Attachment parenting or ‘AP’ as it’s often referred to by more devout proponents, is a label that can arouse strong emotions and create divisions among mothers. For some, it conjures up visions of latter day hippies with bare bottomed babies strapped to their bodies around the clock and seems too ‘out there’ to contemplate. For others, it can seem like an ideal that would be lovely but is just too hard to live up to in this space age world with so many demands on parents and not enough loving arms to share the load.
Attachment parenting was given its name by US paediatrician William Sears who is renowned for his advocacy of responsive parenting and support of practices that encourage bonding and attachment such as natural birth, breastfeeding, baby wearing and co-sleeping.
The essence of Attachment Parenting is about forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children through kindness, respect and dignity. Recommendations are based on the psychology of attachment theory and also recent brain research showing that early responsiveness to infant needs has positive lifelong effects on social and emotional development.
Although parents who practice the philosophy of attachment parenting may also embrace practices such as elimination communication (nappy free babies), cloth nappies and home schooling, these options are personal choices, rather than a prerequisite for bonding with your baby.
The principles of attachment parenting
There is no one-sized –fits- all recipe for an attached (or any other) parenting style and there is no perfect score for aspiring attachment parents: having birth interventions or not breastfeeding, for instance, doesn’t exclude you from being a responsive, loving parent.
The organisation, Attachment Parenting International, offers eight principles to help parents understand and identify their children’s needs so they can become attuned and respond to their littlies with respect and empathy. These guidelines can be adapted to many family situations and range from preparing for pregnancy, birth and parenting to practising positive, non -violent discipline .
Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting
Although there is a huge influence to get caught up in the material preparation for parenting – planning the nursery, buying baby gear and cute little clothes, which of course is a lovely part of nesting and welcoming your new little person to your family – it’s important to prepare physically for pregnancy. Eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly and avoid stress when possible and to educate yourself about birth options and parenting philosophies, as well as normal infant development.
Explore your own beliefs about parenting and set up support networks so that you and your partner can relax and create a peaceful, welcoming environment for your baby.
Feed with Love and Respect
Feeding babies and children is more than simply providing nutritious food. Whether you are meeting the intense hunger needs of a newborn or sharing family mealtimes, this is a time for loving interaction that strengthens connections between parents and littlies. By respecting and responding to your baby’s early cues of rooting, grimacing and sucking that show he needs to suck for food or comfort, you will get to know your baby at an intuitive level, without wondering ‘what kind of cry is that?’
Later, this will transfer to offering healthy foods as your baby signals he is ready and, as he grows, encouraging him to follow his own body signals for hunger and thirst.
Attachment Parenting International advises that breast feeding satisfies an infant’s nutritional and emotional needs better than any other method of infant feeding and that nursing is a valuable mothering tool that continues to be normal and important nutritionally, immunologically, and emotionally beyond one year.
They also make recommendations for mothers who aren’t breastfeeding to ‘bottle nurse’ by imitating breastfeeding behaviours such as changing sides during feeds (this helps with stimulation of both sides of baby’s body and brain) and holding your baby while they suck on the bottle or dummy.
Respond with sensitivity
Although there is a lot of pressure to ‘train’ even tiny babies to self soothe or to avoid ‘spoiling’, research shows that baby brains are immature so babies are unable to soothe themselves or to manipulate you.
By putting yourself in your baby’s bootees and responding sensitively to his needs, you are teaching him about trust and empathy and laying a foundation for healthy relationships.
It is normal for newborns to need almost constant holding but the upside is that, by keeping your baby close, you will become attuned to her early signals. This will mean less frustration and distress for both of you as your little one feels safe and secure. Creating a strong attachment to your baby means not only meeting his physical needs but also his emotional needs so it’s important to spend time playing and enjoying him too.
Use nurturing touch
Nurturing touch is as important a nutrient for your baby’s wellbeing as food: touch stimulates growth hormones, improves intellectual and motor development, and helps regulate babies’ temperature, heart rate, and sleep/wake patterns. There is also strong evidence that cultures with high rates of physical affection, touch, holding or carrying, rate low in adult physical violence.
You can incorporate loving touch and meet your baby’s need for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation and movement by ‘wearing’ him in a sling or wrap, cuddling skin to skin, bathing together and massaging your baby.
Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally
Attachment is a 24 hour process that doesn’t shut down when your baby sleeps. Your baby needs to have his needs met responsively at night time just as he does during the day. The easiest way to meet your baby’s night time needs is to share sleep with your baby. This will also support breastfeeding by increasing your milk supply and making night time feeds easier.
You can either ‘co-sleep’ with baby in his own safe space close to your bed or, as long as you and your partner follow safe sleep guidelines, bed sharing can be a lovely way to stay connected with your baby while he or she sleeps.
Looking for gentle, respectful ways to help your baby (and you) sleep without compromising breastfeeding or the beautiful bond between you and your little one? See my book Sleeping Like a Baby (it’s available on Audible too, if you don’t have time to read). You can download the first chapter FREE HERE.
Provide Consistent Loving Care
According to Attachment Parenting International, babies and young children have an intense need for the physical presence of a consistent, loving, responsive caregiver: ideally a parent. They advocate creating daily routines that include your baby and avoiding unnecessary or long separations. If neither parent can be a full time carer, it is important to choose a loving, responsive carer who can form a close bond with your child and that you reconnect with cuddles and play after separations from your little one.
Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised and respected breastfeeding and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, best-selling author, TEDx speaker and mum of five.For more suggestions and information to help your baby develop, Check out Pinky’s book Parenting By Heart and her recording package of interviews with child development professionals ‘The Secrets of Happy Babies -a blueprint for building better baby brains’