Attachment parenting - what's it all about?

by - Friday, February 08, 2013

In the past couple of years, attachment parenting has attracted quite some coverage in the press. Most notably, Time Magazine asked "are you mom enough?" on the front cover of its May edition which featured a shot of Jamie Lynn Grumet nursing her three year old son. The debate which followed was fierce, with critics claiming extended breastfeeding is unnatural while attachment parents defended their right to nurture and bond with their children.

Some believe that attachment parenting implies mum and baby are metaphorically "joined at the hip" while others wonder "what well-intentioned parent is not attached to their kids?" Indeed the term itself is misleading as Ahimsa Mama explains:
"Attachment" connotes codependency, clinging, smothering, and that is a big turnoff for many people.
So what exactly does attachment parenting entail, and why do some families choose to parent their children this way?

The core philosophy of attachment parenting

There are three practises most commonly associated with attachment parenting:
  • Co-sleeping with babies and young children, in the parental bed or at least in the same room
  • Babywearing, where children are carried in a sling or baby carrier in order to be physically close to parents as much as possible
  • Extended breastfeeding, often until toddlerhood or beyond
However, these practises do not constitute firm rules in the attachment parenting style. Rather they are methods by which the core principles of AP can be attained.

Attachment parents seek to foster a secure bond with their children by being sensitive, physically and emotionally available. Rooted in the principles of Attachment Theory, the philosophy of AP is that children form a strong emotional bond with caregivers during the early years of life. This in turn promotes socio-emotional development and well-being which has lasting consequences through to adult life.

Co-sleeping, babywearing and breastfeeding are merely practises through which these core principles are ideally attained. As with all of the eight principles of API (detailed below), they are not hard and fast rules but rather ideals to which attachment parents can aspire.

API's eight principles of parenting

Attachment Parenting International is an organisation at the forefront of attachment parenting which promotes eight principles of parenting:
  1. Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting
  2. Feed with Love and Respect
  3. Respond with Sensitivity
  4. Use Nurturing Touch
  5. Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
  6. Provide Consistent Loving Care
  7. Practice Positive Discipline
  8. Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life
All families have unique circumstances and needs. API promotes these principles as guidelines through which parents can educate themselves about normal child development, to identify their children's needs and learn how to respond with respect and empathy.

What else do Attachment Parents do?

API's principles of parenting are interpreted in a number of ways, and many AP's choose to practise Natural Family Living (NFL) lifestyle in addition to these guidelines. As Mayim Bialik explains, "You will find in a lot of attachment parents the general desire for more education.".

Natural (and home) childbirth, homeschooling, natural health, elimination communication and the support of organic foods are all practises which complement attachment parenting but which are not required rules. 

Many AP's also choose to be stay-at-home parents in order to best meet the needs of their family. Again, this is not a requirement, but APs who do work feel it is even more important to bond with their children outside working hours.

Criticisms of attachment parenting

Perhaps the most noted criticism of attachment parenting is that it is strenuous and demanding of parents. Breastfeeding on demand and being physically close to infants as much as possible are practises which are ideally served with a supportive network of friends and family members at hand. 

Co-sleeping arrangements attract a deal of controversy due to research into sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) which suggests that a great percentage of cases occurred where infants slept in the same bed as their parents. Additionally, many couples find their intimate relations are disrupted through the practise of co-sleeping (though I'm sure most AP couples can learn to be creative in that aspect of their lives).

The lack of conclusive research has led many to question whether AP is in anyway superior to mainstream parenting. An approach of controlled crying has the potential to cause "harmful neurologic effects that may have permanent implications on the development of sections of their brain" says Dr. Sears, but the evidence he cites does not actually substantiate his theories and several of these papers are associated with studies of rats.

The case for the accidental attachment parent

Though I've been a mother for over sixteen years now, I hadn't heard the term attachment parenting before seeing the Time Magazine cover last year. Intrigued by the discussion surrounding this relatively new school of parenting, I decided to read the article for myself and research the subject further.

I soon discovered that many practical aspects of attachment parenting were similar to the ways I'd been parenting my children all along. While rarely making use of a sling, I couldn't bear to hear my babies cry and often carried them in arms (or on my hips) - a form of "babywearing" if you like. Co-sleeping was not a concious choice, but rather something we all slipped into for ease and comfort. And while I'd not been successful breastfeeding my eldest two, I'm still happily nursing Babyman with plans to continue until we both feel it's the right time to stop.

Does this mean I've been "accidentally" attachment parenting all along?

Jennifer Scoby answers the question particularly well in her article on the API website:
As far as I'm concerned you can practice most of the principles of attachment parenting - babywearing, breastfeeding, cosleeping, limiting separations, etc. and still not be an attachment parent if you don't let yourself get emotionally attached to your baby or child. Or you can choose to practice almost none of these principles and still be an attachment parent if you do form a genuine emotional connection.
The explanation about forming a genuine emotional connection is what sums it up for me. Perhaps I am an attachment parent, though I'm not comfortable with fully subscribing to all its ideals.

"Take what works for your family and leave the rest" is apparently how most API support groups begin. Like many mothers who have considered attachment parenting, I think this is how I will continue to parent.

What do you think?

Parents who do not subscribe to a culture of "total motherhood" are often left with a feeling of anxiety that they are correctly meeting the needs of their children. On the opposite end of the spectrum, parents who subscribe fully to the attachment parenting philosophy may be accused of "building a rod for their own back" in attending to their children's every whim and leaving no time and space for their own needs.

What is your opinion on attachment parenting? Do you feel it's the ideal style of parenting or an all-consuming ideal? Please feel free to leave your comments and experiences below.

Image credit: Martin Burns, via Flickr

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