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What every parent should know about attachment theory

At its essence, attachment theory focuses on the emotional bond between caregiver and baby, not just the physical interaction that occurs through feeding, changing diapers, etc.

What every parent should know about attachment theory

You've probably seen this interaction play out in your home many times: You're playing with your baby (about a year old) on the floor and then realize you need to get up and do something in another room. You leave the room briefly and your baby starts to cry—she's missing you.

You may be slightly surprised (or maybe a bit annoyed) that they're so dependent on you. You hurry back to them and all is well within their world once again.

This simple interaction may seem inconsequential to us today, but 50 years ago researchers used a similar scenario (in a lab) to develop what at the time was considered a somewhat revolutionary psychological idea—attachment theory. Attachment theory forever changed how we understand the parent-child relationship.

What founders John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth came to understand that previous behavioral psychologists had not, was that attachment is developed in the context of a responsive relationship, not just through feeding.

Previously, psychologists had thought that as long as a baby's physical needs were met, they would thrive. After seeing the damaging emotional effects of children being separated during hospitalizations and war, Bowlby and Ainsworth began to more closely examine how the psychological bond develops between babies and caregivers in the early years of life.

At its essence, attachment theory focuses on the emotional bond between caregiver and baby, not just the physical interaction that occurs through feeding, changing diapers, etc. Ainsworth concluded that the interaction between the parent and child is key to determining what type of attachment is formed.

If the parent is responsive to the child's emotional need for security and safety, the child learns that the parent can be relied upon. In contrast, if the child's needs are met with unresponsiveness from the parent, the child learns that the parent cannot be relied upon and the child may develop means of coping with this such as becoming overly clingy or avoiding the parent.

The subtle interplay of attunement

All this discussion of attachment and responsiveness may have you wondering about your own mothering experience. Am I responsive enough to my baby? What about that time my baby had to wait to be fed because we were driving home?

We've all had experiences in motherhood where we realize our attunement with our baby was a little off. That day you were SO exhausted you could hardly function during the day. That time you misread you baby's signals about being tired and kept them up too long. The beauty of attachment theory is that it allows room for missteps. The research behind it does not presume that mothers are perfect. As preeminent British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggests in his description of motherhood:

"The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure..."

In other words, the "good enough mother" is one who establishes an attachment with her baby early on by attending to her every need, even at the sacrifice of her own needs. This establishes a relationship in which the baby knows they are cared for and the parent can be trusted to meet their needs.

However, this level of constant attention and self-sacrifice cannot be continued indefinitely.

At some point, the mother will "fail" in little ways that require the baby to adapt or cope with stress. Here, of course, I am not implying instances of negligence or abuse. Those circumstances fall into a whole other category. The little "failures" are the little instances when mother and baby are not completely attuned—the misread signal of hunger, the delayed nap.

Intrinsic to attachment theory is the idea that these little "failures" or breaks in attunement are actually important to the developing child. Those times when you felt like you "missed the mark" in understanding your baby's needs, are the times that help your child grow in crucial skills.

These little disruptions in attunement, if resolved, help your child slowly learn about coping with stress, and lead to independence. As the years pass, these "failures" help children understand how conflicts in relationships can be resolved peacefully and build trust. Trust, of course, is one foundation of a healthy relationship. Children who have a deep-seated trust are more likely to accept your guidance (even discipline).

Can a baby be too attached?

If you've spent time around folks of an older generation lately, you may have heard a well-meaning elder comment that you "don't need to hold that baby all the time. It will make them spoiled." Now, most of us in this generation of parents know that you really cannot "spoil" a baby. Babies' only means of communicating their needs is through crying and holding a baby a lot is no longer thought to be linked to any later behavioral issues.

However, this does bring up the issue of whether parent and baby can be "too attached." We have all seen the kids who cling to mom or dad's leg in social situations, well beyond the age when they could walk on their own or the baby that fusses anytime anyone but mom holds them. While onlookers often chide the parents that these children are "mama's boys" or "spoiled," research might look at this in another light.

As we have seen, attachment is really about responsiveness—responding to a need, not predicting a need or ensuring that a child never experiences a need. This is where a key distinction comes into play.

If a parent is genuinely responding to a child's need, the likelihood of becoming "overly attached" is usually not an issue. However, there are rare occasions where a parent is preemptively responding to a child out of their need.

This situation becomes one less about attachment and more about over-parenting. If parents are actively interfering with a child's normal desire for exploration or independence (with the exception of safety concerns), then the relationship is no longer a responsive one.

At that point, the parent is not responding to the child's inherent need for exploration. As we saw in the discussion of attunement, if there are never any breakdowns in attunement, a child may not learn the coping skills needed to ultimately face the world.

In an atmosphere of strong attachment, most children will feel safe and secure enough in their parents' care that they will eventually explore on their own. However, that exploration comes on their schedule, not based on other's expectations.

It's important to remember here that we in American culture really value independence. As soon as our toddlers can toddle, many folks expect them to be off and running with the 5-year-olds, playing independently. This is a cultural expectation, but not necessarily a developmental one. Most kids inherently stay fairly close to their parents until their early elementary years.

The role of temperament in attachment

Another key piece is the child's temperament. We are just now beginning to understand the complex interaction between a child's temperament and their attachment style. Temperament is that collection on inherent tendencies your child has toward the world. These tendencies have to do with areas such as activity level, persistence, adaptability or intensity.

If you've been a parent for any length of time, you realize how different kids can be in terms of temperament and it often emerges in infancy. Some babies are "laid back" and do not respond strongly to changes in routine or environment, while others react much more easily.

These normal differences in temperament might influence the attachment of parent and child if the parent comes to interpret the child's behavior as problematic or inconsistent with the family's values.

For example, consider a child who has a more introverted, cautious temperament with a parent who has a more extroverted, outgoing temperament. The parent might interpret the child's cautious behavior as difficult or burdensome due to the fact that it is so different from her own tendency to be outgoing. If the parent starts to encourage the child to be overly friendly or outgoing in situations where the child is uncomfortable doing that, a breakdown in responsiveness could result.

In other words, the role of responsiveness in building attachment has to come from a place of understanding that particular child's needs, not a presumptive understanding of need based on the parent's desires.

In our modern parenting world dominated by tidbits of advice, collections of strategies and no shortage of labels, attachment theory reminds us of one important truth: Parenting is a relationship. It's not a job or a collection of techniques or even something to be mastered.

Parenting, in its best form, is the process of forming a lifelong relationship with your child. Like all relationships, each parent-child attachment relationship is as unique and nuanced as your child.

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They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

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Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

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Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

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Detective set

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This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

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Wooden doll stroller

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Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

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Sand play set

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Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

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Water play set

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Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

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Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

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Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

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Wooden rocking pegasus

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Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

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Croquet set

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The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

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Wooden digital camera

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Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

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Wooden bulldozer toy

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Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

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Pull-along hippo

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There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

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Baby forest fox ride-on

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Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

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Motherly editors’ 7 favorite hacks for organizing their diaper bags

Make frantically fishing around for a diaper a thing of the past!

As any parent knows, the term "diaper bag" only scratches the surface. In reality, this catchall holds so much more: a change of clothes, bottles, snacks, wipes and probably about a dozen more essential items.

Which makes finding the exact item you need, when you need it (read: A diaper when you're in public with a blowout on your hands) kind of tricky.

That's why organization is the name of the game when it comes to outings with your littles. We pooled the Motherly team of editors to learn some favorite hacks for organizing diaper bags. Here are our top tips.

1. Divide and conquer with small bags

Here's a tip we heard more than a few times: Use smaller storage bags to organize your stuff. Not only is this helpful for keeping related items together, but it can also help keep things from floating around in the expanse of the larger diaper bag. These bags don't have to be anything particularly fancy: an unused toiletry bag, pencil case or even plastic baggies will work.

2. Have an emergency changing kit

When you're dealing with a diaper blowout situation, it's not the time to go searching for a pack of wipes. Instead, assemble an emergency changing kit ahead of time by bundling a change of baby clothes, a fresh diaper, plenty of wipes and hand sanitizer in a bag you can quickly grab. We're partial to pop-top wipes that don't dry out or get dirty inside the diaper bag.

3. Simplify bottle prep

Organization isn't just being able to find what you need, but also having what you need. For formula-feeding on the go, keep an extra bottle with the formula you need measured out along with water to mix it up. You never know when your outing will take longer than expected—especially with a baby in the mix!

4. Get resealable snacks

When getting out with toddlers and older kids, snacks are the key to success. Still, it isn't fun to constantly dig crumbs out of the bottom of your diaper bag. Our editors love pouches with resealable caps and snacks that come in their own sealable containers. Travel-sized snacks like freeze-dried fruit crisps or meal-ready pouches can get an unfair reputation for being more expensive, but that isn't the case with the budget-friendly Comforts line.

5. Keep a carabiner on your keychain

You'll think a lot about what your child needs for an outing, but you can't forget this must-have: your keys. Add a carabiner to your keychain so you can hook them onto a loop inside your diaper bag. Trust us when we say it's a much better option than dumping out the bag's contents on your front step to find your house key!

6. Bundle your essentials

If your diaper bag doubles as your purse (and we bet it does) you're going to want easy access to your essentials, too. Dedicate a smaller storage bag of your diaper bag to items like your phone, wallet and lip balm. Then, when you're ready to transfer your items to a real purse, you don't have to look for them individually.

7. Keep wipes in an outer compartment

Baby wipes aren't just for diaper changes: They're also great for cleaning up messy faces, wiping off smudges, touching up your makeup and more. Since you'll be reaching for them time and time again, keep a container of sensitive baby wipes in an easily accessible outer compartment of your bag.

Another great tip? Shop the Comforts line on www.comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices. Or, follow @comfortsforbaby for more information!

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.

Boy was I wrong.

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