Beyond the Attachment Parenting Debate: A Next Step Toward Healthier Families

     Attachment Parenting by Dr. Sears, and The Continuum Concept by Jean Ludlow were two of the most influential books that I read as a young parent hoping to raise my kids in a healthier way.   Learning to carry our new baby in a sling, co-sleeping, and supporting a healthy breastfeeding relationship made our life easier, and helped us to feel connected to our newborn.   The most troublesome area for me, however, came when my daughter started crying or getting upset.   I would try to comfort her with the sling or with nursing, but when these things failed I began to “freak out” inside.  I could feel tension build, my chest would start to hurt and I would become more irritable.

     Over time I became very disappointed in myself, and confused about what I was doing wrong.  When my child didn’t fit the picture of calm, confident,  and well attached that I thought “should” be the inevitable result of my attachment parenting commitment I blamed others, or myself and further complicated the situation.   My own experience, and the experience of seeing hundreds of families and parents as patients in my clinic, has shown me that certain emotions or situations with  children that were problematic in our own childhood can complicate attachment, and leave us not knowing how to create the relationship we want with our kids.  The missing link did not emerge for me until medical school, and through the additional training in body/mind psychotherapy that I received.   A major source of confusion was clarified by figuring out that “Attachment” does not equal the techniques, strategies, and principles of “Attachment Parenting.”  Whereas Attachment Parenting is a series of basic lifestyle, behavioral and parenting TECHNIQUES that may PROMOTE attachment it is more like a skeleton without any organs, skin, muscles, or blood to give it life.  The life-blood of ATTACHMENT is not a question of co-sleeping or not co-sleeping, but with the way we respond internally, both consciously and unconsciously, to our child in distress and the way that they respond to us.

     The term “Attachment Parenting” derives from the “attachment theory” of psychology as researched and developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth beginning in the 1950’s.   The theory held, and has been overwhelmingly proven, that infants require stable, responsive adults in their life in order to develop properly.  The basic scenario of attachment is that when a child becomes distressed, he or she will seek out the attachment figure until the distressing situation has resolved.  The way that the attachment figure responds to this distress then determines the attachment pattern.  They classified the patterns as: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and disorganized.

     The current use of the term “Attachment Parenting” then is a set of ideas about parenting that attempt to “promote” secure attachment and “decrease” insecure attachment.    The value of the AP movement is to normalize and bring awareness around important lifestyle factors and parenting behaviors that can be helpful in promoting family health.  These lifestyle factors include prolonged breastfeeding, nurturing/skin-skin touch, co-sleeping, and 20 hours a week of childcare or less for babies less than 2.5 years old.  It also emphasizes responsivity to emotions and positive discipline rather than negative consequences, and spanking.

     We can grow beyond the initial insights of attachment parenting by examining the exact nature of how we respond and communicate around the emotions of children throughout their development.  Attachment is not only what we do, but HOW we do it.  This has been one of the criticisms of the AP movement: that the set of techniques and lifestyle changes emphasized don’t necessarily lead to healthier children.  My take is that the techniques of attachment parenting are helpful only to the degree to which we can effectively utilize them to bring about a more contactful emotional response and environment for infants and children.  We begin to touch at the essence of attachment debate when we switch from asking, DO you breastfeed? to WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS around breastfeeding?  From asking HOW LONG do you Cosleep? to WHAT FEELINGS DOES CO-SLEEPING BRING UP FOR YOU?

     I watched a segment from the show Anderson Cooper from 5/21 with guests Jay Gordon, M.D., Mayim Bialik, PhD, among others.  The clip is available at, if you’d like to follow.   It is clear from the segment that  people on both sides have very strong emotions around the ideas of attachment parenting.   Some of the questions I would ask after watching:  How does it feel for you to think about a woman breastfeeding a four year old?  What is it like for you to have a child sleeping in the bed or nearby where you engage sexually with your husband or wife?  How does it make you feel when a group of people tell you that the way you’ve been parenting is harmful to your child?

The Attachment “controversy” that raged for a bit after the (in)famous Time Magazine cover is really about these emotions.   Most every parent would like to be in a relationship with their kids that supports their growth, while helping them to gain the independence to grow into happy and fulfilled adults.   Our emotional state often determines what parenting choices we make, and how we are able to implement them.  And it is the nature of the EMOTIONAL interaction that will determine the attachment quality, not neccesarily the exact method in which this emotional interaction takes place.