How We Know What We Know About Attachment Parenting

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How We Know What We Know About Attachment Parenting
A primer about the science of mother child attachment.

As you'll see, attachment science offers a few fundamental and inarguable implications for parents, and then it's filled with grays.

What Do We Know?

Nature designed things beautifully so that as a mother you naturally form an attachment with your new baby, a deep abiding bond that begins when she's still in your womb. That attachment blossoms after birth, unless something gets in the way. That something can be post partum depression, or anything else that keeps you away from your baby (figuratively or literally) for too long during her first six months.

But even with mother and child's instincts and parental awe to promote this essential bonding, attachment is not an instantaneous process that completes in the delivery room. It's more like a dance which begins before birth and continues throughout a baby's first year.

How We Know  It

One man and one woman stand out among the hundreds of scientists who have studied this phenomenon. The "father" of attachment theory was a British ethnologist--someone who studies animal behavior--named John Bowlby who began his seminal work on attachment in the 1940s. In what Bowlby called the "human attachment system," babies have a large repertoire of highly effective signals to ensure they receive what they need to survive and thrive. You need look no farther than your newborn's smile. A baby's kewpie pie cheeks are irresistible to most adults. Bowlby pointed out how this visual charm operates as a brilliant adaptation (not unlike baby cubs, kittens, or birds), nearly guaranteeing essential affection, comfort, and food will come baby's way. Meanwhile, a mother's innate drives to succor and protect her newborn are usually enough to make her play her part in this highly reciprocal relationship.

When they're not smiling, babies cry and fuss, or they coo and grab at their mother's face, hair, and breasts. They also track her every move around the house just like a duckling follows its mother through tall grass. Babies are sociable by the age of 3 months, but they usually save their biggest smiles for the significant caregiver in their lives; adults who mirror these smiles right back. By calling these behaviors adaptive, Bowlby made the point that they are inborn. The baby's purpose, he said, is to stay physically close to the most important source of his independent survival.

Bowlby noted that newly hatched geese and ducklings develop a preference for the first moving object they see, a process called "imprinting." Similar to these birds, human newborns prefer moving objects and often recognize their mothers within days of birth. However, full bonding on the part of a human baby takes much longer than other animal species, at least six months longer than a duckling. Fortunately, human parents usually pick up any slack in the bonding process. After only a few minutes with a newborn, mothers and fathers typically say they're goners, already "in love." Sounds pretty adaptive, doesn't it?

You Know it When You See It

In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who can be considered the "mother" of attachment theory, built on Bowlby's work by creating a series of controlled laboratory experiments with mothers and babies, called the "strange situation" experiment. The goal of these experiments was to figure out the detailed patterns and styles of behavior that cause either a secure or insecure parent-child bond.

To closely observe attachment behaviors between mothers and babies in a more controlled setting, Ainsworth scripted eight episodes to test mothers' and babies' responses to certain stresses. The dual focus throughout is on the baby's response to the mother's absence and the presence of a stranger, and on the mother's responses to her baby. Ainsworth's now-famous "strange situation experiment" involves 1-year-old babies and mothers from a variety of backgrounds and ages. In the course of her experiments, Ainsworth would have the mother leave the study room and a stranger enter, then have the stranger leave and mother return. The baby's reaction to mother's departure, stranger's entrance and mom's return were then each documented by researchers from behind a one way mirror.

Two concepts are central to these experiments:

  • Stranger anxiety: Wariness or fear of unfamiliar adults, shown by most infants between the ages of 6 and 24 months
  • Separation anxiety: Distress that infants between 6 and 24 months experience when separated from their primary caregivers

In the case of children younger than three, fears toward strangers and separation from mom are healthy and appropriate responses. In fact, they show evidence that the child is properly attached to his/her mother.

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