Attachment parenting: what evidence?

Not long after PalKid was born, after months of colic, special formulas, sleep deprivation, and joy, we went to a get-together with other new parents (that being about all we had in common).  A few of the couples were sitting around talking about Ferberizing, co-sleeping, and all other manner of child-rearing mishegos.  MrsPal and I were eyeing each other sleepily when one of the parents turned to us and asked, “So, what book are you reading?”

Without a pause, MrsPal answered, “I read the book that says, ‘don’t read so many fucking books’.”

I love this woman.

Parenting advice is one of our species’ earliest annoying habits. It strikes parents at the heart of their deepest insecurities.  There’s little doubt that parenting behaviors matter, but how do we know which styles are better and which will scar our kids for life?

We don’t really. There are some fairly obvious behaviors that seem important via “common sense”: show your child affection, don’t beat them, etc. But what about spanking? What about letting a baby “cry it out”? Tons of research on child development has been done over the last century or so, but it hasn’t led to a revolution in parenting.

Attachment parenting is the name given to a set of faddish practices now in vogue. It was (perhaps) coined by Dr. William Sears, and is being promoted by various celebrities and celebrity doctors as the one true way of raising a healthy child. There is no one definition of AP, but Attachment Parenting International lists “Eight Principles” of AP:

  1. Prepare for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting
  2. Feed with Love and Respect
  3. Respond with Sensitivity
  4. Use Nurturing Touch
  5. Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
  6. Provide Consistent and Loving Care
  7. Practice Positive Discipline
  8. Strive for Balance in Your Personal and Family Life

None of these seems on its face to be particularly revelatory or revolutionary.  Is  “provid[ing] for consistent and loving care ” unique to a particular type of child-rearing? But it’s not this vague advice which gets them in the news. It’s the more controversial bits such as “co-sleeping”, extended breast feeding, and other out-of-the-mainstream practices.  Since there is no universal agreement on exactly what AP is, it wouldn’t be fair to hold it responsible for parents who breast feed a child old enough to ask for mommy’s boob before doing their homework.  This lack of a consistent, operational definition also means that research is scant at best.  Searches of PubMed and google scholar turn up no scholarly articles specifically addressing AP.

It’s often argued that AP is more “natural”, mimicking behaviors of our primate cousins.  My primate cousins fling poo and sometimes kill and eat each other, so I’m not giving that argument a whole lot of credit.

Attachment parenting is like all parenting advice: evolved behaviors, folk lore mixed, common sense, and superstition. Like all similar fads, its useful bits will continue under the category of “parenting” and the silly bits will fade into obscurity.


  1. “AP” is really prone to misusing research. Most of their sleep research doesn’t hold up (abused and neglected babies don’t tell me much about letting my well cared for baby cry for 5 minutes). They exaggerate the benefits of breast feeding, ignoring that circumstances may negate the real but small benefits, and blame women who don’t do it. I’d suggest you poke around the Mothering forums, Pal, but your head might explode!

    Frankly, the Dr. Sears version of AP promotes mommy martyrdom. I wish it would die, but I think the appeal of AP is probably a symptom, rather than a disease.

    • I’ve been to those mothering forums, and a more wretched hive of sCAM and villainy you’ll never find.
      I also think that some aspects of AP are simply fulfilling parents’ desires. Most of us want to be physically closer to our babies, want to sleep with or near them, want to hold them all the time. But this can also create parents who are exhausted, and perhaps (data?) kids who are dependent. At some point a kid has to go to it on her own, and at least in my parenting experience, the longer you keep them tucked into your armpit, the harder it is for them to pry themselves away.

      • I tend to have two rules:

        1) The internet in general is a wretched hive of sCAM and villainy.
        2) When actual scientists and physicians use woo (or woo-like arguments), it ALWAYS bites us in the ass. No exceptions.

        Most of those principles, by the way, are tautologies or don’t parse into anything meaningful.

  2. DLC

     /  May 31, 2012

    In my Parents’ day it was Dr Spock who was the “Go-To Guy” on parenting. I have never read it, and probably never will.

  3. DrugMonkey

     /  May 31, 2012

    But dude. Whatever the Boomers’ parents did was clearly wrong, amirite?

  4. And yet the silly bits are exactly what women tear each other apart over. In an effort to demonstrate increasingly more dedicated parenting and ascribe extra-special snowflake status to themselves, the alpha moms in the AP cults keep moving the goalposts. When breast-feeding kindergartners becomes mainstream, the very best mommies will have to up the ante and tuck a little homemade breastmilk yoghurt into their elementary kids’ lunches. Which any sane kid would then try to trade for foods that are taboo at his own house.

    DM: Totally. Cause that shit is waaaay too mainstream. The extra-special snowflakes parent much harder than that. That said, the advice I have received from my parents’ generation often takes the form of “Well, we let our infants teethe on live explosives, and they turned out just fine.” My favorite is the one about how automobile safety belts are actually more dangerous than being ejected through the engine block in an accident. That goes double for infant car seats.

    • Oh, it gets worse, Anthropologist. It really does. Wait until you read about “indigo children”. For some reason, I never thought the solution to “problem children” was “declare them the master race”, but somebody did. Seriously.

  5. A. Marina Fournier

     /  June 1, 2012

    All the various parenting books did *to* me was make me feel inferior–I never thought I was a *baby* mom, but a *child’s* mom, sure. I was already feeling inferior, as I was 10-18 yrs older than most of the other moms around me, and I was not glowing-happy about being a mom. My own mother had a major stroke 7 months into Buglet’s life, and I was dealing with postpartum depression (overlaid on a disorder I didn’t know I had then), worry about my mom, and this lifelong insomniac was getting new situations to enhance that lifestlye! I had to wean him at 11 mos. in order to take some meds.

    If you have a child who is off-the-norm, those books will do you in. I didn’t know, until I was 47, and Buglet was 7, that both of us are bipolar. Explained so much about his behavior and such, and my childhood (I think my father was bipolar, too). If Buglet had been autistic, I would probably have blamed myself for the situation, given what was known about that 18 years ago.

    AU, that was a wonderful comment!

    • Chris

       /  June 1, 2012

      “If you have a child who is off-the-norm, those books will do you in.”

      That is so very true. I did read a couple of books (Penelope Leach was the more useful). But it turned out the baby was his own intensive training course in parenting, starting with his first seizures on his second day of life. Then getting a diagnosis of a severe speech/language disorder when he was 2 1/2. And finally a severe genetic heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy with obstruction, when he was fourteen.

      I did consult some books on child development, just to see which were normal behaviors versus those that were not. Because even normal kids act strange, and some abnormal behaviors are simply adorable (like having the kid have you make the choo-choo sounds while he pretends to be a train).

      I was a much more relaxed parent with the younger ones, even though the younger boy had a language delay (as opposed to older one’s speech/language disorder), plus his terrible twos lasted from age eighteen months until he was seven. I become annoyed with a mother of one perfectly normal child warning me that jammies must be flame proof, I told her I’ll keep my kids away from open flames and I had bigger things to worry about.

      Mostly my job as a mother was to make sure the kids made it to bed alive each evening.

      And, yes, I have a friend whose child is bipolar and that snarky remark is even more poignant. One of the last times I talked to her she told me that the homeschooling program provided by the state was working and he was not thinking about suicide anymore.

  6. I’ve just read one parenting book, and it was about what to do when you brought your baby home (so how to change a diaper and how to put a baby in a bath). After that I did what I found worked best. And for us that was co-sleeping and babywearing, not so much because a celebrity told me to do that or a bunch of anti-vaxxers wrote that on their website but because it was the easiest way for baby, husband and me (not necessarily in that order).
    In terms of research on attachment parenting: I think that James McKenna’s stuff shows that co-sleeping isn’t inherently dangerous, which is what made me feel comfortable having baby in our bed from when he was 4 months old (before that he slept in a bassinet next to our bed). Other than that, from what I hear around me I think that the differences within a group of attachment parents or ‘mainstream’ parents are bigger than the differences between groups, which probably makes it hard to find long-term effects of either parenting style.

    • A lot of the “vaccines=autism!!!!!11!!1!cos(0)” meme comes from the fact that parents feel a genetic disorder is “their” fault. To that mindset, a genetic cause is no different than the psychoanalytic “refrigerator mothers” theory of the mid-20th century.

      Of course, it’s not their fault, any more than the color of the child’s hair is their fault.

      However, your child coming down with a deadly infection because you refused to vaccinate him is surely your fault.

  7. Vicki

     /  June 1, 2012

    Sometimes I think it’s partly about looking for affiliations: “we’re doing attachment parenting” is a way to find other people who will say “oh, you’re one of us” and arrange play dates and such. The oddest-to-me thing I’ve seen under that rubric is parents who cannot sleep without a television on, and whose baby always slept with them. So this small child had a television on in the room as they were falling asleep, and whenever they woke in the night, and so on. But the parents who are doing that probably aren’t thinking of the television piece of it as part of attachment parenting, because they started doing that long before they had a child.

    Conversely, my nephew was raised without a television in the home, because his mother thinks television in any quantity is bad for children. But there’s no label for that, because she wasn’t doing it as part of some large theory of childrearing.

  8. Lady Day

     /  June 1, 2012

    I plan to abondon my spawn on a mountain top somewhere as soon as they gasp their first few breaths of fresh air. If they luck out and get raised by she-wolves, the experience should set them up to take on any of life’s challenges, successfully. It’s a great way to get kids started early on a career path that will guarantee fame and empire.

  9. becca

     /  June 3, 2012

    Ok, there’s no data on “attachment parenting as an overarching theory by which to design your family’s lifestyle” but there sure is data on “kangaroo care for premies”. And massage for premies. And there sure is data (albeit really annoyingly politicized data) on breastfeeding, including some stratified into groups that compare various lengths of time.

    Does the fact that pubmed has no articles on “the germ theory of disease as an overarching philosophy by which to design behaviors in hospitals” mean we shouldn’t take into account well designed handwashing intervention trials? Or does it just mean we shouldn’t assume that shaking the hand of a patient isn’t, overall, a bad thing?

    It seems like your reaction doesn’t come from thoughtful consideration of AP practices, or perhaps even AP families, but simply from associating AP with “sCAM and villainy” people.

  10. oy. Becca! You very well know there is plenty of data on “germ theory” and all its bits, so i’ll forgive the poor analogy.
    I understand what you are saying, but even breaking AP–whatever that means—into its components doesn’t yield much data.
    There’s little data against most of these practices (except some with co-sleeping) either. There’s not enough data to form any sort of “parenting paradigm” around AP.
    Most parenting is folklore. That’s not a judgement.

  11. Barbarella

     /  June 3, 2012

    Am I the oldest parent here? Surely not. I breastfed for a year and a half, then my son weaned himself. He always slept in his own crib (which is now considered dangerous because the side goes up and down). He was an exceptional child in talking early and, in other ways, like taking risks, incredibly cautious. Overall, we had an excellent time together and were buddies and more, loved reading together, hiking, movies and movie popcorn, talking about all things in the animal kingdom, and generally sharing our joy of the natural world. He did well in school, had lots of friends, and was prom king during senior year (an unknown honor in his natal family of dweebs and outcasts).

    Now 22, last month he punched me in my face. In my sleep. Cause and effect? Dunno. All I hear from my friends is ‘What did you DO to him?’ Well, loved him, I thought.

    I haven’t found a book that covers this exact issue. Yet.

    • Amy (T)

       /  June 4, 2012

      really? wow. I knew a lot of teens with anger at their moms, who were perfectly wonderful women, but at 22? and to punch them in their sleep? really? I’m sorry. curious to know how that played out.

  12. Amy (T)

     /  June 4, 2012

    I generally am tired of the parental judgment and competition that goes in all places as soon as you become pregnant. For the most part, I don’t care if someone uses AP or cry-it-out, it’s none of my business. The things that are frustrating about AP (mostly its proponents) is they take what is generally practiced by all: good, loving parenting (holding, loving, talking to your child) and relabel it as AP. Then they turn it into an extreme sport: you constantly have to hold your child, BF on demand as long as the child wants, have the child sleep in your bed, between 2 adults 10-15X the baby’s size. The worst is the judgment that comes from some of the proponents, if you want to follow some specific parenting philosophy, fine, but don’t judge others when they don’t or tell others they should. Also sad, is the moms who feel like failures because they didn’t meet this expectation they feel they’re suppose to achieve to be a “good mom”. Most parents do what works for them, and that usually works out. The important part of parenting is how you treat your child through their whole life, the relationship, not some few set physical things someone tells you to do while they’re toddlers.

  13. Barbarella

     /  June 4, 2012

    I have made the painful mental leap that my son is addicted to one or another drug and not the prescription kind. Forcing him to go for drug testing is difficult since he is ‘of age’ but I did go to the (for me) awful step of reporting his action to the police. If for some reason it is repeated, I am hoping that I will be able to have him go to a psychiatric unit for both mental and medical testing. I don’t predict that this is the kind of thing that can happen to anyone in our culture, but the whole AP philosophy is fanatical and blaming toward parents, in my mind. How were good people raised before this philosophy came about? And, finally, it’s time to recognize that at some point we make our own choices in life. As a mother and a woman, sometimes you have to opt for self-protection and realize that you are a person, too, not just some greeting card “Mom” created out of paper and lace.

    • Chris

       /  June 5, 2012

      Unfortunately things happen, and there is nothing you can to do prevent it. My sister and her husband just found a drug/alcohol rehab program for her step-daughter, and as I mentioned above another friend deals with her son’s mental illness. A close relative dealt with her daughter’s schizophrenia, but since she was an adult the mother could not force her into an outpatient psychiatric clinic. The mother has gone over and over what she could have done to prevent her daughter’s suicide.

      And you are so right about the “blame the parent” philosophy. I have encountered it so many times because my oldest could not do something as “simple as talking.” Apparently they assumed that instead of his history of seizures that the “more logical” reason was because I never ever talked to him. They must have assumed that I only talked only to my other two kids. Oh, good grief. (in case it is unclear, I did speak to him, honestly, I really did not leave him in a room all by himself)

      I hope you find a solution for your son. If it is any consolation my brother’s son had some similar issues, but without the violence. Somehow it all worked out (the young man is gainfully employed, married and has two kids). I don’t know the details. Of course this is not helpful, but there is no magic formula.

    • saffronrose

       /  June 5, 2012

      You must indeed opt for protecting yourself. I’ll keep you in my thoughts.

      Yes, a minor can be made, by a parent, to go for drug testing, but it’s possible, were your “of age” son put under observation for 72 hours (variously called “Baker-Act-ing”, or 5150-ing, depending on your State), it is highly likely that he will get a blood test whether or not his consent is given. If they find an underlying cause, you may consider that your son may have been unconsciously attempting to self-medicate, and that a dx will allow him to manage that disorder.

      The absolute horror stories I read from parents of pre-adolescent bipolar children were horrifying: I realized I’d gotten off lightly, because there had been no violence, no crime, no largescale destruction of property, and no fires set. Constant mood swings, a distinct disinterest in following instructions, followed by the sunny good-natured and highly creative boy who was challenged by that disorder. I thought it was all *my* genetic fault (once we were properly diagnosed (dx’d)) until my MiL took me out on the porch one evening after a spectacular melt-down and told me how her other son’s eldest son had been like this (he was a bipolar I), and even his father, when a teen, had occasionally been like that. My immediate internal reaction was “Yes! It’s not just MY genetic fault!”. However, once I was properly medicated (alas, long before my son was stable), I could show Buglet how to be responsible about taking one’s meds, that we were responsible for our actions, and that the disorder did NOT provide an excuse. He knew, from previous experience, that I knew exactly how he could feel, but now he knew the cause, that I would help him (and model appropriate behavior & management), and ensure as best I could that he got the care he needed. I’ve tried to help him manage the aftermaths of his meltdowns, figure the triggers, and think about how to prevent the triggers or the meltdown. Once *I* was medicated, I could more easily handle his meltdowns, and last year, when he suddenly had the sweet-spot in his meds, he knew what balance felt like, and could then know when to ask for an adjustment. Good thing, too, because at 18, he has to take control of his healthcare, even though we still pay for it.

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