Attachment parenting (AP), 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 unavailable 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. Children who suffer from reactive attachment disorder have often experienced extremely traumatic childhoods with a lot of neglect and abuse. An example of such a case is for children in orphanages in Romania where babies have been known to be left for 18–20 hours by themselves in their cribs. This is a very rare occurrence, however, and most children have formed at least some kind of attachment style. 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 in 1969, 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 caregiver. 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.
The Baby Book by William and Martha Sears, sometimes referred to as the 'Bible of attachment parenting' gives practical attachment parenting advice in the form of the following ‘seven baby B’s of attachment parenting’:
- Birth bonding: The first few hours after birth are regarded as very important to promote attachment.
- Belief in the signal value of your baby’s cries: Parents are encouraged to learn to understand their baby’s cries and respond quickly and appropriately to them.
- Breastfeeding: This is regarded to have physical and psychological advantages to both mother and child.
- Babywearing: The term was first used by Dr. Sears and it means carrying the baby in a sling or other carrier, close to the body of the caregiver.
- Bedding close to baby: Sleeping in the same room and preferably in the same bed as the baby is encouraged, as is frequent (breast) feeding at night.
- Balance and boundaries: Appropriate responsiveness (knowing when to say yes and when to say no) is needed to keep a healthy family alive.
- Beware of baby trainers: Instead of taking advice about how to ‘train’ the baby to make it cry less and sleep for longer stretches, parents are encouraged to listen to their own instinct and intuition.
According to attachment parenting advocates this advice helps parents to respond quickly and sensitively to their baby’s needs, thus facilitating development of secure attachment.
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.
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: The Peachtree Attachment Resources, used by Attachment Parenting International (API) to define reactive attachment disorder claim their criteria are based on the DSM-IV. However, attachment therapy definitions and symptoms lists of RAD have been criticized as being very different from DSM-IV-TR criteria and as being "non-specific" and "wildly inclusive", producing a high rate of "false-positives."
- Ambiguities in usage of the term: The term "attachment parenting" is increasingly co-opted by proponents of controversial techniques conventionally associated with attachment therapy, such as Nancy Thomas and Ronald Federici, whose 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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