Questioning 'intensive attachment'

Val Gillies, Rosalind Edwards and Nicola Horsley with an exclusive extract from their new book.

In the same way that babies are encouraged to ‘latch’ on to their mother’s breast as part of the mantra of providing the best for your baby to set them up for the future, early years intervention doctrines have latched onto brain science. This happened initially through a public relations exercise in the USA, from where it has taken on a life of its own. It has been melded with already well-embedded psychological ideas about socio-emotional child development, notably particular versions of attachment theory that chime very neatly with a social investment model. The model of parenting and its implications in early years intervention rhetoric and programmes thus represent a confluence of cultural ideas about intensive mothering, a rendering of attachment theory and a depiction of neuroscience. Together, they form a rather moralistic practice that positions women as the ‘natural’ and most important environment for their children, and draws on stereotypical notions of maternal agency and responsibility.

Contemporary ideas about good parenting are shaped by a powerful set of cultural features that have been termed ‘intensive mothering’. Sharon Hays (1998), who introduced the term, has identified these elements as: mothers are the best possible people to care for their children, mothering should centre around the child’s needs (as interpreted by experts), and that children should be considered emotionally rewarding and fulfilling for mothers. The significance attached to mothering as shaping the next generation is achieved through the separation out of children and their parents from acknowledgement of the wider economic and community life in which they are located. Further, Ellie Lee and colleagues (2014) argue that this intensive parenting culture is built on a portrayal of bringing up children as fundamentally important and far more risky than recognised previously. It presumes that there is a deficit in parental practice that requires remedying through training and regulation from experts as to the correct way to parent a child. This broad social notion of a child-centred and labour-intensive parenting practice sits well with a specific version of attachment theory that has annexed brain science (Thornton, 2011a, 2011b).

Attachment theorising has ebbed and flowed and been reanimated over the years. Davi Johnson Thornton (2011a, 2011b) argues that dominant versions of attachment theory have shifted over the past half century as they have keyed into ideas about increasing babies’ brain capacity. What began as a focus on babies’ reflexive biological need to attach themselves to their mothers during a formative period following birth, and notions of the deprivation of a maternal presence (physical or mental) leading to dysfunctional physical and emotional outcomes for children, latterly has shifted in emphasis. It is now firmly fixed not merely on mothers’ presence but on a certain type of attentive, attuned, responsive and focused presence that is necessary to build babies’ brains. While Bowlby asserted that what was required was for a mother to be present and act instinctively with her infant, the current emphasis is on a deliberated form of intensive mothering. An example of the stress on a sustained attachment presence can be found on the Harvard Center for Developing Child website, where at the end of a page devoted to the importance of ‘adult caregivers’ responses to young children, the concocted question, ‘Will occasional lapses in attention from adults harm a child’s development?’ meets with the somewhat grudging, equivocal answer ‘Probably not.’ 

The contemporary mix of intensive mothering, attachment theory and brain science requires mothers – or certainly particular groups of classed and raced mothers – to be informed and advised about how to interact purposively and in the best, prescribed way with their babies. The focus has developed into a stress on mothers needing to invest time and positive emotional connection in their children as an intense self-managed project – the success of which can be captured in baby brain scan images (Wall, 2010; Macvarish, 2014). It is this particular combination of attachment theory and neuroscience that underpins the assertion in a Sutton Trust report that research shows that 40% of British babies are not attached securely to their ‘parents’ (Sutton Trust, 2014) and which led the founder of PIPUK, Andrea Leadsom MP, to refer to a ‘pandemic’ that is the cause of ‘our broken society’ (2008). This is an assertion that has been challenged as full of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the attachment tests and evidence (Horsley, 2014; Keller, 2014; LeVine, 2014; Meins, 2014).

Nonetheless, devoting time to enacting intensive maternal attunement is promoted as absolutely fundamental if babies’ brains are to develop optimally. The argument goes that if the mother does not model emotional attachment to the baby, then for the rest of the child’s life, into adulthood, the relevant connections in their brain will not have developed and so they will not know how to enter into and deal with relationships (Schore, 2000). There is no questioning of the underlying system of cultural assumptions about what constitutes a ‘good’ relationship (Keller, 2014; LeVine, 2014). Rather, attachment is promoted as an observable biological process that is engraved in the architecture of babies’ brains, for which mothers bear moral responsibility. The neuromyth about the brain-damaging consequences of poor maternal ‘responsiveness’ is, as we discussed previously, highly speculative with little established basis in neuroscience, and the original Bowlby version of attachment theory has been criticised as flawed methodologically, as essentialising and as ethnocentric (Keller, 2014; LeVine, 2014; see also Rose and Rose, 2013: 93–9).

Nonetheless, it is an intoxicating combination of these two unsupported ideas that propels early years intervention policy, investment and practice, with the aim of preventing damage and maximising children’s development. The ‘Five to Thrive’ campaign is a good example of the way that elements of brain science and attachment theory are woven together (Macvarish, 2014) by advocates of a social investment model. The campaign is produced and promoted by the Kate Cairns Associates training and consultancy business. It builds on the Parenting matters report addressing social mobility – written by a corporate lawyer (Paterson, 2011), and seeks to support professionals working in the early years field. The campaign provides resources and training in the ‘science behind the messages’ to make brain-based and attachment ideas accessible to parents and to educate them as to what they need to do to optimise their children’s life chances. It echoes the public health ‘Five a Day’ nutrition campaign, in identifying a set of five key activities as the ‘Building blocks for a healthy brain’: ‘Respond, Cuddle, Relax, Play, Talk’. The campaign is also an example of the way that brain science ideas are mixed with intensive attachment assertions and most zealously promoted by proponents who are not neuroscientists themselves (Bruer, 1999). Another example is the author of the bestselling book Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain, Sue Gerhardt (2004). Her book warns that if mothers do not love their babies in the prescribed way and demonstrate this through the prescribed activities, then the damage will be inscribed on their baby’s brain. Gerhardt is not a neuroscientist and it is clear that if she had asked one to fact check her assertions, the book might have read quite differently. Gerhardt’s book, though, is regarded as a ‘must read’ by many professionals working in the early intervention field. As one of the Family Nurse Partnership practitioners we interviewed (FNP interview 3) told us:

When we started we were all given the Why love matters book to go away and read, by Sue Gerhardt. All the research that she’s pulled together about all the research that’s happened over the last few years about the developing brain really.… That really feeds into this programme, why the FNP programme is from early pregnancy until the child is 2, because of the research has shown that those two and a half years or whatever are crucial for brain development and attachment for children.


Yet neuroscientific knowledge about the brain identifies its plasticity from childhood through into adulthood, and attachment has also been shown to be a plastic phenomenon in humans (Bruer, 1999). The early intervention advocates roll on and over such challenges to their declarations however.

- This is an extract from Challenging the politics of early intervention (ISBN 9781447324102), published by Policy Press, August 2017, £22.99

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Author biographies

Val Gillies is Professor of Social Policy/Criminology at the University of Westminster.  She researches in the area of family, social class, marginalised children and young people, and historical comparative analysis.

Rosalind Edwards is Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton, where she is also Social Sciences Director of Research and a Co-Director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods.

Nicola Horsley is a research fellow at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research analyses discourses of citizenship, educational and family practices, and the privileging of scientific and technical knowledge in policy making.

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