Attachment Theory


The philosophy of Attachment Parenting, which was coined by the American Pediatrician William Sears in 1982, evolved from the previous philosophy of Attachment Theory.  Attachment Theory was largely researched by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960’s, introducing the world to the importance of the child’s relationship with its mother (or another consistent caregiver).  Prior to the birth of the Attachment Theory, Freud had an evolving theory regarding mother-child attachment which didn’t quite reach fruition until 1938 when, at the end of his career, he said of the mother child attachment: “unique, without parallel, laid down unalterably for a whole lifetime, as the first and strongest love object and as the prototype of all later love relations—for both sexes” (Bowlby, 1958).  While there have been numerous other theories that have developed or been inspired by these philosophies, Attachment Parenting and the Attachment Theory remain as the most popular two philosophies in relation to mother-child attachment.  Based in evolutionary theory, at its root Attachment Parenting seeks to meet the evolutionary needs of the human infant; therefore, allowing the uninhibited growth and further evolution into adult.


Sears’ philosophy on Attachment Parenting came about from his reading Jean Liedloff’s book, The Continuum Concept, published in 1975 (Bretherton, 1992).  Liedloff had traveled to Venezuela and subsequently lived with an indigenous tribe known as Yequana from whom she observed a natural way of living and child rearing that had been lost in America.  Her book, The Continuum Concept, was written in order to describe her observations about natural well-being and to suggest how we could regain this concept for ourselves and our children.  When Sears published his first book in 1982 entitled Creative Parenting, he referred to his philosophy as The New Continuum Concept and Immersion Mothering; however, later on connected his thoughts to the Attachment Theory, which was becoming increasingly popular at the time.   He renamed his philosophy Attachment Parenting.  Around the same time that Sears published his first official book on Attachment Parenting in 2001, Jan Hunt, a self proclaimed child advocate, wrote a book entitled The Natural Child in which she argues for Unschooling in addition to Attachment Parenting.

Attachment Behavior

Bowlby (1958) describes five instinctual responses that make up attachment behavior during his research on Attachment Theory:

  • sucking
  • clinging
  • following
  • crying
  • smiling

Attachment Theory

Bowlby (1958) posits that these behaviors meet instinctual needs that are ever present in the animal world.  Sucking, clinging, and following meet instinctual needs for food and close proximity to mother (Blowlby, 1958).  As Bowlby describes, clinging in itself is a primal response in many mammals: “Though in the higher species mothers play a role in holding their infants, those of lower species do little for them; in all it is plain that in the wild the infant’s life depends, indeed literally hangs, on the efficiency of his clinging response” (Bolwby, 1958).  Following is also regarded as a primal response such that as ducklings learn to follow their mother, they also develop the ability to forage for their own food (Bowlby, 1958).  Additionally, Bowlby posits that crying, although highly believed by many to be in response to a need for food and warmth, is actually more associated with clinging as is such with chimpanzees that “being left alone or not being able to cling …. is by far the most frequent provoker of temper tantrums in the rather older infant chimpanzee” (Bowlby, 1958).  This is evident in the fact that, as most parents have experienced, “babies often cry when they are not hungry and that this crying may be quietened by touch or rocking, and later by voice” (Bowlby, 1958).  Bowlby  (1958) poses the question: “Can we doubt that the more and better an infant smiles the better he is cared for?”  Additionally, he then summarizes the importance of such instincts in the statement, “It is fortunate for their survival that babies are so designed by Nature that they beguile and enslave mothers” (Bowlby, 1958).


Bowlby (1958) describes how experience in the child’s early life influences development of these instinctual behaviors.  For instance, the following instinct increases with intensity when infants have experienced “anxiety and a period of separation” (Bowlby, 1958) from its mother figure.  Bowlby suffices to state that the instinctual behaviors such as sucking and clinging can be transferred to other objects such as a bottle and/or a blanket, in which the mother remains the primary relief for the infant because she still serves as the primary relief agent for sucking and clinging instincts.  This is why the mother becomes such an prominent figure in a child’s life.  It is Bowlby’s belief, in response to his research, that breastfeeding or not breastfeeding has little effect on the disturbed development of a child; instead suggesting that it is the instincts of clinging and following which are most pertinent to healthy development and that being rejected by the mother in these terms leads to disturbances whether breastfed or not (Bowlby, 1958).  Bowlby (1951) insists that ultimately “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment” (Bretherton, 1992).


Ainsworth (1979) posits that any caregiver can substitute for the role as the mother figure and that the only time there is concern is such that there is “too little interaction with any one caregiver to support the formation of an attachment”.  In other words, above all it is this opportunity to form an attachment with one caregiver which is of utmost concern rather than who this caregiver is.  Ainsworth (1979) conducted research which observed and classified mothers and babies into three groups based on attachment behavior.  These classifications of attachment were described by Ainsworth in Infant-Mother Attachment (Ainsworth, 1979):

  • Group A: Later known as Anxious Avoidant
  • Group B: Later known as Secure
  • Group C: Later known as Anxious Ambivalent


In Ainsworth’s research during the Strange Situation Protocol, Group A babies, whose mothers were especially aversive towards close bodily contact with their infants, were especially prone to anger whereas Group B babies, whose mothers were most sensitively responsive to their infant’s needs, were most cooperative and less angry than the other two groups of infants (A and C) (Ainsworth, 1979).  Group C babies fell somewhere in between the two other groups (A and B).  Although genetic temperament and potential were considered as factors in attachment, Ainsworth (1979) concluded that “there is a strong case to be made for differences in attachment quality being attributable to maternal behavior”.  Despite Bowlby’s (1958) contention that methods of feeding were of little significance to attachment of mother, Ainsworth (1979) states that, “we have found that sensitive maternal responsiveness to infant signals relevant to feeding is closely related to the security or anxiety of attachment that eventually develops” (Ainsworth & Bell, 1969: Ainsworth, 1979).  In fact, her research suggested that ‘demand feeding’ [“letting infant behavioral cues determine not only when feeding is begun but also when it is terminated, how the pacing of feeding proceeds, and how new foods are introduced” (Ainsworth, 1979)] was of utmost importance to the development of security in infants and alternatively, anxiety of attachment (Ainsworth, 1979).  Despite belief that attachment impedes independence, Ainsworth (1979) states that “Blehar et al (1979) found that babies who respond positively to close bodily contact with their mothers also tend to respond positively to being put down again and to move off into independent exploratory play”.  In addition, Ainsworth (1979) supported the statement via Bowlby (1973) that “Fostering the growth of secure attachment facilitates rather than hampers the growth of healthy self-reliance”.

Attachment Figures

In the event of separation, Ainsworth (1979) notes of Robertson and Robertson (1971) that “sensitive substitute parenting can do much to mute separation distress and avert the more serious consequences of major separations”.  This is particularly relevant given the common inability for mothers to be with their infants at all times, usually opting for a nanny, babysitter, or day school situation in their absence.  The importance of selecting a sensitive and responsive caregiver in this situation is therefore highlighted.  Ainsworth (1979) does however state that “it would seem wise for parents—if they have a choice—to move cautiously rather than plunging into substitute-care arrangements with a blithe assumption that all is bound to go well”, suggesting that infants are highly selective in choices of attachment figures and that no infant has been shown to have a high number of attachment figures (Ainsworth, 1979).  Instead the attachment figures in a child’s life tend to take on a hierarchy of preference while during special circumstances such as illness, children may have a clear preference for one attachment figure (Ainsworth, 1979).  In addition, children will develop attachment to peers in the absence of a more appropriate attachment figures in order to satisfy this primal need (Ainsworth, 1979).


Securely attached infants “are later more cooperative with and affectively more positive as well as less aggressive and/or avoidant toward their mothers and other less familiar adults” (Ainsworth, 1979).  In addition, “they emerge as more competent and more sympathetic in interaction with peers” (Ainsworth, 1979).  Ainsworth (1979) states that the nature of infant-mother attachment during infancy is directly related to both earlier interaction with the mother as well as to later development; however, thoughtfully insists that this does not mean that the nature of attachment to the mother later in a child’s life do not hold importance.  This core continuity to a primary caregiver is vastly important in the ability to adapt to the inevitable variability in other aspects of life in later development and adulthood (Ainsworth, 1979).

Continuum Concept 

The Continuum Concept, devised by Jean Liedloff, consists of the “idea that in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, human beings — especially babies — require the kind of experience to which our species adapted during the long process of our evolution” (Leidloff, 1977).  In order to achieve this goal, Liedloff (1977) posits that infants need:

  • constant physical contact with mother (or alternative care giver) from birth
  • co-sleeping in his parent’s bed until he is ready to sleep elsewhere on his own
  • breastfeeding on demand
  • being constantly carried (i.e. worn) while the person goes on with his or her duties until crawling begins (6-8 months)
  • the experience of having care givers respond to his needs immediately “without judgement, displeasure, or invalidation of his needs” while also being careful to not show undue concern or make the infant the center of attention
  • to be treated as though they are innately social and cooperative, have strong self preservation instincts, and are welcome and worthy

Evolutionary Needs

Leidloff (1977) suggests that because evolution has not prepared infants for the type of care they experience in Western society, they do not understand why their instinctual cries for comfort are ignored.  This causes the infant to feel shame, guilt, and wrongness about his desires and himself.  As described by Leidloff (1977), “Infants whose continuum needs are fulfilled during the early, in-arms phase grow up to have greater self-esteem and become more independent than those whose cries go unanswered for fear of “spoiling” them or making them too dependent”.  Ultimately Liedloff’s primary position is in understanding that evolution is significant and complex whereas unevolved change, which has been adopted in Western society is much less adapted and simple, rendering it less effective in healthy development (Liedloff, 1977).

Attachment Parenting

Attachment Parenting, developed by Dr. William Sears is primarily an attempt to simplify and update Liedloff’s position on The Continuum Concept.  Sears’ (2015) posits that Attachment Parenting should not be considered as a new theory for parenting and should instead be understood as what feels natural to both mother and baby.  The focus in attachment parenting is to be loving and attentive yet not overattentive to the child as to cause spoiling (Sears, 2015).  “The idea behind attachment parenting is that you get to intimately understand your child to appropriately encourage and discipline them as they grow up” (Sears, 2015).  In his book, Sears (2015) outlines seven Attachment Parenting Tools, which he refers to as the Baby B’s:

  • Birth bonding
  • Breastfeeding
  • Baby wearing
  • Bedding close to baby
  • Belief in the language value of your baby’s cry
  • Beware of baby trainers
  • Balance

The Natural Child

Jan Hunt (2012), who wrote The Natural Child in 2001, posits that “Children reflect the treatment they receive”.  According to Hunt’s website, The Natural Child Project, she believes that “Children are born innocent” suggesting that they simply “want to be loved, to learn, and to contribute”.  Hunt (2012) believes whole heartedly that many parents are tricked into believing that “They cannot trust their child”.  Hunt (2012) further explains that, “they instead suspect him of being somehow flawed and requiring constant correction”.  Hunt (2012) suggests that the parent’s attitude about their child is critical in healthy development.  Parent’s who are constantly correcting their child due to some belief that they are inherently wrong, trigger natural emotional responses in the child (which then begets more punishment), eventually creating an enemy out of their own sweet, innocent child.  Instead, Hunt (2012) explains that “love begets love” and that by loving and trusting your child they will love and trust you back.  “What takes place at the moment a parent first looks into their child’s eyes sets the stage for a lifetime of joyful connection, or a lifetime of struggle” (Hunt, 2012).


Based in evolutionary theory, at its root Attachment Parenting seeks to meet the evolutionary needs of the human infant; therefore, allowing the uninhibited growth and further evolution into adult.  These concepts regarding parenting and the importance in bonding have evolved steadily over the past 75 years.  It’s safe to say that the evolution of this concept hasn’t reached completion as every theory should be approached as a journey rather than an end.  It is during the journey which the most innate realizations arise.  In allowing it to be a journey, rather than an end, humans allow themselves the opportunity to revise and rethink using their own intuition about their own children.  These philosophies can serve as a good start to the more complicated journey of parenting, the ultimate goal being to find a combination of practices that suit your own family better than any stereotypical plan for parenting could even begin to accomplish; however, it is in being aware of options and previous practices that assist in the journey.


Ainsworth, M. (1979). Infant-Mother Attachment. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from

Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Child’s Tie To His Mother. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from

Bretherton, I. (1992). THE ORIGINS OF ATTACHMENT THEORY: JOHN BOWLBY AND MARY AINSWORTH. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from

Hunt, J. (2012). Children are Born Innocent – The Natural Child Project. Retrieved January 28, 2017, from

Liedloff, J. (1977). The Continuum Concept. New York: Knopf.

Sears, W. (2015, October 01). Attachment Parenting Babies | Ask Dr Sears. Retrieved January 28, 2017, from

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