Attachment parenting is a method of parenting that is based on providing for a child’s needs by empathy and connection, from before birth through adolescence.
According to Attachment Parenting International, attachment parenting is about “forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children.” The philosophy dictates that “parents treat their children with kindness, respect and dignity.”
Pregnancy and Birth
If you decide to practice attachment parenting, you should begin before the child is born, by preparing emotionally and physically for the birth. Learn about healthy eating and exercise during pregnancy. Learn about the physical aspects of pregnancy, labor, and childbirth, as well as the emotional ones.
Explore the available options for childbirth, and create a plan for the birth, including a strategy for what to do if the baby or mother becomes distressed during the birth.
Feeding Your Newborn
Attachment parenting practitioners believe that feeding is an act of love, not just providing for a baby’s physical need for food. Breastfeeding is strongly encouraged since it creates a physical bond between mother and child that translates into a lifelong emotional bond. Here are some tips for feeding:
- Feed when the baby first shows signs of hunger, such as rooting or whimpering, rather than waiting for the baby to cry. Babies should be fed on demand, not on a ‘schedule.’
- Babies should be allowed and encouraged to suckle, or comfort nurse, even when they are not hungry.
- If a bottle must be given, try to do it in such a way that you mimic the act of breastfeeding. Hold the baby alongside your breast, maintain eye contact, and talk softly and gently. Switch the baby from one side to the other halfway through feeding.
- When you introduce solid foods to your baby, look for signs that the baby is ready, rather than going by the baby’s age. Breast- or bottle feed first, and then give solid food, paying attention to the baby’s cues on how much they want to eat.
- Once solid foods are introduced, your baby will begin to wean. Follow your baby’s cues and wean when they are ready. Remember that breastfeeding provides comfort and nurturing as well as nutrition.
- Infants and toddlers need to eat many small meals during the day, rather than three larger meals. Try to make at least one meal a family meal where everyone eats together. Never force a child to eat or punish them for not eating a certain food. Having only healthy foods available will encourage your child to develop a taste for healthy foods.
Nurturing and Caring
Proponents of attachment parenting encourage ‘responding with sensitivity’ when a child becomes distressed. This includes touching and holding the child, talking calmly and reading the child’s cues that indicate how he wants to be comforted.
Understanding that crying, in the case of a baby, and tantrums, in the case of a toddler or older child, represent real, strong emotions that a child may not be able to manage because the emotions are too powerful. Focus on comforting the child, not punishing or ignoring them. Be sure to model appropriate behavior when the tantrum has passed.
Well-intentioned friends and relatives will often object to some attachment parenting techniques, especially as they relate to nurturing and caring. Formulate a response to those people who insist that you are ‘spoiling’ your child, and use it whenever necessary. The amount of detail you want to go into when discussing your philosophy is up to you.
Touch helps a child to grow physically, intellectually and emotionally. It helps children to feel cared for, which leads to confidence and better emotional development.
Skin-to-skin contact is the most effective type of nurturing touch. For infants, try these ways to increase nurturing touch:
- Breastfeeding provides frequent opportunities to snuggle.
- Massage sooths babies and helps them relax before bedtime.
- Carrying or ‘wearing’ your baby in a soft carrier provides contact as well as security.
Resist the use of playpens, swings and jumpers that are designed to keep a baby ‘occupied’ on their own.
For older children, you can try these techniques:
- Hugging, snuggling and massage.
- Tickling and wrestling will meet a more active child’s need for touch.
- Let children who are too heavy to carry sit on your lap.
Babies’ sleeping habits can be a cause of great concern (and exhaustion!) to new parents. Babies do not subscribe to the schedule of sleep at nigh, awake in the day that most adults consider to be second nature.
Once a baby has grown enough so that their needs for food, security and comfort can sustain them over six or eight hours, only then will they sleep through the night. The age at which this happens can vary greatly from baby to baby, and some babies will sleep through the night for a period of time, only to begin waking again as they go through a ‘growth spurt.’
The philosophy of attachment parenting suggests that parents help children learn that naptime and bedtime should be peaceful, a time for quiet connection and snuggling. Co-sleeping is one of the main tenets of attachment parenting.
Co-sleeping means that the parents and child sleep in the same room, but on different surfaces. A baby might sleep in a bassinet or ‘sidecar,’ which is a small bed attached to the parents’ bed. An older child might sleep in a separate bed in the parents’ room.
The family bed, or bed-sharing, is when the child sleeps in the same bed with the parents. Attachment Parenting International recommends this only for breastfeeding families, and urges that precautions be taken to avoid the danger of an adult rolling on to a sleeping child.
Creating a nighttime routine will help everyone to adjust to being a family and to unwind from a busy day. Create a routine that helps your baby to relax and feel comfortable about sleeping, regardless of the sleeping arrangement.
A bedtime routine will evolve as the child gets older. Try to keep some elements for consistency, while adjusting others based on the child’s needs. Make any transition to a solitary bed or room as gentle as possible. Many children need a snuggle before bed, or to have a parent lie down with them until they fall asleep.
Attachment parenting subscribes to the philosophy that parents should treat their children the way they, themselves, would want to be treated. This includes using positive discipline. Discipline should be loving, respectful and empathetic, not harsh or punitive. The goal of discipline is to help children to develop self-control.
When a parent develops a bond of trust with their child, beginning at birth, they create a foundation of discipline based on responding compassionately and consistently to the child’s needs.
Some of the tools a parent can use for positive discipline include:
- Using empathy and respect
- Understanding the unmet need
- Proactively heading off undesirable behavior before it starts
- Comforting the hurt child first in cases of physical altercations
- Stating facts rather than making demands
- Using affirmative language to make requests
- Allowing natural consequences
- Offering choices
- Showing sensitivity to strong emotions
- Understanding the child’s developmental stage
Children learn by example so model positive actions and relationships with others. Demonstrate self-control and self-discipline in front of your child.
Over time, you will learn which discipline techniques are most effective with your child. Sharing ideas with other parents who practice attachment parenting may give you new ideas to try, and may provide support for your efforts.
Parents who use attachment parenting understand that it is important to create schedules with the baby in mind. Design new routines that include the baby in activities you enjoy. Take the baby along on ‘date night.’ Take your morning walk with the baby in a sling.
Of course, there will be times you will need to be separated from your baby. When that happens, be sure you have a qualified caregiver who understands and supports the philosophy of attachment parenting.
Take your cue from your child and respect their feelings about separation. Allow your child to cry or feel sad about the separation, and don’t shame or threaten them. Don’t try to sneak off when the child isn’t looking.
When you return, spend some time cuddling with and focusing on your child. This reconnection will make it easier for your child to separate the next time.
Think creatively when it comes to work schedules. If possible, come up with a way for the child to be cared for by at least one parent at all times. If that’s not possible, select a qualified caregiver who supports the attachment parenting philosophy, and encourage your child to form an attachment with the caregiver.
Attachment parenting may help parents raise children who are happier, better adjusted and more empathetic. By providing guidelines for common parenting challenges, it may also create a more satisfying home environment.