The Science of Attachment Parenting


What is the scientific purpose of attachment parenting? In short, attachment parenting provides the child stress relief. Every child experiences stress and it impacts the body by triggering a stress response. Emotions such as fear, loneliness, sadness, frustration and unhappiness are present in children as young as babyhood. Children’s response to those emotions is usually crying in babies and “acting out”, crying or screaming in toddlers. Young children do not have the executive functioning to “self-sooth” or regulate their own stress response because of the immaturity of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. They need external “scaffolding” help from an adult. When a caring adult responds to the situation promptly and with warmth, the stress is soothed and the calmness of the child resumes. Eventually, children grow to an age, usually in the teen years, where their self-regulation skills are developed enough so they can help themselves to “self-sooth,” and the scaffolding may be removed although comfort and parenting is nice to have all through childhood.

There are three kinds of stress; positive, tolerable and toxic. Positive stress is good and everyone needs some of this kind.Positive life challenges in the form or people, events or places, create positive stress. When the child faces the stress and overcomes it, often with caregiver support, (and as they get older, with peer support in addition to adult support); the child builds resilience to adversity and it creates a feeling of accomplishment for them. It encourages the child to meet even greater challenges as they grow because it builds their self-esteem and confidence. When a school child makes a class presentation, or a baby is left with a new loving, supportive caregiver, or a toddler faces new playmates at a new daycare, their accomplishment of managing the positive stress builds their resiliency.

Men On Scaffolding Working on a Brain

Tolerable stress is caused by negative events in a child’s life.  A parent’s divorce, an unwanted move, or the loss of a childhood friend are examples of tolerable stress because they are temporary, and supported by a caring, loving, warm attachment adult who can help steer the child through the stressful time.  The adult responds to the child with active listening, lots of hugs, immediate problem-solving and being available for continual help. Even when the child “acts out” their stress by exhibiting bad behaviour, a caring, warm response from an adult will help the child regulate his emotions, return to a calmer state and eventually resolve the problem.

Toxic stress is also caused by negative events although these events tend to be on-going and the one pervasive factor that moves tolerable stress into toxic stress is the lack of a supportive caregiver or attachment parent. On-going, unaddressed bullying at school, or a baby being left to cry it out most nights, or a toddler that is spanked every day for touching items, are examples of toxic stress. In the first example, the bullying is on-going and pervasive. In the last two examples, the adult caregiver no longer is the supportive, caring person, and instead, becomes the source of the toxic stress as in the spanking and leaving to “cry it out” example. When the child has no other adult support resources, they are left to manage the adverse experience on their own.

Of the 8 principles of attachment parenting, the principles of responding with sensitivity (and not anger), practicing respectful sleep habits (not leaving children to cry-it-out alone) and using positive discipline (non-punitive guidance) are the most important attachment parenting principles to ensure toxic stress does not occur.

Children do not need toxic stress. Ever. The full onslaught of toxic stress stimulates the production of cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn is good in short doses to motivate the body into flight, freeze or fight mode, but bad for the body when it is produced in large ongoing doses. The constant production of these hormones can damage developing brain architecture in children and may produce lifelong consequences later in life in the form of eventual physical and emotional health problems and propensity to addictions.

No one lives a stress-free life, but adults who practice attachment parenting principles can buffer the negative effects of toxic stress in order to turn the stress into tolerable stress and grow healthy, happy children. Loving, caring support is never spoiling a child. It is crucial for a child’s healthy emotional, physical and social development.

Consequences or Problem-Solving?

In parenting classes, I often get asked the following question:

When I give my 11 year-old daughter a consequence, she insists that I am being mean to her. I believe that it is respectful discipline. What is the difference between consequences and a punishment?

Brain development stage: Between the ages of 5 and 12, most children figure out that they are not choosing the consequence, and it is the parents imposing the order on them in the name of discipline. If the child doesn’t see the point, she may experience it as a punishment.

Here are the differences:

  • Consequences are parent imposed. The conflict is now between the parent and child. Problem-solving is the parent and child working together to come up with a solution to fix the problem. The conflict is now between the parent-child team against the problem (even if the child caused it.)
  • Problem-solving is a more real-world skill. It teaches kids how to fix things, make restitution, repair relationships and make things right.
  • Consequences are focused on the child, where problem-solving is focused on the end result; a common goal.
  • Consequences tend to be one solution. Problem-solving can be many solutions that would take care of the problem. The goal is repair, whereas the goal of consequences is to teach the child a lesson, which is punitive.
  • Consequences are almost always designed to hurt a child – either financially (pay for a broken item), socially (grounding or taking away cell phone), emotionally (time-out) or physically (hard physical labor). Problem-solving is designed to be pain-neutral. The goal is not to hurt the child, but help the situation. The goal is to fix the problem. Sometimes that is financial or physical, but the payoff is that the child feels good that they are now owning the solution and not just the problem. Children are very fair and more likely to dive into helping fix the problem when they know they caused it, because the focus is no longer on what they did, but what they can do to make it right. When they can put effort into fixing the problem, they feel better about themselves, learn real-world solutions and will make better decisions in the future.

Parents argue, “Yes, but it works!  Consequences change my child behaviour!” That may be correct, but the price is impaired communication.  Parents wonder why they don’t enjoy the open, caring, free communication that they once had with their child. They wonder why they are receiving attitude and silence. Pushback of imposed consequences comes in many forms. Ditch the consequences and use the adult method of problem-solving.


Consequences Versus Problem-solving

Date Night: Stoking the Hearth of the Home

In the movie, Date Night, the characters played by Steve Carell and Tina Fey, are in a long term relationship that they try to spice up by going out to dinner once a week on a date night.  The trouble is that their date night is, monotonously predictable: they go to the same restaurant and order the same food on the same night.  They start to notice the sameness when they become a little too clichéd even for their own taste by talking about the variation of the chicken quality instead of their feelings, week by week.  One night, they do something different – they dress up, pick a new restaurant and go to dinner in the city for a change.  What happens next is hilarious and they end up with an incredible evening tale – probably one that no couple would wish for – but the end result was that they had a renewed sense of each other as the people they loved – not just roles such as parents, children, siblings, etc, although those roles were strengthened as well.

No matter how long they have been together, couples need sparks, creativity and fun in their relationship.  As the years pass, they need it even more.  For centuries, organized religion has discovered that people need continuous affirmation of their faith in the form of weekly rituals such as church attendance.  Relationships need the same kind of tendering and care.  Regular meetings are required in order to talk, have fun, and spend time together. We know that friendships survive on shared interests, yet, as soon as we partner up with our very best friend, we tend to settle into domestic boredom and let the shared interests slide. Every relationship has peaks and valleys – moments where love is overwhelming and moments when you seriously wonder why you are still with him or her. Couples need to remind themselves the qualities that they saw in each other at the beginning of the relationship, and what they still love about each other.  This is even more critical when mortgages, pets, children, jobs, laundry, broken appliances, normal conflicts and elderly caretaking occur alongside the couple relationship.  These are normal stresses, but they can be overwhelming in a relationship without some nurturing buffers such as date night and time together.

Research shows that the first five years of a relationship are the most difficult because of career building demands, money woes, and especially the parenting of babies and toddlers.  The lack of sleep, child tantrums, worry, and differing parenting styles, can tear down the closeness and caring of even the most loving of couples as we tend to take our parenting frustrations out on each other, rather than the children.  This can be toxic to relationships.  We need frequent reminders to be kind and caring to each other, in the good times and especially in the challenging times.  As kids get older and easier to parent, relationships naturally improve, but take a dip again in the teen years.  This coincides with menopause, career peaking, travel, and mid-life crisis issues.  We may start to look around the buffet table, even though we are on a diet!  The parenting of teens can be challenging and adds to the stress.  Couples need to put more work into their relationship at this stage, similar to the first five years.  Research shows that after the teen stage, relationships improve and enrich. There’s a no-brainer, because parenting is so much “done”.

We started our own date night when we have three children under three and felt we were losing the essence of “us” in the dreary day to day details of domestic life.  We made a point of hiring a standing sitter to come every Tuesday evening.  Some days we were so tired, we blearily welcomed in our sitter, grabbed our pillows and headed to the parked car in the driveway for a blissful, uninterrupted nap.  People would question the cost of a standing sitter but we considered it a financial investment. Research shows that divorce is the single most disastrous event that devastates couples’ finances and wealth, and in light of that, we felt that hiring a weekly sitter made sound financial sense.  Not only did we fund her college education, the kids actually enjoyed the sitter coming, since we didn’t have any grandparents or relatives to take over. She was fun, responsible and became an extended family member.  The kids loved the new video games she brought each week.

It was hard when the young babies and toddlers were going through separation anxiety.  Although we are both attachment parents, their crying seemed to bother me more than my partner.  I would like to say the decision was easy, but like many grey areas in life, sometimes I felt that I couldn’t leave the kids and so I discussed with my husband some ways to stay at home and not leave them, and he was sensitive to my needs. Other times, I realized his needs had to come first and we absolutely needed some time alone for the sake of our relationship or we might not make it through another week.  We would desperately say goodbye to the kids as gently as we could and walk out the door. Like any relationship, we had to see whose needs were paramount at that moment, and meet them. That’s real life and the eighth principle of attachment parenting. The kids usually had settled in with the sitter, when we phoned ten minutes later, and most often, we had a great evening, a heartfelt talk and the kids were okay.  We felt that a strong parenting partnership was the greater good for all concerned in the long run.  As is many parenting decisions, when and how to leave the children is a decision that each couple must make and decide when is best for them.

We felt a critical aspect of parenting is giving the kids a role model for respectful relationships and a blueprint for keeping love, passion and companionship alive in long term, monogamous relationships, whether that followed a traditional husband –wife marriage or domestic partnership between consenting, loving adults, whatever gender. We try to hash out conflicts in front of the kids as well as resolve and make up too. We also need to show them that parents are humans too.

In addition to date night, we also have private time on our own.  We have Mom’s night out (mommy goes to the movies or book club with her friends) and Dad’s day out (dad goes out to play volleyball with his friends).  People need to care for themselves in order to care for others.

We also have kid date night (although I can’t call it that anymore with the teens around) where one of us or both will take each kid out one-on-one for some special time. They get to pick what we will do.  We mark off their birth date on the calendar each month and then everyone knows that is the date to keep clear.  For example, my son was born on September 4th so every 4th of the month is his day. In the early days, with my partner working out of town, I would get a sitter to stay with the other kids.  It’s amazing the difference in our parent-child communication because of that and how much it cuts down on sibling fighting.


Twenty four years later, we are still going strong.  With five children, some of who are teens and adults, we no longer need sitters.  Spontaneity is back.  We can suggest a movie to each other, and be out the door in five minutes, just like we did BC (before children).  We even put some friendly daring into the mix – once we parked in the expectant parent’s parking spot at the movie theatre and then ordered the seniors rate movie tickets to get in!  Don’t tell the kids!

The “Date Night” Rules

Together, choose an evening of the week for date night, but make it consistently the same day of the week or it gets left by the wayside. If you have children, hire a standing sitter to come each week at the same time. Try to get a sitter who drives and pay the sitter well. If finances are a problem, join a babysitting co-op and trade tokens. If separation anxiety is a problem, plan date nights at home when the children are asleep. Each partner takes a turn planning the date, executing, driving, and paying. The other partner is the guest.  Then, the next week, switch roles.  It’s more fun to keep plans a secret until you are both in the car or it’s the time of the date.  Surprise is part of the fun! The planner should hire the sitter and feed the kids before you go out. Look your best, even for home dates.  The only information the guest needs to know is what to wear and if they should eat before going out. Try to plan an evening without friends, so that intimate subjects can be addressed if need be. Some subjects are difficult to bring up, but with time and space, it’s better to broach the subjects and give it air time, than to bury it.  Couples who bury critical conversations end up with nothing to talk about in the later years and drift apart.  Be tolerant and enjoy the evening as much as possible knowing that your partner put a lot of effort into making it special for you, even if they didn’t quite nail it that week.

For more ideas that are continually updated, visit our blog, Date Night YYC.  Even though the ideas are for Calgary and area, they are easily transferable to any city.  If you have young children, check out the blog for information on how to start a Baby Sitting Co-op.

Date Night-Out Ideas

  • Live Theatres (High schools and smaller      troupes have cheap or no cost nights)
  • Concerts (Check out university and      community bands)
  • Parks and reserves offer boating rentals
  • Go out for a coffee or a beer at the      local pub
  • Movie in the park
  • Picnics everywhere
  • Dinner crawl – go to several restaurants      for appetizer, salad, main and dessert.
  • Pub hopping downtown
  • Zoo, Museum, Library or Science Centre
  • Wine tasting events
  • Couple massage
  • Pottery painting
  • Classes
  • Friends’ house party
  • Go out for breakfast or meet for lunch
  •  “Lovers      or couples” trade show
  • Comedy theatre, Pecha Kucha, MoMondays
  • Bike ride, either cycle or motorcycle
  • Drive-in or movie-in-the-park
  • Pick up take-out and watch the planes land at the airport
  • Go-carting or laser tag
  • Shakespeare or other plays  “in      the park”
  • Fitness: gym date, bowling, rock      climbing, yoga, roller skating, golf, hiking, or simply running
  • Lecture (Check out libraries,      universities and bookstores)
  • Volunteer together such as canvassing,      working at the food bank and places where you can talk and have fun
  • Window shop
  • Ride the City trains – bring a snack and      have a train picnic


Date Night-In Ideas


  • Snuggle in bed with a movie and a picnic      of wine, bread and cheese
  • Dinner and movie at home with a theme      such as French night – have crepes and watch “La Chocolat”
  • Board or card game night
  • Dance
  • Bake cookies
  • Play video games
  • Read together in the bathtub, with      candles, salts and wine
  • Grab a pillow and blanket and sleep in      the car with the baby monitor on
  • Pick up books from the library and have a      read-in around the fireplace
  • Sit around the fire-pit outside and make      marshmallows or hot dogs
  • Relax in the hot tub
  • Be a kid again and use the trampoline (or      just lie on it and watch the stars), swing set, or swimming pool.
  • Turn off all the lights and sit in the      dark and watch the animal world outside.
  • Bring out photo albums or watch photos      and videos on the big screen at home


Date Night-No Sitter-Available Ideas


  • Car rides and walks (kids will either      fall asleep or be entertained by the DVD player you bring).
  • Go to places like Ikea, McDonalds, Airports      and children’s hospitals.  Grab a      coffee and a bench and utilize the play places to keep your kids      entertained where you can talk but keep an eye on the children.
  • Go to Chapters or other book stores and      plunk the kids in the Kids section with an assortment of books.  Grab the in-house coffee and find a      nearby seat.
  • Set the alarm early and have coffee on      the porch and watch the sun come up together.
  • Take the kids to the playground and have      a picnic for you two.
  • If your kids are school-aged, book two      tables at a restaurant at least 10 yards apart.  Sit your kids at one table, and you and      your partner at another.  Monitor      them from afar. Pretend you are the Aunt and Uncle so you don’t worry      about their behavior.  Works even      better with teens.


Happy dating!

Judy Arnall is a conference speaker, family communications trainer, and bestselling author of “Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery.” She is co-founder of Attachment Parenting Canada and Her date night blog is at