If you’ve listened to my podcast, heard me speak or been in a group with me, you probably know that I try to stay pretty even keeled about most things. In fact, I get a bit of a bee in my bonnet when anyone suggests one thing is THE thing or THE way and that another is flat out wrong. But the damage done by Dr. Sears’ Attachment Parenting book warrants just a little less of my objectivity. Even if you have not read this book or been sold this particular philosophy, this article serves as a reminder that parenting is not a religion and any expert who gives you that feeling is not doing their job.
So, here it goes.
Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician, and co-author Martha Sears, a registered nurse, took one of the most important words in developmental science – attachment - and used it as a sword to wound parents. They took a beautiful construct - secure attachment - meant to help us understand how children use relationships to develop and learn, and applied it to their parenting approach and named it “attachment parenting”. This confused millions of readers, suggesting that attachment parenting was the method to obtain a secure attachment. This isn’t even remotely true, and has potentially made a generation of mothers feel like failures. “Attachment Parenting”, a philosophy, has nothing to do with the formation of a secure attachment – a sacred and well researched concept that is predictive of future physical, mental and developmental health (and a buffer for the impact of toxic stress).
Here’s why Dr. Sears just doesn’t hold up. The idea of a secure attachment comes from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s. Their studies revealed that when a baby has a safe, responsive, warm and loving relationship with at least one primary caregiver, they have a secure base from which to explore. Knowing that someone is there to keep you safe, care for you, and dependably and reliably meet your needs, makes it possible for a baby to play and explore freely, to venture away from their home base, and to spend precious energy in their brains learning and growing. Without the stress of wondering whether someone will respond to their basic needs, a baby’s brain is freed up to gain new skills, and confidently explore and develop healthy relationships. Since that time, research, like that of Dr. Alan Sroufe in his famous decades long attachment study from the University of Minnesota, continues to demonstrate how this primary relationship is central to so much of a child’s health; providing security, regulating emotions, and offering a base from which to explore, from birth through adulthood.
“Attachment Parenting” has never been linked to the development of a secure attachment. Many of Dr. Sears’ recommendations may be fine for you and your baby, even positive, but the certainty and judgement in his approach leaves parents feeling lost and isolated. For example, Dr. Sears suggested that baby must have constant physical attachment. Ultimately, this created a generation of parents worrying that putting a baby down to take a shower was harmful. He said nothing about reading baby’s cues or seeing when and how they like to be held, or when physical contact may not be ideal. He also spoke fervently about the need for breastfeeding, scarring mothers who could not or chose not to breastfeed, making them feel worthless and less-than. In his patriarchal tone, Sears implied that being a martyr was part of motherhood, rather than acknowledging how a mother’s mental health is inextricably linked to her infant’s health and development. And he neglected to notice that attachment is a dynamic process, changing as the baby grows.
Finally, his message on emotional responsiveness – a concept that IS rooted in research – left parents with the notion that allowing their baby to experience any amount of distress could do damage to their baby’s brain. Sears neglected to tell readers that the research he cited was done in Romanian orphanages, or to even explain the benefits of a baby slowly learning to regulate even more challenging emotions. Time and time again, research has confirmed that allowing your baby to experience some amount of distress, and to co-regulate with you, is not only normal, but critical for development (and for the reality of being a parent). It’s the repair, the reconnect, that offers the most valuable lesson for your baby. Knowing that they can struggle and you will notice, understand, and then help.
If you’re reading this and you are practicing attachment parenting, I hope it is working for you. I am all for approaches that help you and your family thrive. I only want my listeners and readers to know that, despite what Dr. Sears may say, this is not THE way to form a secure attachment, and it may, in fact, make it near impossible to feel adequate as a parent, which in turn would have deleterious effects on developing healthy attachment.