Why Attachment Parenting Works

What is attachment parenting?

Attachment parenting is a popular approach to early childhood parenting.

Where did it come from? Why is it called attachment parenting? What is the attachment parenting approach? How does it differ from other approaches?

The word “attachment” came into popularity with a guy named Konrad Lorenz. He studied ducks. He noticed that a duckling would follow the first thing it saw after coming out of its shell. Normally, that would be the mother duck. But if it was a wind up doll, or Konrad, it would follow that. He called this tendency for the young of its species to stay close to its mother “attachment.”

Such a bond made evolutionary sense. The duck that stayed close to its momma stood a better chance of making it in the mean old world

Humans are far more complex than ducks, but we’re not that different. The first important person in understanding the world of human attachment was a guy named John Bowlby. He observed that humans attach in particular ways to their earliest caregivers, too.

Bowlby  noticed that the relationship that children have with their primary caregivers, especially at the earliest stages of life, had a powerful influence on how that child formed relationships throughout life.

Now, neuroscience is proving Bowlby and his fellow researcher’s observations to be true. The work of Allan Schore has brought together an enormous amount of evidence to show that the interactions between an infant and their primary caregiver is the most powerful influence on a child’s ability to think well, become emotionally mature, and form healthy relationships.

These results are understandably important to every parent who wants to do all they can to insure that their child grows up to be happy, successful, and fulfilled.

Now that we understand these things, parents ask, what does this mean about how I parent my child?

The first and most important word that parents of infants need to understand is attunement. The role of the infant’s mother (or primary caregiver — I’ll call this person mom, or mother, for convenience here on out) is to attune herself to the infant’s emotions. The infant will naturally attune itself to the emotions of the caregiver.

This dance of relatedness literally grows neurons in the child’s brain. When the baby experiences this connection their brain floods with happy-making chemicals, and the baby wants to do more of this. Such are are seeds of attachment.

On the other hand, when the child senses a lack of this emotional connection, neurons in the brain wither, die, and do not develop. The baby’s brain fills with pain-making chemicals, and  the building blocks of healthy relationship do not form.

The mom’s main job, then, is to be available to the infant for connection, so that the child can develop a healthy attachment to the parent. This sets the template for the child trusting in a reliable world and for feeling a healthy sense of self-worth.

Watch this video to see how this works.


Now it also makes sense that evolution would want the mom to attach to the infant, also. If mom stays near baby, the species has the best chance of surviving in this mean old world. So not only does the infant’s brain flood with happy-making chemicals when there is emotional availability, attunement, and connection between baby and parent, but mom’s brain gets a big dose of happy drugs when she is connected to her baby, too. It is equally as true that mom feels some bad withdrawal symptoms when she is separated from her child.

So attachment parenting puts a premium on the early relationship between the primary caregiver and the child.

Attachment theorists tell us that infants need to have their needs met for healthy development. Frustrating these needs will not foster independence, but rather the opposite. The keys to increasingly independent functioning begin with a baby getting their emotional and physical needs met.

Now the most important issues for parents of small children are eating and sleeping. Well, that makes sense, that’s most of what a baby does!

What does the attachment parenting approach tell us about eating and sleeping, and how these two fit together?

Babies have their own, natural cycles of sleepfullness and wakefulness, hunger, and satiety. Trying to get a baby onto a schedule to conform to our convenience in our modern world goes against their normal patterns.

Babies communicate their needs in simple ways: they cry. Their crying serves a purpose. It is a way to get their caregivers to come to them. We parents don’t like the sound of crying, so we want it to stop. So we change the diaper, feed them, or hold them.

When a baby cries, it feels distress. The body fills with toxic chemicals. When the child is soothed, the distress goes away. The body fills with happy, growth-inducing chemicals. So, naturally, everything works out. A child needs to be fed or soothed. It feels distress. It cries. It’s caregiver hears the alarm. The caregiver feels distress. The caregiver responds to the need. The baby feels better. The mother feels better. The baby and mother attach.

If a parent soothes a crying infant, this will not teach the child to cry more. It will actually build the circuits in the brain so that the child will learn to regulate its own emotions eventually. If the parent does not soothe the child, the child may never internalize this experience. The child may not learn how to do for itself what the parent does for it in the beginning.

This means that in the earliest stages of life, if you follow the logic of attachment parenting, mother will not get much sleep. Caring for an infant in this way will disturb the parent’s lives. But in the view of those of us who believe in attachment parenting, which is no more than following the natural patterns of parenting that have existed since procreation began, that’s what being a parent is about.

Attachment parenting requires sacrifice. But it won’t last forever, and you will be giving your child what they need so they can grow into strong, independent, loving, smart, unique, happy individuals. Isn’t that worth losing a little sleep over?

Dr. Glenn Berger is a psychotherapist, relationship counselor, business and artist’s coach, and young person’s mentor. He sees patients in New York City, in Mt. Kisco, NY, and around the world by Skype.

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One comment

  1. Jen Herrmann /

    I like this explanation – it says it all in simple language RM