Does AP ensure secure attachment?

Dr William Sears, the coiner of the term “Attachment Parenting”, has laid out 7 “attachment tools” he calls the Baby B’s. These tools, he claims, “Bring out the best in parents and the best in babies”. While Doc Sears is smart enough to put all sorts of disclaimers in this article about picking and choosing what works for you, and how AP is an approach, anyone who’s read his books is struck by how he claims these specific behaviors will help ensure secure attachment. Attachment Parenting International, the largest AP advocacy group, has a similar list of “AP ideals”. Sears supposedly came upon the concept of AP after examining primitive African parenting practices, which he claimed were “natural and instinctual” to the human race as a whole.

While parenting practices such as “natural” birth, breastfeeding, babywearing, “gentle discipline” and bedsharing might make some western women feel all warm and fuzzy inside, are these the things which really promote secure attachment of their babies to them? In other words, is there any correlation between the parenting practices of different human societies and the number of children who are securely attached to their main caregiver?

The term “secure attachment” relates to an infant’s behavior in a test designed by Mary Ainsworth, an Attachment Theory researcher, given to children from about 1 year of age. The test goes as follows:

1. Parent and infant are introduced to the experimental room.
2. Parent and infant are alone. Parent does not participate while infant explores.
3. Stranger enters, converses with parent, then approaches infant. Parent leaves inconspicuously.
4. First separation episode: Stranger’s behavior is geared to that of infant.
5. First reunion episode: Parent greets and comforts infant, then leaves again.
6. Second separation episode: Infant is alone.
7. Continuation of second separation episode: Stranger enters and gears behavior to that of infant.
8. Second reunion episode: Parent enters, greets infant, and picks up infant; stranger leaves inconspicuously.

The infant’s behavior upon the parent’s return is the basis for classifying the infant into one of three attachment categories. Securely attached infants are distressed when the mother leaves the room, but easily comforted by her when she returns. This is considered the most healthy sort of attachment, and is predictive of the child’s future social and psychological wellbeing.

According to a meta-analysis (.pdf file) of various attachment studies utilizing the Strange Situation test in different countries, about 65% of American babies tested were considered securely attached. Yep, those bottle feeding, CIO-ing Americans had secure attachment rates comparable to the cosleeping Japanese (67%) or the homebirthing Dutch (67%). And they fared way better than the one-baby having, toddler-nursing Chinese (50%), for example.

As for those primitive African societies Doc Sears thinks are oh-so ideal? Let’s have a look at the secure attachment rates among the Gusii of Kenya. The Gusii mothers babywear, breastfeed into toddlerhood, and are known to respond quickly to a crying infant. The secure attachment rate among the Gusii? 61% (Kermoian and Leiderman, 1986). Hmmmm…

And which human society, you might ask, has the highest proportion of securely attached infants? I hope you’re sitting down.

It’s the stiff-upper-lip, bottlefeeding…British. (75%).

“But but but…” you might say. Yes, all the Strange Situation tests were done on relatively small populations; yes, different societies within the same country show markedly different results; yes again, we don’t even know if this test is applicable to non-white people in non-western societies. All very valid concerns.

However, if the Strange Situation test isn’t applicable across the board, we have no way of comparing the psychological wellbeing of various societies…in which case, Dr. Sears can’t claim that faddish western parenting practices derived from tribal African ones are superior to your garden-variety, loving mainstream parenting practices. And if the test is valid and can be applied cross-culturally, then it’s clear that there is no correlation between a society’s practice of the “baby B’s” and its rate of securely attached babies. While I see no reason why they would hinder secure attachment, following the tenets of AP has, as yet, not been shown to either guarantee or enhance the secure attachment of infants as compared to mainstream parenting.

There’s probably a good reason why the prominent International Attachment Network (a psychological organization devoted to attachment theory) has the following non-endorsement of AP on its website:

Question: What is attachment parenting?
Answer: Information about “Attachment Parenting” can be found at other websites. Some adherents of the “Attachment Parenting” movement have very strong beliefs about how parenting should be done, for example, they think that skin-to-skin contact is essential for good attachment relationships to form, or that parents should behave in particular ways towards their children or that day care is bad for children. While IAN accepts that responsive and sensitive parenting is important for healthy social and emotional development, we shy away from advocating hard-and-fast general principles because we recognise that relationships between parents and children depend on the unique characteristics (temperament, lifestyle, social situation, support systems, quality of adult relationships, family size, culture, etc..) of individual relationships.

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting! I’m looking forward to more posts.

  2. Wow, this is great. It’s nice to see some real research about the cross-cultureal claims of Attachment Parenting. I especially appreciate the quote from the IAN about not advocating hard-and-fast general principles about how to establish healthy emotional attachments between caregivers and children. I think one of the things that turns people off to the AP movement is the perceived absolute nature of their claims and the ensuing evangelism, which can unfortunately overshadow their more valuable ideas.

    I love your blog, I’m so glad I came across this site (and thanks to Dr. Heather for that). You’re going on my blog roll!


  3. Thanks and welcome, Psychomama! 🙂

  4. The disclaimer is less about not believing that the attachment principles have real merit and more about the fact that many parents are resistant to extended breastfeeding, skin to skin contact and co-sleeping. The resistance seems to come from our Western cultural conditioning. There is a lot of wiggle room in the general principles to leave a comfort zone for those folks because if one is not comfortable with any aspect of them, that discomfort will be communicated to the child. Common sense and a little observation tells us that our skin is full of receptors, so touch must be very valuable to the human infant. If the parent who is averse to lots of skin to skin contact finds another way to meet the child’s needs, great.
    Research and stats can be used so many ways! Your best bet is to observe…..the principles of attachment are a simple and basic framework that facilitate secure relationships. It is observable and the neuroscience in recent years supports it.

    • Nope, Michelle. Neuroscience in recent years doesn’t support attachment parenting being superior in any way to regular, responsive parenting, but if you’re getting your info from API (whom you represent), you probably don’t know that. Common sense and my own observations (which you seem to put such a premium on) tell me that as well.

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