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Why I’ve Embraced “Attunement Parenting” as the Secret to Raising Healthy, Happy Kids



Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD - published on 08/18/15

Aleteia's resident pediatrician says it's better than "attachment parenting"

The term “Attachment Parenting” used to trigger a sinking sense of mommy guilt deep in my heart. “Have I scarred my child permanently?” I would wonder, just because my baby was bottle-fed while I was at work, or I lost my temper and yelled at a toddler. But after more than a decade as a parent and a pediatrician, I have come to embrace “Attunement Parenting” as the secret to raising healthy, happy families. 

I learned to appreciate many aspects of attachment parenting, but, as my 5th child turns two years old, I’ve come to realize that the key to raising emotionally healthy children is attunement—or how well you recognize your child’s needs at any given moment. Attunement, in short, is putting yourself in your child’s shoes and then meeting their needs with the wisdom of a parent.

Picture this: You’re at the playground with your 4-year-old when you get an important phone call that you have to take.  As you step aside from your child to answer the call, your toddler starts chanting, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” 

Do you:

A.  Firmly state, “Mommy needs to talk on the phone for a minute, I’ll be right back.”

B.  Let the phone call go to voicemail, pay attention to your child, and return the call as soon as possible.

C.  Answer the call, then put it on hold while you spend about 30 seconds suggesting a new imaginary game for your child, and explain that you will join the game after your phone call.

Option C, although challenging, shows your child that you recognize their needs and will meet them, while not ignoring your own needs. This is attunement parenting.

Attachment parenting is a parenting trend based on attachment theory. According to attachment theory, the child forms a strong emotional bond with caregivers during childhood with lifelong consequences. All children attach to their caretakers, but children whose emotional needs have not been met can form insecure attachments. The goal is to raise a child with secure attachment to their caretaker. Attachment parenting promotes emotionally available parenting techniques that help form a secure attachment style.

Attachment theory is well accepted by pediatrics and psychology. But here is where attachment parenting falls short:

1) Attachment parenting tends to be too formulaic, even if this was not the intent of some of those who originally coined the term. Attachment parenting tends to promote specific “rules” for parenting, such breastfeeding, bed sharing, avoidance of sleep training, using a sling instead of a stroller, etc. But even if you do all these things, your child can still develop insecure attachment if you are not attuned to him or her. 

2) Attachment parenting can be exhausting to parents, especially moms. All this focus on paying attention to your child can cause mom to forget to pay attention to herself. Kids need to learn that mom cares about them, even if she can’t give them immediate attention whenever they want it. Parents need to sleep. Babies need to sleep, too. 

3) There is no conclusive research that attachment parenting works. In fact, there is good evidence that some attachment parenting techniques may be harmful. Children (not infants) need to learn patience and self-control, gently.  Adult bed-sharing with infants is a known risk factor for infant suffocation. Sleep-training for infants, which is discouraged by most attachment parenting proponents, does not result in older children with behavior disorders (see research).  Mothers who did not sleep train their infants had a higher rate of depression. 

Attunement parenting also embraces attachment theory and aims to help parents raise securely attached children. Like attachment parenting, attunement parenting focuses on allowing children to communicate their needs to adults, and helping adults recognize and meet these needs in a developmentally appropriate way. Attunement parenting promotes secure attachment while teaching a child to see the needs of others and be a part of a community. 

Others have coined the term “Attunement Parenting,” but here’s what it has come to mean to me:

1) Focusing on attunement to your children’s needs is more important than any particular parenting choice, such as feeding technique or sleeping style. I strongly support breastfeeding and recognize its many benefits for infant health and attachment, but bottle-fed infants can still develop secure attachment.

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