How Does Attachment Parenting Work?

Updated November 4, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are many parenting styles and more than one parenting philosophy out there. With so much advice, it can be hard to know what is best. Attachment parenting is one such type of parenting style that you have probably heard mentioned and likely already know a little about. There are some common misconceptions about practicing attachment parenting, what it entails for forming secure relationships with children, and how it affects child development. Read this post for an overview of attachment parenting, and learn more about this style of being a primary caregiver, parenting tips, and how many parents are finding support through online counseling.

So… What Does Attachment Parenting Entail?

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Firstly, we'll go over a brief history of the AP approach.

The term attachment parenting refers to a concept developed in 1982 by an American pediatrician named William Sears and his wife, a nurse named Martha Sears.

The practice refers to what they termed the seven baby Bs: birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, bedding close to the baby (or bed-sharing), belief in the baby’s cries, balance and boundaries, and beware of the baby trainers. These 7 ideas form the basis of the attachment parenting approach. We’ll explore each of these ideas later in this article. The essential idea of attachment parenting is that the caregiver is highly responsive to cues from the child indicating their needs. The Sears couple developed these ideas based on experience with their own eight children as well as observations of childrearing of tribal people by anthropologists. 

On the other hand, an English psychiatrist John Bowlby worked with emotionally disturbed children and developed a similar theory called attachment theory. Mary Ainsworth, a child development psychologist also contributed many ideas to attachment theory. This theory emphasizes that young children rely heavily on their primary caregiver to give them a psychic foundation that results in secure attachment to other people later in life. In some ways, the ideas of attachment theory and attachment parenting overlap. However, attachment parenting is a more structured practice, and some critics feel it can lead to a mother feeling guilt or shame if she cannot provide the full range of ‘baby Bs’ for her child.

Specifically, attachment style parenting recommends that caregivers are to be physically close to their baby at all times, always touching and holding the baby and giving them plenty of love and affection. AP parents try to always to be nearby in the same room or family bed, so that they will readily hear the baby’s cry and can respond to a change in temperament right away.

The theory of attachment parenting also discourages parents from looking to what they call ‘baby trainers’ for advice on how to nurture their baby. Baby trainers, such as a developmental psychologist, often advise the parents to ignore the infant’s cues and follow a ridged formula or schedule of parenting. In contrast, attachment parenting encourage the mother to trust her instincts and have confidence in her ability to recognize the infant’s cues to know what to do and when to do it.

The “7 Baby Bs” Of Attachment Parenting According To Sears And Sears

William Sears’ theory of attachment parenting is rooted in the idea of encouraging mothers to be highly sensitive and reactive to her baby’s biological needs. There are, he believes, seven practices that mothers should do when following these sensitivity and empathy tenets of attachment parenting. He calls these practices the “7 Baby Bs,” and these principles are explained more fully below.

Birth Bonding

Sears advises against women using analgesics during the birthing process because it gets in the way of birth bonding with her baby immediately after childbirth. Instead, he recommends natural childbirth, aka drug-free childbirth. In regards to birth bonding, Sears says there is a period after being born in which the baby is in a “quiet, alert state,” which he believes is the best time for bonding with mom. Skin to skin physical closeness following unmedicated childbirth is extremely important in attachment parenting. This is the time immediately after birth where the new baby is placed on the mother’s bare chest. However, it is not limited only to the period just following birth. Skin to skin contact can be very calming for infants at any time, and the father can do skin to skin contact as well to help form baby’s secure attachment to both parents. 

A natural birth can look like anything the mother would like; for example, a water birth or a home birth. It's important to note that with a high-risk pregnancy, these types of births are not recommended. However, the most important part of the birthing process is that there are no drugs involved to increase the pivotal "first-moment" connection between kids and their parents. 

Another common practice that is not part of Sears' definition of attachment parenting is the lotus birth, made popular by participants in the midwifery community. This birth style involves leaving the baby attached to the placenta through delayed cord clamping until it naturally falls off. Another common post-birthing practice is called "placenta encapsulation", which involves placing the placenta into pill capsules after the birth and consuming them. Both of these practices are in line with Sears' recommendations for attachment parenting birth, but are not directly included in his 7 "B's" of parenting. They are more new-age, and you should do further research on the subjects before incorporating them into your birth plan. 

Baby Wearing

Sears recommends that mothers, or the primary caregiver, wear their child on their body as often, and for as many hours, as they possibly can. He believes that baby wearing allows the mother to involve her child in everything she does, and that it makes the child happy to be with their mother for the majority of the day. In addition, the mother can quickly respond to the baby’s signals that it needs some form of attention.

Sears believes you can continue wearing your child for the first three years of life, and that baby wearing also calms down tantrums. While experts agree that baby wearing can calm a child, some pediatricians do not recommend it past nine months, saying this goes against the child’s natural inclination to become more independent and gain skills and experiences with a wider range of family life. By encouraging children to go outside their safety zone, you could foster independence from a younger age. 

Balance And Boundaries

No one expects the mother to be the only one who can meet her baby’s needs, even if she is the primary care giver. Attachment parenting does not demand this because it would be unrealistic and unhealthy. It is important that mothers take care of themselves and let other people and friends help, and attachment parenting recognizes this. Especially given that VBAC or just normal childbirth can be intense on the mother's body, and that she is also healing during the first few weeks after having a baby. As the primary caregiver, a mother need to balance her personal and family life, letting fathers and other family members help so that she can have enough time for self-care and maintaining secure attachments with toddler or older children. Attachment parenting can be more draining on a woman than mainstream parenting styles, and the goal is to develop emotional bonding and secure attachment early in the child’s life, not to exhaust the mother. Sears recommends a variety of ways mothers can balance personal and family life by prioritize their tasks and passing them on to others to prevent burnout, such as letting other family members do housework and chores.

Breastfeeding

This should come as no surprise really, but Sears advocates strongly for extended breastfeeding, stating that the oxytocin released during the process makes for a strong bonding experience between the mother and child. This is especially true, says Sears, during the child’s first ten days of life. He recommends frequent breastfeeding – about 8 to 12 times per day. Baby-led weaning, aka following the child's cues for when they are ready to be taken off breast-feeding is also an important part of attachment parenting feeding. 

Bed Sharing

Sears says that families should use whatever sleeping methods work best for them, but that the mother should sleep close to the baby. He believes in bed sharing, also called co-sleeping, referring to it as the nighttime version of baby wearing. Sears particularly advises working mothers to co-sleep with their baby, as bed sharing makes up for the absence the child feels during the day while she’s at work.

He also says that co-sleeping makes nighttime breastfeeding easier, which many breastfeeding moms agree with, and that it also prevents Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and separation anxiety. While there is still much debate on whether co-sleeping prevents Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or raises the risk, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against bed sharing with infants but does encourage the idea of room-sharing as a safer alternative.

Belief In Babies Cries

Sears does not believe in sleep training, the “cry it out” method of allowing a crying child to fall asleep on their own while crying. Sears believes that listening to her baby’s cry without responding only hardens the mother’s emotional responsiveness, reduces mother/child emotional bonding, and creates insecure attachments in the child. Sears argues that there is no scientific proof that sleep training is good for children or a healthy part of child development. There are many expert reports that state just how traumatic sleep training can be, although there are many other less harsh methods of sleep training and other experts who say it is not harmful.

Crying, Sears believes, is a child’s way of expressing emotions. He advises AP parents to learn how to “read” or perform a "diagnosis" of their child’s cries and respond appropriately. Before it even gets to that point, Sears advises that parents should be doing everything possible to prevent crying, as once it has gotten to that point, things have already gone too far.

Sears says that attachment parents should engage in a physical contact with the child, breastfeeding, and bed sharing as much as they can and also learn to read the signs of when a baby is about to cry so that the parents can stop it before it starts. Sears argues that babies should never be left to cry because it can damage them, yet another American pediatrician, T. Berry Brazelton, says a certain amount of crying is normal and will not hurt the child.

Beware Of Baby Trainers

Baby trainers is what Sears calls child development experts who offer advice to new parents about how to raise their child. He felt that too often, these experts encouraged mothers to go against their correct instincts about how to care for and respond to their infant. Instead, the baby trainers advised mothers to follow a set program or schedule of baby care, and Sears felt this interfered with bonding and forming a deep attachment.

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Common Criticism Of Attachment Parenting

For every parenting style out there, there’s a form of criticism about it, and attachment parenting is no exception. Here are some of the general critiques about the parenting philosophy known as attachment parenting:

It’s fear-based: Some argue that attachment parenting plays to parents’ insecurities. Most parents say they have no problem bonding with their babies and certainly don’t need to be reminded to give them love. They don’t believe that quickly responding to or preventing babies cries will result in emotional deprivation, insecure attachment, or attachment disorders. In reality, the joy of parenting and being around your child is enough without the sense of fear that Sears' instills in his patients.

It is anti-sleep training: There is so much debate and so much advice on the idea of sleep training, with some studies say it damages children and others say it’s perfectly fine. Some experts say the “cry it out” method leads to neurological problems and attachment disorders, such as disorganized attachment or insecure attachment. Other developmental psychologists say these effects are not true.

It is anti-feminist: Attachment parenting essentially advocates for women to be stay-at-home moms, which is something that is not possible for many women in today’s society, and not all mothers want to be the primary caregiver, staying at home all the time. Many women in our current world want to work and have children.

It is anti-formula: Critics argue that while breastfeeding is certainly healthy for both mother and baby, there are some mothers who can’t breastfeed or who don’t want to, and they shouldn’t be shamed in either of these cases or made to feel bad that they do not have the tools to breastfeed their children.

It is not essential to wear your baby: Critics argue that true attachment does not come from wearing your baby all day long but from the positive relationship you nurture with the child. So long as you have a close relationship, they say, your baby isn’t going to be damaged by being in a stroller, rather than a sling. 

Some believe attachment parenting is highly unnecessary, and some believe it to be a form of child abuse. Others believe that while it may be fine in the beginning, the effect soon becomes overbearing with the benefits few and far between. These critics feel that attachment parenting deprives children of the opportunity to explore life for themselves without mom constantly in the same room, watching over their shoulders – or wearing them on hers.

Modified And Less Strict Versions Of Attachment Parenting

If attachment parenting seems like something you want to try, you may be thrown off by the criticisms against it or the amount of work that seems to fall on the mother. However, it is important to remember that you don’t have to practice every tenet of attachment parenting to the letter. As long as you are fostering a close and loving bond with your child, then you’re already on the right track and ready for anything. You can co-sleep and breastfeed and leave out wearing your baby all day long. Or, you can carry your child close to your body for much of the day but formula feed. You just need to do what works for you and your child.

Above all, it is important to remember that every child – and every mother – is different, and so what works for some parents and their children may not work for others. Soon after birth, mothers experience a lot of changes in their hormones and, thus, their feelings about attachment parenting may change. You may be a carrying your baby day in and day out, and still, your child cries. You may be offering your child breastmilk, but he doesn’t want it the recommended 8 to 12 times a day that attachment parenting calls recommends. Some parents may find that cloth diapers or elimination communication work best for their child, while that simply may not be the case for you.

Go with what works for you and your child by using gentle discipline, both on yourself and the baby, when it comes to following certain parenting methods.

How To Access Help From Professionals

Takeaway

There are many ways to find out more about attachment parenting and creating a secure attachment with your child. One way is to read an attachment parenting book or two to learn more about this theory and how it is practiced. Besides attachment parenting books, there are also other books that discuss attachment theory more broadly, such as the book Attachment by Bowlby or The Attachment Parenting Book.

You can also connect with the organization called Attachment Parenting International. Attachment Parenting International has a mission of educating and supporting families as they strive to provide healthy emotional bonding and positive discipline for their children. Attachment Parenting International publishes attachment parenting tips in ENewsletters, weekly blogs, a digital magazine, and a book called Attached at the Heart, authored by Attachment Parenting International co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker. If you are interested in learning more about attachment parenting and these ideas about forming a secure attachment with your child, this organization has a lot to offer.

Are you interested in learning more about how to pick a parenting style that will work best for you? Do you have concerns about parenting and would like support and feedback? If so, you might want to consult with a developmental psychologist, or, you can contact one of the licensed BetterHelp counselors for more information about attachment parenting, attachment theory, and forming a secure attachment with your child. BetterHelp is an online platform with thousands of licensed and experienced counselors who you can work with anywhere you have internet and a smart phone, tablet, or computer.

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