Attachment Parenting Definition Essay

Attachment parenting took a beating after the May 2012 issue of Time Magazine with its controversial cover picture of Jamie Lynne Grummet nursing her 3-year-old son. If the cover wasn’t inflammatory enough, the title, “Are You Mom Enough?” added further fuel to anti-attachment (aka anti-helicopter) parenting outrage. The implications of this cover story were that there’s something wrong with parents (especially mothers) who coddle their children or at least become too involved in their upbringing. A second objection to the notion of attachment parenting is that it places undue stress on the mother, implying that if you don't give your all to your child, there's something wrong with you. The fact that the story is directed to “mom’s,” and not dad’s, also bothered critics.

Although this cover story received widespread publicity, attachment parenting isn’t at all a new phenomenon.  Nor is it just another variation of helicopter parenting, itself somewhat of a misnomer and often confused with parental involvement in a child's life. Attachment parenting (which I will refer to as AP) has a solid theoretical basis in one of the most widely-accepted theories of personality-social development in all of psychology- namely, the attachment theory of Mary Salter Ainsworth and her colleagues. Over the past 30+ years, attachment theory has become the centerpiece of extensive research on healthy personality, relationships, and even occupational development.  Couples therapy based on attachment theory, for example, is shown to be a highly effective way to help people repair damaged close relationships.

Attachment theory emphasizes the nature of the relationship between children and their caregivers (usually the parents).  It has its roots in observations made by psychiatrists in World War II who noted the impaired physical, psychological, and social development of infants in hospitals and orphanages who were separated from their parents.  After recognizing that these children needed not just food but physical contact, the caregivers noticed vast improvements in their development. Clinical psychologists went on to propose theories of personality development called “object relations” that emphasized these early mother-infant bonds.

The road to present attachment theory was paved by Mary Salter Ainsworth who developed the innovative experimental method known as the “Strange Situation.” The key manipulation in these experiments consisted of having mothers play with their tiny tots in a lab playroom, leave the room, and then returned a few minutes later. Ainsworth and her research team observed how the babies reacted both to the mother’s leaving and then, even more importantly, the reunion. These observations led them to propose different attachment "styles." They categorized the infants into groups of securely and insecurely attached.  The securely attached children regarded their mothers as a safe haven from which they could explore their environment. They weren’t overly upset when the mother left the playroom, and they greeted her happily when she returned. The insecurely attached, in contrast, either ignored the returning mother, cried inconsolably the whole time she was gone, or showed some combination of these distraught patterns of behavior.

One of Ainsworth’s most important findings from this research was to show that the behavior of the child in this lab situation strongly predicted the quality of their adjustment by the time they reached early adulthood. The securely attached went on to become well-balanced teens and young adults; the insecurely attached had a much rockier road through life.

At the same time that Ainsworth was discovering the predictive power of attachment style, Berkeley psychology Diana Baumrind identified variations in parenting styles that also contributed to child mental health outcomes.  These parenting styles vary in degree of control and demandingess, on one dimension, and support and responsiveness on the other:

Permissive parents are low in control/demandingness  but high in support. Authoritarian parents are high in control/demandness but low in support and responsiveness.  Authoritativeparents (not “authoritarian”) expect a lot out of their children (high in control/demandingess) but also high in support and responsiveness. Finally, neglectful parents are low in both dimensions. The most positive outcomes in terms of children’s behavior occur when parents adopt the authoritative style. This means, for instance, that they show their children they care about them, but they also expect them to follow their advice and guidance- if for no other reason than to keep them safe.

Attachment and parenting style theories provide the foundation for attachment parenting as it's practiced today. The parodies of AP either over-emphasize the permissiveness dimension or regard these parents as over-involved from birth on up.  What attachment theory and parenting style theory propose, instead, is that parents provide their children with a firm basis of support (a “safe haven) and adjust their expectations and attention to their needs to the child’s developmental level.  Baumrind’s model accounts for the fact that children need a great deal of protection from harm when they’re little and don’t realize the dangers of such situations as hot stoves and ungated stairways. Ainsworth’s emphasizes the need for physical support (touching and comforting) as most important in the infant’s first days, weeks, and months of life. Neither would argue that parents would treat their 10-year-old children the same way they would treat their newborns or even toddlers.

In the decades since these theories were developed and tested, researchers have examined the strengths and weaknesses of each to predict outcomes in children and adults. This research, along with studies of specific facets of AP, became the basis for a comprehensive review conducted back in 2010 by Harvard Medical School researchers Patrice Marie Miller and Michael Lamport Commons in the Behavioral Development Bulletin. Fortunately, you can read the article in its entirety, because it is available to the public for no charge. I would recommend that you do so, because it’s impossible for me to do more than summarize it here. Several additional studies conducted since that time have examined specific aspects of AP, such as co-sleeping and stress in infants and children (e.g. Tollenaar et al., 2012).

This quote from the opening to this article is important to include here because I think it summarizes nicely the correct view of AP:

“AP is identified by some as a fixed approach in which the parent must breast feed exclusively and on demand, hold and carry the baby most of the time, co-sleep, and respond quickly to the baby’s crying. That is not a correct view, however. Sears and Sears (2001) argue instead that parents might work or bottle feed and still be using AP, if their own parenting behavior is still as child centered as possible. These authors also argue that any parenting behavior, including holding, feeding and co-sleeping could be applied in a way that is not responsive to cues from the infant. What is most important is not the specific behavior, but whether or not it is responsive to cues from the infant” (p. 2).

AP for infants involves “child-centered” rather than “parent-centered” parenting. The parents read the cues of their babies and by doing so, provide that safe haven so important from attachment theory's point of view. They are also responsive to their children, as suggested in Baumrind's work on parenting style. These are its 4 key components in the care of infants:

  1. Co-sleeping- either in the same room as parents or (with appropriate safety precautions) in the same bed. This may involve having bedtime occur on the child’s, not the parent’s, schedule.
  2. Feeding on demand- allowing the child to set the timing of feeding (whether breast- or bottle-fed), along with self-weaning.
  3. Holding and touching- keeping the child physically near, whether through cuddling and cradling, or by wearing on a front- or backpack arrangement.
  4. Responsiveness to crying- not letting the child “cry it out,” but instead intervening early in the crying bout, reacting to the child’s distress before it gets out of control.

You can see why each of these areas of AP would have strong advocates and equally strong critics. Critics would maintain that you're spoiling the child.  They ask whether responsiveness to crying will simply reinforce the child’s crying. Doesn't it mean you have to breast-feed your 5-year-old? How about co-sleeping? Isn’t it dangerous?  How about the stress on mom? She’ll have no time for herself if she’s constantly shackled with holding this little creature nonstop.

The evidence based on studies of AP in infants shows a wide range of psychological and physical benefits to each of the 4 components of AP. For example, AP-raised infants have lower stress levels, cry less often, and feel more connected to other people as they get older, even showing higher levels of empathy. Again, I’ve abbreviated much that’s in the article, so for more detail, you’ll find that the summary that Miller and Commons provide has a minimum of psych jargon and is thus very helpful.

AP with older infants and children, as I indicated earlier, adapts to the developmental level of the child (which is another reason the Time cover was so misleading). As the infant turns into a toddler, some mothers will still be breast-feeding (though not as frequently as with very young infants). However, more importantly, the parents start to get into territory that many approach with trepidation- namely, the terrible two’s. With AP, however, parents don’t have to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.  Instead, they need to find the balance between encouraging independence and autonomy while still allowing their child to feel safe and secure.  Ainsworth believed that a “maximally sensitive mother” (substitute father if you wish) knows how to read the child’s signals and responds appropriately.

As an example, consider how parents respond to the development of fear in their young children such as fear of a barking dog. Consistent with AP’s philosophy, parents would be ready to respond to a child’s emotional distress. You can’t keep all the barking dogs away, nor can you wipe out the memory of a bad experience with a dog from the child’s mind. You can, however, talk to the child about the situation (depending on the child’s cognitive maturity), provide emotional reassurance, and distract the child by providing some alternative activity to occupy his or her mind.  These strategies are part of the larger picture of helping children learn to regulate their emotions. The older they get, the more they can control their own emotions, but this early foundation will help ensure they’ll do so successfully. Children with attachment parenting may be less likely as adults to show road rage.

You may still be wondering how mom and dad are faring through all of this. Here they are, constantly holding their children, having to sleep in the same room or on their children’s schedules, ready to soothe their children so early in a crying episode that they have to be within arms’ length at all times. Isn’t this going to make parenthood even rougher than it is already?  

Parenthood is never easy, but attachment parenting seems to hold some advantages for alleviating stress in parents. Their kids aren’t crying as often (once they get out of the first 6 weeks or so). They’ll throw fewer tantrums. It’ll be easier for them to adjust to baby sitters or day care. Finally, if what they say about stress is true, their immune systems might function better and they won’t be sick as often.  You may not be perfect as an AP parent, but the more you can incorporate some of its principles into the relationships you have with your children, the more likely it is you’ll experience its very real benefits.

The bottom line is that when you separate the popular exaggerations of AP from the more objectively-oriented scientific studies, it’s a sensible approach that fosters physical and psychological health in children.  We do know from extensive research on adult attachment style that securely attached adults have happier and less conflict-ridden lives. There’s even research to suggest they may be better parents themselves having received this secure base in their own development. Before you write off AP as lax parenting that spoils children, I hope you will take a look at the evidence to help inform your own choices in whatever role you play in the lives of the young.  

Follow me on Twitter@swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Miller, P.M. & Commons, M.L. (2010). The Benefits of Attachment Parenting for Infants and Children: A Behavioral Developmental View, Behavioral Development Bulletin, Vol. 10. '

Tollenaar, M. S., Beijers, R., Jansen, J., Riksen-Walraven, J. M. A., & de Weerth, C. (2012). Solitary sleeping in young infants is associated with heightened cortisol reactivity to a bathing session but not to a vaccination. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(2), 167-177. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.03.017

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The science of attachment parenting

© 2008 - 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

"Attachment parenting," or AP, is an approach to child-rearing intended to forge strong, secure attachments between parents and children.

For many parents, this approach feels intuitive. And anthropological research suggests that practices associated with AP -- such as baby-wearing and co-sleeping -- have deep roots in our evolutionary past (Konner 2005).

But does AP contribute to better child outcomes?

Not surprisingly, it depends on your definition of "attachment parenting."

If we use the definition first proposed by William and Martha Sears, then "attachment parenting" is essentially another term for "sensitive, responsive parenting." 

The Searses suggest a list of principles and practices that go along with AP (see below), but they have stressed that it isn't necessary for parents to follow all of them. The practices are intended to help care-givers achieve the goals of being sensitive and responsive to children. Parents can experiment, and see what works.

A similar approach has been taken by Attachment Parenting International. As this organization states on its website, parents should "take what works and leave the rest." 

This is the definition I will address here, and, as we will see, there is a large body of research indicating that sensitive, responsive parenting benefits children.

Among other things, it appears to protect children from the effects of toxic stress -- helping children develop resilience in the face of adversity. It may also reduce a child's risk of developing behavior problems, and promote the development of moral reasoning (see below).

If we focus on specific practices, the evidence is mixed. In general, the practices recommended by the Sears are beneficial. But not every practice works for everyone, and not every claim (made by various advocates) has been supported. For instance, baby-wearing has benefits, but it doesn't appear to stop colicky babies from crying excessively.

So evidence in favor of "sensitive, responsive parenting" doesn't tell us that every associated practice is the best choice for a family. If we want to know the effects of a specific practice, we need controlled studies that target that particular practice.

What about other definitions of attachment parenting?

It's important that other conceptions of attachment parenting are not consistent with what we know about effective care-giving behavior. They also may be rooted in pseudo-science beliefs about the biology of motherhood.

For example, according to one writer, attachment parenting means responding immediately to a crying infant by offering a breast; "waking every hour" at night to feed; or rushing in with pre-emptive attempts to soothe, so that parents fail to find out what their babies actually need (e.g., Jenner 2014). 

This isn't the sort of behavior that has been linked with secure attachments. And it's inconsistent with what researchers mean by "sensitive, responsive parenting."

To fit the researcher's criteria for "sensitive and responsive," a parent needs to accurately interpret the baby's signals, and provide an appropriate response. That's not what this definition describes, and all that rushing to intervene can be counter-productive.

For instance, babies often make noises during brief moments of waking during the night. They may also vocalize when they are sleeping. If parents misinterpret these sounds and rush to feed a baby, they are needlessly depriving everyone of sleep -- and perhaps teaching the baby to awaken frequently at night! 

So if we define "attachment parenting" as a kind of frenetic attempt to deliver fast responses (including unnecessary intrusions that prevent babies from developing patterns of consolidated, nighttime sleep), we have little reason to think this would benefit families. 

The same may be said for definitions that require parents to adopt an extremely child-centered lifestyle -- the sort that leaves parents feeling overwhelmed, unsupported, and socially isolated from other adults.

Not only is this bad for a parent's mental health, the popular rationale for this lifestyle appears to be rooted in fairy tale beliefs about what's "natural," like the idea that human mothers evolved to be intensive, exclusive providers of parental care.

The implication is mothers are designed to devote all their energies to child-rearing, and thrive doing so. It's the ancestral way. If a mother can't manage it -- or doesn't enjoy it -- something is wrong. 

Anthropological research refutes these notions. If there are any peoples whose life-ways most closely resemble those of our ancestors, it is the world's last remaining hunter-gatherers. Yet hunter-gatherer mothers don't devote all their energies to child-rearing. 

Yes, they have child care duties, but they have other work as well, and they raise their children with the help of relatives and friends.

In some of these societies, as much of half the daytime care of infants is contributed by other relatives -- like fathers, siblings, grandmothers (Konner 2010; Hrdy 2009; Hrdy 1999). Even in societies where hunter-gatherer mothers provide the majority of infant care, parenting bears little resemblance to the fairy tale scenario of "total motherhood." When coping with a crying infant, mothers nearly always receive some sort of help -- either with soothing the infant, or with some other aspect of infant care (Kruger and Konner 2010). 

So it's easy to find problems with "attachment parenting" if we define it differently than the Sears have. 

In the remainder of this article, I will ignore alternative definitions, and focus on reviewing the evidence favoring physical closeness, sensitivity, and responsiveness in parents. For information about books, websites, and organizations that offer support to parents committed to these principles, click here.

Attachment parenting in its original formulation: What does it look like?

According to William and Martha Sears, attachment parenting is associated with a range of practices and approaches, including

  • the frequent holding and carrying of infants ("baby-wearing"),
  • breastfeeding,
  • the avoidance of strictly-timed, adult-imposed feeding schedules,
  • nurturing touch (including skin-to-skin "kangaroo care" for infants),
  • being responsive to a baby's cries,
  • being sensitive and responsive to a child's emotions (e.g., by helping him or her cope with nighttime fears), and
  • co-sleeping (e.g., infants sleeping in the same room with caregivers, or young siblings sharing a bedroom).

In addition, care-givers may attempt handle misbehavior through techniques sometimes identified as "positive discipline." These may include distracting or redirecting very young children; providing patient, timely reminders; emotion-coaching; reasoning; inducing empathy; and using language that motivates kids to bounce back from mistakes. 

But William and Martha Sears, who coined the term "attachment parenting"--note that there is no checklist of specific practices that parents must follow (Sears and Sears 2001). 

What's important, argues these authors, is that parents strive to be sensitive and responsive -- so that they can learn how to meet their children's needs in an affectionate, effective way.

This is not the same as being overly-protective. By definition, securely-attached kids are not overly-clingy or helpless. They are the kids who feel confident to explore the world on their own. They can do this because they trust that their parents will be there for them (Mercer 2006).

And if we take the Sears's definition to heart -- if attachment parenting is synonymous with "sensitive, responsive parenting" -- then it follows that attachment parenting will look different from one family to the next.

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