The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love (Part Six)

Ed. note: Today brings us to Part Six and the final installment of Lauren Lindsey Porter’s article, “The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love.” First published in Mothering Magazine (Issue 119, July/August 2003), it is reprinted on with the author’s permission. References follow.

Yet another body of hopeful research also exists. There is expanding and exciting study on the impact of positive emotional and play states in the mother-child relationship. This research shows that the capacity to create joy, elation, interest, and excitement together with your baby is a key to early healthy development and lifelong physical and mental health. Thus, the focus is not just on the negative impact of stress and the importance of stress avoidance, but also recognizes the central importance of happiness and joy. The child attaches to the regulating mother, who helps maximize opportunity for positive emotions and minimize opportunity for negative emotions, thus creating optimal health.51

What this means for parents raising children in today’s world is sweeping. We need cultural changes-changes in expectation, in our view of parents, in our definitions of feminism and masculinity, in our economic systems and medical understandings. In its broader applications, attachment theory requires us to rethink most of what our society has taught us. We must let go of old learning and erroneous information in order to re-attune to our own connective instincts. While this cannot be accomplished quickly, what we can do is apply this new knowledge to our own lives.

Sources that advise the use of formula, bottles, and feeding schedules when on-cue breastfeeding is possible can be dismissed. The understanding of breastfeeding as an attachment behavior that not only meets the nutritional and emotional needs of children but helps to fortify the mother-baby dyad is clear. Bowlby himself saw the dual purpose of breastfeeding and viewed the attachment as primary.52 Equally compelling is the impact of the visual connection facilitated by nursing. At about eight weeks of age, a baby’s vision improves, and these early visual experiences play an important role in development. The mother’s emotionally expressive face is the most potent visual stimulus a baby encounters.53 The creation of an intense mutual gaze causes endorphin levels to rise in the baby’s brain, producing feelings of joy. This emotional circuit causes the mother’s endorphin levels to rise in turn, resulting in an emotional synchronization.54 Additionally, the skin contact in breastfeeding, and in baby-holding and -wearing in general, assists in this process.

Co-sleeping is another important extension of attachment theory. Because of mother-baby proximity, co-sleeping allows for a quick response to disequilibrium. Firmly established regulatory aspects of bed-sharing parallel and echo the self-regulatory learning taking place within the attachment framework. As the work of Dr. James McKenna illustrates (see Mothering, no. 114), co-sleeping holds key benefits for infant development and survival.

Perhaps most important, behavior-based techniques of child-raising, such as sleep training, must be shunned. Given the new body of sophisticated, cross-discipline research on attachment and brain development outlined in this article, it is clear that a baby’s willingness to accept sleep training after reportedly brief periods of protest is no less than a cycle of hyper-arousal and dissociation responses that is damaging to its development. To think that since the infant has passively accepted the new sleep system, the sleep training is thus “successful,” is to misunderstand the workings of the infant brain. No longer can we accept the conventional wisdom that babies are merely “exercising their lungs” when they cry; nor can we tolerate interpretations of babies’ cries as “manipulation.” Babies cry to signal distress and in effort to engage caregivers to help meet their needs and foster their healthy development. It is an attempt at communication, not manipulation. Their goals are survival and optimal development. This is achieved through secure attachment.

Perhaps the most difficult application of attachment theory lies in our own childhoods. Most of us were not raised within the attachment paradigm. We may worry about the choices we have made with our children or the implications of our own childhoods on our current lives. While the period of rapid brain growth that occurs in the early years is the most vulnerable time, it is not the only time in which brain development can be altered. The brain is a flexible and complex organ that is always capable of new learning. The acceptance, belief, and practice of attachment parenting can be a healing experience for the parent while creating the best possible environment for the child. In the words of Ghandi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

1. J. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss 1: Attachment (New York: Basic Books, 1969/1982).
2. R. S. Marvin and B.A. Preston, “Normative Development: The Ontogeny of Attachment,” in J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver (eds.), Handbook of Attachment (New York: Guilford Press, 1999): 44-67.
3. M. Ainsworth, Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967).
4. See Note 1.
5. See Note 2.
6. See Note 1.
7. See Note 3.
8. See Note 1.
9. D. D. Francis and M. J. Meaney, “Maternal Care and the Development of Stress Responses,” Current Opinion in Neurobiology 9 (1999): 128-134.
10. See Note 2.
11. See Note 1.
12. J. Dobbing, Developing Brain and Behavior (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1997).
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. J. Lipari, “First Impressions Count with Your Newborn: Early Months Time for Emotional, Cognitive Development,” Boston Herald (Aug 27, 2000).
16. D. Cicchetti and D. Tucker, “Development and Self-Regulatory Structures of the Mind,” Development and Psychopathology 6 (1994): 533-549.
17. See Note 13.
18. 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.
19. See Note 13.
20. G. Spangler, et al., “Maternal Sensitivity as an Organizer for Biobehavioral Regulation in Infancy,” Developmental Psychobiology 27 (1994): 425-437.
21. See Note 1.
22. R. Feldman, et al., “Relations Between Cyclicity and Regulation in Mother-Infant Interaction at 3 and 9 Months and Cognition at 2 Years,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 17 (1996): 347-365.
23. R. Penman, et al., “Synchronicity in Mother-Infant Interaction: A Possible Neurophysiological Base,” British Journal of Medical Psychology 56 (1983): 1-7.
24. R. Carroll, UK Council for Psychotherapy, “An Interview with Allan Schore: ‘The American Bowlby’ ” (conducted by telephone), 2001.
25. See Note 18.
26. See Note 18.
27. B. D. Perry, et al., “Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaptation and ‘Use-Dependent’ Development of the Brain: How ‘States’ Become ‘Traits’,” Infant Mental Health Journal 16 (1995): 271-291.
28. M. R. Brown, “Corticotropin-releasing Factor: Actions on the Sympathetic Nervous System and Metabolism,” Endocrinology 111 (1982): 928-931.
29. A. N. Schore, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994).
30. See Note 14.
31. B. Beebe, “Coconstructing Mother-Infant Distress: The Microsynchrony of Maternal Impingement and Infant Avoidance in the Face-to-Face Encounter,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 20 (2000): 214-440.
32. See Note 14.
33. See Note 29.
34. See Note 29.
35. E. Z. Tronick and M. K. Weinberg, “Depressed Mothers and Infants: Failure to Form Dyadic States of Consciousness,” in L. Murray and P. J. Cooper (eds.), Postpartum Depression in Child Development (New York: Guilford Press, 1997): 54-81.
36. See Note 14.
37. S. W. Porges, “Emotion: An Evolutionary By-product of the Neural Regulation of the Autonomic Nervous System,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 807 (1997): 62-77.
38. See Note 35.
39. See Note 27.
40. See Note 18.
41. See Note 13.
42. B. S. McEwen, “The Neurobiology of Stress: From Serendipity to Clinical Relevance,” Brain Research 886 (2000): 172-189.
43. See Note 2.
44. See Note 2.
45. J. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss 2: Separation: Anxiety and Anger (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
46. R. S. Marvin, “An Ethological-Cognitive Model for the Attenuation of Mother-Child Attachment Behavior,” in T. M. Alloway, et al. (eds.), Advances in the Study of Communication and Affect 3: Attachment Behavior (New York: Plenum Press, 1977), 25-60.
47. See Note 3.
48. See Note 18.
49. See Note 24.
50. See Note 13.
51. See Note 24.
52. See Note 1.
53. H. Yamada, et al., “A Rapid Brain Metabolic Change in Infants Detected by MRI,” Neuroreport 8 (1997): 3775-3778.
54. See Note 18.

Ainsworth, M. Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.
Bowlby, J. Attachment and Loss 1: Attachment. Basic Books, 1969/1982.
Bowlby, J. Attachment and Loss 2: Separation: Anxiety and Anger. Basic Books, 1973.
Bowlby, J. Attachment and Loss 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. Basic Books, 1980.
Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books, 1990.
Cassidy, J. and Shaver, P. (eds.). Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. Guilford Press, 1999.
Damasio, A. The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. Grosset/Putnam, 1999.
Karen, R. Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Sears, W. and Sears, M. The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby. Little, Brown, 2001.
Van de Kolk, et al. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society. Guilford Press, 1996.

Attachment Parenting International, 2906 Berry Hill Drive Nashville, TN 37204;

For more information about attachment parenting, see the following past issues of Mothering: “Natural Family Living,” no. 100; “In Their Hands,” no. 85; and “The Needs of Children,” no. 74.

Lauren Lindsey Porter is a clinical social worker by training and the mother of one daughter, Abby (2 1/2). Since having a baby, she has not worked outside the home, focusing instead on raising Abby and on writing. Prior to Abby’s birth, Lauren worked for more than seven years as a therapist for children, adolescents, and families healing from trauma and mental illness. Last year, she and her husband, Joel, moved with Abby to Hamilton, New Zealand.

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