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Attachment Parenting Article
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The Science of Attachment

By Kelley Shirazi

As parents, we hear it all the time: “Don't pick up the baby every time she cries. You'll spoil her!”

“Get him on a schedule.”

“You'll just have to let her cry it out. It's the only way she'll learn to sleep on her own.”

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The overwhelming theme of American parenting today is the fostering of independence, featuring methods that encourage the separation of parents and their children. Grandparents, pediatricians, nurses and daycare providers all have volumes to speak on the subject. Techniques such as sleep training, scheduled feedings and "crying it out" all focus on easing the burden on parents, integrating children into their parents' lives and schedules. To family-centered parents, all this advice can seem confusing and counter-intuitive.

The good news for "attached parents" is that there is now hard science to back up more intuitive ways of parenting. Attachment parenting (AP) is really nothing new. It's simply the art of responsive parenting, advocating techniques such as co-sleeping, babywearing, breastfeeding, bonding at birth and a belief in the language value of babies' cries. In scientific circles, this is known as "dyadic attunement." And while the majority of scientific literature focuses on the mother-infant connection, as noted pediatrician Dr. William Sears says, this attunement certainly extends to fathers as well.

AP from a biological perspective
From late pregnancy through the second year of life, your baby's brain goes through a huge growth spurt, concentrating on right brain development. The right brain is deeply connected to both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which control vital functions that support survival and coping with stress. The right brain is also connected to the limbic
System1, where emotions reside, and the hippocampus and amygdala, which are closely tied to memory and emotional regulation.2

In response to the old "nature vs. nurture" question, we've discovered that the human cerebral cortex adds 70 percent of its final DNA content after birth. This demonstrates that brain development is influenced by both biology and environment.3 Studies have found evidence that stress and trauma impair optimal brain development, while healthy attachment promotes
it.4,5 Healthy attachment is the result of "tuning in" to your child, known scientifically in attachment theory as "attunement."

So how exactly can you achieve attunement? That's easy! Just follow your baby's cues. Babies have their own secret language, communicated through expression. When you pay attention to these expressions and respond to them, you're communicating an understanding of your baby's thoughts and feelings.

All stressed out
Understanding and responding to your baby's cues alleviates her stress, freeing more precious brain space to allow for positive, learning experiences.6 Babies whose parents are not attuned to their needs become stressed, and stressed babies operate in survival mode, dedicating all their resources to the basic functions necessary for existence and minimizing the
opportunities for growth.7

The biological reactions to stress are phenomenal. The brain releases stress hormones, which in turn trigger a hypermetabolic state in the brain.8 Prolonged exposure to stress causes the release of high levels of thyroid hormones and vasopressin9, a hypothalamic neuropeptide that can induce nausea and vomiting10. (Have you ever seen a baby who's thrown up after
crying?)

The results of stress exposure include dissociation with numbing, avoidance, compliance and lack of reaction.11 Stressed babies try to restore equilibrium but cannot. The biochemical alterations going on in their rapidly developing brains have long-lasting effects.12

Keep in mind that periods of misattunement will always occur. As long as these periods are brief, they actually provide a positive learning experience for infants, teaching resilience and building trust that reattunement will soon follow. These cycles of misattunement and reattunement may form the foundation of the concept of empathy for children.13 Healthy attachment is the key to healthy babies, and healthy babies are the key to healthy adults.

New approaches from new facts
When you come up against "baby trainers" who discourage attunement techniques and advocate building independence, try to keep in mind that they're doing the best they can with the information they have -- or had. New knowledge points to new conclusions and when you know better, you do better. No matter how you choose to parent your children, there will always be someone who disagrees.

Armed with both intuition and hard science, you have the opportunity to explore and choose from many different methods of parenting. In the end, what's most important is that parents treat children as individuals with inherent dignity and love. The rest will work itself out!


1. A.N. Schore, "The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health," Infant Mental Health Journal 22, 1-2 (2001): 201-269
2. A.N. Schore, "Dysregulation of the Right Brain: A Fundamental Mechanism of Traumatic Attachment and the Psychopathogenesis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 36 (2002): 9-30
3. J. Lipari, "First Impressions Count with Your Newborn: Early Months Time for Emotional, Cognitive Development," Boston Herald (Aug. 27, 2000)
4. 4. A.N. Schore, "The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health," Infant Mental Health Journal 22, 1-2 (2001): 201-269
5. A.N. Schore, "Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health," Infant Mental Health Journal 22, 1-2 (2001): 7-66
6. A.N. Schore, "The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health," Infant Mental Health Journal 22, 1-2 (2001): 201-269
7. A.N. Schore, "The Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation and Infant Mental Health," Infant Mental Health Journal 22, 1-2 (2001): 201-269
8. M.R. Brown, "Corticotropin-releasing Factor: Actions on the Sympathetic Nervous System and Metabolism," Endocrinology 111 (1982): 928-931
9. A.N. Schore, "Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development" (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994)
10. A.N. Schore, "Dysregulation of the Right Brain: A Fundamental Mechanism of Traumatic Attachment and the Psychopathogenesis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 36 (2002): 9-30
11. A.N. Schore, "Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development" (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994)
12. A.N. Schore, "Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development" (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994)
13. R. Carroll, UK Council for Psychotherapy, "An Interview with Allan Schore: ‘The American Bowlby’" (conducted by telephone), 2001


Kelley Shirazi’s interest in natural health and nutrition started in college, when she studied herbology and holistic health along with her women’s studies major. After graduation, she created Oceana Botanical Herbal Products, a line of petrochemical- and alcohol-free personal care and baby care products. A passionate advocate of organic, hormone-free foods, Kelley is currently studying toward her master’s of science degree in holistic nutrition. She lives in Oregon with her husband and daughter.

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