Attachment Theory and Attachment Parenting

Attachment is not always easy to describe in a few short sentences, but it was perhaps most eloquently described by Mary Ainsworth in 1973, as

...the deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.

The ‘father of Attachment Theory’, John Bowlby proposed that babies have an innate drive to be bonded to another for safety and security; survival, and the way the parent responds to baby’s efforts to connect, influence how each baby learns about relationships.

Attachment theory is much broader and deeper than this description, however what Bowlby theorised back in the mid 1950’s has been strongly supported over the past 20 years through extensive Relational and Neuroscientific research and studies.

There are specific features identified in Attachment Theory that relate to the quality of each baby’s experiences; a baby needs to be close to someone who will provide care (proximity seeking) and to experience feeling safe (safe haven) and security (secure base).

When a baby experiences a world that provides these basics, then they know there will be a special person who will provide comfort when needed, as well as begin to tolerate separateness, from their caregiver, as they grow, without debilitating anxiety.

When all these needs are met in a predictable and consistent way, the baby is most likely to develop what is classified as ‘secure attachment’. If however, for some reason, a parent cannot provide this type of care and the secure base or safe haven are not readily available, then it is likely the baby will need to develop internal mechanisms to protect themselves and this is where the initial defence mechanisms begin to develop, leading to characteristics that are classified as ‘insecure attachment’.

If a baby experiences chaotic, frightening and erratic care, then it is likely that the baby will then develop what is classified as ‘disorganised attachment’. It is difficult to think that a baby has to fend for themselves in this world, which will lead them to a life of difficulties relating to others and forming relationships and trust, but it does happen.

Your baby’s behaviour is designed to stimulate a response from you

Those divine baby smiles that appear after a long and exhausting night are an example of how your baby can connect with you even when you thought you had no more to give.

When your baby cries, the sound can tug at your very core – and for a reason. Their cry tells us when they are overwhelmed, frightened or in pain, and their body folds in towards you for closeness and protection.

This cry triggers our internal responses, making us act on our baby’s needs. What parent isn’t affected by the sound of their baby crying or moved by her smile?

If you can try to sensitively meet your baby's needs in a timely way (particularly when they are small and vulnerable), then you are helping your baby to develop secure attachment. And 50 years of research have shown that more securely attached children are able to form and sustain relationships in adult life.

So what does this all mean?

  • Your baby begins learning about relationships by interacting with you.
  • Your baby will attract your attention through their behaviour.
  • Your baby thrives on being in close proximity to you.
  • Responding to your baby means you are forming a life-long relationship.
  • Essential care is not just what your baby needs, it's what she thrives on.
  • Your baby needs emotional nutrition as much as physical nutrition.

About the Author:

Helen Stevens; Early Parent & Infant Consultants (EPIC Baby Sleep). RN. RM. MCHN. Published author, Infant Mental Health practitioner, Educator and Researcher, specialising in infant and toddler sleep worldwide.