Does Breastfeeding Lead to Secure Attachment?

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

What is Attachment?

Attachment theory is the theory of bonds created and maintained between people, first and foremost between infants and their caregivers. John Bowlby, the first attachment theorist, described attachment as "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings."


John Bowlby believed that the emotional bond formed between children and their caregivers have an ongoing impact on the child throughout their life. In terms of evolution theories, attachment served to keep the mother and child close together, thus increasing the child's chance of survival.


However, while evolutionary theories suggest that children learn how to attach to their mother, Bowlby and other attachment theorists argue that infants are born with an innate ability to attach to their caregiver.


In 1970, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded upon Bowlby's original attachment theory with some ground-breaking research. Ainsworth developed the 'Strange Situation' experiment, which is still used to this day. This experiment placed mother and baby (12-18 months) into an observation room - a play room with an observation window.


They then watched how the child reacted in certain situations; one being just the fact that the room was new, another when the mother left the room for a few minutes, another when the mother returned, and another still when a stranger entered the room.


The outcome of this experiment was the development of four types of attachment style that most of us fall into. These attachment styles are; secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment, and disorganised attachment.


Secure Attachment: the child is comfortable when separated from their parent, they go to the parent for comfort or when frightened, when the parents re-enters the room they are greeted with positive emotions, and the child prefers their own parent to strangers.


Avoidant Attachment: the child might avoid their parent, they do not seek comfort or much contact from their parent, and they show little to no preference for their parent over a stranger.


Ambivalent Attachment: the child may be wary of strangers, become greatly distressed when the parent leaves the room, and they do not appear to be comforted upon the parent's return.


Disorganised Attachment: the child shows a mixture of avoidant and ambivalent attachment, they may seem dazed, confused or apprehensive. By the age of 6, the child may take on a parental role and even attempt to parent their own parent.


Benefits of Breastfeeding

The value of breastfeeding in supporting the normal growth and development of infants and young children is now recognised worldwide. Furthermore, breastfeeding has been associated with child emotional development, specifically the attachment between mother and baby.


However, what happens if mum chooses not to or is unable to breastfeed?


There are many reasons why a new mum might not be able to or choose not to breastfeed, including a premature birth, their baby having a tongue-tie [when the strip of skin connecting the baby's tongue to the floor of the mouth is too tight], developing mastitis, or not producing enough milk.


Many mothers who don't or can't breastfeed might feel pressure from others to continue trying, and will likely feel guilt from within. But, what is the impact of not breastfeeding on their child's attachment style?


Does Breastfeeding Impact Attachment?

A study by Gibbs et al. (2018) found an enduring link between children who are predominantly breastfed for 6 months or more and infant attachment security.


However, Britton et al (2006) found no direct link between breastfeeding and the security of attachment. What they did find was that the more responsive and sensitive a mother was to her baby, the more securely attached the baby was later on. Not all mothers who breastfeed are responsive and sensitive, and not all mothers who are responsive and sensitive to their baby's needs breastfeed.


Back in 1969, Harlow conducted some revolutionary research for his time. He raised baby monkeys in a laboratory, crafting a wire 'mother' monkey to feed them and a cloth 'mother' monkey to offer them comfort. What he found was that although the babies would run to the wire monkey for feeding, they would return directly to the cloth monkey and spend their time there in between meals.


Although I do not agree with Harlow's use of baby monkeys in such an experiment, what he proved was that comfort was more important to the security of the baby than feeding.


So, whether you breastfeed or not is not as important as how you interact with your little one in between meal times. Being responsive, sensitive to their needs, mirroring, and just being good enough is enough to develop a healthy attachment and set your little one up nicely!


As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at amylaunder.counselling@gmail.com

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