We hear a lot about the dangers and negative effects of people who never formed an “attachment” to their parents–on the news, in books, in tv shows, movies, documentaries.
We hear about kids who run away, kids who kill their parents, adults with sleep disorders or anxiety or “commitment issues,” but what is less often discussed is how parents can form healthy attachments with their children.
It seems like we often regard healthy attachment as the mythical unicorn of relationships–a wonderful ideal, but impossible to achieve.
Sadly, the rarity of healthy attachment occurs because conventional parenting “wisdom” pushes tactics that undermine or altogether thwart healthy attachment. To make matters worse, western culture–with its busy lifestyle and emphasis on convenience–is an inhospitable environment for the practices which most nurture healthy attachment.
In this post, you’ll find:
- What the ‘experts’ mean when they say “attachment,”
- An explanation of attachment theory, and why it matters to us as parents,
- An introduction to the idea of attachment parenting: what it is, how it relates to attachment theory, as well as what it’s not,
- The reasons why you should consider adopting attachment parenting: its benefits and my personal experience,
- How to get started with attachment parenting
- Misconceptions frequently attached to attachment parenting
- Common concerns and questions associated with attachment parenting,
- Tips for success,
- A final word of encouragement.
Just so you know, I incorporate affiliate links, from which I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, to help showcase products I personally own and love, as well as to illustrate certain points or product features.
An Introduction to Attachment Parenting
What is Attachment?
When considering the arguments for and against attachment parenting, it is helpful to understand the underlying biological theories and research. Thus, before even discussing what attachment parenting is or what it looks like, we should first talk about attachment.
Attachment can be defined, most simply, as the emotional bond that exists as the foundation of a relationship between two people. This bond can connect people in a healthy, secure way, or it can be dysfunctional, with two people overly or insufficiently attached.
Forms of attachment can be observed not just between humans, but also between many animal species, and this occurrence throughout nature caused scientists to wonder if there is innate biological wiring related to attachment. Fortunately for us mamas, someone decided to take the time to study it.
While the contemporary face of attachment parenting is Dr. William Sears, attachment theory was originally articulated and studied by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. (If you didn’t know, John and Mary were the only two names available to parents in the 20th century.) Bowlby initially took note of the fact that the secure attachment of a child to a primary caregiver instilled the confidence the child needed to explore, with the caregiver as a safe base to which to return.
Expounding on Bowlby’s research, Ainsworth conducted controlled studies to explore attachment behavior, and she discovered that all children will attempt to establish secure attachment with a caregiver, which strongly suggests that humans have an innate, biological drive toward attachment.
Through their research, Bowlby and Ainsworth observed and described attachment on a continuum. Picture a straight line with secure attachment at the center. On one extreme, you have the anxious-resistant, sometimes also called ambivalent or dismissive. At the other end is anxious-avoidant. In addition to these behaviors which fall consistently at one point on the continuum, they also identified a disorganized or disoriented attachment, exhibiting behaviors with seeming randomness from different points on the continuum at different times.
Here is what attachment commonly looks like in its varying forms as displayed by children:
- Secure: children are confident to explore unfamiliar situations and environments trusting that their caregiver will serve as a secure base to which they can return. They may show some distress at separation from the caregiver, but settle quickly, trusting that the caregiver will return based on past consistent experience.
- Anxious-avoidant: children don’t seem to care when their caregivers come and go, and are more withdrawn in stressful situations. They may respond toward caregivers and strangers in the same ways, with little discernment between them.
- Anxious-resistant: children are what is typically thought of as “clingy.” They separate from caregivers with great difficulty and distress, and may remain distressed, even once the caregiver returns, as they cannot be confident of their caregiver’s availability. They do not respond well to strangers, and when the caregiver does return, the child may seem to attempt to punish them for leaving.
- Disorganized/disoriented: children display behaviors from both ends of the continuum, partially or completely unable to deal with stress and unfamiliar settings. They still seek attachment with caregivers, but without any organization or consistency. Usually, these children cannot effectively control or interpret their own emotions, and so act out inappropriately with anger and/or aggression (Ackerman, 2019).
Ainsworth’s measured children’s reactions to unfamiliar situations by bringing them into a new environment and having their parent or primary caregiver leave the room. Those children who had formed secure attachment were distressed to see their caregiver leave, but were able to effectively calm themselves until their caregiver returned, at which point they responded enthusiastically to being reunited. Those children who were not securely attached showed great distress at the imposed separation and were inconsolable even upon reunion.
Stages of Psychosocial Development
Along a similar line of research, Erik Erikson identified eight stages of psychosocial development. His research connects attachment to social development, beginning in the earliest stages of childhood all the way through the final stages of adulthood.
- Infancy: a child’s relationship with her caregiver will determine whether she learns trust or mistrust.
- Early childhood: as a child begins to learn more about herself and the world around her, she will be confronted with strong emotional responses; her attachment will determine whether she develops autonomy or shame and doubt of the way she is feeling.
- Preschool: a child is experiencing increasing independence and through interactions with others, is being introduced to social norms; her caregiver will either serve as a safe base for her initiative or cause her to feel guilty for actions which are inappropriate.
- School age: a child is now interacting regularly with peers and forming relationships outside of the home. Her relationship with her primary caregiver will contribute to either a feeling of competence or inferiority.
- Adolescence: through changes in physiology and increasing independence, a child will either gain a sense her developing identity or will experience role confusion.
- Young adulthood: the child is no longer a child and will commence a more permanent shift out of her childhood environment and into her own life. Everything she has experienced up to this point will compound to contribute toward her success or struggle in adulthood, particularly in the relationships she now forms with others, either in confident, satisfying intimacy or fearful, lonely isolation.
- Middle adulthood: based on what she has accomplished during young adulthood and the life she has built around herself, she will enter middle adulthood with the momentum toward continuing generativity or will sink into stagnation.
- Late adulthood: the seasoned adult will look back on her life either with satisfaction and accomplishment, resulting in “ego integrity” or guilt and despair. (Ackerman, 2019)
To bring this long, academic train back around, what we can deduct from Erikson’s stages is simple: the foundation of attachment set by the primary caregiver early in life can have significant impact even into late adulthood. Pairing this weighty realization with Bowlsby and Ainsworth’s experimental observations, and we arrive at the need for a practicable approach. Enter attachment parenting.
What is Attachment Parenting?
Attachment parenting (AP) is a mindset that prioritizes secure attachment as the goal of the parent-child relationship, rather than a set of rules or guidelines to qualify mothers and fathers as a certain sect of parents. There is no one set of “correct” AP methods or practices. It looks different in every home for every family, and this difference in methodology does not make one mother of father more of an “attachment parent” than another.
An AP parent is defined by how she interacts with her child.
Diana West, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and author of several breastfeeding books
With that being said, the experience of many parents has identified numerous practices that do well to promote secure attachment. Bear in mind, these are not requirements to consider yourself an AP parent. They are just the principles that parents have found work. You may use all of them; you may use none of them. You may find that different approaches are a better fit for your family while still pursuing secure attachment. They are tools, not steps.
In fact, Dr. William Sears, commonly viewed as the modern face of attachment parenting, classifies AP as a starter style to help parents tune into and respond to the needs of their babies (and children) as the parents work to develop their instincts and their own individual parenting styles.
The Seven Bs of Attachment Parenting
Dr. Sears presents seven Bs as helpful tools to assist the attachment parent. They are:
- Birth bonding – while not always possible when inopportune medical circumstances arise, the early moments when a baby has first been born can be used to begin forming the bond between the parents and child. Even if parents and child cannot be united immediately upon birth, the ‘window’ for bonding has not been missed.
- Breastfeeding – another opportunity for a unique form of bonding between mother and baby. Besides the obvious physical/hormonal attachment, breastfeeding contributes to attachment by helping the parents to learn from and promptly respond to their baby’s cues.
- Baby wearing – babies feel safest when they are held close to their parents. Initially, it bears the familiarity of the womb, but as time goes on, it continues to be a secure position from which babies can observe and absorb the impossibly big world around them. Obviously, it is not possible to hold a baby around the clock and still get anything done, which makes baby wearing a great option! It frees up the parents hands, and allows for baby to sleep, nurse, or just feel content while mom or dad still has the ability to make coffee (because what could be more important than that?)
- Bedding close to baby – Dr. Sears recommends, “Wherever all family members get the best night’s sleep is the right arrangement for your individual family.” This could mean cosleeping, but it might just mean that baby is in crib/bassinet/Moses basket in mom and dad’s bedroom. Nighttime security reassures a baby that sleeping is a pleasant and restful experience, rather than an isolating and frightening ordeal.
- Belief in the language value of your baby’s cry – babies do not cry to manipulate, only to communicate. Dr. Sears recommends that you assume for the first year of a baby’s life, baby’s wants are one and the same as baby’s needs. We don’t always know why a baby cries because we don’t have the luxury of their articulation. However, to form secure attachment, a baby needs the confidence that comes from his parents responding to his cries for help. Give your baby reason to trust you, and simultaneously trust that your baby is making his best attempts to communicate his honest needs with you.
- Beware of baby trainers – we invite baby trainers into our philosophies and homes when convenience overwhelms the priority of responsiveness to our baby’s needs. Our western culture dictates that baby’s should sleep by a certain age, eat on a schedule, self-soothe and play independently. Everything should operate at the adults’ convenience. Hate to break it to you, but babies aren’t convenient, and parenting shouldn’t be either. Baby trainers are there to meet the needs of the parents, frequently at the cost of the child. Attachment is counteracted by any method which forces premature independence.
- Balance – this final B is equally as important as the previous six. Some parents burn out in an attempt to be the perfect attachment parents and end up abandoning the approach completely, with distaste and resentment. Whatever practices you employ should balance with the needs of the parents and the family as a whole. It is both okay and appropriate to sometimes say no to baby. They won’t implode. At least, I haven’t seen it happen. However, I have seen my marriage suffer at times because I put too heavy an emphasis on “secure attachment” with my child. What kind of example will it sent for my children if I’m a good mom, but lack a healthy relationship with my husband?
Attachment parenting is not a parenting style which only applies to babies and young children. While secure attachment can be most effectively established by beginning AP in these early, formative years, attachment can remain a strong priority in parenting into adulthood. It improves not only the parent-child relationship and lays the groundwork for discipline, but also sets the bounds for healthy relationships in general.
Why Attachment Parenting?
When you hear people tell you, “You shouldn’t hold your baby too much,” “You just have to let them cry-it-out,” “You need to put your baby on a schedule,” “You’re feeding your baby too often,” does any of it prick your instincts and give you a feeling that something isn’t right?
The desire to hold our babies, feed them when they root, comfort them to sleep–these are natural, biological responses that we’re made to feel guilty about. Can we stop and think for a minute how crazy it is that we should feel bad for wanting to hold our babies?
But as crazy as it is, the things our babies need most produce ‘undesirable’ behavior when they attempt to communicate those needs to us. Crying is an unpleasant habit that we, the parents, are tasked with breaking. A “high need” baby is frowned upon because it does not fit into our fast-paced Western culture of convenience.
We get asked all the time, “Is she a good baby?” And what is really meant by that? Is she quiet? Does she sleep long hours at night? Is she happy to play by herself without needing to be held? Is she only hungry at the correct times of the day? And if you don’t have a “good” baby….”Oh, you’ve got to break her of that real quick!”
Enough with this nonsense.
Your child is your child. Whether you believe your biology was designed by God or fine-tuned by evolution, you were programmed with instincts highly sensitive to the needs of your baby. Attachment parenting embraces this instinct and acknowledges babies’ needs for what they are: needs. Honest, non-manipulative, genuine needs.
Allowing your baby’s cues and your internal instincts to guide you, you’ll find that you feel driven to respond to your baby in the moment, rather than making her wait because the clock she can’t read doesn’t reflect a certain time, or because you feel pressured to train your baby to fit into your life.
You will grow to understand and correctly interpret most of your baby’s cries and cues, and your baby will naturally grow in age-appropriate confidence and independence. Your baby will learn that he can depend on you for what he needs, rather than doubt or mistrust you because he does not know whether you will respond to his pleas for help.
Best of all, you will become comfortable in your role as a parent because you are no longer concerned about what is “normal” or “recommended.” You will learn what works for your children and your family, and it won’t matter what anyone else is practicing, writing about, preaching, or training.
My Personal Experience with Attachment Parenting
Before the later half of my pregnancy, I had never heard of attachment parenting (despite the fact that I was attachment parented). I was reading The Baby Book by Dr. Sears (and his wife and two sons) since it looked like a comprehensive manual to owning and operating my very own baby.
I had also bought and read Baby Wise, a sleep training and baby scheduling book, that just didn’t quite sit right with me, though I wasn’t sure why.
Then I started The Baby Book and was taken aback by the simple assertion that if my baby wants to be held, I can hold her. Mind. Blown. Nothing else I had read to this point said anything remotely similar. I had been inundated with the idea that I had to train my baby not to need me, to listen to her cry and refuse to pick her up, and that it was a race to see how quickly I could get her to sleep through the night.
I believed that co-sleeping was a foolish and unsafe practice, hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to baby wearing, and hadn’t been taught that my baby’s cries would have meaning free of manipulation and cunning tricks.
Birth Bonding and Breastfeeding
I was blessed with the opportunity to be able to hold my baby the moment she was born. As she exited the birth canal, she basically continued in one fluid motion into my doctor’s hands and onto my chest. (You can read more about my entire labor and delivery experience in my birth story). Holding and nursing her for the first time felt like the most natural thing in the world, and helped me form an instant, deep connection with her.
While breastfeeding was an agonizing adjustment for me, it has always been such a sweet and intimate time between me and my baby reserved for only the two of us. Now that my baby is older, almost seven months at the time of writing this, I have been pumping bottles to make sure she is getting enough to eat and increase my milk supply. Yet, even after drinking enough from a bottle to fill her tummy, she still reaches for me and snuggles into my chest to nurse. For her, breastfeeding is about so much more than the food; it is a special time of security and affection which meet her emotional needs as well as the physiological.
To be honest, I’m a little bit jealous of marsupials who get to have a built in pouch for carrying their babies. Fortunately, humans have the gift of innovation, and some beautiful person probably close to the beginning of history came up with a baby wearing device. I wish I had had one the moment I brought Carrots home from the hospital. I was only a couple of weeks late to the game, but oh, what a difference being a kangaroo would have made in those weeks.
For a first time mom especially, the desire to be a “good mom” and meet the needs of a new baby instantly can mean constantly putting your own needs second to your infant’s. My baby never wanted to be put down, so I found myself barely able to eat or go to the bathroom. I felt like putting her down long enough to make a sandwich wasn’t even an option.
So I ordered a baby wrap. They look like interactive origami, but they’re not nearly as challenging as they appear. Now I could do almost anything while my baby slept contentedly and securely against my chest. However, when Carrots decided I was only allowed to feed her standing up, but was still eating for 20-30+ minutes at a time, I knew it was time to try something new. I didn’t feel like the wrap style was very conducive to nursing, so I eventually ordered a ring sling as well.
The sling revolutionized my day. It’s not as functional as the wrap (in my opinion), but it is quick to take on and off and you can easily breastfeed in it. I could now roll out of bed, pop Carrots in the sling to feed, and start a pot of coffee. If that is the only thing I ever used it for, it would still be worth every dime. I’ve also used it to nurse on long outings when there’s no private place to sneak off to, and it saves me from having to breastfeed my baby in a dirty toilet stall.
We took a family outing to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the first nice weekend of March (huge mistake), and I couldn’t even get into a bathroom. I finally settled for the least populated corner I could find, put her in the sling, and nursed her with no one the wiser.
Imagine my joy when I discovered a water sling. Yes, you can wear your baby in the pool or at the beach, but that’s not why I ordered it. I purchased this sling to wear my baby…in the shower. My baby hated being left outside the bathroom while I showered, but it made me nervous to lay her at the back of the tub, so I thought why not wear her into the shower, too?
Before you call me crazy, my baby loves it. She is so comfortable in and around water, and I think it has a lot to do with those early showers together. Instead of feeling stressed and rushed to rinse and run dripping back to my shrieking baby, we can take our time relaxing together. She can nurse while I enjoy the warm water…heck, she even falls asleep.
Bedding Close to Baby
The more I read about attachment parenting, the more I felt at peace. The unnerving aspects of having to ‘train’ my baby slipped away, and I felt warm and excited that I would be able to hold and nurse my baby whenever she wanted, guilt-free. It just made sense.
I still wasn’t comfortable about the idea of co-sleeping, but the first night in the hospital after Carrots was born, it was clear it was going to become the new norm for us. Despite the fact that co-sleeping was strictly discouraged by the nursing staff, Carrots insisted on suckling for extended periods of time, for which I could not always stay awake through. (That first night, she suckled for four hours straight, and that was only one of numerous sessions).
Besides my baby’s blatant disregard for hospital policy, I felt an intense need to have my baby close. Even rolling the hospital bassinet next to my hospital bed felt as though my baby was being kept in another wing of the building. I needed the physical connection of sensing every tiny breath she took. I felt anxious whenever this contact was broken, even though I could see her.
Once we brought her home, my husband and I also realized the immensely practical aspect of co-sleeping. It helped all three of us to get the most rest. With my husband completing law school and working full time, his rest was imperative. We found that if Carrots was next to me in the bed, I could sense her stir and help her to latch before she even woke up fully to cry. Zero regret here.
In the beginning, people were dumbfounded by how well rested we both looked as new parents. Now they just assume she sleeps through the night, which she does…just not they way they imagine. She’s able to feed herself by wriggling around in her sleep and finding what she needs, so most of the time, no one has to wake up.
Belief in Baby’s Cries/Beware of Baby Trainers
I am most grateful for AP because it provided the reassurance I needed to trust in my baby’s only form of communication, and that I could meet her needs with no agenda other than to care for her. It takes away a huge element of stress when you eliminate training from the equation. There’s no underlying manipulation I have to try to sense and extract from my baby’s cries; only her attempt to honestly communicate a genuine need.
I can’t imagine having to try and analyze every situation throughout the day and night. I’m so glad to be free of the pressure to train my baby. It’s unnecessary. They can’t understand what’s going on or why you won’t help them, and it’s so much extra stress and thought that your mommy brain just doesn’t have space for.
I have loved learning to move slowly and just take in the day one thing at a time.
This principle I’m still learning. I am b-a-d bad at it. When Carrots was a newborn, I had no balance. She nurse all-l-l-l-l day long, and I rarely, if ever, prioritized my own needs, or even attended to them, really. As she got bigger, I began to realize that I wasn’t sabotaging all future chance of attachment by laying her on her newborn lounger long enough to make a sandwich and get water. Baby wearing has helped a lot with balance because I don’t feel like I have to choose between my baby’s needs and my own. Much of the time, I can meet both simultaneously.
As Carrots is growing in her capacity to understand changes in her environment, we plan to start transitioning her to her own bed. I have loved co-sleeping with her, and I think the shift may actually be more difficult for me than her, but my husband and I need some defined space for ourselves in between newborns. Some families bed-share well into toddlerhood, and that’s wonderful! But to maintain balance in our own family, recognize this is a necessary shift. When then next baby comes along, whenever that may be, we will almost undoubtedly co-sleep again.
Getting Started with Attachment Parenting
Since I can only introduce some rudimentary concepts of attachment parenting in this blog post, I highly recommend reading up on the subject once you’re finished here. Here are my favorite attachment parenting resources:
- The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby by Dr. William Sears, Martha Sears R.N.
- Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way by Mayim Bialik, Ph.D.
If you’re not sure you want to buy these books for your home library quite yet, your public library probably has copies, OR you can find both books along with other AP resources on Scribd with my two month free trial. Scribd is like a cross between Audible and Kindle with thousands of selection in both audiobooks and the written word. My husband and I share an account and we get so much use out of it! Also great for nursing mamas who want a break from Netflix.
You can also check out my post on trusting your instincts as a parent, since that is essentially what AP relies on.
Anyone can be an attachment parent. At its core, it is little more than instinctive, common sense parenting. It has taken what could have been a stressful and regimented approach to raising children and has made parenting enjoyable for us. If you’re still unsure, here are some misconceptions about AP and commonly asked questions answered for you.
Misconceptions of Attachment Parenting
AP is all or nothing.
Attachment parenting is not a regimented plan that requires you to follow a book of rules. The heart of this parenting style is an open heart to your baby’s attempts at communication. No one can be available 100% of the time, nor should you be. One of the seven Bs of AP is balance. AP will look different for every family, and probably for every child within that family. Attachment parents do what they can with the time and resources they have available.
You have to breastfeed/co-sleep/be an at-home parent
Working mamas might feel like they can’t be attachment parents because they have to return to work and can’t be home with the baby all of the time–obviously if she is not with the baby, she cannot consistently nurse either, even if she pumps milk at work. However, AP is not about the individual actions; remember that it is a frame of mind! The Attachment Parenting Book has great tips and advice on how to approach AP as a working mom, and how to adapt common AP principles to what works for you.
AP creates helicopter parents and clingy/dependent/spoiled/entitled children.
On the contrary! AP actually encourages age appropriate independence and confidence to explore the world, with parents remaining in an observational role and secure base. The children who are clingy and dependent are the ones who can’t rely on their caregiver’s availability or responsiveness to their needs. AP should not be blamed for parents’ improper use or lack of discipline.
Commonly Asked Questions About Attachment Parenting
Won’t it make my baby more needy?
Your baby is already needy. It’s a baby. However, “training” your baby to ‘communicate’ those needs less (ie cry less) doesn’t teach them to be less needy, it just teaches them that they can’t depend on you to meet those needs, and they in essence give up
Will I be able to get anything done?
Yes, especially if you embrace baby wearing, and you won’t have to listen to your baby cry for extended periods of time while you try to get things done.
How will my baby learn to self soothe if I’m always holding her and rocking her to sleep?
Let me start by telling you, you’re not teaching a baby to self soothe by leaving them to cry. Instead, this teaches your baby that you will not respond to their needs. They may go to sleep more and more ‘easily,’ but it is likely not because they are competently able to self-soothe; it is because they have learned not to waste their time calling to you. Extended periods of crying increases the stress hormone cortisol. Repeated distress can permanently alter the child’s brain chemistry and neural connections. What does teach a baby to self-soothe is comfort, not distress.
How will my baby learn to go to sleep by himself?
As babies build confidence and trust in their caregiver, they being to exert age appropriate independence. Going to sleep on their own will be a natural result of knowing that their caregiver will be present and available when needed. The timeline may be less convenient for those of us accustomed to Western culture, but it does happen in due time, as your child is ready. No AP parent has had to nurse their college student to sleep in their dorm. For superb advice on helping babies (and parents) to get better sleep, check out The Baby Sleep Book, written from an AP perspective rather than sleep training.
Tips for Success
- Stop seeing baby’s cries as an inconvenient habit to be broken.
- Find a comfortable baby-wearing system that works for you.
- Examine your expectations and ideals for parenthood and question which are your own and which stem from cultural “norms.”
- Consider how you would want to be treated if you were 100% dependent on someone else to meet your needs and could not communicate specifically what those needs were.
- Don’t forget the final B: Balance.
The Last Thing You Need to Know About Attachment Parenting
I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again. Attachment parenting is not an all-or-nothing approach. Learn about and understand attachment theory, and make decisions that reinforce healthy, secure attachment as often as you are able. Every AP home will look and operate differently. AP is not about the specific methods used to bond with your children, but rather is a focus on the overall goal of nurturing healthy attachment to the ultimate benefit of the child. There’s no one way to accomplish this.
Do you already use any of the 7 Bs in your daily life? Are there any mechanisms not mentioned here that you use to bond with your baby/kids? Share below in the comments!
Ackerman, C. (2019, Feb. 6). What is Attachment Theory? Bowlby’s 4 Stages Explained. Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/attachment-theory/
Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2001). The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child)
West, D. (2016, March 23). There is No Doctrine for Attachment Parenting: Being AP is a Frame of Mind! Kelly Mom. Retrieved from https://kellymom.com/parenting/ap-frame-of-mind/