Social Movements and Attachment Parenting – Could YOU Be Going Overboard with Attachment Parenting?

Article by Dr Faye Snyder 


            Social movements, like nature itself, tend to look like pendulums swinging between economic forces of development and social conscience. These pendulums swing back and forth, eventually slowing down to a center, or you can say they swell and fade back and swell higher the next time and fade again, but, each time rising higher in the evolution of social consciousness, and each dip is not as regressive as the last one.


            Feudal Europe cooperated with an indigenous population of peasants led predominantly by women wildcraft practitioners and gay men. This communal society had developed highly sophisticated insight into healing arts, including a body of knowledge about the healing properties of herbs, as well as of the anatomy of humans. The Roman Empire extended north setting up churches throughout the heathen communities and established a religion that mirrored the aristocracy. For every king there was the pope. For every lord there was a bishop. For every knight there was a priest. Both shared the same subjects and the same feudal philosophy: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Some are born to rule and others to be ruled.


            The indigenous peasant community found it practical to ally with local manors. Many lived behind fortress walls. In exchange for protection between feuding manors, peasants worked the land and provided medical care for the nobility. 


At some point the feudal religion of Rome began to contend with the communal religious practices of the peasants. It was a time when feudalism was under threat of the notion of free enterprise. If peasants didn’t believe that God determined their social status and that they could actually work their way up the economic ladder, there could be Hell to pay. The Catholic Church was jealous of the authority the wildcraft practitioners over the peasant community. They were determined to devalue and dispense with these women who they began to call witches, ad the Inquisition was born. As many as 13 million women were tortured and murdered by the Roman Catholic church by virtue of superstition. My mother, a Southern woman, told me of a limerick handed down from her mother, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen will always come to some bad end.” Beware peasant women. Learn your place. The new hierarchy was a patriarchy.


Ironically, the feudal Catholic Church actually helped pave the way for capitalism and, therefore, Protestantism. With the birth of industrialization and free enterprise John Locke outlined a Protestant work ethic for the 17th Century. He wrote that orphaned children above the age of three should be put to work to earn their keep.


As these healers were wiped out and driven underground, a new breed of medicine took its place. Without generations upon generations of lessons drawn from the fruits of the earth and the study of the dying and the dead, men suddenly took the place of women, calling themselves doctors. Their first agenda was to establish authority. Next they invented superstitious protocols for healing popular ailments that included blood letting, torture and intimidation and began to create a vocabulary that the lay population could not understand and to write their treatise on medicine. 


In accord with the medical model, that the key to treatment is the elimination of physical symptoms, psychological problems were presumed to be medical, as well. Surgeries were invented to address psychological issues, such as cauterizing the nose of women who masturbated. Clitorectomies were also instituted to dissuade women from seeking divorce. Arrogant doctors treated their patients like bad children who had to be disciplined and taught who was the boss. The approach to psychiatry in the early days was intimidation. If someone acted out, they were restrained, tortured by ice water or swung in an apparatus and frightened into submissive behavior. The theory then and now: If symptoms can be removed, a cure has taken place.


Following the advent of the medical model, theories of genetic inferiority sprang up throughout European cultures. Africans, Jews, women, gays and the mentally ill were genetically inferior. Ignorance was not thought to result from poor education and impoverished environments, but rather was the result of innate inferiority. Researchers actually fabricated studies to “prove” that blacks and poor whites were intellectually inferior at birth by rigging numbers and by citing similar traits in relatives, as if there is no potential for home and social environments to create behaviors. These theories led to the extermination of more than five million Jews and more than a quarter million of the insane were sterilized while another 400,000 of the mentally ill were euthanized preceding World War II. 


Some great theories developed in Europe before the rise of Hitler. Sigmund Freud discovered that women with hysterical symptoms reported incest. When Freud presented this information to his peers he was rejected until he revised his thinking and got his mind right. He developed an Internal Drive Theory to explain symptoms, he formerly believed resulted from childhood trauma. Amid the mix of a patriarchal economy and a eugenics movement, there arose a contentious defense of parents, all parents, against complaining children. There sprung up a Behavioral Psychology, spear headed by John Watson and B. F. Skinner. Watson became a parenting instructor who later influenced Dr. Spock, teaching parents not to overindulge their children. Ironically, it was the behaviorists who asserted that children were born blank slates and could be raised to be doctors or beggars. However, they didn’t have a clue about the importance of nurturing. Eventually, the behaviorists and the Freudian analysts would both collude to protect parents from any version of psychology that would explore their childhood experiences.   


            World War II came along and patriotic women took to doing “men’s work” building airplanes, while the men were away at war. Following WWII women returned to their traditional roles in their traditional homes. Even then, however, there were no state agencies protecting children from child abuse and neglect. It wasn’t until 1963, the same year I attempted in vane to report my parents for child abuse to the local police, that child abuse became a crime. It was during this same time that attachment research began in earnest. 


            Research by Harry Harlow and John Bowlby surfaced in the mid-50s and into the late 60s, proving the critical importance of attachment and continuity of care (by the same primary caregiver). Harlow, in working with infant Rhesus monkeys, demonstrated that unattached monkeys became violent and mentally disturbed. Harlow’s research proved to a large extent that evolution seems to require mothering in most every species. Bowlby presented his theory on the irreducible needs of babies and small children for a secure and continuous attachment while, yet another expert, Dr. Benjamin Spock continued to promote the thinking of Behaviorist John Watson, recommending mothers not pick up their crying babies and that they bottle feed them on a strict schedule.


            Despite Spock’s popularity, Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth took up where Bowlby left off and produced some powerful research showing the different types of attachments that parents create with their children. Some children were secure, some alternately clinging and angry, some became rather indifferent, and yet others displayed bizarre symptoms of head banging, spinning, and rocking that became predictive of severe mental instability. Another researcher, Mary Main, proved that these childhood behaviors were predictive of adult behaviors and would foretell the attachments these grown children would create with their own children. These researchers produced enough evidence for the necessity of secure attachments, except that all social movements are met with economic counterpoints, if and when it threatens major economic forces, such as industry and wages.  


            It would seem that the recent history of child protection has zigzagged in a complex interaction with the women’s movement that almost looks like shoelaces tying together economic forces. As industry would do whatever it takes to keep wages down, it supported the Women’s Movement of the late 60s and early 70s, which appeared on the tail of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-(Vietnam) War Movement, leading to two-income households. Many of our babies ended up in daycare and in no time American children began to devolve before our very eyes. Public schools became a place where children bought drugs, had more piercings, tattoos and sex, brought guns and became diagnosable for their displays of anxiety and depression. A new diagnosis sprung up and the pharmaceutical industry began to make a killing on kids. It became politically incorrect to become a stay-at-home parent or to object to daycare. There became a resurgence of genetic explanations for behavior supported by scientists working for the pharmaceutical industry. 


            Scientists Jay Belsky and Henry Brandtjen produced research proving that daycare was bad for children, but other scientists accused Belsky of “not playing well” with others. It seemed that no one wanted to hear that the attachment between the mother and child mattered.   


             There followed a backlash in my field where researchers tried to prove that attachment needs were a myth. They pointed to children who handled daycare like little adults, becoming highly independent. These adaptations were thought to be positive traits and these bossy little children were characterized as leaders. In fact, they had Reactive Attachment Disorder, which creates little Mafioso-like children who will likely, without major therapy, become disinclined to ever be vulnerable again with another human being. What was developing in social movements like a pendulum now looked within the field of psychology like a war of the researchers. Just as blind as we were to the affects of daycare, these students of human behavior failed to acknowledge that one school of thought completely contradicted the other, and there was no one at the top refereeing the contest. A good therapist, it was thought, should open-mindedly believe both arguments, that daycare is bad for children and that daycare is good for children.  


            Social movements zigzag in all cultures. They have done so throughout human history. Social movements have within them heroes and villains.


All of this is to say, our children have been suffering in daycare at very young ages with social approval. You, Attachment Parents, are the progressive force pressing the pendulum back to child-centered parenting. You are the cutting edge of today, taking up the wisdom of evolution and the evolutionary role of motherhood in childrearing. You are the visionaries. You are the heroes, not only to your children, but to all children not yet born. You are my heroes too. You have created the climate that may enable the Causal Theory to take root and drive the pendulum back to motherhood. 


 Two Proposals




            I am asking that you re-consider some of your theory and practice. I know your beliefs about extended nursing are inspired by the work of the heroic pediatrician William Sears, who proposed a continuous attachment when no one else did. Nevertheless, I am proposing a few amendments to your practices as I bring new information on the art of parenting our children into invested, empathic and successful adults.            






Proposal One: Support Continuous Attachment and Safe Individuation




            Children have two inborn drives. The first one is to attach and the second one is to individuate under the protection of a secure attachment. The two stages overlap. The first five years should not be about preserving the breastfeeding, but it should be about facilitating the individuation process so that security is never broken. Individuation should be initiated by the child and not thwarted by the parent.


            Attachment and breastfeeding are not parallel. Breastfeeding ends earlier. Attaching and nursing are evolved to take place in the first year, and weaning and individuation need to start for the securely attached child at about one year, and sometimes even earlier for a precocious child. A secure attachment may be broken during individuation by lack of continuity. The individuation process needs to be gradual under the protection of the parent, so that individuation is never pre-mature, forced or an actual attachment break. The most important thing parents need to insure in the first five years is that the individuation process is protected by a continuous attachment for the next three to five years.  Of course this individuation process occurs after the secure attachment is formed during the first year of life.  I would love to see this become the goal of Attachment Parenting, to support secure attachment followed by gradual and secure individuation.


             To reiterate, the focus should not be on breastfeeding but on preserving continuity of attachment. If an attachment break is too long, then the attachment trauma is acute. One event can break the trust. If the child ceases to trust, she becomes afraid to be intimate, lest her heart be broken again. This child becomes a little toughie or a bit of wimp. If the break is chronic, the child develops an anxious personality from separation anxiety. The frequent, but shorter separations, erode her security too. Below is a recommended schedule of what children can tolerate. It is conservative, perhaps even cautious, because it is upon our primary attachment relationship that our capacity for empathy, understanding, and love form.  Of course, they can tolerate even less if both schedules, chronic and acute, are interrupted in the same child. 




Primary Sources of Insecure Attachment



Creating Attachment Breaks

Creating Separation Anxiety or Chronic Attachment Trauma

6 months old

6 hours*


1 year old

12 hours*

One hour, once weekly

18 months old

18 hours*

One and one-half hour, once weekly

2 years old

Two days

Two hours, twice weekly

3 years old

Three days

Three hours, three days a week

4 years old

Four days

Four hours, four days a week

5 years old

Five days

Five hours, five days a week (kindergarten)

6 years old

One week

Same as above. Everybody needs to go home at the end of the day.

7 years old

Two weeks

Same as above. Every child needs to go home to family at the end of the day.

8 years old

One month

Same as above.

9 years old

One summer

Same as above.


* Awake hours, during the day.




            When a child shows any indifference to nursing, then Mom ideally would not push it. Mom needs to have a consciousness that facilitates individuation as well as attachment. When a child seeks to individuate in any way and is expected instead to remain a baby, they get the message they are not expected to grow up, even if their body does. Of course, we all know stories of cultures where children were nursed until they were five years old. These are not models of evolution. They are models of nurturing children in harsh environments that don’t provide soft foods for toddlers. When nursing is extended, there are ruthless rites of passage to rip the boy child from his mother, lest he become soft.


            A healthy individuation is not forced either. A young child should not be asked to individuate more than they seem able. Individuation is a longer process than attachment. It even takes a lifetime. Children who have been prematurely separated need longer periods of attachment and may never become individuated.


            I continue to love when mothers and dads “wear” their baby in the first year and even to age two if they enjoy it. Carrying your child now and then on an outing is special, especially the times your child gets to sit upon your shoulders. Beyond that, if your child is securely attached, carrying her denies her autonomy.


            The family bed is more important for children whose mother works and they don’t see their child enough. If you are a stay at home mom your child is well bonded and is ready to begin practicing autonomy at the end of the first year and may actually take to her own bed in her own bedroom.  It is also reasonable to put a securely attached infant into a cradle and then a crib from birth, as long as her days are secure.


            Nursing beyond the age of one is important for mothers who work or who had an attachment break with their child in the first year. Continued nursing of a securely attached child is not healthy, but may not have a negative effect in the second or even third year unless mothers also fail to establish a high bar for their child. Children need their parents to set reasonably high expectations. They need to learn personal discipline, restraint, and deferred gratification. They need to learn ethics. They also need to explore and take initiative. They also need to learn to follow as well as to lead, and especially they need to learn relationship skills. Arrogance and entitlement are forbidden. Continued nursing, if necessary, should then be limited to intimate moments like bedtime. It should not be a meal supplement. Children get little teeth at about one year, because it is time to learn to eat food.






Proposal Two: Introduce Sufficient Discipline and Ethics




            Discipline is complicated and it is an art.  Let me ask you this:


            Does your child seem immature? Does your boy child seem wimpy or un-masculine? Does your child whine when you don’t do things for him? Does your child throw a tantrum when something is too hard?   


            On the other hand, does your child treat you like an equal? Does your child seem bossy toward adults? Does your child abuse you, others and other children? Is your child rude and arrogant? Does your child disrespect you? Is it getting harder and harder to discipline your child? Does your child seem to lack ethics, empathy and self-discipline?


            Two issues are operating here. The first is that when you nurse too long, your child becomes infantilized and immature. They may even develop a personality that wants help for every challenge or uncomfortable feeling. They make become rather lack luster, because they have no ambition or drive to succeed, as everything has been done for them in their early childhood.


            The other issue is that if you over nurture or coddle your child and are thus a weak disciplinarian, failing to set boundaries and limits, as well as failing to follow through consistently, you will create a child who disrespects you and others, but dares you to set limits.


            How and when to discipline is fully covered in my book, along with every other parenting issue you can imagine. If you don’t get my book then you can learn everything you need to know about discipline by watching Supernanny religiously. It is crucial to study the nuances of Jo Frost’s discipline techniques. Her modeling is impeccable, but I notice that most parents watch once or twice, think they’ve got it and then complain it doesn’t work.  If you are not getting amazing results, then watch some more.






            It is such an honor to be recognized by Attachment Parenting. I hope my recommendations make sense and you are clear how deeply I appreciate this movement and especially you.





S. Faye Snyder, PsyD, is a child and forensic psychologist and marriage and family therapist specializing in attachment and trauma. She 
is the originator of The Causal Theory, a tangible way of understanding how lifelong behavior and personality traits, healthy and unhealthy, arise from parenting. Snyder founded the Parenting and Relationship Counseling (PaRC) Foundation, where she is the clinical director.


LIC. #PSY24806 • LIC. #MFC29816

Who says kid’s don’t come with a manual? Now they do! Dr Faye believes that parents need good theory as well as clinicians. With good theory they can parent better and self-correct as well.  The Manual is not just for parents, the information enables adults to objectively evaluate their own childhood lessons and even ‘re-parent’ themselves on their own or with the help of therapy.