The XX Factor

Breast-Feeding Moms Can Be Robots Too

Women breast-feed their babies at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington on Feb. 12, 2011 during a “nurse-in”

Photograph by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

A post in the Atlantic by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz dredging up a 20-year-old cover story makes a very splendid corrective to the latest debate about attachment parenting. The founders of the method were not in fact William and Martha Sears—they are the popularizers. The brains behind the movement are psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, both of whom studied children with separation anxiety. Ainsworth and Bowlby were largely reacting to the ideas of 1950s psychologist John Watson who argued that “mother love is a dangerous instrument.”  

Bowlby in particular had the same sort of troubled childhood as the Sears’. He was raised by a society mother who paid no attention to him and a beloved nanny who left the family when he was 4. At 7 he was sent to boarding school, about which he said, “I wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school at age 7.”

Nonetheless Ainsworth and Bowlby come up with an entirely more reasonable version of attachment parenting than the one promulgated by the Sears. Attachment parenting of late has become fairly prescriptive, and defined by certain actions, namely, breast-feeding, holding the baby all the time, and co-sleeping. When a baby cries a mother is supposed to rush to cuddle it; still more, she is supposed to want to rush to cuddle it. All other maternal instincts—such as the one to scream in frustration, to finish what one is writing, or to call the nanny—are unadvisable, in fact unnatural.

So it was delightful to read this description from the old Atlantic story about attachment parenting in its infancy:

Questions like whether to breast-feed or bottle-feed, or at what age to introduce solid foods, though still important, no longer carry the same urgency. Attachment theory suggests that babies thrive emotionally because of the overall quality of the care they’ve experienced, not because of specific techniques. A bottle-fed baby whose mother is sensitively attuned will do better than a breastfed baby whose mother is mechanical and distant.