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What is attachment parenting and is it right for me?

You might have heard other parents talk about attachment parenting and wondered what it is. Here we explore the theory and practice so you can see whether this style (or elements of it) might be right for you.

Wondering what parenting style will suit you? We’ve identified four of the most popular in a mini-series. This article covers attachment/child-centred parenting. Others approaches to also explore are: parent-led parenting, positive parenting and mindful parenting.

Adopting a style, or mixing and matching

Some parents will choose to follow a style to the letter. And others are more in the flex-camp. Our mini-series explores two ends of the styles spectrum (attachment vs parent-led) and two others that compliment these and are less divisive (positive and mindful).

Don’t feel like you have to stick to someone else’s rules (although if you want to, please go ahead, many of the parents we speak to find it very helpful). Chances are you might end up somewhere in the middle, learning and implementing techniques as you go. See how your style evolves as you do.

So what exactly is attachment parenting?

In a nutshell, attachment parenting is about constant physical closeness and being very responsive to the baby. This includes baby wearing, co-sleeping and long-term breastfeeding. The thinking is by attending to a baby’s needs in a responsive way, you help them to feel safe and secure. (Hans, 2016).

It’s easy to get attachment parenting confused with attachment theory. Attachment theory states a child’s early experiences sets a blueprint for how their relationships are formed long-term (Bowlby, 1952). Attachment parenting is about keeping your baby physically close and responding immediately to their needs.

Paediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha formally developed the method of attachment parenting into a parenting style in the 1980s. The idea again was that a secure parent-child attachment, achieved by being sensitive and responsive, paves the way for their independence and secure relationships as an adult (Sears and Sears, 2001).

For many parents, this approach feels natural and intuitive, and so has gained in popularity in recent years. Official organisations API (Attachment Parenting International) and APUK (Attachment Parenting UK) have been set up, as well as countless other support groups.

The main features of this approach are:

  • frequently holding your baby close (e.g. babywearing)
  • encouraging nurturing touch (skin-to-skin and kangaroo care)
  • breastfeeding on demand
  • avoiding strictly-timed, adult-imposed feeding schedules
  • being responsive to a baby’s cries
  • being sensitive and responsive to a child's emotions (e.g. helping them cope with nighttime fears)
  • co-sleeping (infants in the same room as parents, or young siblings sharing a room).

(Sears and Sears, 2001; Miller and Commons, 2010)

Advocates of attachment parenting tend to stress that it isn’t necessary for parents to follow all of the practices they outline. There is no checklist, just illustrations of ways that parents can strive to be sensitive and responsive (Sears and Sears, 2001). API states that parents should ‘take what works and leave the rest’ (API, 2019). Phew. And this makes sense, as we all know there is no one size fits all when it comes to little ones and their needs.

So what’s the evidence that these methods lead to secure attachment?

Many elements of responsive parenting have evidence that suggests they lead to secure attachments. These include:

  • engaging in quality communication
  • sensitivity during play
  • emotional sensitivity and availability
  • showing sympathy to your child’s upset
  • keeping them close (e.g. babywearing).

(Anisfeld et al, 1990; Easterbrooks et al, 2000; Ziv et al, 2000; Meins et al, 2001; True et al, 2001; Koren-Karie, 2002; Fuertes et al, 2006; McElwain and Booth-Laforce 2006; Beebe and Steele, 2013)

And why is forming a secure attachment beneficial?

The thinking is that by being highly responsive, you prevent your baby experiencing potentially overwhelming negative emotions like distress, fear and anger (Miller and Commons, 2010). This, according to studies, can have a number of benefits:

Help with emotional resilience and regulation

Attachment security has been shown to buffer the effects of parent stress on a child, reducing the likelihood of emotional and behavioural problems as a result of these stresses (Tharner, 2012). It helps them regulate their emotions more effectively (Davidov and Grusec 1996; Kerns et al 2007; Miller and Commons, 2010).

The confidence to explore on their own

Children with a secure attachment have been found to feel confident exploring the world on their own. This is because they trust their parents to be there for them (Mercer, 2006). Babies are also less likely to be fearful if their parents show higher levels of emotional sensitivity and responsiveness towards them (Gartstein et al, 2017).

Fewer behavior problems

Studies show that children who are securely attached to their parents are less likely to develop behavioural problems (Madigan et al, 2015). Some other studies suggest the children of sensitive mothers are less likely to have behavioural problems (Kok et al, 2013).

Increased cognitive development (aka brain power)

Securely attached toddlers and children score better in intelligence tests. They also score better at communication, cognitive engagement and the desire to learn new skills (Moss et al, 1998; Crandell and Hobson 1999).

Better stress response, linked to touch

Research has shown babies who received skin-to-skin contact in the first weeks of life had developed, by age 10, more healthy stress response mechanisms, had better sleep patterns, and better cognitive control (Feldman et al, 2014). Caressing babies who are at high risk of developing abnormal stress responses has also show to prevent these responses developing (Sharp et al, 2012).

Why has this method been criticised?

Attachment parenting has its critics for several reasons:

  • It can be seen as a rigid set of practices to follow.
  • Some people feel it implies other forms of parenting don’t lead to secure attachments between parent and child.
  • Some people feel that other parts of the parent’s life like relationships, financial security and the personal choices of the parent are treated as less important. They might feel it could lead to personal, financial and health problems for the whole family.
  • People might think the ideas and behaviours have the potential to makes parents feel inadequate if they can’t be stuck to. Parents could feel like they’re parenting badly.
  • The concepts are complicated and sometimes hard to explain without parents feeling criticised or more anxious. And this really is the last thing a new parent needs (Hans, 2016).

This approach does face potential issues. Women who need to return to work can feel inadequate as parents, as attachment parenting would say they’re not giving enough attention to their child. Attachment parenting can be viewed as a privilege, as both single mothers and many families may need to go back to work to survive.

It can also be hard on the couple, especially around co-sleeping, with partners moving to other bedrooms or sofas (The Guardian, 2016).

Choosing your parenting style

As with any big decision, have a good think. Some advocates of attachment parenting do scaremonger and none of that is helpful. So try to approach everything you read and hear with a healthy dose of realism. We know it isn’t always possible to respond to your baby before they cry. And nor do we think you should put unrealistic expectations on yourself to do so. You can chose to be responsive without following the advice of a theory to the letter.

This page was last reviewed in April 2019.

Further information

For more advice and ideas when it comes to all aspects of parenting, see our other articles on parenting styles, such as our one on the most popular styles and how to identify yours, through to how to raise my child to be happy, confident and considerate.

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

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