Attachment parenting, a phrase coined by pediatrician William Sears, is a parenting philosophy based on the principles of attachment theory in developmental psychology. According to attachment theory, the child forms a strong emotional bond with caregivers during childhood with lifelong consequences. Sensitive and emotionally available parenting helps the child to form a secure attachment style which fosters a child's socio-emotional development and well-being. Less sensitive and emotionally available parenting or neglect of the child's needs may result in insecure forms of attachment style, which is a risk factor for many mental health problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and eating disorders). In extreme and rare conditions, the child may not form an attachment at all and may suffer from reactive attachment disorder. Principles of attachment parenting aim to increase development of a child's secure attachment and decrease insecure attachment.
When parents are taught to increase their sensitivity to an infant's needs and signals, this increases the development of the child's attachment security. Sears' specific techniques of attachment parenting remain under study.
Attachment theory, originally proposed by John Bowlby, states that the infant has a tendency to seek closeness to another person and feel secure when that person is present. Bowlby had earlier proposed in his maternal deprivation hypothesis, published in 1951, that maternal deprivation would not only cause depression in children, but also acute conflict and hostility, decreasing their ability to form healthy relationships in adult life.
Sigmund Freud proposed that attachment was a consequence of the need to satisfy various drives. According to attachment theory, children attach to parents because they are social beings for whom such relationship is natural and intrinsic, not only because they need other people to satisfy drives.
In the 1970s James Prescott carried out research into primate child-mother bonding and noted a clear link between disruption of the child-mother bonding process and the emergence of violence and fear-based behavior in the young primates. Unable to conduct the same research on human subjects, he then carried out a number of cross cultural studies of all known first contact observations of Aboriginal Societies. He found he could accurately predict the emergence of violence and hierarchical power in any given society, based on the treatment of mothers and children.
Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised a procedure, called The Strange Situation, to observe attachment relationships between a human caregiver and child. She observed disruptions to the parent/child attachment over a 20 minute period, and noted that this affected the child's exploration and behavior toward the mother. This operationalization of attachment has recently come under question, as it may not be a valid measure for infants that do not experience distress upon initial encounter with a stranger.
Attachment parenting proponents value secure attachment between children and a primary caregiver, preferably a parent or guardian. Secure primary or secondary attachments may also be formed with other caregiving adults and should be supported by the parents.
From the biological point of view, caregiver and infant have evolved a coordinated relationship in which the infant seeks to maintain proximity to the carer who responds to its overtures and signals of distress or fear and provides a secure base for exploration. The type of attachment formed by the infant and child is influential in the formation of the internal working model and thus the child's functioning throughout life. The secure attachment, formed when a carer is appropriately sensitive to the child's emotional and biological needs, is the norm.
Even when engaging non-parental caregivers, attachment parents strive to maintain healthy, secure attachments with their children. AP-friendly childcare is a continuation of the nurturing care given by the parents and focuses on meeting the child's needs. Attachment parents typically work to make caregiving arrangements that are sensitive to the child while balancing their own needs as well.
While in childcare, children may suffer injuries or traumatic experiences, and this may affect their attachment to the parent. An 'attachment injury' may form if an AP is not present for a traumatic or severely physically painful event in the child's life, or the AP does not partake in the primary attachment recovery process (which takes place immediately after the injury until the child is no longer in pain). Although attachment injuries are hypothesized to increase the likelihood of an insecure and unstable attachment to the parent by proponents of attachment parenting, evidence of the existence of these injuries is scarce. In effect, even researchers that have noted some deleterious consequences of child care note that the most important source of influence on attachment relationships is the caregiver and that child care quality is an important factor to consider.
Attachment parents seek to understand the biological and psychological needs of the child, and to avoid unrealistic expectations of child behavior. In setting age-appropriate boundaries and limits, attachment parenting takes into account the physical and psychological stage of development that the child is currently experiencing. In this way, parents may seek to avoid frustration that occurs when they expect things beyond the child's capability. According to Arnall (2007), discipline means teaching the child by gentle guidance, using tools such as re-direction, natural consequences, listening and modeling, rather than punitive means such as spanking, time-out, grounding, and punitive consequences.
Attachment parenting holds that it is vital to the child's survival that they be capable of communicating their needs to adults, and to have those needs promptly met. This does not mean meeting a need that a child can fulfill itself, nor (argues Dr. Sears) is it necessarily open to exploitation by children; while still an infant, says Dr Sears, a child is mentally incapable of outright manipulation.
Rather, the focus is on identifying unmet needs and responding appropriately. APs are encouraged to understand what these needs are, when they arise, how they change over time and circumstances, and how to flexibly devise appropriate responses. AP proponents establish these responses by looking at child development and infant and child biology, to determine psychologically and biologically appropriate responses at different stages of development.
Similar practices are called gentle parenting, natural parenting, instinctive parenting, intuitive parenting, immersion parenting or continuum concept parenting.
Several criticisms of attachment parenting have been raised.
- Strenuous and demanding: Attachment parenting can be very strenuous and demanding on parents, placing high responsibility on them without allowing for a support network of helpful friends or family. Writer Judith Warner contends that a "culture of total motherhood", which she blames in part on attachment parenting, has led to an "age of anxiety" for mothers in modern American society. Sociologist Sharon Hays argues that the "ideology of intensive mothering" imposes unrealistic obligations, and perpetuates a "double shift" life for working women.
- Research not conclusive: There is no conclusive body of research that shows this approach to be superior to "mainstream parenting".
- Discipline: It is indeed possible to use discipline strategies that are sensitive  and, therefore, one should not equate discipline and insensitive caregiving.
- Concerns over co-sleeping: The American Academy of Pediatrics' policy on SIDS prevention opposes bed-sharing with infants, although room-sharing is encouraged. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also warns against co-sleeping. Attachment Parenting International issued a response which stated that the data referenced in the Consumer Product Safety Commission statement were unreliable, and that co-sponsors of the campaign had created a conflict of interest.
- Non-DSM definition of reactive attachment disorder: Attachment Parenting International (API) utilizes an attachment therapy resource (Peachtree Attachment Resources) to define reactive attachment disorder, which claims the criteria are based on the DSM-IV. Attachment therapy definitions and symptoms lists of RAD have been criticised as being very different to DSM-TR criteria and as being "non-specific" and "wildly inclusive", producing a high rate of "false-positives."
- Ambiguities in usage of the term: A form of parenting called attachment parenting is sometimes used as an adjunct to attachment therapy. The term "attachment parenting" is increasingly co-opted by proponents of controversial techniques conventionally associated with attachment therapy such as Nancy Thomas and Ronald Federiciwhose AP methods differ from those of William Sears.
- Affectional bond
- Attachment in children
- Child psychotherapy
- Elimination communication
- Shared parenting
- Helicopter parent
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