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Attachment Parenting: What It Is and Isn’t

Pygmy mother with children, infant attached

The recent furor in the press over attachment parenting stems from an inherent misunderstanding. Attachment parenting is not permissive parenting. It is not about abdicating authority as a parent, but about responding to the legitimate biological needs of a baby. It is firmly based in the sciences of anthropology and psychology and specifically on the theory of attachment.

THE THEORY OF ATTACHMENT

The theory of attachment originated with psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) whose influential 1951 report to the World Health Organization set the first standard for infant and child care:

the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.

Bowlby and others identified the first three years of life as a critical period during which the foundation is set for attachment to self and others. Qualities secured during this period include: trust, empathy, dependency, affection, conscience and optimism. According to Maggie Scharf in Unfinished Business (Ballantine: 1981)

The ancients well knew that the experience of being in love recapitulates the mother-child relationship in its intimate physical attachment, trust and dependency. It has been shown even in the animal realm that adequate sexual functioning in adulthood depends on satisfactory relations with the mother in infancy.”

LOOKING FOR SCIENTIFIC SUPPORT

When breastfeeding rates doubled between 1972 and 1982, mothers were looking for ways to reconcile the needs of their babies with the popular wisdom of the day. Breastfeeding moms were finding, for example, that their babies wanted to be held a lot while popular wisdom warned that holding was spoiling. Attachment theory reassured these early breastfeeding pioneers that touching and holding were good for babies.

John Bowlby, for example, observed during WWI that babies in orphanages died if they were neither touched or talked to.

Eric Ericksen identified the first year of life as a stage during which we learn to have faith in other people and in the environment. During this time of total dependency, if we receive adequate physical care that is warm, loving and demonstrative, we will learn to trust. On the other hand, if our care is cold, indifferent and rejecting we will learn to mistrust.

Margaret Mead, whose seminal book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) informed the sexual revolution, observed in her field studies as an anthropologist that the most violent tribes were those that withheld touch in infancy.

Bowlby’s colleague, Mary Ainsworth, was a medical researcher who observed that the indulgence of early dependency needs leads to independence and self-reliance. According to Ainsworth, it is the sensitive responsiveness of the mother that enables the child to explore the environment.

Adult social behavior is related to early experiences in significant ways, according to neurologist Richard Restak. Restak says:

Physical holding and carrying of the infant turns out to be the most important factor responsible for the infant’s normal mental and social development…

Read more: Mothering

 

 

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