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Attachment Parenting: Helping Families Create Lifelong Bonds

Attachment parenting tipsFor Susan Thompson of Seattle, attachment parenting was the parenting style that came naturally. She nursed Joshua on demand for an extended period of time, wore him at length in a front pack, and shared a family bed. She embraced attachment parenting before she even read the "experts."

"I didn't sit down and read a bunch of books about different parent philosophies before he was born," says Thompson, whose son is 4 1/2. "It wasn't until he was almost 2 that I joined an attachment parenting group and then came to realize I was doing something called 'attachment parenting'."

When asked to define it, Thompson says, "To me, it means responding sensitively to the needs of the child, and some of the tools that I used were co-sleeping, baby-wearing, extended nursing. I feel like it's really about respecting and trusting his needs, and paying attention to my own, and hopefully out of that will spring a strong relationship."

Advocated by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, R.N., attachment parenting is one path that new parents can follow for guidance. Although the approach is best-known for sleeping with baby, attachment parenting practitioners say its heart is emotional responsiveness. For some new parents, the idea of round-the-clock contact may present a demanding picture of parenting. But there's a spectrum of how the attachment parenting tools are actually carried out, and families can benefit by using even some of these techniques. Most importantly, it's about laying the foundation for a secure attachment between parent and child.

By way of definition, infant mental health professionals are careful to distinguish between "attachment parenting" as a movement, and "attachment" theory. According to Jean F. Kelly, Ph.D, a research professor in the Department of Family and Child Nursing at the University of Washington and the director of the Promoting First Relationships program, "Attachment theory is the belief that all of us come into the world ready to bond and be protected by a caregiver, and when the caregiver responds sensitively, the child learns to trust the world. It also helps to form the child's ideas about himself: 'Am I a lovable person? Am I not a lovable person?' It's such a foundation for how a child looks at the world and feels about the world, and how a child feels about the self and treats himself."

The road to secure attachment, with the parent acting as the child's first teacher, can be taken through myriad parenting paths that might have different ways of achieving the same goals. Attachment parenting in the spirit of Sears is one. Kelly's program, Promoting First Relationships, is another: It encourages parents' emotional responsiveness by training social workers and nurses to enter the world of caregivers in stressed families, to help the caregiver see from her child's point of view.

"As the child learns to crawl, walk and move out into the world, the child will follow this innate curiosity about the world if they feel safe," Kelly says. "Secure attachment really frees up the child to learn about the world in a very active, competent way."

Brilliant beginnings

Advocates claim that attachment parenting techniques can dramatically boost baby's brain-building. On his Web site, Dr. Sears explains that infants are born with much of their neurons -- their brain wiring -- unconnected. Sears writes: "Brain researchers suggest it is these connections that we can influence to make a child smarter. Many studies now show that the most powerful enhancers of brain development are: the quality of the parent-infant attachment (such as skin-to-skin contact) and the response of the caregiving environment to the infant's cues. I believe that attachment parenting promotes brain development by feeding the brain with the right kind of stimulation at a time in the child's life when the brain needs the most nourishment."

Dr. Kathryn E. Barnard, Director, Center on Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington, says attachment promotes early learning and infant survival. When the baby is in utero, the neurons are already beginning to make connections, and the baby is learning by listening to the mother's heart rate, breath and rhythms of daily life. Barnard says, "There's fantastic experience the baby has in early learning when birth occurs, because all the conditions of security and envelopment that's promoted by being in utero are no longer there," and the baby is constantly exposed to the new. So one of the first things infants search out in their new environment are patterns, such as the mother's heart rate, and the cadence of day and night.

In this pattern-seeking period, predictability helps the little one develop a sense of trust, and babies can conserve their brain power to process new experiences. "The baby is searching for cues to predict what will happen next," Barnard says. "The best state for learning is when the baby is relaxed. We call it quiet alert -- babies are awake and don't have much body movement." Research has shown that when an infant has higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the connections between the nerve cells don't happen as smoothly. How the caregiver responds to the baby -- whether he is hungry, cold or over-stimulated -- builds confidence in mom and dad, and makes the baby feel comfortable in his new home.

"Attachment and feeling secure is a condition that's necessary for any learning to take place, because if a baby or person is highly anxious, then that produces cortisol, and high and consistent levels of cortisol are polluting to the brain function," Barnard says.

To bolster baby's well-being and nascent education, baby wearing is a high-touch tool to try. "Being on the caregiver's body during the first months of infancy is a perfect condition for promoting security," Barnard says. Canadian pediatrician Ronald Barr's research found that infant crying decreases when babies are carried on a parent's body at least four hours a day, but he recommends six hours a day.

For Thompson, who stays home full time with her son but is a massage therapist by profession, the notion of touch as a tool that develops the neural network makes sense. Similarly, she believes co-sleeping has helped her son gain self-awareness. "If you don't have contact with something, you can't feel your boundaries. So sleeping next to me for eight hours a night, he's getting that contact."

Strong bonds between parent and child yield benefits not just in infancy but through the teen years, influencing a child's ability to have healthy adult relationships and contribute to society as they grow up. "The research done over the past 30 years shows us that children who have secure attachment relationships get along better with parents or caregivers, get along better with their peers, they learn to turn to others for help when they need it, they also learn that they can often solve problems on their own," Kelly says.

Yaffa Maritz, director of the Listening Mothers program, says, "Babies learn in the context of relationships." Maritz says that the seeds of a person's well-being are planted in infancy, "with a sensitive, predictable, loving, pleasurable, relationship." If nurtured, those seeds will produce adults who are "creative, flexible, curious, and learn;" as well as those who can "form a relationship, be able to be intimate."

Barnard says secure attachment leads to fruition in the teen years. She says that when your child goes to college and hasn't talked to you in four years but starts calling you every day, that's a sign. "Kids who have a secure attachment can be independent and explore, but know how to come back to the secure base (of their parents) when they need it," she adds.

It's all right to cry

When Nuria Coe of Bellevue was pregnant with her 2-year-old daughter, Eliana, she researched various parenting styles. Among all the books on sleep and feeding, what resonated most was attachment parenting. "When I started reading about it and how important it is not so much for the immediate relationship with parents, but the long-term effects it has on the kids, I thought it was really worthwhile."

Part of Coe's decision reflects her own childhood. "Crying was not an acceptable way of expressing yourself when I was growing up," she says. "I feel if you're crying you need to express it, and you have something you have to get out of your system." For example, Coe has concerns about pushing children to be brave before they're ready, with a good-night kiss on the cheek and lights out. "I think there will be a time when that will be fine, but for that to happen you need to have your hand held for a while."

Even among parents who identify strongly with attachment parenting, there's a wide range of practice. For example, Eliana slept with Coe and her husband until she was18 months old, when the adults found it hard to get a good night's sleep. Thompson's 4 1/2-year-old son was born in her bed and hasn't left.

Cheryl Carp's son, who is the same age, spends the first half of the night in his own bed but then joins his parents. Carp, who believes "all behavior is communication," says she trusts in her son's development. Just as he was weaned from nursing at the time that was right for him -- 27 months -- the family will know when it's the right time to end shared sleep.

Robert Pantley of Kirkland, a father of four children ages 5 to 17, says his 5-year-old pops in occasionally to sleep with mom and dad. At age 7, children strongly break from co-sleeping, and by 10, it's over, he adds.

Pantley, whose wife is an author on children's sleep, says, "I think the concept of detaching the parent from the child in his own separate bedroom, while it may be right for a family, leaves a lot from the natural order of things. I think the right answer is to stay close. I was concerned if we would co-sleep, (our kids) would become dependent, and I'm amused. Our kids have been amazingly confident.

"Attachment parenting is building patterns of trust and emotional bonds," Pantley notes. Toddlers and teenagers are both incredibly vulnerable, and whether it's validating the pain of a tot's skinned knee or accepting a teen's choice to dye her hair red, showing the child that you're not just listening but seeking to understand her goes a long way in building a mutually respectful relationship.

For Coe, establishing her parenting style involved hearing criticism such as, "You hold her too much." But, Coe adds, "Attachment parenting comes so naturally, you are given permission to be yourself." Defying internal voices or real critics that say, "You're spoiling her," Coe stays focused on using attachment parenting to lay a foundation for her daughter's security.

Attachment parentingWorking parents and attachment

Are the healthy ties that bind harder to secure for working parents with children in daycare? No, according to a long-range study from 1991 through 2005 that explores the effects of child care on a child's social, emotional, and cognitive development. Susan J. Spieker, Ph.D., a professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington and a co-principal investigator of the study, says that "One of the early questions was: Are infants who spend a lot of time in non-maternal care in the first year of life more likely to be insecurely attached to their mothers?

"Overall, the infants of mothers who had them in child care of any sort were not more likely to be insecurely attached than infants who were home with mother the first year," she says. By way of clarification, Spieker emphasizes, "It's important to say insecure attachment is not NON-attachment. All of the infants were very attached to their mothers. 'Insecure attachment' is a quality we look at as researchers which suggests mothers are less responsive and less available when they need them."

Summarizing the findings of the study, which over time followed the same children through middle school, Spieker adds, "What things are like at home has a consistently larger effect, so parenting matters."

When working parents come home, they need to be fully present with their kids. Spieker, whose children are 14 and 17 and started daycare as babies, suggests that in their time off, parents get involved with everyday caregiving tasks -- feeding, eating together, bathing. Spieker says, "Be there at night when the baby cries, be there for important moments, when only parents can be there. Take delight in your baby where you find it. That's the most important thing: shared delight."

Distinguishing between "attachment parenting" and "attachment" parenting, Spieker says, "I certainly advocate holding, wearing the baby and closeness. I don't think that's the only way a good relationship develops, nor do I think it guarantees a good relationship. You can still wear the baby and ignore the baby's cries; I just think it's a lot harder."

For Carp, babywearing was one tool that helped nurture the bond with both parents. When their son was an infant, Carp and her husband both wore the baby in a sling. "He took naps in the sling, and I just did stuff," she says. "I loved having him near me." When Carp went back to work as a mental health practitioner, starting when her son was 6 months old, it gave the family an opportunity to enhance the attachment. "Going back to work three nights, and having my husband responsible for dinner and bedtime three nights a week, forced him to have his own unique attachment to our son and helped them develop their own routines, which they still have."

Critics of attachment parenting say the practice may be too lenient. Maritz says she diverges from the movement "because limit-setting is important for raising secure children." Babies do need a loving transition from having total access to parents, but at a certain point, it's appropriate to say, "This is mommy's bed," Maritz says. "Sometimes to say 'no' is just as loving and helpful in building confidence as saying 'yes.'"

Developmentally, when a baby begins to play peek-a-boo (between 6 and 8 months), and shows awareness that mother and child are separate beings, it's a good time to create some space for baby to learn and be creative-whether it's finding a finger or another way to self-soothe, Maritz says. To begin to problem-solve, "The baby needs to learn not to get what they want."

Maritz also has concerns that attachment parenting can be misinterpreted or taken to extremes. For example, one attachment parent would not put her 8-month-old baby on the floor, but insisted on holding the child constantly.

Without question, the ways that parents take on the techniques of attachment parenting vary widely, but even a partial practice can help families derive the lasting benefits. "Sometimes attachment parenting gets a bad rap for being too rigid, or the people who practice it are too judgmental about other people," Thompson says. "What I would hope is for people to parent in the way that is authentic to them. I think people can read books on a million different philosophies, but if they sit down and see what is right for them and their family, they are doing the right thing."

Michelle Feder writes about a wide range of subjects and has a 2 1/2-year-old son.

What is Attachment Parenting?

In The Attachment Parenting Book, Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, R.N., describe it as "an approach to raising children rather than a strict set of rules." The authors present seven attachment tools they call "the Baby B's":

- Birth bonding. (Spend time after birth and connect with baby early.)
- Breastfeeding. (Also helps with "baby reading" -- responding to baby's cues.)
- Babywearing. (Promotes quiet alert state and parent sensitivity.)
- Bed sharing. (Helps babies learn that sleep is pleasing)
- Belief in baby's cries. (Crying is survival-driven infant language)
- Balance and boundaries. (Know when to say yes/no, and pay attention to the needs of your self and marriage.)
- Beware of baby trainers. (Learn to trust your instincts.)

"Attachment parenting means more than breastfeeding your baby, wearing your baby, or sleeping with your baby," the authors write."It really means developing the ability to respond sensitively to the needs of your child."

Attachment Parenting Reading and Resources

The Attachment Parenting Book by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N.

The Baby Book by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N.

Birth and Beyond, retail store that offers supplies for new parents, parenting classes and more.

Dr. Sears' website

Great Starts Birth and Family Education offers classes covering pregnancy, birth, and parenting; breastfeeding home visits and telephone consultations.

Northwest Attachment Parenting is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating community in which parents respond to their children with compassion. NAP offers training to parents wishing to start or connect with support groups, offers parenting and communication workshops, and produces a quarterly journal.

Seattle Attachment Parenting International, an affiliate of Attachment Parenting International, meets  at the Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center. Each meeting focuses on a topic of interest to parents practicing attachment parenting.

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