What really creates secure attachment?

What really creates secure attachment?

I’m an attachment theorist, but at times I find myself dismayed by the way our misunderstandings about attachment so often make parents feel inadequate. I’d like to set the record straight about what really creates secure attachment.

Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby when he observed children’s reactions to being separated from their parents during World War II in England. Attachment theory is now supported by an impressive body of academic theory and research, but the basic idea is simple and intuitively obvious. Human babies are born helpless because of their big brains. To survive, they need parents to protect them from harm for many years, and to teach them survival skills. So all humans are born seeking close attachments, and every aspect of their development hinges on those first relationships, usually with their parents.

Attachment research, including longitudinal studies, has repeatedly shown what babies require to become securely attached. Optimal parenting is responsive to the baby’s needs, which in infancy include staying in close proximity to the parent. Once the baby learns that her caretakers are reliably nurturing and protective, she builds on this internal security as she proceeds to the next developmental tasks of exploration, mastery of her environment, and forming relationships with others.

Our brain development, our emotional development, and even our later ability to control our tempers, delay gratification and have healthy romances, all depend on having our innate relationship needs met as infants.

This understanding of attachment theory has given rise to the attachment parenting philosophy. Unfortunately, attachment parenting is often misinterpreted as a set of practices, usually centred around co-sleeping, wearing your baby, and breastfeeding. Mothers for whom one or more of these practices don’t work out often worry that they aren’t providing their child with a secure attachment. And too often those of us who value attachment may thoughtlessly imply that other mothers aren’t ‘attached’ to their babies if they don’t use these practices.

I’m not finding fault with breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or wearing your baby. I support all of these practices and used them all in raising my own children. But the truth is that we don’t yet have research that shows that these practices actually foster secure attachment. They may help – I’m betting they do – but so far we don’t have proof. And they certainly aren’t essential to raise a securely attached, emotionally healthy child.

For the record, what children need to be securely attached is to feel unconditionally loved. Not to BE unconditionally loved, but to FEEL it. What does that actually mean parents need to do, in practice? It means that when our child is needy we accept those needs and meet them, without judging that he shouldn’t have those needs. It means that when our child is angry, we accept his anger without getting defensive. We stay compassionate, understanding that under our child’s anger is fear, or hurt, or sadness — and we accept the full range of his emotions without judgement. It means that our child knows he can show us exactly who he is and what he is feeling in any given moment, and we will embrace him with love.

A tall order? Yes. That’s why children stretch our hearts and move us closer to enlightenment. Luckily, we don’t have to do it perfectly. We just have to be willing to keep working to heal the unloved places inside us so we can wholly accept our children and meet their needs.

What does all this have to do with breastfeeding, co-sleeping, or wearing your baby? Well, it seems obvious to me that when we keep a baby close, it’s easier for us to stay in tune with her and see things from her perspective. It’s easier to be responsive to her needs. So it seems likely that the practices we think of as ‘attachment’ practices do help us to be more responsive parents, which makes secure attachment more likely.

But here’s the thing: these practices don’t guarantee a secure attachment. We all know attachment parents who scream at their children and then feel terrible about it. Unfortunately, when we as parents can’t regulate our own anger, it disconnects us from our child – which is a risk factor for insecure attachment. We might even ask whether, if those parents were getting a better night’s sleep, they would be more able to be compassionate with their children. In some cases, does trying to live up to an ideal of perfect attachment practices make parents feel worse, and do worse?

So what happens if a parent, for whatever reason, doesn’t co-sleep, wear her baby, or breastfeed? Does the absence of these attachment practices create an insecure attachment? No, not if the mother is responsive and accepting. In fact, well before these practices were commonly used in most developed countries, the average rate of secure attachment was about 60%. This means that babies who were fed from a bottle, pushed in a pram and sleeping in a cot still had about a 60% chance of being securely attached. In other words, approximately 60% of parents, across cultures, were responsive and accepting enough that their babies were securely attached, regardless of their parenting practices.

Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, Mother Nature probably designed humans so that virtually all babies would be securely attached. Having 40% of babies raised in such a way that they’re insecurely attached indicates to me that the way our culture parents needs some improvement. But what’s the solution? Certainly, giving parents information about what creates secure attachment is helpful. But making parents feel bad never helps. Maybe we can start by extending some of that unconditional love to each other. Let’s give all mums and dads the support they need to grow into the responsive parents their children need. 


Laura Markham has two grown-up children and lives in the USA. She is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. ahaparenting.com

Illustration by Veronica Petrie


Published in issue 34. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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