Attachment Parenting, Illustrated

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and API Leader

“The question should not be, ‘Are you mom enough?’ The questions should be:

  • Are you responsively parenting your child in a timely way?
  • Are you attuned to his or her individual needs?
  • Are you providing a safe, protected, and predictable environment?
  • Do you understand and respond to the developmental differences between infants, toddlers, and older verbal children?
  • Are you available and empathetic when your child needs you or is under stress?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, you are practicing Attachment Parenting.  You can reasonably expect that your child will become emotionally secure, will be able to give and receive affection, and will lead a productive and successful life.”~ Isabelle Fox, PhD, author of Growing Up: Attachment Parenting from Kindergarten to College, in response to Time magazine’s feature article “Are you Mom Enough?” on May 21, 2012

What does Attachment Parenting look like? That depends on who you ask.

  • William is a stay-at-home father with his infant son. An environmental engineer, Crystal works two days in the office and three days from home. William travels with Crystal during her frequent business trips so that she can continue breastfeeding, babywearing, and bedsharing after the workday has ended.
  • Jason, a prison guard, works shifts opposite his wife, Becky, a physical therapist, so that one of them is always home with their infant son and toddler daughter. Becky is tandem-nursing, and the family cosleeps.
  • Shell is a stay-at-home mom to her toddler son. Her husband, Dusty, owns his own electrical business, so they often eat lunch at the job sites and he can take a day off here or there to spend more time as a family. Shell breastfed, coslept, and babywore their son, and she plans on homeschooling.
  • Rita is a stay-at-home mom to her three children and a full-time work-from-home mom doing communications. Because her husband, Mike, works 60-hour weeks at the factory, it’s not uncommon to see Rita bring at least one of her children in with her to a work meeting. Her two older children attend morning preschool, and her baby is her first exclusively breastfed child. Rita and Mike also cosleep regularly with the younger two children.
  • Jamie works full time at a bank, and her husband, Anthony, is a church pastor. She breastfeeds and pumps milk to be bottle-fed to her baby at the childcare center where both of her children attend. The center operates on values consistent with Attachment Parenting. At home, the baby sleeps in his parents’ room in a crib, and his toddler brother sleeps in his own room.
  • Cristin is a stay-at-home mom to four children. Her husband, Jon, travels extensively for his job as a computer technician. Their oldest two children attend public school, leaving Cristin home with a baby and a toddler. She is breastfeeding the baby who sleeps in her room in a bassinet.
  • Lindsey is a single mom who used to work at a large childcare center. She now provides childcare out of her home, in order to spend more time with her infant daughter. She breastfed until recently, when she ran into supply issues, but has enough breastmilk stored up to last another six months when her daughter will turn one.
  • Britney is a stay-at-home mom to a toddler daughter. Her husband, Steven, farms. Britney breastfed and babywore her daughter.
  • Leslie has been working as a full-time school teacher for the past ten years but has been seeking a half-time position since her daughter, now a preschooler, was born. She’s seriously considering taking a year or two off from working to spend more time with her daughter. Her husband, Spencer, a college instructor, supports her decision.
  • Traci is a stay-at-home mom during the day and spends her nights cleaning houses. When her pilot husband, Chuck, is away flying airplanes, her two school-age boys and preschool daughter sleep over at Grandma’s until Traci’s shift ends.
  • Brian and Karen both work full time. When a favorite childcare provider raised her rates, Karen spent a lot of time reviewing and interviewing potential providers for her toddler daughter before deciding on a nearby in-home daycare. When her daughter was a baby, Karen breastfed her until she returned to work at six weeks and then switched to formula. Karen never coslept, but she and Brian always got up for her daughter in the middle of the night, soothing her back to sleep by holding and rocking her.

Attachment Parenting is an approach to childrearing, independent of a parent’s lifestyle. What this means is that instead of centering on specific rules, such as that a mother must breastfeed or bedshare or stay-at-home, the Attachment Parenting approach shifts the parents’ focus to meeting the individual emotional needs of each child, interdependent with the needs of the parent and the family as a whole. It is a family-centered approach to parenting through which children are responded to consistently and sensitively, depending on their development, but treated with the same respect and value as an adult, yet without sacrificing the parents’ needs for personal balance.

Attachment Parenting is not a label for the specific tools that parents use to care for and raise their children. Rather, Attachment Parenting is the attitude parents take when using the tools. This attitude is based on trust, empathy, affection, joy, compassion, forgiveness, peace, nonviolence, acceptance, understanding, patience, love. There is no room for control, coercion, and punishment because Attachment Parenting requires a different lens through which to see our children, ourselves, and our interactions. This does not mean that children in “attachment families” do not cry, have tantrums, lie, cheat on tests, hit, or do other behaviors that require discipline. Attachment Parenting gives an alternate approach to how parents deal with these behaviors, one that is shown by research to be more effective in the long term of teaching children limits to their behavior while preserving their self-worth – and parents’ sanity.

In a culture with a heavy emphasis on behavior modification – in other words, how do we get our kids to do something we want them to do or to not do something they’re doing? – it can be difficult to wrap our minds around what Attachment Parenting is. But while multidisciplinary research shows some parenting tools to have advantages over others, attachment research demonstrates that it’s the thought behind the action that matters when bonding with our children.

Let’s look at some parenting tools that are commonly pitted against one another:

  • Breastfeeding or Bottle-feeding – There is no arguing with the health benefits of breastmilk, but in terms of Attachment Parenting, either breast- or bottle-feeding is appropriate if done according to baby’s hunger cues. Additionally, bottle-feeding mothers benefit by cuddling and mimicking breastfeeding interactions with their babies during feedings.
  • Cosleeping or Crib-sleeping – Bedsharing, a form of cosleeping, is recommended only for exclusively breastfeeding mothers taking appropriate safety precautions. For parents who prefer not to share a bed, sleeping in the same room is an option. This is OK as long as the parents give as much sensitive attention to the baby through the nighttime hours as during the day. Young babies often wake during the night to feed, and older babies and children have difficulty with separation, fear of the dark, and nightmares. Self-soothing, if allowed to develop naturally without sleep-training through the toddler and preschool years, helps the child to learn how to cope with his fears in a way that promotes mental well-being; infants are not developmentally ready.
  • Babywearing or Using a Stroller – Older mothers remember the admonition to not hold the baby too much lest they spoil, but fortunately, many younger mothers are hearing less of this advice. Parents are encouraged to hold their baby as much as they want. Many parents find an infant carrier to be helpful in freeing up hands, but other parents prefer bouncy seats and strollers. There is nothing counter to Attachment Parenting in this as long as the baby is content and the mother is having regular interaction with the child.
  • Staying Home or Using Daycare – It is true that research shows the value of a stay-at-home parent in a child’s first few years of life, but many parents find that they must work to stay financially sound. Attachment Parenting encourages parents to be creative to find ways for the primary caregiver to spend more time at home, such as self-employment, working from home, working opposite shifts of the parenting partner, and working part-time. If daycare is needed part- or full-time, childcare providers should be aligned with Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting and able to form an attachment bond with the child to facilitate this area of development.

There are no two children alike; no two parent parent-child attachment bonds quite the same. Each family is unique. Every parent does the best with the resources they have on hand. Some seem to have more options than others. But every parent loves their child.

Attachment Parenting is an approach borne out of this love. Attachment Parenting aligns with our basic, human constitution for emotionally healthy relationships. It’s a natural extension of how families were biologically designed to function. Attachment Parenting is not impractical for working or single parents, bottle-feeding mothers, or children who attend daycare. It is not limited to families only of certain socio-economic classes or alternative lifestyles. The virtues of Attachment Parenting are not determined by how long a mother breastfeeds or whether she quit her job to stay home. Every parent makes the choices that she deems is right for her family. Rather, the essence of Attachment Parenting is in the security and harmony of that parent’s attachment bond with her child.

5 thoughts on “Attachment Parenting, Illustrated”

  1. THANK YOU for writing such an inclusive and kind entry that brings this crazy debate back to the focused center of Attachment Parenting!! Thank you for showing the diversity of families who all have the same goals: that their children feel loved, respected, and appreciated, and that family is the foundation and safety net we all need to thrive in society! It was such a relief to read this after all of the turmoil surrounding the Time issue. The irony of the turmoil is that one of the major practices of Attachment Parenting is to teach love and acceptance–not judgment and name calling. Hopefully this more rational explanation of what we as AP’s are trying to do will bring peace, comfort, and understanding. Cheers!

  2. Great article. As a mom who works outside the home (by necessity), I feel excluded from some conversations on attachment parenting. It can be challenging, but AP is great to help build connection when you can’t always be with your little ones! My husband and I used opposite shifts (AKA tag-team parenting) and he has been a stay-at-home dad.

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