Parents everywhere seek a close emotional bond with their babies. They also strive to develop a parenting style that works with their values. Some parenting models favor treating children as little adults to be reasoned with. Others take an approach that stresses rule-following. They all aim to create self-reliant adults who can maintain healthy relationships and go on to have families of their own.
With so much advice on different styles of parenting, how do you know what works? Sometimes trial and error works best. Armed with conflicting philosophies, every parent tests different approaches to see what ultimately works for the parent and the children.
Attachment parenting focuses on the nurturing connection that parents can develop with their children. That nurturing connection is viewed as the ideal way to raise secure, independent, and empathetic children. Proponents of this parenting philosophy include the well-known pediatrician William Sears, MD. They make the case that a secure, trusting attachment to parents during childhood forms the basis for secure relationships and independence as adults.
The Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting
Attachment Parenting International (API) is a worldwide educational association for this style of parenting. API identifies eight principles of attachment parenting. Parents have considerable leeway in how they interpret and put these principles into action. The eight principles are:
- Prepare for pregnancy, birth, and parenting. Proponents of attachment parenting believe it is important to eliminate negative thoughts and feelings about pregnancy. Doing so, they say, readies a parent for the emotionally demanding work of being a parent.
- Feed with love and respect. Breastfeeding, proponents say, is the ideal way to create a secure attachment. It also teaches infants that parents will listen to their cues and fulfill their needs.
- Respond with sensitivity. With attachment parenting, parents consider all expressions of emotions, including repeated tantrums, as real efforts at communication. Those efforts are to be taken seriously and understood rather than punished or dismissed.
- Use nurturing touch. Attachment parenting proponents advise maximum skin-to-skin touching. Ways to achieve that include joint baths and "baby-wearing" -- carrying babies during the day in a front-facing sling.
- Engage in nighttime parenting. Attachment parenting experts advise making "co-sleeping" arrangements. With co-sleeping, an infant sleeps in the same room with parents so they can feed and emotionally soothe the child during the night. Some parents practice "bed-sharing" or sleeping in the same bed with babies. But be aware that currently the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against this as it may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
- Provide constant, loving care. Proponents of attachment parenting advise the nearly constant presence of a parent. That includes during walks, parents' night out, and work. They advocate against childcare for more than 20 hours a week for babies younger than 30 months old.
- Practice positive discipline. Parents are advised to distract, redirect, and guide even the youngest of babies, and to model positive behavior. Attachment parenting aims at understanding what a child's negative behavior is communicating. And parents are encouraged to work out a solution together with a child, rather than spanking or simply imposing their will on children.
- Strive for balance in personal and family life. Parents are encouraged to create a support network, live a healthy lifestyle, and prevent parenting burn-out.
The Roots of Attachment Parenting
At the root of attachment parenting lies attachment theory. Attachment theory stems from psychologist John Bowlby's studies of maternal deprivation and animal behavior research in the early 1950s.
Attachment theory says an infant instinctively seeks closeness to a secure "attachment figure." This closeness is necessary for the infant to feel safe emotionally as well as for food and survival. Early animal studies found that baby primates preferred a warm, terry-cloth "mother" doll over a wire doll that dispensed food but lacked warmth.
Attachment parenting is based on the idea that babies learn to trust and thrive when their needs are consistently met by a caregiver early in life. Children who never experience this secure attachment early in life, according to proponents, don't learn to form healthy attachments later in life. They suffer from insecurity, lack of empathy, and, in extreme cases, anger and attachment disorders.
More recent attachment theory is based on research into different styles of attachment in both children and adult romantic relationships. This includes secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized attachment.
An Updated Look at Attachment Parenting
Sears is the pediatrician who popularized attachment parenting. He has streamlined its principles into what he calls the "7 Baby B's" or "Attachment Tools":
- Birth bonding. Sears acknowledges that the now-or-never idea of attachment doesn't hold true. Adopted children, foster kids, and infants in intensive care can all learn to form healthy relationships as adults later in life.
- Breastfeeding. While still advocated, breastfeeding is now understood to benefit a mother as well as a baby. It may do this by producing increased levels of their "bonding" hormones, prolactin and oxytocin.
- Baby-wearing. Sears focuses on "baby-wearing" to promote attachment, frequent touch, and parents' sensitivity to an infant's cues of needs.
- Bedding close to baby. While Sears still advises sleeping close to babies, his attachment parenting model more fully acknowledges the need for parents to get a good night's sleep.
- Belief in the language-value of your baby's cry. Sears' attachment parenting model strongly advises parents to respond to their babies' cries and not let babies "cry it out."
- Beware of baby trainers. Sears continues to discredit what he calls "convenience" parenting. Convenience parenting, he says, puts a parent's ease and convenience above an infant's feeding cues or emotional bonding needs. An example might be parent-scheduled feedings.
- Balance. Sears' advice on attachment parenting still includes strong advice to parents to balance parenting, marriage, and their own health and emotional needs.
Criticisms of Attachment Parenting
No one would argue that close emotional bonding with a baby could be anything but positive. But can you have too much of a good thing? Yes, say critics of attachment parenting. Controversy still surrounds attachment theory. In part, that's because early research was based on animal studies. Here are some of the things the critics say:
- Bed-sharing and infant death. Critics are concerned with bed-sharing, which has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. Attachment Parenting International tries to address this risk with rules for safe bed-sharing.
- Changes in attachment with experience. Many developmental psychologists no longer view attachment as a "trait." In psychological terms a trait is a more or less permanent, lifelong characteristic. Recent research has shown that the ability to form healthy, intimate attachments is affected by peer pressure, relationships in school, dating, and marriage -- as well as early childhood experience.
- Multiple caregivers, changing times. Attachment theory arose in the 1950s, before the advent of childcare. Then, psychologists argued over whether mothers should stay home to raise their children. Many children since then have been exposed to multiple, relatively consistent caregivers as a result of childcare. Critics want attachment parenting research to be updated to reflect this changing reality.
- Overstressed parents, overdependent children. Critics of attachment parenting claim that constant attention to a child's every mood and tantrum can lead to overdependent children and highly stressed parents. Or worse, kids learn to control and bully their well-meaning parents.
- Scientific basis. Proponents of attachment parenting raise the threat of severely maladapted children if children don't form secure attachments. They point to a psychiatric condition called reactive attachment disorder (RAD). But the American Psychiatric Association's definition of RAD requires considerable physical and emotional deprivation, such as occurs with neglected orphans. Even then, research has found attachment issues can be changed with interventions such as therapy.