What is attachment parenting?

From breastfeeding to co-sleeping, here's what parents should know about the attachment parenting theory.

One of the first decisions new parents make is how they will raise their child and parenting styles often differ based on values and ideals.

Attachment parenting, a parenting approach coined by pediatrician William Sears based on research that originated in the 1930s by child development psychiatrist John Bowlby, focuses on a nurture-based connection with children rooted in emotional bonds.

Attachment parenting theory

Dr. Shannon Curry, clinical psychologist and director of the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California, expanded on the basis for Bowlby’s attachment theory.

“Bowlby recognized a pattern of neglect or dysfunctional caretaking that had occurred in the early developmental years of the children with more severe behavioral and emotional issues,” she told TODAY Parents. “He developed a theory that the primary caregiver served as ‘psychic organizer’ for the child, and that this initial relationship served as the child’s framework for the world. As such, a child’s successful development depended upon a warm and caring relationship with their caregiver.”

Attachment Parenting International (API), an educational association that advocates for this responsive parenting practice, provides eight principles to parents and caregivers as a guide.

Principles, according to the API, include:

Preparation: Become emotionally and physically prepared for pregnancy and birth by researching available options for healthcare providers and birthing environments, and become informed about routine newborn care.

Feed with love and respect: Breastfeeding is the optimal way to satisfy an infant's nutritional and emotional needs.

Respond with sensitivity: Build the foundation of trust and empathy beginning in infancy. Tune in to what your child is communicating to you, then respond consistently and appropriately.

Use nurturing touch: Touch meets a baby's needs for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation, and movement.

Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally: Safe co-sleeping has benefits to both babies and parents.

Provide consistent and loving care: Babies and young children have an intense need for the physical presence of a consistent, loving, responsive caregiver — ideally a parent.

Practice positive discipline: Positive discipline helps a child develop a conscience guided by his own internal discipline and compassion for others.

Strive for balance in your personal and family life: Recognize individual needs within the family and meet them to the greatest extent possible without compromising your physical and emotional health.

Attachment parenting benefits

Curry noted that attachment parenting’s strength is its encouragement of emotional responsiveness and warm, loving relationships between parents and their children.

“These are always good things supported in the research as beneficial for both parents and children alike,” she said. “The physiological and mental development of babies and young children depends largely on the quality and frequency of affection, touch, attention, care, and mental stimulation received from caregivers.”

Attachment parenting and sleep

In the attachment parenting model, parents are encouraged to bond with their children during sleeping hours, just as they would while they are awake, which stipulates responding to a child’s needs just as they would during the day. API’s website instructs parents to choose a sleeping style and routine that focuses on attachment, rather than solitary, sleep.

Related link: Mayim Bialik: Why we let our children sleep in our bed

API recommends co-sleeping, defined as the child on a separate sleep surface in the same room as the parents, or bed-sharing, sometimes referred to as the “family bed”, in which family members sleep on the same sleep surface.

Curry cautioned that co-sleeping beyond the first year creates an unnecessary barrier to the foundational relationship for the family — the parents.

“Sleeping alone has not been shown to have any detriment to a child at any age, but it can cause problems with a child’s ability to sleep alone down the line, and with your relationship,” Curry explained. “This practice has not been shown to have any substantial benefit on a child’s secure attachment; however, it will prevent parents from connecting during the only time they have alone together anymore — bedtime.”

Attachment parenting criticism

Critics of attachment parenting suggest that the methodology sets unrealistic standards for parents and children.

“The problem is that the attachment parenting model has no actual link to a positive attachment outcome in any scientific sense,” Curry said. “A [parent’s] attempt to satisfy a laundry list of unnecessary and unrealistic expectations are likely to be detrimental to a parent’s well-being and relationship with their partner, as well as inhibit the development of healthy coping skills in the child.”

Curry suggests there are simpler methods to ensuring a child’s developmental needs are met while creating a loving parent-child bond.

“When we hold ourselves to impossible parenting standards, we run the risk not only of losing our own identity and well-being, but we project the shame and disappointment of our perceived failures onto the very children who we attempt to protect.”