Attachment parenting

Attachment parenting mum and baby

Attachment parenting devotees say its approaches to everything from feeding to sleeping could help you build a stronger bond with your child and improve her emotional health. But is it really good for her in the long-run? And what about your needs? Here are a few things to consider to help you decide if attachment parenting might be for you and your baby.

What is attachment parenting?
What's involved in attachment parenting?
What Mumsnetters say about attachment parenting

What is attachment parenting?

Attachment theory was developed in the 1950s by psychologist John Bowlby, who believed that mothers should respond sensitively to their babies’ needs. Letting your baby know that you’re there for her early on in her development would, Bowlby believed, have long-term benefits and lead children to be more confident and emotionally secure people later in life.

Fast-forward to the 1980s and the term “attachment parenting” was coined by the American paediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha Sears, a registered nurse. They echoed Bowlby’s view that parental attention is good for children and also argued that modern life has taken the intimacy out of parenting and that the way to restore it is to lavish your child with love and attention. They advocated consistent nap times and bedtimes, calm days, co-sleeping and taking cues from your baby on when to feed and wean.

Attachment parenting (AP) tries to break down the barriers that the modern world has put between mothers and children. It aims to bring you and your child together through as much physical contact as possible. This will, the Sears say, lead to an increase in responsiveness between you and your baby, fostering a stronger and more loving connection. They claim that children raised the attachment way will grow up to be “caring and empathetic.”

Plenty of parents and experts remain unconvinced, however, and of course what works for one child simply won’t suit another, so whether you do AP or not is a very personal choice.

I have always used the AP method and my kids are all delightful, well-adjusted, compassionate people. My youngest is 17 months and still in my bed. There are few rules and you are allowed to do what feels right for you and your child.

What’s involved in attachment parenting?

Broadly speaking, the three Bs – breastfeeding, baby-wearing and bed-sharing – are the key tenets of AP, but there's a bit more to it than that:

  • Ecstatic Birth. Advocates of AP believe society wrongly teaches women to associate birth with fear, pain and struggle. The attachment parenting belief is that a natural birth can be an empowering and enjoyable experience by letting go of fear and allowing your body to do the job it was designed for.
  • Breastfeeding on demand. AP suggests you feed your baby as often as she gives you cues that she is hungry, never turning down a feeding request, and that you don’t feel under pressure to wean her off the breast as, even when she doesn't 'need' the milk, she will feel comforted by the warmth and smell of your body.
  • Baby-wearing. Again this is about keeping your baby physically close. You’re always there for her and she knows it, instilling in her the sense that she is loved and secure.
  • Co-sleeping. Not only do you keep your baby close to you in the daytime, she also sleeps next to you in your bed at night. Gentle techniques should be used to gradually extend night sleeping. While there are many pros to co-sleeping it is worth bearing in mind that the Department of Health advises against it and says there are links between co-sleeping and an increased risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Elimination communication. You and your baby devise signals so that she can let you know when she needs to go to the toilet and you can help her to go there (or on a potty) rather than in her nappy. The idea is that communication brings you closer together and helps you become attuned to the rhythms of her body. Elimination communication can be done with or without the use of nappies, but do have the Dettol on standby if you're going nappy free between toilet trips. Some AP followers use sign language to communicate with their babies for all purposes. This is known as baby-signing.
Breastfeeding in bed

Do you have to follow all the rules of attachment parenting?

Strictly speaking, AP has no rules and is all about going your own way. The Sears do say, however, that you will have more difficulties if you don't go the whole hog. That said, many Mumsnetters say they use some AP techniques very successfully without subscribing to all of them.

Does attachment parenting involve joining a group?

No, although you might find it useful to share your experiences with other parents who are giving it a go – see Attachment Parenting UK for more information. There’s plenty of discussion of AP on Mumsnet and support groups on Facebook, so whatever you decide, you won’t be alone.

Where do fathers fit in?

Critics of AP feel the methods put all the onus on the mother, which some feel excludes the father unfairly and others feel is rather anti-feminist. But there is definitely room for dads to be involved in attachment parenting. Fathers can just as easily baby-wear, for example, and can play a big part in making co-sleeping work. There's lots more to AP than birthing a certain way and breastfeeding on demand.

What about women who aren’t breastfeeding?

Admittedly it’s difficult to see where bottle-feeding fits into AP, but not breastfeeding doesn't stop you adopting other attachment ways of parenting and you can still bottle feed 'in an AP way'. Attachment parenting International recommends that you position the bottle alongside your breast while feeding, look into your baby’s eyes and talk soothingly to her.

Supporters of attachment parenting say:

  • It empowers women by encouraging them to raise their children in their own way.
  • It builds strong relationships between you and your baby.
  • It has long-lasting effects which mean your baby will grow up to be a well-adjusted and emotionally healthy individual.
  • It helps mothers approach the challenges of parenting in positive ways.
I like some of Dr Sears' ideas but cannot believe that anyone follows AP to the letter, unless they're mega rich or have their children at six year intervals. I put my children down occasionally and, at the moment, my smallest boy starts the night in a cot then comes in with us.

Critics of attachment parenting say

  • It’s exhausting. You run around all day, and potentially some of the night, attending to your baby’s needs and whims. Where is there time for your needs?
  • It’s over-indulgent. By meeting your baby’s every demand you are not preparing her for the outside world where she will not be the centre of attention.
  • It’s unscientific. Beyond the broad, and generally accepted, view that babies benefit from parental attention, there’s little evidence to show the AP methods work.
  • It disempowers women as it makes it more difficult for them to return to work or education.

What Mumsnetters say about attachment parenting

“I think anyone who describes themselves as a certain type of parent tends to be judgemental of those who make other choices. Most parents just do what is best for their baby and them without the need to attach a label to it as a certain parenting style.”

“I had no clue about Attachment Parenting but kind of ended up doing AP-type stuff out of necessity. It just seemed to be what suited my daughter, but I don't follow it evangelically.”

“My son is 15 months. We co-sleep, breastfeed, do a bit of elimination communication. I use a sling a bit for baby-wearing, but mostly a rear-facing pushchair so I can carry shopping and talk to him while we're out. Baby signing has been great – he still only uses a couple of signs, but it has really helped our communication as he pays very close attention when I sign things.”

“I did Attachment Parenting with my daughter. It doesn't work for everyone. It can be exhausting and difficult if you have other children. However, I feel the benefits are huge.”