Attachment parenting is defined by a nurturing, sensitive, child-first approach to raising kids. Find out if attachment parenting is a good fit for you and your family.

By Kate Bayless
October 01, 2013
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Attachment parenting (AP) is defined by a nurturing, sensitive response to a child’s wants and needs. Those who follow this approach believe that physical closeness builds trust, and that children need devoted attention to develop a sense of security. 

"AP is definitely a hands-on type of parenting," says Barbara Nicholson, co-founder of Attachment Parenting International (API) and co-author of Attached at the Heart. It “asks parents to be emotionally responsive to their children, and not ignore their cues."

Proponents think that attachment parenting leads to independent, secure, and emotionally stable children—but this kid-first approach also tends to get a bad reputation. "It's easier (for the media) to say 'AP is extended breastfeeding, bed-sharing, and baby-wearing' rather than talking about emotional attunement, positive discipline, and secure attachment," says Nicholson.

Read on to learn more about this parenting style, and find out if it’s right for your family.

Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Principles of Attachment Style Parenting

Attachment parenting is defined by the following principles and characteristics.

Your infant shouldn’t “cry it out.”  If the idea of letting your child cry herself to sleep doesn't sit right, then attachment parenting may work for you. The philosophy believes that infants are not capable of self-soothing and only develop this over time, after being in an environment that promotes safety, closeness, and consistency. This method says that a baby's cries are her way of communicating with you, and that by ignoring those cues, you're breaking down her trust and sense of security.

Your baby should stay physically close. Attachment parenting proponents wear their babies in a sling or other baby carrier. This keeps children close during errands, housework, and exercise throughout the day. 

Attachment parenting continues at nighttime. Nighttime is not seen as a break from your child, but an important continued bonding time through co-sleeping or bed-sharing. Keep in mind, though, that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages bed-sharing with infants, since this may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Breastfeeding promotes attachment and closeness. Attachment parenting focuses on breastfeeding as a source of attachment and security. If you can't breastfeed, API recommends using similar breastfeeding behaviors during bottle-feeding, such as switching sides when feeding and holding Baby in a similar position to one used in breastfeeding.

Positive discipline is the most effective way to deal with misbehavior. Proponents of attachment parenting advocate positive discipline, which focuses on problem solving, encouragement, communication, and respect. Parents don’t punish their children for misbehavior; rather, parents and children work together to find solutions to problems.

Attachment parenting is like a full-time job. "Attachment parenting takes work and commitment," says Daniel Bober, D.O., child psychiatrist and Medical Director of Pediatric Psychiatry for Joe DiMaggio Hospital in Hollywood, Florida.  Still, there are plenty of single parents and parents who work full-time who use this method. In her attachment parenting book, Nicholson found that "many (parents working full-time) have said it was even more imperative that they do all they can to have a close connection when they were with their children to make up for the hours apart." Often these parents would get creative with their schedules, tag-team with a spouse or partner, or enlist the help of a grandparent, family friend, or nanny to provide consistent, loving AP-style care. 

Advantages of Attachment Parenting

Attachment parenting has several potential benefits, such as greater self-reliance, security, and empathy in children. It also may help premature babies; these infants miss out on time in the womb, so it can be important for their development to give them as much of a womb-like experience as possible during their first few months of life. Even if you don't end up using attachment parenting in the long term, techniques such as skin-to-skin "kangaroo care" have been shown to be beneficial in helping the cognitive, physiological, and emotional development of preemies.

An inability to use one of the techniques of attachment parenting, or disinterest in them, shouldn't dissuade you from trying the method. Nicholson notes that the Eight Principles of Parenting outlined by Attachment Parenting International are "tools not rules." "API was founded to give parents the loving support they need to find solutions for their family that will keep their connection strong, no matter how many strategies they can use from the Eight Principles that we promote," she says. 

Disadvantages of Attachment Parenting

Possible downsides of attachment parenting include overdependent and unadaptable children, disciplinary problems, and an inability to form relationships outside of the family. These can occur if the child develops an excessive attachment to a parent. 

What’s more, if practicing attachment parenting, moms and dads can feel overwhelmed and stressed from the attention they must give their children. Indeed, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that intensive mothering beliefs can be detrimental to the mental well-being of the mother. 

Should I Try Attachment Parenting?

Attachment parenting is neither right nor wrong. "There are different parenting styles and no one way is clearly the right way, as there are varied opinions on the right approach," says Dr. Bober. "This is because every child and every parent is a unique individual and you need to find what works best for you."

If attachment parenting doesn't line up with your child-rearing beliefs or personality (for example, you believe in letting babies learn to fall asleep on their own), there's no reason to force it. You can develop a strong bond with your child through other parenting methods.

What's more, if you like attachment parenting but it’s making you feel overwhelmed or like a failure, use the method as a loose guideline or consider looking at other parenting methods. Having a support system—whether it’s a spouse, partner, nanny, or an API group—will also help you along the way. 

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