How We Know What We Know About Attachment Parenting


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

Ainsworth found that secure attachment relationships tend to be associated with mothers who hold their babies frequently, and with mothers who hold their children long enough so that they appear satisfied when they're put back down. Securely attached babies are aware of their mother's whereabouts and confident that she will return after leaving the room. If they're distressed, securely attached babies usually obtain quick comfort after being held by their mothers.

Other qualities of a secure mother-baby attachment include:


  • Mother is sensitive to calls and signals of distress from baby and responds quickly.
  • Mother goes along with the interactions and games that are initiated by baby.
  • Mothers adjust baby's feeding and sleeping schedules according to the baby's rhythms.
  • The relationship is mutual, not dominated by the needs and moods of the mother.

Based on her observations, Ainsworth concluded that "indifferent parenting" led to insecure attachments between mothers and babies. Other researchers have subsequently shown that obtrusive and over-stimulating parenting styles can also lead to insecurely attached babies.

Mothers of insecurely attached babies were found to frequently be anxious and irritable. The most extreme of these mothers showed little interest in their children, handling them in a mechanical fashion, and behaving otherwise resentfully toward their babies. Often, researchers found that these parents had unresolved difficulties with their own parents and may have been abused as children. Their pregnancies were often unplanned and unwanted. In less severe cases, disoriented insecure behavior can occur when a mother displays anxiety or sends mixed signals to her baby. A depressed mother often misses her baby's cues entirely.

Secure vs. Insecure: The Consequences

The existing research shows that babies who form secure primary attachments to their mothers in the first year turn out better, meaning they display more favorable development outcomes later in childhood. Here's a sampling of that research:

Securely attached children at age 12 to 18 months when measured at 2 years of age were found to:

  • Be better problem solvers.
  • Be more complex and creative in their symbolic play.
  • Display more positive and fewer negative emotions.
  • Be more popular with their playmates.

Longer-term studies paint a similar picture. Children who were securely attached to their caregivers at 15 months of age were re-examined in follow-up studies at ages 11 to 12 and ages 15 to 16. Among the findings the following was found:

  • Those who had been securely attached as toddlers were described at the older ages as socially more popular, more curious, and self-directed.
  • The insecurely attached at 15 months were socially and emotionally withdrawn, and less interested in learning. They also tended to be unenthused about surmounting challenges.

These studies showed that the type of secure or insecure attachment that exists between parent and child in the first few years tends to be the same relationship between the two in the child's grade school and high school years. Other research has shown that a secure relationship with another person-father, grandparent, adoptive parent, or daycare provider-can to a large extent offset the negative consequences of a poor attachment with a mother.

The Bottom Line of Attachment

The most important thing you can do as a parent is be aware of the significance of touch, attention, consistency and maternal physical and mental health during your child's first year(s). If at all possible, have one primary caregiver during baby's first six months.

Find out much more about the emotional, social, moral and cognitive development of children from birth to adolescence in the new book A Complete Idiot's Guide to Child and Adolescent Psychology, coauthored by Victoria Costello and preeminent child psychiatrist Jack C. Westman, M.D. Released July 5, 2011 from Alpha Books and available from booksellers everywhere. See my store on this website.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission.
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