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.