What Science Says About Natural Parenting
There is no doubt about it – natural parenting can be a controversial topic.
There is a lot of negativity about the natural parenting movement, such as this article. Which claims that the natural parenting movement is completely based on pseudoscience, that it attracts extremists, that it’s anti-formula and based on fear.
I have to say, I agree to some extent. The natural parenting movement does attract extremists. And they are the ones giving it a bad name. Anyone who has felt attacked, criticized or belittled by someone who claims to be a ‘natural’ or attachment parent, will of course feel resentment towards the movement as a whole.
But my experience with natural parenting has been vastly different. I came across the idea while doing research during my own pregnancy. After meeting my midwife (an advocate for natural birth and parenting), I was blown away by how supportive and encouraging she was.
I was made to feel empowered and encouraged by the natural parenting movement. I was surrounded by women who were advocates for natural parenting, and not once did I feel judged, or that I ought to be doing things a certain way.
In fact, I felt inspired, encouraged and empowered by these women.
I have a degree in Psychological Science and my husband has a Ph.D in Cognitive Psychology, so we both believe in doing our research, and natural parenting is no different.
So today I want to share with you some scientific research that supports the ideas behind natural parenting.
What are the ideas behind natural parenting?
For an in depth explanation of natural parenting, click here.
At the heart of natural parenting is the secure attachment between parent and child. This is thought to be achieved by physical closeness, sensitivity and responsiveness in parents.
The two claims made by natural or attachment parenting are that:
1. Sensitive, responsive parenting leads kids to form secure attachments, and
2. Securely-attached kids are healthier and happier
What science says about natural/attachment parenting practices and secure attachment
There is a lot of research that supports the claim that physical closeness, parental responsiveness, and sensitivity leads to more securely attached infants.
Maternal sensitivity improves infant attachment
Research published in The Journal Of Family Psychology in 2006, showed that maternal sensitivity to infant distress at 6 months increased the likelihood of secure attachment at 15 months.
More physical contact between mother and baby increases likelihood of secure attachment
Anisfeld and colleagues conducted an experimental study on the effect of physical closeness on infant attachment. Mothers of newborns were randomly allocated to either the experimental or the control group. Mothers in the experimental group were given soft baby carriers (more physical contact) and mothers in the control group were given infant carrier seats (less contact). At 13 months of age, the Ainsworth Strange Situation test was administered (a standard test of infant attachment) and the results showed that infants in the baby-wearing (experimental) group had a significantly higher chance of being securely attached to their mothers than infants in the control group.
There is a link between emotional availability and secure attachment
Research suggests a link between secure attachment and emotional availability—being open to discuss emotions, and being ready to respond sensitively and appropriately to the emotions of others (Easterbrooks et al 2000). An Israeli study observed mothers interacting with their infants and found that moms rated as more emotionally available were more likely to have securely attached children (Ziv et al 2000).
What science says about the benefits of secure attachment
Securely attached infants can explore on their own
Research has shown that infants who are securely attached are able to partake in individual exploration in the absence of their parents. This is shown during the Strange Situation procedure (Ainsworth et al 1970) – a psychometric evaluation of infant attachment.
Securely attached children are more emotionally available
Research has also demonstrated that children who were securely attached as infants are more emotionally available and responsive at age 7 than those with insecure-disorganized attachments.
Attachment is associated with emotional regulation later in life
Research conducted at Kent State University, Ohio, showed that secure attachment was related to higher levels of positive mood, more constructive coping, and better regulation of emotion in the classroom at age 11.
Inversely, disorganized or ambivalent attachment was associated with negative mood.
Other benefits of Natural/Attachment Parenting
Maternal contact can protect from stress
A recent study conducted by Sharp and colleagues, showed that infants at high risk of developing abnormal stress responses were protected by maternal contact and caress.
Co-sleeping can help to regulate stress response
Research published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that infants who slept alone in their first month of life had a significantly stronger stress response (measured by cortisol reactivity) to a mild stressor than infants who co-slept during their first month of life.
Positive parenting can decrease stress
A study conducted by Wyman and colleagues demonstrated that children in high stress environments were less stress-affected at ages 10-12 if there parents self-identified as advocates of positive discipline practices.
Responsive parenting can decrease behavioral problems
A longitudinal study tracking the development of 544 babies found that children with more sensitive mothers were less likely to experience executive function problems (including problems with attention, focus, and impulse control) when they were four years old.
Positive discipline can reduce problem behaviors
One experimental study reports that children living in stressed families (characterized by marital conflict and frequent daily hassles) showed fewer overactive problem behaviors if their parents had been trained in positive parenting and sensitive discipline techniques (van Zeijl et al 2006).
Securely attached children have higher IQ’s
Research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry revealed that children with a secure attachment to their mothers scored 12 points higher on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale than their insecurely attached counterparts. This was after the mother’s in the securely attached and insecurely attached group were matched for IQ, and their family’s social-economic status and education was controlled for.
Parental responsiveness is correlated with higher cognitive functioning
Research by Landry and colleagues in 2006 showed that increased maternal responsiveness facilitated greater growth in infants’ social, emotional, communication, and cognitive competence. This suggests that maternal responsiveness plays an important role in infant development.
So, what does this mean for the Natural Parenting movement?
Regardless of the extremists, the bullies and the other people that give the natural parenting movement a bad name, the research is clear. Secure attachment is influenced by parental sensitivity, responsiveness and closeness. And Secure attachment has wonderful socio-emotional, cognitive, psychological and physiological benefits.
Given that the Natural Parenting movement is based largely on fostering a secure attachment through parental sensitivity, responsiveness and closeness, we can conclude that natural parenting is NOT based on pseudoscience.
Natural parenting has a continually growing body of scientific research that supports the claims made by natural and attachment parenting theories.
If you practice natural parenting in any way I encourage you to stay true to what you believe in! Do your research and most of all, listen to your instincts and do what feels natural for YOU!