Someone recently asked me about the difference between mindful parenting and attachment parenting. It’s a great question. I’m still working out just what my definition of mindful parenting is, but a good summation is that it involves being present in the moment with yourself and your children, in a non-judgmental way. By being mindful (rather than distracted or reactive), we can create space in our own minds and hearts and in our relationship with our children so that we can be aware of how everyone is feeling, and make thoughtful, conscious choices about how we want to interact with our children.
Attachment parenting (AP) is a specific parenting philosophy, initially outlined by William and Martha Sears. According to the Attachment Parenting International website, there are 8 principles of AP: preparing for pregnancy, birth, and parenting; feeding with love and respect; responding with sensitivity; using nurturing touch; ensuring safe sleep, physically and emotionally; practicing positive discipline; and striving for balance in personal and family life. In practice, attachment parenting often involves little or no use of outside caregivers, extended breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and co-sleeping, or some combination of the above.
As I explore the differences between attachment parenting and mindful parenting (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive!), let me be transparent about my opinion. Although I don’t have a problem with most of the tenants of attachment parenting (based on recent data, I do have concerns about co-sleeping), I do not identify as an attachment parent. As a mother and a clinical social worker, I disagree with Dr. Sears’ interpretation of attachment theory, as well as his claims regarding the outcomes of AP. For example, he has stated that AP leads to increased empathy and social skills in children (the implication being that non-AP children are less empathic and less well socialized). I have not seen any data to support this claim, and I think it’s a problematic assertion. Children can be empathic (or not!) whether or not their parents practice AP. Having said that, I think that if the theory of attachment parenting makes sense to you, then by all means, go right ahead. We all need to find our own path to authentic, meaningful, connected parenting, and it’s not easy!
There is no reason why one couldn’t practice attachment parenting and mindful parenting at the same time. I would hope that the mindfulness would come first; the best parenting decisions are made when everyone’s needs are thoughtfully considered. For example, my daughters have never slept in a bed with my husband or me; even from their first days of life, they would cry and fuss in our bed, but calm down immediately once they were put into the co-sleeper. When they were each about 6 weeks old, my husband insisted that we put them in their cribs in their own rooms. I was too exhausted to protest, and the girls slept through the night—8 hours. I’d like to tell you it was our mindful awareness that got us our first good night of sleep in weeks, but I think we just got lucky. Either way, if we had focused more on a theory of parenting telling us to co-sleep than on our daughters’ behavior and our needs, I would still be a psychotic zombie Mom.
Which brings me to the fundamental difference between attachment parenting and mindful parenting: AP focuses on what to do (breast feed, co-sleep, etc.), while mindful parenting is about how to do it. You can breastfeed a baby while checking Facebook (yep, I’ve done it), completely unaware of the tiny human who happens to be attached to your body. Or you can breastfeed (or bottle feed) in a mindful, connected way, aware of your baby’s feel, smell, sound, and sucking habits. In fact, any aspect of attachment parenting can be done mindfully or not, just like every choice we make in life. You could be a stay at home parent and feel totally disconnected and distracted, or you can have your child in daycare and find ways to be completely present and engaged when you are at home with him. The reality is that most of us are somewhere in between those two extremes most of the time.
There are other differences between attachment parenting and mindful parenting as well. Mindful parenting isn’t a specific philosophy advocated by one person; it’s simply a way of being with someone else. Mindful parenting does not emphasize the importance of one parent over another. AP encourages extended breast-feeding, which means that Mama needs to be nearby, and should probably be the primary care-taker. AP discourages the use of daycare, nannies, or babysitters whenever possible. This just isn’t a reality for many American families. There’s no rule that you have to be with your children all day in order to be a mindful parent—the important thing is that you do find time each day to be present and connected. And finally, attachment parenting is focused on the first years of life, while mindful parenting offers a compass for interacting with our children throughout their lives.
It may be useful at this point to recall the definition of mindfulness—being aware of the present moment without judgment. When we are really able to let go of the “should” and connect to ourselves and our children, we will be better able to parent in an authentic, meaningful, and loving way. That may look like attachment parenting, or it might not—each family needs to find the path that works for them. What really matters is how we do whatever it is that we are doing.