What does it mean to be a responsive parent?

There’s always going to be a debate about which is the right and wrong way to parent, but if we cut through all the different parenting approaches and philosophies, the bottom line is this: as parents, all we want is happy and healthy children that grow into happy and healthy adults.

Responsive parenting is at the heart of this. Being responsive is tuning into your child’s emotions, needs, and concerns, and then providing them with the appropriate support and reassurance.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) published a document that looked at how caregiver responsiveness could have far-reaching benefits for the emotional and physical wellbeing of children around the world.

The report states: ‘While children need food, sanitation and access to health services to survive and develop optimally, a warm and affectionate relationship with an adult caregiver who is responsive to the child’s needs is equally important‘.

To understand what responsive parenting is, let’s look at the principles that serve as the foundation, and then what that might look like in practice.

What does it mean to be a responsive parent?

Below are the principles of responsive parenting, as outlined in Responsive Parenting:


At the heart of secure attachment, responsive parenting is about encouraging feelings of trust within your child. Responsive parents use the tools of empathy and unconditional love to achieve this secure bond and trust.


Parents build that trust through responding to the physical, emotional, and intellectual needs of their child. Behaviour is seen as communication, and with practice and empathy, the parent makes the child feel heard.


Responsive parents recognise that the quality of attachment has a major influence on a child’s development. They use encouragement and modeling instead of direct teaching, rewards, and punishments. They refrain from using shame, power, guilt, or fear to motivate a child.


Responsive parents offer unconditional acceptance that children are competent and capable of understanding their own needs. This helps them to listen to their instincts. Offering acceptance lets children know that they’re valued, worthy, and loved.


Responsive parents believe that all learning and development should be child-led. They support their unique child’s interests and developmental needs, and view the journey of parenting as a learning experience for both the parents and the child.


Modeling and valuing authenticity celebrates individuality. Responsive parents know that being their authentic selves provides a safe space for growth and a sense of belonging, without trying to teach a child to ‘fit into society’.


Responsive parents know that they are the experts on their children. Responsiveness is an inclusive practice that acknowledges the inequalities against children. Parents then make plans to support them in environments that do not offer inclusive, safe places for children to be children.


Responsive parents advocate for their children’s rights, and ensure that they feel heard and supported in all environments and situations, whether at a playground or a relative’s house.


Responsive parents use self-reflection and mindfulness if they feel triggered by their child’s behaviour. They refrain from blaming their child for any of their own emotional baggage, and instead try to understand how their own past experiences may be affecting them today.


Being a responsive parent involves continuous learning and growth through reflection and research. Having knowledge in child development allows parents to have reasonable and informed expectations of their unique child.


Responsive parents know that modeling grace for their child and for themselves will demonstrate nurturing. A nurtured child through gracious acts of love becomes a nurturing adult.

What does responsive parenting actually look like?

There are no rules or blueprints for putting these principles into practice with your baby, but here are some suggestions for ways to be a responsive parent.

  • Show your baby unconditional love. That no matter what they do, you love them. Experiment to find out what fills up your baby’s love cup the most.
  • Prioritise connection over compliance, and resist only reacting to mistakes and ‘misbehaviour’.
  • Acknowledge that babies cry to communicate, and their emotional needs are just as important as their physical needs.
  • Speak to your baby respectfully, the way you would want to be spoken to.
  • Observe your baby, and learn to recognise and respond to their cues, rather than putting them on a rigid schedule.
  • Practice positive discipline by uncovering the underlying cause of behaviour, which may be unmet needs such as hunger or tiredness.
  • Use authentic language, using ‘I’ instead of ‘mummy needs you to…’
  • Acknowledge your own feelings and reactions. Your baby isn’t doing anything to you or manipulating you. If you’re feeling angry by something your baby is doing, take a deep breath and reflect on it.
  • Respect your baby for the individual that they are without labeling, comparing, or placing judgments on them.
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions, even if to you it seems irrational or over the top. Narrate what’s happening and label their emotions.
  • A responsive parent responds to their child’s needs 24/7. Babies aren’t left to cry it out during the night.
  • Babies are unable to soothe themselves, so it’s up to parents to regulate their emotions. Eventually through consistent responsiveness, you child will learn to soothe themselves.


Being a responsive parent is a learning process, but if you tune into your baby from the start, listen to them, treat them with respect, and support their unique needs and wishes, that’s all that truly matters.

No parent is perfect and responds to their baby’s cue’s correctly every time. ‘Babies need a good enough mother [parent]’, says Donald Winnicot, pediatrician, psychoanalyst and developmental specialist. ‘Good enough’ means that responding positively about 70% of the time will create a secure attachment for babies.