Attachment parenting is based on the concept of attachment theory, which focuses on the initial bonds between an infant and their caregiver. Attachment parenting emphasizes themes of parental attunement, empathy, and responsiveness to a child’s needs. Attachment advocates believe that this approach to parenting helps increase a child’s sense of resilience and fosters better self-esteem.
What Is Attachment Parenting?
Attachment parenting is a modern approach focused on a parent’s attunement and reactions to their child’s needs. It focuses on strengthening attachment within the parent-child relationship using designated tools (known as baby B’s). The idea is that strong attachment bonds can nurture a child’s self-worth, which in turn improves their emotional well-being throughout life. Proponents of this approach state that this parenting style is intuitive and rooted in evolutionary concepts.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory comes from the work of psychologist John Bowlby, who viewed attachment as the emotional bonds shared between human beings. His work focused on the distress children experienced when separated from their primary caregivers.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth further expanded upon Bowlby’s research with her ‘strange situation’ study, which examined how babies react after being segregated from their parents. Their reactions helped her identify and define attachment styles.1
Original Principles of Attachment Parenting
The primary principles of attachment parenting come from the work of pediatrician Dr. William Sears. In 1993, he and his wife, Martha Sears, published their well-known book, The Baby Book, which evolved into the first manual for attachment parenting.2 For the past 25 years, Attachment Parenting International has focused on teaching and promoting how to raise ‘secure, joyful, and empathetic children.’3
The eight principles of attachment parenting include:
- Prepare for parenting: Try to reduce negative thoughts and feelings about pregnancy. Lean into the process of getting ready to do the work of parenting.
- Breastfeeding: Attachment parenting recommends breastfeeding, as breast milk contains unique nutrients essential for an infant’s growth and well-being.
- Be sensitive: Consider that all emotions are valid and that every cry, tantrum, or expression has a legitimate purpose. Aim to understand rather than immediately punish.
- Skin-to-skin contact: Touch provides soothing relief. Consider babywearing, taking baths together, and holding your baby often.
- Nighttime parenting: Make co-sleeping arrangements where your baby is in the room with you at nighttime.
- Provide unconditional love: Stay present and engaged with your baby. Aim to be loving and consistent as often as possible.
- Provide positive discipline: Try to focus on connecting with your baby, rather than disciplining during moments of tension. Consider how you can collaborate and work with your child to resolve conflict.
- Aim for balance: Tap into your support system, practice self-care, and take strategies to avoid parental burnout.
Updated Attachment Parenting Principles
The original eight principles of attachment parenting have since been updated (referred to as Baby B’s and attachment tools), but remain similar to the first concepts. In this revised approach, Dr. Sears acknowledges that attachment parenting is an approach, rather than a rigid set of rules. Therefore, parents should do the best they can with the resources they have. Ultimately, parents need to do what’s best for their family.
The seven “Baby B’s” of attachment parenting include4
- Birth bonding: Early bonding experiences include significant time and contact together. During this time, babies are primed to crave closeness with their mothers, and immediate bonding builds that foundation.
- Breastfeeding: Mothers and babies learn from each other through breastfeeding. Breastfeeding also produces connective hormones like prolactin and oxytocin.
- Baby-wearing: Carried babies learn more about their environment when they’re in a constant state of calmness. Parents get to know their babies well, due to them being so close.
- Bed sharing: Close proximity to caregivers allows babies to feel safe while sleeping. Babies learn that sleep can be pleasant and enjoyable.
- Belief in baby’s cries: Crying signals that a baby needs something. A parent responding attentively to these cries continuously promotes trust.
- Beware of baby trainers: Be mindful of rigid, extreme parenting styles that focus more on watching clocks or crying it out than understanding your baby. Even if baby trainers provide short-term relief, they create distance between the parent and baby.
- Balance: Parents need to take care of themselves and focus on their own relationships, too. This allows them to be more responsive to their baby.
Criticisms of Attachment Parenting
The premise behind attachment parenting is controversial. Critics of this parenting approach argue that it promotes unrealistic expectations for parents, particularly with variables that may be out of their control (such as the ability to bond immediately after birth or breastfeed). Moreover, there is a big emphasis on the role of the mother, which disregards other family systems or caregivers. Likewise, research shows that ‘tight parenting’ (being together all the time) often diminishes healthy attachment.5
Criticisms of attachment parenting include:
- Infant death: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages bedsharing, as it can increase the possibility of strangulation, suffocation, and SIDS.6
- Multiple caregivers: Attachment parenting strongly focuses on the relationship between mother and baby. This is not inclusive of all families, and it doesn’t inherently take into account the role of babysitters, nannies, or other providers.
- All-or-nothing mindset: Following any parenting style as if it’s an exact formula often moves situations into an all-or-nothing approach.
- Internalized shame: Parents may feel guilty if they cannot or do not want to do everything according to this style. They may believe they’re the problem, and struggle with feeling like a bad parent as a result.
- It’s not the same as attachment theory: Children with attentive and responsive parents have a greater chance of being securely attached. These abstract principles do not inherently coincide with bedsharing, babywearing, or breastfeeding.
5 Benefits of Attachment Parenting
When practiced safely and effectively, many families can reap the benefits of attachment parenting. Like with any other approach, it’s best to consider a balanced, flexible approach. Trying to do things perfectly will likely backfire for everyone.
Here are five benefits of attachment parenting:
1. Emotional Regulation in Children
Research shows that attuning to a child’s needs helps them recognize and manage their own emotions. This process is known as emotional regulation, and it’s critical at all stages of life. When parents can respond to their child appropriately, the child learns how to manage their emotions themselves.
2. Increased Child Comfort
Fussier newborns and young babies may respond well to attachment parenting. They feel soothed by their caregivers, and there’s a state of mutual understanding. The child trusts the parent will be there to help them, and the parent builds confidence knowing they can support their distressed child.
3. Increased Bonding
Many parents find it challenging to bond with their children. Attachment parenting offers a gentle approach to connecting physically and emotionally through various methods (breastfeeding, lots of physical touch, validating emotions). Even if you apply just a few strategies to your parenting style, you may find that it deepens the relationship with your child.
4. Safer Home Environments
When a child is young, their home is their entire world. Even as they grow older, home still acts as the initial blueprint for safety, autonomy, and comfort. By building a safe home environment, your child may experience less stress and more confidence.
5. Secure Attachment
Attachment parenting can foster secure attachment in children. When children are raised in loving, attentive homes, they learn that their needs are important and valued. They feel confident in the world, and they tend to enjoy healthier relationships with themselves and others.
Examples of Attachment Parenting
Attachment parenting can be applied to children at any age. Of course, how you parent a newborn is significantly different from how you parent a baby or toddler. Like with any parenting strategy, you may need to use a trial and error approach to determine what works best for you.
Examples of attachment parenting include:
- Breastfeed after birth
- Follow the baby’s cues for hunger and feed on-demand
- Soothe the baby while crying
- Avoid sleep schedules
- Continue breastfeeding based on baby’s needs
- Hold the baby in a baby carrier
- Recognize that every cry is a type of communication
- Spend one-on-one time interacting and playing with the baby
- Let the baby tell you what they need instead of following a set schedule
- Validate emotions regularly
- Intervene with the intention of connecting rather than disciplining
- Embrace the toddler’s unique sense of self
- Continue with physical closeness and comforting touch
- Be mindful of stressing about milestones or other rigid guidelines
Is Attachment Parenting Right for My Family?
Incorporating aspects of attachment parenting can strengthen the relationship you have with your child. It’s important to be validating and empathic to what children need. That said, every family is different, and it’s important to find parenting approaches that are both safe and align with your values. However, parenting disagreements can often be a source of tension among couples. If that’s the case, couples therapy or family therapy may help you and your partner get on the same page.
There is no perfect parenting approach, and all philosophies have their strengths and drawbacks. Attachment parenting offers a framework for supportive, attuned connections. However, parenting is not the same for everyone, and it’s important to be willing to find what works best for your unique family.