Attachment parenting: What is attachment parenting?

Attachment parenting is getting a lot of attention in the news lately, but many people who might be familiar with the term aren't really sure what attachment parenting is all about.

The term, "attachment parenting", was conceived by pediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha, to describe a highly responsive, attentive style of caring for a child. Attachment parenting promotes physical and emotional closeness between parent and child through what the Sears refer to as the "Baby Bs." The Baby Bs are bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedsharing and boundary building.

Attachment parenting advocates encourage parents to hold their baby often in the early sensitive weeks of life to foster bonding. Breastfeeding is promoted because it enhances the mother's natural instincts to respond to her baby through physical closeness, hormonal influences and promotion of attentiveness. Both babywearing, the practice of carrying the baby on the parents' body with an infant carrier or sling, and bedsharing, parents and babies sleeping in the same bed, provide additional opportunities for closeness. Boundary building is a discipline philosophy that entails responding to the genuine, age appropriate needs of the child and using gentle guidance. All of the Baby Bs are aimed at promoting a trusting, intuitive relationship between parents and baby through the physical and emotional closeness that makes it easier to know and appropriately respond to the baby's needs. While some people might see the Baby B's as a set of rules they must follow, they are just recommended tools that can and should be individualized for each family and parenting situation.

Attachment style parents generally watch the baby, not the clock or calendar, for signs of their baby's readiness to eat, sleep, be put down, stay with a sitter, sleep alone, or cultivate any new behavior. To understand a baby's signs of readiness, you need to know your baby intimately. These parents learn about their baby by keeping him close and devoting lots of time and attention to him. Attachment style parents believe that when they make mistakes, they will know to change their direction because their knowledge of their child includes evaluation of the child's reaction to parenting approaches.

Those practicing attachment-style parenting are not likely to let their baby "cry it out." They respond to their infant's cries despite the still popularly held belief of many that always responding to a baby's cries will "spoil" their baby. They understand that an infant's cry is a very powerful survival tool meant to elicit a response. They believe that responding to the infant's cry builds trust, teaches the parents to "listen" to their child, and is the beginning step in the development of good, parent-child communication. Human biology seems to support this philosophy by giving the mother a strong hormonal response to her baby's cries that makes it very uncomfortable for her to ignore.

Attachment style parents understand the importance of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition and promotes a healthy immune system. In addition, because breastmilk digests quickly it ensures that the baby will be held frequently for feedings, and near mom almost continuously when breastfeeding is exclusive. Attachment parents believe that exclusive breastfeeding demonstrates the biological need of the infant to have almost continuous contact with his mother as a natural transition from life in the womb.

Babywearing and bedsharing is a natural extension of meeting your baby's need for continuous close contact. But there are a wide variety of ways that attachment parents address these issues. While one parent might carry her baby almost always in a baby sling, another might "know" that her baby loves the stroller when outside in the park. Some attachment style parents never use a crib but arrange mattresses on the bedroom floor to accommodate bedsharing, while others may start the baby in the crib and bring him into their king sized bed after the first night waking. Some use specialized cribs that attach to the side of the parent's bed. Each family decides what will meet their needs and the needs of their baby best while promoting closeness.

Gentle discipline is common for attachment parents using age-appropriate expectations. For example, parents might decide to put breakables out of reach rather than trying to teach their toddler not to touch them because they understand it would be unrealistic to expect the baby to resist touching enticing objects. Yet the same parents would have no trouble restricting their school-aged child from tossing a ball in the living room to protect the same breakables because this is a realistic, age appropriate limit. Attachment parents generally would not use corporal punishment but rather provide guidance, role modeling, rewards for good behavior, and gentle punishments such as timeouts or loss of privileges, always keeping the child's developmental stage in mind.

Misconceptions about attachment parenting abound. Those who practice attachment style parenting do not always wear their baby, share sleep or breastfeed. Though most attachment parents have adopted a life style that includes a stay-at-home mom, at least while the babies are young, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and the use of baby carriers, these are not "requirements."

Attachment parenting is about knowing your baby and responding to what your instincts and knowledge of your family tell you is right. Dr. Sears Baby Bs are just his recommended way to help you get to know your baby better. There are as many variations on the methods of implementing attachment parenting as there are parents and babies. Attachment parenting is a vehicle to get to know your baby and develop your own unique and sensitive parenting style.

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