caregiver has responded to previous displays of distress and negative emotion in negative ways. This can include ignoring, ridiculing, or becoming annoyed with the child. The infant learns quickly that displays of distress provoke negative emotions from the caregiver. Therefore avoids exhibiting them

Secure attachment

Studies from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation over a 35-year period found that infants who fit the “secure attachment” criteria were more independent later in life. In addition they had higher self-esteem, displayed greater coping skills, social skills than infants in the other three categories. That’s not to say that attachment is the single most important factor influencing the parent-child relationship, but it’s certainly important. 

Insecure attachment

Allan Schore, a neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine defines attachment theory as, “essentially a theory of regulation.” “Insecure attachments aren’t created just by a caregiver’s inattention or missteps,” he says. “They also come from a failure to repair ruptures. Maybe the caregiver is coming in too fast and needs to back off. Or maybe the caregiver hasn’t responded and needs to show the baby that she’s there. Either way, repair is possible, and it works. 

We can’t avoid stress

Stress is a part of life. What we’re trying to do here is to set up a system by which the baby can learn how to cope with stress. From this perspective, one could easily argue that the Sears method of responding immediately to a baby’s cries and keeping them nearby at all times could actually be detrimental to their development.

Again, if attachment parenting is the approach parents feel most comfortable with, it’s absolutely their right to do so. Like any other parenting style, it has its potential disadvantages if adhered to too stringently. As it is not taking into account the individual baby’s needs and personality.

Attachment parenting and sleep training

It is easy to see how some parents could look at a traditional cry-it-out approach to sleep and see it as potentially damaging to the attachment their baby. However, I want to reassure you that I will never ask you to leave your baby for prolonged periods of time without offering support and comfort.

Respect for your baby’s well-being is paramount. I want to assure you that the approach we’ll be taking with your little one will allow to you stay close to them. You will be able to offer comfort, reassure them of your presence, and respond to their needs while they gradually learn to fall asleep independently.

I absolutely encourage you to remain present and responsive throughout the process. As a professional sleep consultant, I will never ask you to do anything that could damage your relationship with your baby. That’s not to say that there won’t be any crying involved. There most likely will be. I understand how difficult it can be to allow your baby to cry, even for short periods of time. Even if you’re nearby and offering comfort and support. 

Learning your baby’s cries

Hearing our babies cry, our natural instinct is to prevent it as quickly and effectively as we can. This impulse to stop a baby’s crying can prompt parents to utilise whatever method which has proven most effective. Such as nursing or rocking. While that might stop baby from crying, it likely hasn’t addressed the issue that caused baby to start crying in the first place.

Magda Gerber, child expert and founder of Resources for Infant Edu-carers said, “An anxious and irritated parent will most likely do what brings the fastest relief – give the breast or bottle. The child almost always accepts it, calms down and often falls asleep. Of course, this is the right solution if the baby is hungry. However, if the baby has other needs (for instance being tired or having pain). They will learn to expect food in response to these other needs.”

Ensuring all their needs are met

When your child is crying, I wholeheartedly encourage you to respond. Check to make sure they’re ok, fed and warm. Making sure that all of their needs are met. Watch them to see if you can discern any other source of discomfort or a pressing need. Feeling confident that baby’s only reason for crying is that they’re having trouble getting to sleep, then you can be comfortable to resolve this this by helping them to learn how to fall asleep independently. 

If a baby cries about something that’s not actually threatening, or something that is an unavoidable annoyance, she’s engaged in a natural and important endeavour. She’s having some feelings, and telling you about them. – Patty Wipfler Founder: Parents Leadership Institute, & Author of Building Emotional Understanding

The style of attachment parenting doesn’t rely on being next to them at all times. Or rushing to their side every time they feel frustrated or challenged. It is a product of consistent and reliable parenting. Love, reassurance and confidence that you will keep them safe, secure, and protected.

Looking after everyone

Opportunities to assure, comfort, and encourage your baby will happen multiple times a day. If everyone in the family is well-rested, we are more patient and more engaged. In turn enabling us to provide the love and support for the true foundation of secure attachment parenting. 

What does secure attachment look like?

0-3 months:

·       In their quiet, alert state, the baby is interested in the faces and voice around them.
4-8 months:           
·       Attempts to soothe the baby usually work. (Caveat: inability to soothe might indicate either insecurity or any of a host of other possible issues.)

·       The baby and caregiver have pleasant back-and-forth interactions.

·       The baby has calm periods of curiosity and explores and experiment as they are physically able.
·       The baby begins to discriminate among people and show preferences
9 months:

·       The baby shows a clear preference for a primary caregiver and some wariness toward strangers.

·       Baby is easily upset when separated from their primary caregiver.

·      Baby is easily soothed after a separation and can resume exploration.
9 months–3 year:

·       The child shows a clear emotional bond with a primary person.

·       The child stays in close proximity to that person but forms close
relationships with other people, too.

1 Paediatric Child Health. 2004 Oct; 9(8): 541–545. doi: 10.1093/pch/9.8.541 


3 Sroufe LA, Coffino B, Carlson EA. Lessons from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study. Dev Rev. 2010;30(1):36–51. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2009.12.002

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