What Is Attachment Parenting?

Mother holding baby boy (2-5 months)

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There’s no one “right” way to parent a child. Nonetheless, there sure are a lot of theories out there about the best way to do it! One parenting method you’ve probably heard a lot of buzz about is attachment parenting. This parenting style is based on the premise that babies and young children need responsiveness and closeness from their parents to become secure, confident children.

Attachment parenting is somewhat of a controversial parenting method. Although psychologists agree that forming a secure attachment is important to children, some parents find this parenting method too child-focused and feel that their own needs as a parent are neglected. Other parents find that this parenting method matches their instincts to want to be intimately attuned to the needs of their children.

In a nutshell, attachment parenting focuses on the idea of being closely bonded with your child during the early years, says Bethany Cook, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in neuropsychological assessment.

“Attachment parenting is when the primary focus of interactions with a child is to build and foster closeness and connection through empathy, physical closeness, and consistent and immediate responsiveness,” Dr. Cook explains. “Emotional connection is at the heart of this style of parenting; even when a parent must discipline their child, they do it in ways that continue to foster attachment and love.” 

Certain practices are commonly associated with attachment parenting, though you don’t have to practice them all to be an attachment parent. “Keeping the baby close, often in a sling, co-sleeping, and feeding on demand are all practices that fall within the attachment parenting approach,” explains Amanda Gummer, PhD, founder of The Good Play Guide, parenting expert, and child psychologist. The common practice of practicing skin-to-skin with your baby in their early weeks is also a component of attachment parenting, Dr. Gummer adds.

Origins of Attachment Parenting

The term “attachment parenting” was coined by Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician, and his wife, Martha Sears, a registered nurse. They wrote a book together called "The Attachment Parenting Book," which laid out the premise that babies need loving, secure attachments from their parents to thrive. They believed this could be accomplished by being responsive to a baby’s cries, breastfeeding when possible, babywearing, sleeping close to your baby, and holding them as much as possible.

Although the Searses coined the term attachment parenting and popularized it in the early 2000s, their theory is based on the psychological concept of attachment theory, which is the idea that children need to form secure attachments—usually with a parent—in order to grow to be independent, confident, and develop properly. Attachment theory was first set forth by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, and later refined by psychologist Mary Ainsworth.

Qualities of an Attachment Parent

When you think about being attuned to a baby or young child’s needs, you might think, “Sure, I can do that!” But little ones have a whole lot of needs—they eat every few hours, often want to be held very frequently, need to be put to sleep several times a day, want to be entertained, tend to cry and whine often…the list goes on. So being an attachment parent means being constantly “on” and available.

As such, besides being a loving, warm and fuzzy parent, being an attachment parenting takes grit. “This approach to parenting isn’t for the weak-minded or those who quit when things get tough,” says Dr. Cook. That doesn’t necessarily mean that feeling able to practice attachment parenting—or not wanting to—makes you weak in some way. It’s just that being an attachment parent can be a lot of work.

It also means being willing to sacrifice some of your own needs in those early years in order to meet the needs of your baby. “An attachment parent will be very gentle and often self-sacrificing,” says Dr. Gummer. “Their own needs and wants will go on hold for the early weeks, months, and even years of a child's life to prioritize being physically and emotionally available to the baby.”

Examples of Attachment Parenting

There are certain practices associated with attachment parenting. These include breastfeeding (often for extended periods), picking up your baby anytime they cry, co-sleeping or bed-sharing with your baby, babywearing, and skin-to-skin time.

It’s important to understand, however, that although some of these practices can help you form a close bond with your baby, you don’t have to do all of them to practice attachment parenting. “There are degrees of attachment parenting and people should choose the activities that feel right for them,” Dr. Gummer offers.

At the same time, closeness and bonding—however that looks for you—are important when your kids are little, says Dr. Cook. “The first 12 months of life parents are literally creating their babies' cognitive ‘motherboard’; the more touches and positive responding parents do, the stronger the connections,” she says. Your early interactions with your child lay the foundation for future learning opportunities, relationships, and more, Dr. Cook explains.

What the AAP Says About Bed Sharing

One of the activities recommended by attachment parents is sharing a family bed with your child. Because of the risks of SIDS and suffocation, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn’t recommend sharing a bed with a baby under the age of 12 months. Instead, you should keep your baby on their back, in a crib or bassinet.

However, the AAP does recommend keeping your baby in your room with you for their first 6-12 months, so that you can be responsive to their cries and to their needs. They also explain that you can take your baby into your bed for feeding, but return them to their crib for sleep.

Effects of Attachment Parenting

There are plenty of studies showing the positive effects of attachment parenting. For example, although many parents worry that being responsive to their baby’s every need and cry will make babies more needy and dependent in the future, research has found the opposite to be true. Providing a “secure base” allows your baby the confidence to safely explore the world around them, and seek independence when they are ready.

Studies have also found that babies raised in an attachment parenting style tend to be more agreeable and conscientious as they get older, as well as less anxious and neurotic. Having a responsive parent generally makes babies less fearful of the world around them, and helps them have a more relaxed general temperament. Finally, some studies have found an association between attachment parenting styles and fewer behavioral problems among children.

Pros and Cons of Attachment Parenting

The pros of attachment parenting are clear: This style of parenting can help your child feel secure and it’s developmentally appropriate for parents to be loving and emotionally connected with their children in the early years. Many parents find this parenting style emotionally satisfying and feel that it matches their parental instincts to interact with their baby this way.

However, attachment parenting—especially when it’s practiced as an “all or nothing” approach—can be detrimental to parents. For example, practicing attachment parenting may involve losing sleep, if you respond to your baby every time they wake, whimper, or cry. Parents who work or have other responsibilities may find it difficult to be constantly sleep-deprived.

Many parents may not have the ability or desire to maintain physical closeness with their babies at all times, which can lead to feelings of guilt. Parents who want more time away from their babies or who want to take on less of a hands-on approach to parenting may feel inadequate or shamed.

Then there’s the issue of breastfeeding. Not all parents can breastfeed—either because of a lack of support, medical problems that preclude breastfeeding, or simply because they don’t want to do it. “I hate the idea that parents who can't or choose not to breastfeed are vilified or made to feel less than,” says Dr. Gummer. Breastfeeding isn’t the only way to bond with your baby, though, and it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to breastfeed to be an attachment parent.

For some parents, taking a more middle-of-the-road approach to attachment parenting works best. “It is perfectly valid and, I'd say, important to prioritize your relationships with your partner and other family members and take a bigger-picture approach to the best parenting style for you, your baby, and your whole family,’ says Dr. Gummer.

A Word From Verywell Family

Parenting—especially in the early years—can feel like a pressure cooker. You want to make sure that you provide the best start for your little one, and that you do everything right.

While practicing attachment parenting is a way to encourage healthy and secure development for your child, it’s not the only way, and it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” to be effective. As with everything else about parenting, it’s all about finding the approach that works for you as a parent, while balancing the needs of your child.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.

Originally written by Jennifer White
Jennifer White has authored parenting books and has worked in childcare and education fields for over 15 years.
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