Attachment Parenting: Why Should I Use It?

by Dr. Laura Markham

"Later in life you may be very distressed to see who or what is used to fill needs that went unmet during infancy." - Dr. William and Martha Sears

Attachment Parenting is a style of parenting based on responding to a baby's needs, which in infancy include keeping the baby in close proximity to the parent. Once the baby learns that her caretakers are reliably nurturing and protective, she builds on this internal security as she proceeds to the next developmental tasks of exploration, mastery of the environment, and forming relationships with others.

Attachment parenting is now supported by an impressive body of academic theory and research, but the basic idea is simple and intuitively obvious. Human babies are born helpless because of their big brains. To survive, they need parents to keep them from harm's way for many years, and to teach them survival skills.

Babies are born with a biological imperative to seek relationships: not just food, but a person to whom they can attach, who will protect and guide them. Babies are evolutionarily selected to be attached. The humans who weren't born predisposed to attachment didn't make it; they were eaten by predators. The babies who demanded to be held and protected lived to send their genes down to us.

Your baby doesn't know that he was born into the 21st century. He still cries when he's put down, which makes a lot of sense from his point of view. He doesn't know you need to go to sleep because it's 2am. He thinks he's in mortal danger unless he's in your arms.

He will learn, gradually, that being free of your arms is not only safe, but the only way to get to all those interesting breakables across the room. But for now, to feel secure, he needs to feel your physical presence.

So you have a choice. You can do what many experts throughout the last century -- not to mention many well-meaning mothers-in-law -- have advised: Put him down and let him cry, and he will sleep, eventually. Or you can listen to your own instincts. Because evolution moves slowly, and your instincts were shaped long before the 21st century.

If adult humans hadn't picked up those babies, none of us would be here. That's why we all find the cry of an infant unbearable. When a baby cries, we are moved to respond. Particularly, of course when it is our own. Both fathers and mothers can distinguish their own infant's cry from that of other babies.

"Ok, so what do 'attachment parents' do?"

They honor this small mammal's need for "attachment," as well as their own instincts.

  • They carry the infant in a snuggly or sling rather than pushing him in a stroller, so he feels the comfort of their body.
  • They pick him up when he cries.
  • They hold him a lot.
  • They almost certainly breastfeed.
  • And because their baby doesn't know it's 3am, they find it easiest to get some sleep if he sleeps where they can touch him: close by in a bassinet, or in the same bed.

There are more techniques for attachment parenting on Dr. Markham's site. But attachment parenting is not so much about these techniques, as about a state of mind, a parental commitment to meet the infant's needs for closeness and engagement as well as food and shelter.

Ironically, while attachment parenting runs contrary to many of our cultural norms, parents who practice it say that it is actually easier. What's more, research increasingly supports it as better for babies.

For instance, one study attempting to contrast feeding methods was confounded when the babies who were carried in snugglies turned out to be so much happier than the babies transported in strollers that feeding method proved unimportant by comparison.

But the most stunning research was recently published by Professor Margot Sunderland, a British Medical Association award-winning author and a leading expert in the development of children's brains. Based on a four-year research study using brain scans to track the effect of crying on infants, she found that "controlled crying" (letting babies "cry it out" to teach them to put themselves to sleep) damages babies' brains. While Sunderland's research must be considered preliminary until it is replicated by others, the scientific evidence is irrefutable that babies do better when they are promptly comforted.

Mothers and fathers who practice attachment parenting say that children raised with this philosophy are more cooperative and better adjusted. The research backs them up. Over the past thirty years, study after study has conclusively demonstrated that parenting style is predictive of a baby's relationship with that parent. But that's not all.

As securely attached babies get older they form better relationships with others, have higher self esteem, are more flexible and resilient under stress, and perform better in every aspect of life, from schoolwork to peer interactions.

So if you're wondering what to do when your baby cries, the research says to go ahead and pick her up, the sooner the better.

"Won't you spoil her?"

If spoiling is "ruining" a child so that she is not developing optimally and may end up being difficult, then leaving her to cry is what will "spoil" her. Your goal is to raise a cheerful, well adjusted, adaptable child, who becomes increasingly independent and able to handle age-appropriate developmental tasks, right?

A huge body of research shows that babies who are responded to more quickly when they cry are more content. In other words, they cry less, both when they are held and when they are put down.

There is also increasing evidence that babies who are held more are healthier, exhibiting less colic and fewer minor illness. Finally, these babies, as they develop, are more able to focus appropriately on the developmental task of exploring their environment.

Attachment researchers explain that responsive parents provide a secure base for the infant, so that she knows she can rely on the big people around her. She is not left to cry, to feel abandoned and overwhelmed by her hunger or her need to be held. When she cries, someone answers and helps to solve what is bothering her. Even when the parent can't solve it (colic comes to mind), simply being held and reassured helps the baby not to panic.

We know now that babies learn to sooth themselves by first having someone else soothe them. If their early needs aren't met, they experience those needs as life-threatening (as unsatiated hunger, or an absent caretaker, would indeed be to an infant). Emotions swamp these babies, and as they get older they have a very hard time learning to self-soothe or self-regulate.

In later childhood their feelings of neediness, fear or anger can trigger sweeping anxiety or panic, leading to kids who act out because they can't tolerate their feelings or calm themselves down. As teens and adults they may be more likely to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

But responsive parents do more than respond quickly when an infant cries. They also respond contingently to the baby's other cues, so that, for instance, when the baby wants to rest, they let her rest, when the baby initiates play, they respond playfully, and when they interact with the baby they value and respond to the baby's lead. How do you respond to a baby's lead? By, for example, taking turns "talking" by making noises that mimic the baby's noises.

From all of this interaction with his caretakers, the baby learns to trust that relationships feel good, that who he is and what he initiates is acceptable, and, profoundly, that he is loved. He learns that his physical and emotional feelings are manageable. He learns that even when they seem almost unbearable -- searing diaper rash or convulsing colic -- he is not alone, and is valued enough that one of the big people he adores holds him through the pain and tries to make it better.

This trust and the lessons your baby learns from it lay the foundation for her to develop the ability to self sooth and self-regulate, which are necessary precursors to the ability to delay gratification, as well to as the independence and self discipline that will be so important to her throughout life.

But you don't have to know the psychological dynamics. You just have to pay attention to your baby and respond to his cues, as you would with anyone you love. Nature will take care of the rest.

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.YourParentingSolutions.com and www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth."

On Pregnancy.org, Dr. Markham fields questions from our community members on her Expert Forum and hosts a regular Online Chat on Wednesdays. Click here to check out her Parenting Tips.

Dr. Markham is the author of the Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, with editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great. Dr. Markham lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, 13 year-old daughter, and 17 year-old son.

Copyright © Laura Markham. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.