• Attachment parenting is a parenting style that emphasizes a strong bond between parents and children, with parents being highly attuned and receptive to their child’s needs.
  • It’s most often associated with things that keep parents and children close, like breastfeeding on-demand, baby-wearing, and responding right away to a baby who cries out during sleep or play.
  • Attachment parenting is not one of the four parenting styles developed by psychologist Diana Baumrind and her successors, who studied preschoolers and found that parents fit into four set groups: authoritative parents, authoritarian parents, permissive parents, and neglectful parents.

Attachment parents feel a strong connection to their children.

What is attachment parenting? It’s just as the name suggests. “Attachment parenting focuses on raising children who feel secure in their ability to explore the world while simultaneously knowing that they can be both independent and connected in relationship,” says Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D.

Attachment theory was pioneered by British psychologist Sir John Bowlby, and the parenting style that sprung from it was popularized by Bill Sears, M.D., and his wife Martha Sears, R.N. Dr. Sears claims that babies of attachment parents cry less and have fewer behavior problems, freeing up more time to grow, learn, and develop.

Attachment Parenting International (API) has identified eight principles, or parenting practices, that it believes will help the child develop secure bonds between children and their parents:

  • Preparing for pregnancy, birth, and parenthood
  • Feeding with love and respect (and breastfeeding over bottle-feeding if possible)
  • Responding with sensitivity (especially when a parent hears the baby cry)
  • Using nurturing touch and physical contact (including baby-wearing)
  • Ensuring safe sleep, physically and emotionally
  • Providing consistent love and care
  • Practicing positive discipline
  • Striving for balance between personal and family life

“API believes that these practices fulfill a child’s need for trust, empathy, and affection and will provide a foundation for a lifetime of healthy relationships,” the organization says.

None of those principles are strict requirements, though, and some parents have good results picking and choosing which ones they follow. “Baby-wearing and other practices may help parents develop closer, more sensitive, and responsive relationships with their children,” says Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. “Certain practices may also reduce a child’s stress levels, and contribute to the way a child learns to regulate his or her emotions. But the important thing isn’t any one practice. It’s developing that two-way rapport with your child.

What is attachment theory in parenting, and why is it important?

The broad definition of the phrase “attachment parenting” lends itself to some confusion – it often gets mixed up with phrases like “healthy attachment” or “secure attachment.” In reality, they’re not interchangeable. The attachment theory of child development just states that a child needs to feel connected to a caregiver in order to thrive emotionally, but this can happen in many ways.

“It is important to be very clear that practicing the principles of attachment parenting is not the only way to form a healthy attachment with your baby,” says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.”A large body of research has shown over many decades that most parents – 70% to 80% of them – are forming secure attachments with their children, regardless of factors like breastfeeding or baby-wearing. You do not need ‘attachment parenting’ to have a healthy, strong attachment with your baby.”

In fact, some detractors say the claims made by Dr. Sears and his boosters are overblown. “I’m not opposed to it, but I’m a developmental scientist and there is no evidence that the stated principles of attachment parenting lead to a secure attachment,” says Diana Divecha, Ph.D, of DevelopmentalScience.com. Instead, it’s more important to be keyed into your child than to make sure you adhere to the eight principles. If the constant physical closeness makes you more anxious than attuned, that’s not great for either of you.

Others say that the emphasis on physical closeness and high responsiveness makes attachment parenting tough on moms and dads. “If you set your own needs aside – not eat when you are hungry, not take breaks, not ask for help – in an attempt to provide attachment parenting for your child, you may miss the mark,” says Sue Marriott, LCSW, CGP, and cohost of the Therapist Uncensored podcast. “One key to secure parenting is being delighted in your child, it’s hard to love it when you’re erasing yourself and aiming for someone else’s ideas of parenting.”

How to practice attachment parenting

If you’re interested in incorporating attachment parenting techniques into your approach, start by following these four steps.

  1. Read up on what it is – and isn’t. “It’s important to distinguish between attachment theory in general and attachment parenting,” Marriott says. She recommends this podcast episode of Parenting Uncensored, which debunks myths about the parenting style.
  2. Get attuned with your child (within reason). “Attunement just means being available and responsive in a realistic, authentic way,” she says. “If you need to go to the bathroom, please do. Key factors in raising secure kids means providing protection, responsiveness, attuned comfort and authentic, roughly-accurate responsivenessYou only need to get it right about 70% of the time and you will just fine!”
  3. Maintain your sense of self. “Don’t lose yourself and your marriage to the needs of your child,” Marriott says. “Tend to your adult relationships as well. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
  4. Keep tabs on your own health. “Parents who are practicing the specific principles of attachment parenting should monitor their own well-being since there is such an emphasis on parents and babies being physically close,” Dr. Edlynn. “If sleeping closely and nursing are causing more sleep-deprivation and stress for a mother, this is a risk for depression and anxiety that can then interfere with the bonding process. Modify or moderate of the attachment parenting practices if it helps you be an emotionally healthier parent.”