What is ‘Attachment Parenting’, and is it too Late?

Dear Mamas,

I just joined a play group with my 20-month-old daughter, and I met a woman there who has me really freaked out. This lady is a devoted follower of Dr. William Sears and attachment parenting.

From what I’ve read, the idea of attachment parenting is that you pretty much stay glued to your baby through the first few years, including co-sleeping. Dr. Sears is very convincing about this being the best (and only?) way to raise a healthy, well-adjusted child.

I’m a single mom, and while I think I give my little girl plenty of 1 on 1, I went back to work when she was 8 weeks old and we don’t sleep in the same bed. Mommy Play Group has me worried that I’ve done irreparable damage to her and missed out on valuable attachment. Have I damaged my daughter by weaning her too early  and putting her in a crib? Is it really too late? I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about it!


Hi Lucy,

What would we mothers do without the God-given right to sit in harsh judgement of each other? Mommy Play Group (love the moniker) has really laid a big one on you, hasn’t she?

Putting aside the details of attachment parenting for a moment, here’s the thing: There is NO single best way to parent. Every parent develops her own style that grows and changes over the years spent raising a family. There’s lots of advice out there, and some of it will fit for you and your child, while some of it won’t. Be suspect of anyone who claims to have all the answers and advocates a right way, which, of course, implies that anything else is the wrong way.

Attachment parenting is simply the name Dr. Sears has given to a parenting style that involves physical closeness and focus on the baby’s needs and desires rather than organizing baby’s routine around parents’ needs. Baby-wearing, breastfeeding for as long as possible, and co-sleeping are all mainstays of attachment parenting. Please note that Dr. Sears didn’t invent this style of parenting, but he observed that mothers in other cultures have been raising their babies in this natural way for thousands of years.

The name can be confusing, though. The concept of attachment refers to the critical parent/child bond that forms during the early months of an infant’s life. It’s formed by the interaction that takes place in nearly all healthy parenting styles. Normal mommy/baby activities like feeding, cuddling, eye contact, soothing, holding, and babbling to your child all contribute to forming that close bond known as ‘attachment’.

Infants who miss out on this kind of interaction, like those who are neglected, abused, or lack a consistent, loving caregiver, can have serious problems later in life. Research has demonstrated that these children can suffer from abnormal brain development leading to a condition called reactive attachment disorder, not to be confused with anything having to do with the term ‘attachment parenting’, or with anything that you’re doing or not doing with your child.

The style of parenting advocated by Dr. Sears certainly has some benefits, but it’s also very demanding and not terribly well-suited to working moms or parents who find the idea of the ‘family bed’ problematic. Feel free to pick and choose which of his suggestions feel right for you and your daughter, and which don’t. For another point of view that’s less dogmatic and more relaxed, take a look at the approach of Dr. Michel Cohen, who’s not completely on-board with the Sears system.

No one can tell you there’s only one way to be a good mom, so consider asking Mommy Play Group to keep her judgements to herself.

Good luck!

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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5 responses to “What is ‘Attachment Parenting’, and is it too Late?”

  1. Lindsey Whitney

    I’m a pretty big advocate of attachment parenting, but I certainly don’t think you’ve done any damage to your daughter by putting her in a crib. Certainly attachment parenting is much harder for working moms (which is part of the appeal of co-sleeping for some… it’s a time to reconnect). I personally can’t sleep well with the baby in the bed with me, so she’s slept separate from the beginning. She’s still well attached and very happy. Just be sure that you’re responding to your little girls needs… comfort her when she’s crying, don’t try to make her “tough it out”, and play often together — when it sounds like you’re already doing! Keep it up, and don’t worry about nosy Mom in playgroup.

  2. Hannah Nedrow

    I couldn’t agree more: “There is NO single best way to parent.”

    My son was in a crib for awhile and them he and I moved to the floor, where we both slept on a mat. He didn’t seem to care either way.

    I breastfed him until age 23 months, but I also sent him to preschool very early. He is extremely extroverted and has never had any problems with attachment.

    That’s what worked for us, and whatever works for other parents is their own business.

  3. Sarahs

    Try to remember that a big part of Dr. Sears’ point is not to get so caught up in what ‘baby experts’ recommend that you follow advice ill-suited to your child. (or you) If you’ve read his basic ‘attachment parenting’ book, you’ll note that he makes the case several times that YOU know YOUR baby best BECAUSE of your attachment to your baby, and you should feel confident that you can make good parenting decisions based on your knowledge of your child. His ‘recommended techniques’ are designed to help parents get attached/ get to know their baby and to help them not second guess THEMSELVES when ‘experts’ say ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ as blanket statements for all babies and mothers. You haven’t ‘ruined’ your child if you haven’t needed to follow every little suggestion Dr. Sears gives, and he says as much. Your fine, and a good parent.

  4. Tina

    I never slept in the same bed as my daughter who is now a healthy and happy pre-teen (12) I have friends who allowed their children into their beds as babies and now their children are teens the parents have no privacy at all.
    My daughter is confident and independant and has no problem sleeping alone, though until last year was happy to come and cuddle in bed on a saturday morning.
    You are the best judge of what is best for your daughter, don’t let anyone elses obsessiveness unbalance you.

  5. Hazel M. Wheeler

    For a couple of years after the birth of my son, I hosted an attachment parenting group. Our goal was simply this: to support women in their own styles of a.p. without guilt tripping them about the AP things they weren’t doing. Many women need to have other women who understand why they are “still” nursing beyond 6 months or cosleeping, but no one needs to be told that they aren’t measuring up next to someone else. I have several peer mother friends who parent a bit differently from myself, and we are all okay with this– probably because we are wanting to have *friendships*, not parenting, from each other. Some moms get on their high horse about AP, I think, because being defensively “right” likely feels better than being perceived as the Freak Mom Who’s Still Co-Sleeping, and perhaps Mommy Play Group needs to learn how to be an unconditional friend too!

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