What is attachment parenting?

When you first hear it, the term ‘attachment parenting’ can sound a little harsh and domineering. And it’s pretty easy for critics to suggest that too much attachment leads to a helicopter type of relationship between parent and child. But the main idea behind attachment parenting is simple, and well-intentioned: a strong and healthy parent-child bond helps to raise happy, secure kids.

Attachment parenting is a theory that was presented by Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha, in the early nineties. It is rooted in the attachment theories of psychological researchers Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. The general idea of attachment parenting is that by bonding with your child through close physical contact and quick responses to their needs, you help to ensure their greater emotional and psychological well-being. Basically, being there for Baby is good for them.

The specifics

The specific methods that attachment parenting recommends include: breastfeeding until Baby is ready – not until you’re ready – to stop, regular baby-wearing (especially in a sling so they are in close physical contact with a parent most of the time), and family co-sleeping. These strategies are meant to help parents meet Baby’s needs as quickly as possible. There are many parents who do these things without knowing that they’re part of a specific method. It might be that you use some version of these methods as a way of following your own parenting preferences, even if you’ve never heard of attachment parenting.

The debate

Maybe you saw the notorious 2012 Time magazine cover story on attachment parenting, which featured an older toddler standing on a chair to reach his mother’s breast to breastfeed. After this story was released, attachment parenting began to draw a significant amount of criticism, both for its methods, and for the evidence used to back them up in the Sears’ book. Much of the criticism focuses on specifics like extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and baby-wearing, rather than the way attachment parenting is based on fairly uncontroversial ideas, like feeding your baby when they are hungry, trying to soothe them when they are upset, and offering plenty of physical affection. Critics argue that methods like extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping don’t work for all families and that hearing about attachment parenting as a style could make some parents feel worse about their own parenting style. Some critics also suggest that attachment theorists use scare tactics to favor data that supports their own solutions over any others.

Another objection is that, when taken to an extreme, attachment parenting can put the needs of the child too far above the needs of the parents and rest of the family. This can become detrimental to the parent and, by extension, to the child. The debate between supporters and opponents of attachment parenting is sometimes portrayed as a duel between so-called helicopter parents and hard-line, cry-it-out-and-toughen-up parents. But fortunately, most people don’t generally go to either extreme. Most parents on either side of the debate seem to take a more moderate stance in their own parenting.

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