Attachment parenting focuses on providing consistent, responsive and empathic care to help children develop at their own pace. Here is a roundup of five principles of attachment-focused parenting.
1. Reliable, Consistent Care
Creating a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby 1969) and providing consistent and responsive care is key to developing a child’s sense of security in the world. Recent studies of children’s brains have revealed their need for the physical closeness of a primary caregiver and responsiveness to their needs. Studies show that consistent skin-to-skin contact between baby and parent is beneficial and ‘emotional engagement speeds their development and recognition of the Self’. It is particularly important for an infant (birth to when they begin to talk) to be responded to with empathic sensitivity. This means responding to an infant’s communication or cry using a gentle, warm and comforting tone. It also requires prompt action when the infant is showing signs of hunger or discomfort. Doing this will enable the infant to build a positive internal image of the world and help develop inner security, confidence and resilience. It will lay the foundations for emotional and neurological development and encourage the ability to form healthy relationships.
2. Sensitive Responses
Meeting a child’s emotional needs with understanding, acknowledgment and empathy will build a sense of trust and security, allowing them to become confident and independent adults able to form healthy relationships with others.
Healthy child development in the first year involves forming strong emotional bonds with the primary caregivers through affectionate interactions. From around eight months the baby will begin to experience separation anxiety and stranger anxiety, sometimes showing fear when left with strangers or leaving their primary caregiver. This is part of normal, healthy development and will pass when they mature and can begin to comprehend more complex ideas about parents returning. It is helpful at this stage to ease their fear and anxiety by taking their feelings seriously and showing empathy. Acknowledging their feelings and showing you understand that they are scared will help them feel more secure. Dismissing them and telling them to stop crying could increase their anxiety.
Contrary to the belief that babies become spoilt with too much love and affection, they actually need frequent holding, cuddles and the adoration of parents to thrive. Babies need to feel cherished in order to feel lovable and build healthy, loving relationships as an adult.
They cry because they have real needs and responding to these needs in an attentive, calm, gentle and loving way will develop a deep trust in their carers. A baby is incapable of self-soothing as their brains are so immature, so leaving them to cry for a prolonged period in the hope they will soothe themselves will not work. They may eventually stop crying but this won’t be from a place of comfort, it will be from giving up and hopelessness that anyone is coming to help them.
4. Positive Discipline
Positive discipline does not mean letting the child do what they wanted never saying no. It means treating the child how you want to be treated. You are their teacher, their mentor and they learn by example. They will not listen to your words, they will instead mirror your actions. The aim of discipline is to help the child develop self –discipline and self-control. Showing those qualities as a parent is invaluable. Shouting at a child will produce a child that shouts back. Positive discipline is about maintaining the connection and bond through empathic reactions to their unwanted behaviour. Although this is challenging in the heat of the moment, taking a step back and taking a few deep breaths will allow you to respond to your child from a less reactive place. This in turn will help your child to be less reactive and dramatic and help them manage their own strong feelings better.
Time out and the naughty step have become a popular discipline method, however it was actually introduced as an alternative to smacking by pediatricians before enough studies were done on children and isolation. Isolation and separation for a child is distressing and wounding and using it as a form of discipline does not actually teach them what they have done wrong. It is putting them in a state of alarm and although they may seem they are responding well to it, they are acting out of insecurity and obedience. It could also raise frustration levels and cause anger problems later on as the root of the problem is not being dealt with and they feel that the parental relationship is at stake.
A more effective form of discipline is to do the opposite, although this can feel counter-intuitive. An act of defiance or misbehaviour is simply a communication, the child is letting you know that something is wrong but they do not have the words for it. So reacting from a compassionate and empathic place will let the child know that although they may have done something wrong, they are still loved. Taking the child in your arms and calmly and gently explaining that what they have done hurt something/someone will be more effective and they will be more able to listen to you. Shouting or reacting from a place of anger immediately puts the child in a state of alarm, disabling their thinking parts of their brain and making it difficult for them to listen.
5. Safe Sleep
Sleep is often talked about amongst parents as they strive for their baby to sleep through the night. However, babies and children have needs during the night, just as they do in the day. They still need reassurance that their parents are there, they need comforting if they feel scared and their needs tended to if they are in discomfort. Babies often go through spells of sleeping better, then as they reach a new developmental stage, they may wake more frequently. External factors can affect their sleeping patterns such as picking up on the parents stress or times of transition and change. It is important that parents respond to their babies’ needs just as they do during the day.
As babies have not evolved to be left alone for a prolonged time, they need their parents to help calm them down and regulate their intense feelings for them. Many parents believe that it works because their baby eventually stops crying, however this is due to the early evolutionary survival instinct to stop making a sound after a certain amount of time so that predators do not find them.
It is only in the past 100 years that independent sleep has become fashionable and in many cultures co-sleeping is the norm. As long as parents are well informed of the correct way of co-sleeping, it is the most responsive and natural way your baby can sleep. It will also save you from getting up in the night as the baby will feel more secure and comforted lying next to you. When they are developmentally ready, the child will outgrow co-sleeping and happily sleep independently.
Interested in finding nannies and babysitters that use attachment principles? We have a fantastic team of child carers who support gentle and attachment parenting.