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!”
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.
2) Certain parenting techniques, such as baby-wearing, sharing a room with your infant, and breastfeeding probably do help form secure attachment, but they are guidelines not rules. I know of no research that shows poor attachment or psychological illness among children who were bottle-fed, transported in strollers, or made to sleep in cribs. That said, I find breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and sharing a room with my newborn to be some of my most intimate and joyful experiences.
3) Children need to develop the capacity to regulate their own distress, whether it is at bedtime or when they fall down while learning to walk. Your job as a parent is to meet their needs yet help them learn to help themselves. Sleep training of infants over 4-6 months of age is one way we help infants learn to regulate their own distress.
4) Taking care of yourself as a parent is fundamental to meeting your children’s needs. On the airplane they tell you to put your oxygen mask on before assisting the child seated next to you. Dr. Kelly Ross, a pediatrician and mother of triplets, has written extensively on the importance of self-care for moms.
5) You can’t be attuned to your children if you are overtired. Nothing kills your attunement towards your children more than sleep deprivation. Kids need sleep, too, in order to develop social skills and attunement to others in their community.
6) Anger is your worst enemy. Kids can’t see you lose control—angry outbursts are the opposite of attunement to your child’s needs. Anger is fundamentally selfish, even if it may be self-preserving. Anger is a late defense mechanism that we use when other approaches have failed. Kids will do anything for your attention, even if they have to make you angry. I find that I am most likely to be angry at my kids when I haven’t been attuned to their needs, often because I am tired or haven’t taken care of myself. Learn to recognize anger in yourself before you yell at a child or become visibly angry.
7) Kids need discipline and limits, but not spanking/corporal punishment. Discipline is not synonymous with punishment. Effective discipline includes regular schedules, house rules, and clearly defined natural consequences for breaking rules. A natural consequence is directly related to the poor choice a child made, such as being left hungry until dinner after refusing to eat lunch. Spanking or corporal punishment is not an effective method of teaching attunement to the needs of others.
8) Behavior problems need to be addressed with the wisdom of a parent (and possibly a health care professional). Being attuned to your children’s needs includes helping them learn to control their bodies and attitudes. If a behavior is not acceptable in public or school, it’s not acceptable at home. You can be gentle, loving, and attuned to your child’s feelings, yet still not let him have a tantrum. Psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, ADD, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder are surprisingly common in childhood. Parents who are attuned to their children’s needs aren’t afraid to seek professional treatment for psychiatric concerns. When behavioral interventions don’t work, medications often do work.
9) Digital devices, especially smartphones and tablets, are a major distraction for parents and can prevent attunement to children’s needs. They can prevent kids from learning to be attuned to their parents, too. This doesn’t mean all screens are bad, they just need to be used in moderation and for specific purposes. My colleague Dr. Kirstin Lee writes about the benefits of letting her toddler use her iPad, and what to watch out for.
10) Parents need to be attuned to their child’s need for independence, when they need to let go. Attunement parenting does not equal helicopter parenting. Autonomy and self-exploration are important parts of childhood. Too much structured time doesn’t allow kids to express and explore their own needs and identity. As parents, we need to safely encourage creative play, avoid too many extracurricular activities, and encourage outdoor play.
From a Christian perspective, attunement parenting is our attempt to parent our children as God parents us. God gives us freedom, lets us fall, and then helps us get back up. He gives us many good gifts and unconditional love, but there are times when He challenges us to become stronger. He gives us what is good for us, not necessarily what we want. As parents, we strive to love our children as God loves us. When we’re not perfect, we can just remind our children that they do have perfect parents in heaven.
Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at KathleenBerchelmannMD.com.