Attachment

Happy family in bed

As a natural parenting store, many of the parenting tools sold at bynature.ca and at our store in Orillia, Ontario, encourage secure attachment between parent and child. We encourage parents to respond to their baby’s cues.

We extend that to our other relationships as well. We listen to parents when they come to our store to hear what it is they need. Especially in our in-store workshops, trained staff help parents find the methods or the tools that meet their needs.

All of us as humans create attachments to those who are sensitive to and responsive to our needs. Psychologists and other scientists explore these attachments through attachment theory, a model that attempts to explain how the attachments are formed.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory within developmental psychology is based on observation of parent/child relationships since the mid-20th century. In the past few decades, psychologists have also considered application to adult attachment, such as between romantic partners, siblings, friends, and even animals.

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who observed emotionally disturbed children in the 1930s. The observation of disfunctional older children helped Bowlby to consider the role in that disfunction of early separations of a baby from the mother. He wrote about his clinical observations from 1950 for the next 40 years he tried to understand the lasting connections between humans and develop a theory of infant attachment.

The telling moment for the child is separation. How will an infant react to being separated from mother or primary caregiver? Bowlby found a sequence of:

  • Protest – either protesting the threat of separation or responding to actual separation by crying and searching for the mother.
  • Despair – if the mother can’t be found, the child becomes quieter and more withdrawn, even mourning the loss.
  • Detachment – either rejecting adults or, if the mother returns, being clinging and fearful of separation.

(From Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., “The Birth of Attachment Theory,” PBS.org.)

It’s this sequence from clinical observations that helps me to understand attachment.

Attachment Parenting

Observation and published research only goes so far. It’s interesting to follow those threads into application of the findings.

Deliberate application of attachment theory to specific choices in parenting is not new, but the label “attachment parenting” was new with Dr. William Sears’ and Martha Sears’ publications, including The Baby Book, originally published in 1992. This is the book many of us have read and followed in our parenting.

For the Sears, parents put attachment into practice through:

  1. Birth bonding
  2. Belief in the signal value of a baby’s cry
  3. Breastfeeding
  4. Babywearing
  5. Bedding close to baby
  6. Balance and boundaries
  7. Beware of baby trainers

Attachment in Marriage

Early research mentioned attachment in adults, finding that intimate adult relationships (not just romantic relationships) function similarly to infant-caregiver relationships—with exceptions.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, that researchers specifically applied attachment theory to adult relationships.

One place we can find the application of attachment theory for adults is in Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT).

Attachment with Animals

Bowlby’s ideas were influenced by his reading of studies with animals (ethology), and he saw his application of the ideas to humans in a longer, evolutionary context. Nevertheless, there was some difficulty in early research as scientists were excited to generalize animal research (imprinting) to humans.

Research continues into animal imprinting, animal-human attachment, and animal roles in human-human attachment, but that research can’t necessarily be considered equivalent to human attachment research.

I did notice, when my family got a dog 7 years ago, that one of the books we bought to help us be a better dog family, Parenting Your Dog by Trish King, addressed separation with puppies and separation anxiety in older dogs who missed out on healthy separation during the essential period of 2-4 months old. This is a clear, kind, practical guide to raising a happy dog. It reminded me a lot of the sort of advice I got from Dr Sears’s Baby Book.

Share Attachment Ideas with Your Family

As my children grew up, I explained my choices to them. I talked to them about sensitivity to their needs as well as boundaries. It’s the continuous meta-conversation about our conversations.

Each of my teenagers has recently taken a psychology class, where a full week was spent learning about attachment theory. Hearing their response to the academic study of attachment after having lived through the practical application leaves me satisfied with their travel through this phase of life. I can see that they become sensitive to the needs and cues of others beyond intimate attachment situations. As I had hoped, they are generally kind people. (Though they are still teenagers, with the hiccups that phase brings.)

If you have older children (perhaps 10+ or 13+, depending on the child) and you want to deepen your conversations about emotions, you might want to watch together This Emotional Life, a NOVA television series shown on PBS in the U.S. Watching this series sparked long, deep conversations among my family members at a time when some children are hiding emotions, when they think no one else in the world shares or cares about theirs.

I also found the supplemental materials from the documentary provide an informed but comprehensible introduction to the psychology of emotions, including attachment. (See history of attachment theory and “Pave the Path to Presence.“)

Meeting a child’s needs can lead to a secure attachment style; neglecting a child’s needs can lead to an insecure attachment style. As adults, we might trust that our partners, sibling, friends, and others will meet our needs, leaving us feeling secure in those relationships, or we might not trust that our needs will be met, leaving us feeling insecure in those relationships. We can apply this to dogs or other animals feeling secure or insecure in their relationships as well.

Bringing the needs of another—a baby, a partner, a pet—into our own awareness then acting to meet those needs rewards us and them. We all benefit from the security of those around us.

Image © Viki2win | Dreamstime.com - Happy Family In Bed Photo

Drawing (and Re-drawing) the Lines of Attachment Parenting

Frustrated child folding arms

Attachment parenting for my family is about listening to the needs of children and of parents and adjusting actions to needs. Needs aren’t always the same from child to child or even from day to day with the same child, so attachment parenting is for me one long improvisation.

And, yet, each of us has lines we draw or want to draw then realize we need to re-draw.


Choosing Where to Draw the Line

A friend wrote to me recently about choosing where to draw the line. I am writing about her experience with her permission.

“Funny,” she wrote to me, “how, as parents, we let some things go.”

I swore we would never have individual video games in our house or toy guns. I’m wondering now what I did stick to—attachement parenting in broad terms, extended breastfeeding, child-led weaning, no pacifiers, family bed, and vaccines on my terms. I think beyond that, I caved. My son is allowed to wear a tu-tu if he wants. Turns out he wants to while playing with the above mentioned, previously banned toy gun.


Child-Led

The important point to me is following the child’s lead. I am the responsible party, and I am my best self when I bring my own honest experience to parenting. True. But, I need to remember that attachment parenting guides me to compassion and sensitivity for my child’s needs. Laying down the law on absolutely every subject makes me the force to fight. That does not create a cooperative parent-child relationship.

There are areas where I draw the lines and leave those lines where they are.

There are other areas where I thought I would draw the line, but it doesn’t seem like a fight I want to have now.

In still other areas, I just try to help my children get as much information as possible, as much as I think they need, and I encourage them to make their own decisions. I know that if I forbid a book, a word, a game then it will become the object of desire. On the other hand, I have no flexibility on who my children spend time alone with.


My Re-drawn Lines

For me, video games were a line that moved over time, though I keep a hard line drawn long before violent stand-alone games that a few friends of my children play. Seeing my children playing Wii tennis or golf or obstacle course at their friends’ house is entertaining for me, for them, and for all of the parents watching. It turned out it wasn’t video games I was opposed to so much as days of endless screen staring and graphic violence that bends the mind.

Another situation, one that made me even more uncomfortable, was my teen daughter’s obsession with a recently popular vampire romance. I knew she was going to read it after encouragement from her friends. I thought it was a horrible idea just from the point of view of not polluting one’s mind with a poor excuse for a novel. Since she was going to read it anyway, I decided I would rather have her read it while willing to talk to me about what she was reading than to have her read it surreptitiously, letting the secret become part of the enjoyment.

I admit I sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of the experience for her by giving her my feminist reading of the genre, but that didn’t stop her. Because she read it and talked to me about it, I know that this infatuation lasted only slightly longer than the very short-lived Justin Beiber crush. I’m not saying mine was a great approach, but it was the one I improvised on the fly. In the end, it was fine.


How Will You Improvise?

Better to let the fire burn quickly then fade naturally than to feed the flame with my resistance. This has been my approach to my children’s interests since they were young. Because this has been our pattern for so long, it has made the transition to teen independence a much easier time than some of my friends tell me they are having.

Before you are faced with the reality of your child’s own ideas and interest independent of you, you may have ideas about what is good for them. What will you do when you find your ideas and theirs don’t blend perfectly? Maybe you re-draw some lines and explain why other lines stay firm.

It’s OK, even imperative, to listen to your child and to yourself in order to make decisions that work for your family and for each child. Everyone is different. For my family, attachment is not one-size-fits-most. For us, attachment parenting means custom-fitting for each of us with the occasional just-make-it-work hand-me-down.

Image © Kaarsten | Dreamstime.com

Breastfeeding Your Toddler

Family with breastfeeding toddler

When you want to give your child the long-term benefits of extended breastfeeding, it helps when you have confidence to respond to others.

Every woman needs support. That support can range from family support to hearing about research that explains the benefits of long-term nursing to workplace policies that allow continuation of the breastfeeding relationship. Organizations like the World Health Organization work to support extended breastfeeding on a global scale, and La Leche League International volunteers provide woman-to-woman support.


Extended Breastfeeding Benefits the Child

In addition to positive physical effects, breastfeeding toddlers can have a positive effect on a child’s later social adjustment.

“Research reports on the psychological aspects of nursing are scarce. One study that dealt specifically with babies nursed longer than a year showed a significant link between the duration of nursing and mothers’ and teachers’ ratings of social adjustment in six- to eight-year-old children (Ferguson et al, 1987). In the words of the researchers, ‘There are statistically significant tendencies for conduct disorder scores to decline with increasing duration of breastfeeding.’”

Sally Kneidel, “Nursing Beyond One Year,” New Beginnings, July-August 1990, 6/4: 99-103 (via KellyMom.com).


Successfully Breastfeeding a Toddler Requires Support

The World Health Organization (WHO), as part of their Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, has created specific targets to support breastfeeding for at least the first 24 months of a child’s life. The targets are meant to help create national policies and action plans to support breastfeeding.

“Ensure that the health and other relevant sectors protect, promote and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond, while providing women access to the support they require – in the family, community and workplace – to achieve this goal.”

Planning Guide for national implementation of the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding” World Health Organization, 2007.


Responding to Criticism about Breastfeeding a Toddler

Even when we are sure that we can trust our instincts as parents, we know that we will have better success when we have support. More important, we need to have confidence in our own choices. If you anticipate the kind of questions you might get, it can be easier to respond with confidence.

“It always helps to look for what has been called ‘the question behind the question,’ that is, the motivating factor. The reasons vary, but generally people question your parenting style when you have made a choice that is different from the perceived norm. They may be confused about what you’re doing or worried about your baby. Usually, the people who comment on a mother’s choices care about her and her babies.”

“Confidence is contagious. When we believe in our parenting choices, we express ourselves with confidence. Expressing confidence can be the best way to prevent unwanted criticism and questioning.”

Marianne Vakiener, “Responding to Criticism,” New Beginnings, 16/4: 116-119, July-August 1999.

Still need help with your responses? Try a few of these breastfeeding responses.


Your Breastfeeding Questions

Customers ask a lot of specific questions about breastfeeding. We’ve kept track of your questions, and we are looking to reliable sources to answer your questions each Wednesday this month. If you need answers now, breastfeeding support groups bring experienced mothers together with those who need help, and La Leche League always has reliable breastfeeding resources.

Image © Lev Dolgatshjov | Dreamstime.com