“Attunement Parenting”—The New 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 almost 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 I await the birth of my 5th child, 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 breastfeedingbed 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 goes to work every day or 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 make 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.  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 smart phones 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 encouragecreative play, avoid too many extracurricular activities, and encourage outdoor play.

Copyright 2013 Kathleen Berchelmann, MD


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  1. Catholic mom on

    I find it very hard to read something about how to parent from a mother who quite obviously chose to have someone else parent their child while they went off to work. Too many mothers are choosing work and personal achievement over being a stay at home mother. Our children are being prostituted to caregivers instead of taking on their ourselves just so we can give our kids “things” & a “better” life. I agree we as mothers and parents need to be atune to our children but you must not really see many families to see the difference between children who are passed off to other caregivers and those who stay at home with healthy loving mothers who choose a better life for their kids. Also to say breast feeding vs bottle doesn’t form a better bond, do you really believe that? God made a mother the way she did so she alone can nourish her child and He did it for a reason, so how can you say that bottle fed babies recieve the same benefits, both physically and emotionally as breast fed babies do. As far as those put in strollers vs held, that goes along the lines of all children are different. I had some who needed and wanted to be held and others who didn’t want it at all!! Again that has to do with being attuned to your child’s needs not that all want to be held all the time past a certain age. This article made me sad that a pediatrician would write much less endorse the words written here. Mothers should be willing to sacrifice for their children and unlike what the world says we can’t have it all at least not as the world says. We can have so much more as we are the ones who influence our children and their education and their faith lives as we model it and teach them and not someone else!!!

    • To me it’s sad when the same old arguments arise between moms: to work or not to work and breast- vs. bottle- feeding. We only tear each other (and the body of Christ) down with this kind of all-or-nothing thinking. To the extent we all prayerfully discern such decisions, there is no right or wrong answer that applies to every mom. Choosing to work or bottle feed are not moral matters in which there is one objective truth.

    • I thought this was a great article and the author did not does deserve an attack for working outside the home. Let’s be realistic, there are both good and bad working and stay at home moms alike. Every famiy is different. I suggest reading up on Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, also a mother and doctor.

  2. “Too many mothers are choosing work and personal achievement over being a stay at home mother. Our children are being prostituted to caregivers instead of taking on their ourselves just so we can give our kids “things” & a “better” life.”

    Please do not assume all mothers with jobs choose to work to buy designer clothing and trips to Disneyworld. Many families require both parents to work in order to buy food, clothing, and pay utility bills. Most stay at home moms I know will tell you that they are blessed to be able to stay at home with their children because they know for many of their peers, working is not a choice, it is a requirement. I agree with Sharon’s statement. Let’s try to be more supportive and caring towards one another…more Christ-like.

  3. Yes, yes and yes! This is part of the parenting style I’ve been living, but haven’t had a name for. Are there any books that you would suggest that would expound on this theory?

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