What Everyone's Missing in the Attachment-Parenting Debate

If people understood the roots of this philosophy, they wouldn't be fixating on breastfeeding toddlers or family beds.


Earlier this month, TIME published a cover image of a young blond mother dressed in a tank top and skinny jeans, striking a defiant pose as her three-year-old son suckled at her breast. That photo is still being dissected in countless blog posts and coffee shop conversations. Some of the talk centers on the sheer strangeness of the image. (As Seth Meyers put it on SNL's Weekend Update, "Did the kid from Modern Family sexually assault his yoga instructor?") But for mothers of young children, the photo itself may be less disturbing than the cover line, which demands: "Are You Mom Enough?"

It's a stark, accusatory question, but it captures the debate that's been raging ever since 1993, when Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha, published The Baby Book. The enormous tome gives useful tips on everything from diaper changing to cold medicines, but its main subject is "attachment parenting," a philosophy the Searses promote at every opportunity. As the TIME article explains, the Searses offer three main pieces of advice: sleep with your child, wear him kangaroo-like in a baby carrier, and breastfeed him until he decides to stop.

As it happens, the actual founders of attachment theory -- Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby -- were psychologists from the mid-20th century, and they had little say on any of those three subjects. Their work was the focus of an Atlantic cover story published in February 1990, three years before the Searses' Baby Book.

The Atlantic's cover image is less sensational than TIME's, but just as striking in its own way. It's an illustration by the French artist Etienne Delessert, showing a little boy holding a small box filled with fierce animals. But the boy has a smile on his face. Behind him is the silhouette of a woman with kind, watchful eyes. Because she's there, we understand, the scary creatures are tiny enough to fit in the palm of his hand.

The story itself is an in-depth look at Ainsworth and Bowlby's research. The two psychologists first met in 1950, back when parents were still heeding the warning of psychologist John Watson: "When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument." Ainsworth and Bowlby spent their careers studying mothers who did pet their children and, in Ainsworth's words, made themselves "fairly consistently available." They found that a mother's attention does make a difference. Instead of making children weak and clingy, as Watson had assumed, early attachment allowed children to grow up confident and secure.

Although the Atlantic article is easily four times the length of TIME's, it's notable not just for what it includes but for what it leaves out. The word "sleep" is never mentioned once -- which means that fraught issues like co-sleeping and "crying it out" don't figure into the discussion. Baby wearing (the least controversial of the Searses' three tenets) isn't mentioned either, though the researchers talk about the child's instinct to have its mother close by.

The topic of breastfeeding comes up just once, very much in passing, but the author's conclusion undercuts the bitter debate represented by the TIME cover:

Questions like whether to breastfeed or bottle-feed, or at what age to introduce solid foods, though still important, no longer carry the same urgency. Attachment theory suggests that babies thrive emotionally because of the overall quality of the care they've experienced, not because of specific techniques. A bottle-fed baby whose mother is sensitively attuned will do better than a breastfed baby whose mother is mechanical and distant.

The simplicity of this message may surprise readers today. That's because Ainsworth and Bowlby had a real impact -- their research made a huge difference in the way pediatricians and other experts instruct parents to respond to their children. But all of that happened decades ago. So why is attachment parenting still the object of such bitter debate?

The real answer may have less to do with children's well being than the fears that still haunt many women. Attachment parenting, as it's understood in the post-Sears world, means being physically close to a child almost all the time. That makes it hard to justify leaving the house at all, much less for eight or more hours a day. (The Searses advise women to wear their babies to work, or to take out loans that allow them to stay home altogether.)

Bowlby might have agreed with Sears; according to the Atlantic story, he wanted to see society launch a wide-scale campaign against daycare. But Ainsworth, though never a mother herself, had a more nuanced view. As she told The Atlantic:

People who focus primarily on the welfare of children tend to ignore what suits the mother. But it's really a matter of how do we adjust these two things. Had I myself had the children I longed for, I like to believe I could have arrived at some satisfactory combination of mothering and a career, but I do not believe that there is any universal, easy, ready-made solution.

Read "Becoming Attached" in the February 1990 Atlantic.