babies,  breastfeeding,  general parenting,  nighttime parenting,  parenting

Attachment Theory: An Introduction



Our earliest relationships are profoundly important. They literally shape the chemical processes in the brain responsible for how we control our impulses, calm our strong emotions, and develop our memories of our early family life.

Dr. Tim Clincy and Dr. Gary Sibcy


“Your Baby Won’t Remember That” – But Not Really

Have you heard that old advice: “It doesn’t really matter, a baby won’t remember that anyway”? It’s ok, a baby won’t remember crying alone in the crib for an hour or two. Don’t worry, he won’t remember being left in a swing all day, you got stuff to do! Don’t worry, the baby won’t remember that you left for that weekend getaway.

That advice, which is meant to comfort parents, can actually perpetuate a problem. While the baby may not consciously remember moments of separation or a delay in having his needs met, his hippocampus (the part of the brain that is associated with memory and learning) will. When a child is separated from his mother or when his needs are not being met, cortisol, a stress hormone, is produced and the hippocampus is impacted (see this really insightful article for more).

How we interact with our newborns does matter, and, in fact, it matters a great deal.



I have a feeling this parts of this post may make some readers feel guilty. In no way is it my goal to have you feel guilty about about scenarios outside of your control, nor the ways you may have parented in the past; we cannot control everything, and sometimes we are unaware of what we are doing.

Rather, I want to inform you that the parent/child relationships is powerful and important to take seriously. I also want to you to know that we, as parents, have in our power to minimize stressful experiences and respond to our children in a way that minimizes stress and fosters healthy attachment. Lastly, when we better understand attachment theory, we can better find ways to cultivate attachment with our children now.

Ready to dive in?


Babies Are Dependent On Us

*The opportunity for a healthy attachment starts at birth. Babies really need their parents, especially their mothers, in a way that our culture has historically underestimated.

“Unlike many of God’s creatures, a child is born into a world where it is utterly dependent on its mother for survival. It can’t even keep itself warm, much less fed and comforted. We are discovering increasingly every day how dependent a child’s developing brain is on its mother’s sensitive, attuned, and responsible care” (Sibcy and Clincy, 15).

This passage, taken from Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way You Do, presents an important truth: babies need to be cared for. And how we care for them matters. That’s what English psychiatrist John Bowlby determined decades ago.


John Bowlby and his Attachment Theory

Unthinking confidence in the unfailing accessibility and support of attachment figures is the bedrock on which stable and self-reliant personality is built.

John Bowlby 

John Bowlby developed his attachment theory after working with and observing children, particularly those who were emotionally damaged. It was England in the 1940s, and it was the common belief that kids would grow up fine as long as you met their basic physical needs.

But Bowlby began to notice trends among the young children he observed, particularly when they were separated from their mothers. This led him to develop his attachment theory.


The Main Points of Attachment Theory

Here are the main points of his theory: 


A child has an innate need to attach to a caregiver (read mother) – It is natural and imperative that a baby attach to a caregiver, for he is dependent on that caregiver for basic survival. The child will cue the caregiver (by crying, moving, smiling), and the caregiver fosters attachment by responding to those cues. Bowlby put huge emphasis on the child’s relationship with his mother.


For the first two years of life, the child should receive continual, sensitive, nurturing care from his attachment figure – the first two years of life are of critical importance. Bowlby formed a Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis that argued that if attachment was continually disrupted this time, it would negatively impact a child cognitively, emotionally, and socially.


An insecure attachment can produce negative outcomes – Bowlby argued that an insecure attachment can result in the following: an inability for healthy relationships in the future, delinquency, aggressive behavior, depression, impaired cognitive ability, lack of empathy for others, and affectionless psychopathy.


Separation from the attachment figure can lead to distress – Bowlby and his colleague Robertson observed and coined three stages of separation:

  1. Protest – the child cries, screams, and tries to prevent her attachment figure from leaving
  2. Despair – the child appears to calm, but is still visibly upset, refuses comfort, and become withdrawn
  3. Detachment – over time, the child will engage with others, but  will reject or be angry with the caregiver upon reunion


A child will develop an internal “working model” based off of his relationship with his primary caregiver – By age three, a child will have established an internal working model with which he will use to relate to others for the rest of his life. A securely attached child will view others as trustworthy, himself as valuable and worthy of love, and will see himself as effective in relationship with others.


internal working model of attachment
Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, Simply Psychology


Mama Matters

“Mother-love in infancy/ childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins & proteins for physical health.”

John Bowlby


It makes sense that Bowlby would stress the importance of a child’s relationship to her mother. After all, the mother carries the child, delivers the child (and, when done vaginally, gets a whopping dose of oxytocin, the bonding hormone), creates milk for the child (breastfeeding also creates oxytocin), and is mysteriously in tune with the child. While children can, and should, have a healthy attachment with their father, there is something about significant about Mama.

In his Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis, Bowlby argued that a child’s relationship with his mother ought to be “warm, intimate, and continuous.” And it is my opinion that we, as mothers, are designed to have that kind of relationship.

I have yet to meet a mother who has a difficult time leaving her baby behind for the first time. There are studies that show that a mother’s own stress levels rise when her baby cries, but diminishes when she is able to meet the child’s needs. A mother’s instincts are powerful and strong, and hell hath no fury like a Mama bear.

A mother is biologically made to attach to her dependent baby.


A Detached Society

Yet our society does not necessarily set us up for attachment, even from birth. Common medical interventions, such as pitocin and epidurals, interrupt Mama’s natural hormone levels, including oxytocin, the bonding hormone which Mama receives a rush of upon vaginal delivery. C-sections are more and more common, preventing Mama and baby from connecting upon birth. Hospital nurseries literally detach mothers from their newborns right when a mother is learning how to respond to her new baby’s cues.

Studies show that when Mama and baby aren’t connected after birth, breastfeeding becomes more difficult. Breastfeeding – which provides ample opportunity for bonding and also releases oxytocin for Mama and baby – is hard work anyway, and without proper support and education, many women give up on it (*some despairingly). Regardless of whether or not a mother is happy to put her child on formula, the industry is a money maker and breastfeeding is not, and formula is marketed to make a profit.

Our culture discourages co-sleeping and bed-sharing, meaning that mothers are exceedingly tired getting up to meet their child’s need. And then, parents often encouraged to sleep-train our little ones, advised to ignore the child’s cries of protest by putting on noise-canceling headphones or leaving the house until they give up an fall asleep.

Then, of course, there’s the reality that many mothers return to work and have to find child care for their babies. We all know America’s stance on long-term maternity and paternity leave. Our culture doesn’t see long-term time at home as valuable for nurturing the attachment between parents and child.

Our culture does not set us up for a healthy attachment with our babies. *We really have to work for it. 


So Then What?

This can all feel overwhelming and discouraging, but don’t lose heart.

Firstly, Mama doesn’t have to shoulder all the burden; while she is of critical importance, Dad can, and should, be an attachment figure in baby’s life. When Mama can’t be there, Dad can. Our culture is continually encouraging the involvement of Dad, which is something that was not common while Bowlby was doing his work.

Secondly, the culture is beginning to shift. Baby friendly hospitals are becoming more popular, breastfeeding support groups and lactation consultants are more readily available, and general awareness on the importance of attachment is on the rise.

Thirdly, there are always factors you can control. *Just because you had a C-section, utilized formula, sleep-trained your child, or work to provide for your family in no way means you cannot have a healthy attachment with your child. The goal is to maximize the bonding opportunities you have. Respond to your baby’s needs as quickly as you can and nurture them. When you can’t be there, entrust your child with a person whom you trust and with whom your child can build a secondary attachment. *Take time to be sensitive and attentive to your little ones, and your big ones. If necessary, seek healing from what Clincy and Sibcy call “soul wounds” (more on how to work toward a healthy attachment posts to come).

Lastly, take comfort in this: you cannot be a perfect parent, but you can be a good one. Kevin and I often say, “Our children will have to forgive us for something, because we are flawed people. Our goal is to do as little damage as possible.” Fortunately, there is a lot of good we can do for our children! The first step, is becoming aware of how to do it.



*The asteric and italicized portions of this text are edits after initial publication. The feedback of a trusted friend encouraged me to go back and add some content. 


Interested in reading more?

Keep an eye out for Attachment Parenting: Creating a Secure Attachment from Birth, coming soon! More on Attachment Parenting will be on its way in the coming weeks.

See also my post Attachment Parenting: How We Got There and my Attachment Theory resource page.



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