Attachment Parenting for Beginners

Once upon a time, there was a potential adoptive parent. She was super duper excited to enlarge her family through adoption and was unaware that there was much more to it besides some classes and then bing bam boom she’d be a mom. She was hopelessly naïve due to having had far too many viewings of Annie, Oliver!, and similar orphan-centric movies while growing up. Surely just giving a kid a good home would be enough to give them security and make them behave. Oh boy did she learn. Just to try and get ahead of the game, she contacted some friends who she knew had adopted and asked what she might need to learn. Because her friends loved her and were interested in her and her family being successful, they shared their collective knowledge. It was like, as they say, trying to drink from a fire hose. But the one thing that stood out was the need for attachment.

The woman was confused—Okay, okay I was confused. You got me. I’m the potential adoptive parent who is now an actual adoptive parent. I’m so embarrassed by my naiveté that it seems easier to disassociate from it by putting it in the form of another person entirely. I just can’t. Guys, listen to me. Attachment in adoption should be your number one big goal for your future. Your kids will have an assortment of struggles, large and small, dealing with everything from potty training to clothing choices. That is just life, unfortunately. However, there is an undercurrent in many struggles of adopted children that has to do with not feeling securely attached to their caregiver. It is an unfortunate truth that many children who end up adopted—be it overseas, through foster care, or domestic infant adoption—have experience with neglect. 

Attachment Disorders

According to Web MD, attachment parenting is the idea that babies will learn to trust and thrive when their needs are consistently met by an adult. Usually, that adult will be a parent but will occasionally be an older sibling, nanny, grandparent, et cetera. If a baby never develops this type of trust,  he or she will struggle to form relationships later in life. They may suffer from a lack of empathy, insecurity, anger, or—in more serious instances—attachment disorders. 

What is an attachment disorder? The most grievous one is called Reactive Attachment Disorder. It causes a child to reject his or her caregiver so they can feel in control of their lives. Sometimes, if the child knows the caregiver is right, he or she will lash out in rage and proceed to do the opposite of what they are supposed to. 

For example, when my oldest daughter came to us she was four years old. That seems young enough to not have too many problems, right? Usually, potential adoptive parents are scared of adopting teens. In our experience, older children who are taught to use words to express feelings are easier than our 4- and 3-year-olds who were in six different foster homes in four years. Because our 4-year-old learned very early on that adults would not meet her needs, she decided she would not trust them. She was parenting her sister who was just over a year younger than her when she was two. I understand that seems ridiculous, but it is true. She taught our then 3-year-old that she was the mommy and needed to be obeyed. In her mind, she was the only person she could depend on. Sadly in her experience, that was true in the very beginning. She was placed in foster care when she was just over a year old and her baby sister was a newborn. She was bounced from house to house because of an older brother who would ultimately not even end up being adopted with her and her sister. She decided that adults were not safe and that they would always lie and leave her. This resulted in an attachment disorder. She would routinely scream, cry, rage, and otherwise tantrum when asked to do something as simple as eating her (requested) snack. If we said go left, she would go right. If we said it was bedtime, she would scream for an hour that she wasn’t tired. To say we were exhausted is an understatement. 

However, using Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) from the Karen Purvis Institute at Texas Christian University we were able to begin to slowly get her to trust us. We proved over and over that we were reliable sources of food, water, shelter, clothing, and love. We said yes to every possible request. When saying no we would couch it between a few yesses. I’ll explain more later but we went back to the very beginning where if had we been her parents the whole time she would have had her needs met. 

So attachment disorders equal bad news. Unfortunately, there is much moving against new parents to make attachment tricky at best. Exceptionally well-meaning parents can create anxiety in a baby, which will raise their cortisol levels in their brain to frightening levels. If the baby was exposed to drugs in utero, the chances are high that his or her brain is more easily tuned to disarray than would normally be the case. Don’t despair. One of the first proponents of attachment theory insisted that attachment disorder wasn’t a life sentence. It is reversible. Things may not always be perfect but they can get better with time and effort. 

Implementing Attachment Parenting

How? Intentional relationship building can improve the situation. With a baby, it is significantly easier than with an older child, but it can be done. 

When a baby is born he or she will instinctively search for his or her mom. They will attempt to suckle and seek comfort right away if laid on mom’s chest. If the baby is not breathing and is whisked away to the NICU, that moment cannot happen. If the baby is adopted right after birth, that moment may not happen. So what is there to do? From the first moment possible, keep the baby with you at all times. At the first whimper for food, a wet diaper, a nap, or whatever the need is, try to address that need in a calm, loving, gentle manner. Make eye contact with the baby as much as possible. If you can, sleep with the baby next to your bed so you can reach out for comfort when he or she cries in the night. Due to CPS standards, we could not co-sleep with our youngest but she was in a bassinet parked right against our bed so if she whimpered in the night I could put my hand on her and let her know I was there. She would then usually grasp a finger and go back to sleep. This girl is now six and is still my Velcro baby. If I’m sitting she wants to be on my lap. If I’m cooking she wants to help. She is able and willing to do things independently (she goes to all-day kindergarten and is thriving there), but my husband and I are her safe space. That is how it should be. 

Developing Attachments with Babies

So, the main things for babies are the following:

Respond Quickly to Needs

It’s important to quickly respond to the baby’s needs. Quick responses to having needs met help comfort the baby and help him or her to know that you are there. 

Feed on Demand

Feed the baby on demand, not on a schedule. If the baby is hungry, feed him or her (unless otherwise directed by a doctor for some reason).

Daily Contact

Keep the baby with you at all possible times. Wear him or her in a sling/moby wrap/baby carrier (you can research these online and get lost in the details, but the main thing is to not smother the baby and to not use one that can cause hip dysplasia). Daily skin-to-skin contact is important. It is now known that skin-to-skin contact can help regulate a baby’s body temperature, breathing, and heart rate. You don’t need to be naked; just wear a V-neck T-shirt and let the baby lay his or her chest against yours. 

Hold and Snuggle the Baby

Don’t use playpens to separate the baby from you if possible. If the baby can see you and starts to cry, pick him or her up. I know this sounds like spoiling, but you cannot spoil a baby with snuggles. When he or she gets older, he or she will want to be held less and less but, while he or she wants to be held, hold him or her. 

Developing Attachments with Older Children

The main things for older kids are the following: 

Go Back to the Beginning

We are going back to the beginning with our kids even though it seems weird to treat them like babies. You will need to meet their needs because they weren’t met as babies. 

Feed Regularly

They need food every two hours. Yes, every two hours. Their bodies may not recognize hunger and thirst because they have had to block them out so much. However, they will get a terrible dose of hangry that can result in an entirely ruined day if that need isn’t met consistently. By feeding them every two hours something that is nutrient- and protein-dense to help them stay full, you’re teaching them that their needs will be consistently met. 

Keep Children Hydrated

They also need water every two hours or more. Let them pick out a water bottle. Fill it with ice-cold water or mix some juice in if they won’t drink straight water. Encourage them to drink often. Get yourself a water bottle and take a drink often in front of them. They will begin to subconsciously mimic you.

Soothe and Comfort Children

When they cry, pick them up if they will let you. If they won’t let you, still try to soothe them. Offer bandaids for every cut, scrape, and bruise—be they real or imagined. 

Do Not Use Physical Punishment. 

I know. If you’re like me you were raised on spankings, time-outs, and told to wait until your father got home. All of this sounds like hippy-dippy passive parenting nonsense. I get it. However, the goal is for the child to trust you and it is hard to do that if they are afraid you might hit them. What do we do instead? Sometimes we send them out to the trampoline. Sometimes we sit with them. Sometimes we write apology notes. Very, very often and especially if a mess was made, they are expected to clean up the mess to the best of their ability. Mostly we use what are called natural consequences. If they break someone else’s something they either need to pay to fix it by doing that person’s chores, paying with money they earned, et cetera, or ask the other person how they can make it up to them. This goes much further than just giving them a time out and calling it a day. If they spill, they clean it up. If they forget to pack their lunch they eat school lunch. They also lose privileges, which at this point are mostly cartoons and Minecraft. For that to be effective you need to learn what motivates them. It’s less about taking away what they love and more about incentivizing them to do what they don’t want to do. For instance, it is my daughters’ job to pick up their clothes off the bathroom floor and put them in the laundry hamper. If it isn’t done, they need to go back and do it. If they refuse, they lose cartoons for that day. They mostly pick up their clothes without many quarrels now. 

Use Time-Ins

Instead of time-outs, use time-ins. What is a time-in? It looks slightly different for everyone but, basically, instead of telling a kid they are being too much and sending them away (which deepens feelings of rejection), you sit with them until they are feeling calm enough to talk about what is wrong. Even though it doesn’t look like it, often kids who are throwing a fit are throwing it for a valid reason. It is our job as parents to help them figure out what the reason is and how to solve the problem without throwing a fit next time. For us, this looks like carrying a flailing child to their room and sitting with them until they want to talk about it. This can take anywhere from three minutes to over an hour depending on how stubborn either of you is. 

Physical Touch

They need lots of cuddles and tolerated physical touch. Some kids are touch aversive. But to some degree, most kids crave and need some sort of physical touch. We started small by holding hands. My middle daughter was three when she came to live with us and couldn’t say more than two garbled words. After two weeks of living with us and holding hands constantly with my 2- almost 3-year-old who never stops talking, they had developed their own language and my 3-year-old was talking up a storm. Because my 2-year-old is attached at my hip and my 3-year-old saw her constantly getting hugs, tickles, snuggles, et cetera from us, she eventually wanted in on that.

The Reward of Intentional Relationship Building

I didn’t realize how far we had come until one day I woke up and thought my youngest had crawled into bed with us (something that happened occasionally up until about a year ago), so I snuggled her in tight. She snuggled back and sighed. A few minutes later my youngest came in and snuggled her dad. I heard, “Hi, baby” in my husband’s sleepy voice and was suddenly bewildered by what sleepy, curly-haired child had willingly cuddled up next to me and fell happily asleep. I may or may not have cried. You can’t prove it either way. Anyway, all that to say my girls have had some terrible struggles but, with intentional attachment-based principles, we have come a long way.

 If you’re interested in learning more visit https://child.tcu.edu/about-us/tbri/#sthash.cl5BWYie.pZFhTWDN.dpbs and read The Connected Parent and The Connected Child, both of which are by Karen Purvis. 

Purvis, Karen. “TBRI®.” Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, 2021, child.tcu.edu/about-us/tbri/#sthash.cl5BWYie.dpbs. 

Alli, Renee A. “What Is Attachment Parenting?” WebMD, WebMD, 29 Aug. 2020, www.webmd.com/parenting/what-is-attachment-parenting#2.