Only a generation or so ago, stern and rigid parenting was not only widely accepted—it was commonly suggested as necessary to raise unspoiled, well-behaved children.
Thankfully, parenting practices have come a long way, and kinder, gentler approaches—such as attachment parenting—are gaining wide acceptance. If you’re new to the world of attachment parenting, you’re in for a wonderful surprise! You really can effectively raise good kids in a way that’s warm, sensitive, respectful, and responsive.
What Is Attachment Parenting?
Attachment parenting is a nurturing practice based on eight basic principles, each of which serves to encourage strong emotional bonds between kids and parents. This warm, responsive parenting style helps children trust that they’re safe and that their needs will be met, as it establishes the groundwork for lasting peaceful, caring, and joyful relationships.
Since 1994, Attachment Parenting International (a non-profit member organization) has been providing support for parents and professionals worldwide, with the purpose of creating a new generation of kind, empathetic, and secure children—as well as improving school readiness and reducing community violence. Here are the eight basic principles they’ve come up with to help achieve this important goal.
1. Prepare for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting
Before your baby makes her grand appearance, it’s important to be physically and emotionally ready for the joys and challenges of pregnancy, birth, and raising a child. This is a special time to educate yourself, and during this planning stage you may want to:
• Research various parenting philosophies.
• Honestly reflect on your own childhood experiences and your current beliefs about parenting.
• Nurture yourself and your relationship with your significant other through open communication, solid nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction.
• Weigh the pros and cons of various birthing environments.
• Learn about breastfeeding and all aspects of infant care.
• Explore options for getting help right after your baby is born.
2. Feed With Love and Respect
Feeding your baby isn’t just about providing nutrition—it’s your child’s first real experience of receiving love! And as she becomes confident that her needs will be lovingly met, your baby learns to regulate her emotions, which also strengthens the parent-child bond.
In attachment parenting, you tune into your child’s cues so you can promptly provide nourishment when she gets hungry, but not push a feeding beyond the point where the child is satiated. This sensitive responsiveness not only deepens the closeness between you and your child; it also lays the foundation for her healthy relationship with food.
Breastfeeding is the preferred first feeding method in the attachment parenting philosophy, since it provides perfect nutrition for baby and beneficial skin-to-skin contact for mom and child. But when breastfeeding isn’t an option, Attachment Parenting International recommends “bottle nursing”, which incorporates many of the warm aspects of breastfeeding into a loving act of bottle feeding. Here are a few bottle nursing basics:
• Nestle your baby against your breast when bottle feeding, and switch her position from one side to the other periodically.
• Speak lovingly to your baby during feedings, and maintain eye contact.
• Rather than feeding on a schedule, respond to baby’s hunger cues.
• If your baby enjoys a pacifier, hold and snuggle her while she sucks on it.
When your child shows signs of being ready for solids, start slowly with foods that aren’t likely to cause reactions. During weaning, nurse first and then offer solids, responding as always to hunger cues.
3. Respond With Sensitivity
Imagine what it would feel like to be desperately calling out for love or comfort, only to be left alone to work out your feelings on your own. Your baby’s cries are the only way she knows how to communicate her needs, and she’s far too young to know how to soothe herself. Responding lovingly and sensitively to her calls right away helps her learn to regulate her emotions in the long run, as she begins to trust that the world is a safe place.
It’s perfectly normal for babies to need almost constant physical contact, and you won’t spoil your baby by keeping her close and picking her up when she cries. In fact, leaving a baby to cry can elevate her cortisol levels—and those levels may remain elevated long after she stops vocally expressing her distress.1
As your child gets older, responding with sensitivity means understanding that she still might not be mature enough to express emotions appropriately. The parent’s role is to always react with empathy for the underlying cause so the child feels safe and understood as she begins to master her emotions and behavior.
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4. Use Nurturing Touch
Babies have a strong need for physical contact, and your nurturing touch satisfies this craving in a way that brings parent and child closer. Breastfeeding, bottle nursing, cuddles, kisses, and massage all provide the sense of connection and belonging your baby craves. Nurturing touch is incredibly good for kids of all ages—in fact, regular, gentle massage can help your baby grow faster, sleep better, and become more interactive with parents!2 To maintain that closeness with your little one, even when you’re on the go, you might want to try babywearing, which keeps you connected but leaves your hands free.
Older kids need nurturing touch too! Snuggle up to read stories, hold them in your lap, and give them lots of hugs. Some kids enjoy more active physical play, such as wrestling. It’s always wisest to follow your child’s cues so that touch always feels comfortable for her.
5. Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
If your baby isn’t sleeping through the night, no need to worry—most babies don’t! Even after babies don’t need to eat during the night, they still sometimes wake periodically due to discomforts such as fear, teething pain, gas, or loneliness. Your job isn’t to get her to stay down for eight or more hours straight; it’s to help her relax into the sleep her body truly does need, when she needs it, by helping her feel safe and cared for. Your empathetic response leaves her feeling connected and empowered, rather than a helpless victim.
To stay tuned into your child’s needs, you may want to consider co-sleeping (sleeping in close proximity in the same room) or bed sharing (having all family members sleeping together in a single bed). Whatever your personal preference, try to work with your child’s unique circadian rhythms rather than forcing her to go to bed when she’s alert, or to stay up until a prescribed bedtime if she’s sleepy. Even if her sleep patterns seem chaotic right now, rest assured they will smooth out as she matures.
6. Provide Consistent and Loving Care
Babies and kids need the consistency of a loving caregiver closeby, so one of the best things you can do as a parent is to simply be with your kids as much as you can. Your child will relish the experience of being part of your everyday routine at home—and tagging along with you to experience the world outside when it’s appropriate.
When you have to be separated from your child, it’s important to choose a caregiver she has a strong bond with. Understand that separations can be stressful for little ones, and plan some relaxed, focused time to reconnect upon your return.
7. Practice Positive Discipline
Positive discipline is a respectful approach that helps children develop their own compassionate internal guidance systems in a way that maintains the self-esteem and dignity of everyone involved. Although physical punishment (which was so strongly advocated in generations past) may stop an unwanted behavior in its tracks, it teaches fear-based avoidance rather than a sense of right and wrong. And responding to your child’s behavior with violence severely damages the trusting bond you’ve worked so hard to build.
Recent research soundly debunks the idea that corporal punishment is productive or necessary. In fact, just the opposite is true! Children who receive harsh physical discipline, even in otherwise functional families, are more likely to experience emotional and psychological issues—and to abuse alcohol and drugs in later years.3
So what can you do to maintain discipline if it isn’t okay to hit or yell? These approaches gently encourage appropriate behavior without shaming or destroying trust:
• Offer comfort first.
• Prevent unwanted behavior by being proactive. You might have to put away a toddler’s favorite toy when hosting a playgroup if she’s not yet mature enough to share or take turns gracefully.
• Distract her, or substitute another activity when your young child acts out, gently guiding her to a calmer state.
• Consistently model positive actions and relationships within the home and family.
• Look for the unmet need behind undesirable behavior, and respond with empathy and respect so your child feels both heard and understand.
• Offer choices instead of making demands.
• Don’t force apologies.
• When you do have to impose consequences, do so sparingly and compassionately.
Even with the purest of intentions you’re only human—odds are you’ll lose your cool and raise your voice sometime within the next 20 years or so! When this happens, take a deep breath and model the behavior you’d want to see in your child when she makes mistakes. Reconnect with her once you’ve calmed down, apologize sincerely, and reaffirm your love.
8. Strive for Balance in Your Personal and Family Life
Let’s face it, it’s no small feat to remain in a consistently emotionally responsive place, particularly if you take things too seriously and never get a break. In attachment parenting, it’s vital that the needs of everyone in the family are met—and that includes you!
It’s helpful to build a support network so you’ll be able to catch a little time to yourself occasionally, and just have someone to talk to when you crave adult conversation. Pursuing a hobby or taking an interesting class will also help you recharge, and a sense of humor keeps everything in perspective, no matter how insane things seem in the moment.
Attachment Parenting Is Gut Healthy Parenting!
We love attachment parenting, not only because it strengthens parent-child bonds and produces caring, confident kids—but also because it encourages microbial health! Loving, responsive relationships help reduce stress and elevate mood, which supports the immune system and helps your child’s helpful microbes to thrive. Breastfeeding and nurturing skin-to-skin contact give baby’s microbiome its optimal startup conditions by introducing beneficial strains of friendly flora to join her microbial mix.4,5,6
Attachment parenting is a kind and deeply respectful way to raise kids without painful power struggles or harsh discipline. You’ll build lasting closeness and trust with your children—and you’ll set the stage for a lifetime of gut health!
1. Middlemiss, W., Granger, D. A., Goldberg, W. A., & Nathans, L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development, 88(4), 227-232. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2011.08.010
2. Juneau, A. L., Aita, M., & Héon, M. (2015). Review and Critical Analysis of Massage Studies for Term and Preterm Infants. Neonatal Network, 34(3), 165-177. doi:10.1891/0730-08126.96.36.199
3. Afifi, T. O., Mota, N. P., Dasiewicz, P., MacMillan, H. L., & Sareen, J. (2012). Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US Sample. PEDIATRICS, 130(2), 184-192. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2947
4. Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2012). Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: Implications for psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(9), 1369-1378.
5. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Turner, R. B., Alper, C. M., & Skoner, D. P. (). Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic medicine, 4, 652–657.
6. Tung, J., Barreiro, L. B., Burns, M. B., Grenier, J., Lynch, J., Grieneisen, L. E., . . . Archie, E. A. (2015). Social networks predict gut microbiome composition in wild baboons. ELife,4. doi:10.7554/elife.05224
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.