Parents play many different roles in the lives of their children, including teacher, playmate, disciplinarian, caregiver and attachment figure. Of all these roles, their role as an attachment figure is one of the most important in predicting the child’s later social and emotional outcome (1–3).
Attachment is one specific and circumscribed aspect of the relationship between a child and caregiver that is involved with making the child safe, secure and protected (4). The purpose of attachment is not to play with or entertain the child (this would be the role of the parent as a playmate), feed the child (this would be the role of the parent as a caregiver), set limits for the child (this would be the role of the parent as a disciplinarian) or teach the child new skills (this would be the role of the parent as a teacher). Attachment is where the child uses the primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore and, when necessary, as a haven of safety and a source of comfort (5).
Attachment is not ‘bonding’. ‘Bonding’ was a concept developed by Klaus and Kennell (6) who implied that parent-child ‘bonding’ depended on skin-to-skin contact during an early critical period. This concept of ‘bonding’ was proven to be erroneous and to have nothing to do with attachment. Unfortunately, many professionals and nonprofessionals continue to use the terms ‘attachment’ and ‘bonding’ interchangeably. When asked what ‘secure attachment’ looks like, many professionals and nonprofessionals describe a ‘picture’ of a contented six-month-old infant being breastfed by their mother who is in a contented mood; they also often erroneously imply that breastfeeding per se promotes secure attachment. Others picture ‘secure attachment’ between a nine-year-old boy and his father as the father and son throw a ball in the backyard, go on a fishing trip or engage in some other activity. Unfortunately, these ‘pictures’ have little, if anything, to do with attachment, they are involved with other parental roles (eg, their role as a caregiver in the case of the breastfeeding mother and as a playmate in the case of the father and son playing catch in the backyard). One might ask why the distinction between attachment and ‘bonding’ matters. The answer may lie in the fact that ‘bonding’ has not been shown to predict any aspect of child outcome, whereas attachment is a powerful predictor of a child’s later social and emotional outcome.