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Why you NEED a WordPress Child Theme

No two websites are alike. And yet…many different websites can be built using the same theme as a starting point. When it comes to WordPress, themes and templates are a fabulous way to get a semi-custom website, without the super-long coding sessions.

If you’re a website developer, it’s a great way to save time while creating a scroll-worthy website for clients. And if you’re hiring someone to build your WordPress website, semi-custom websites offer more bang for your buck than paying five figures+ for a custom-made solution.

That said, even those who are in the know about WordPress themes can skip over a major best practice: using a WordPress child theme. When I’m performing website audits, I see this mistake all the time! SO many web developers and DIY-ers alike accidentally skip this step. 

For me, it’s an absolute must!

Why? WordPress child themes provide you with a virtual sandbox to play in when it comes to web design – without the risk of messing up crucial website functions or losing your hard work down the line.

So, let’s chat about WordPress child themes! I’ll cover what they are, why they’re important, and some pro tips for making the most of your WordPress theme.


What is a WordPress theme?

Since WordPress is technically a content management system, it’s up to you to come up with a coding solution to create your website. While developers can custom-code a website, all that work can get expensive and time-intensive. 

A popular alternative is installing a ready-made WordPress theme. A WordPress theme is made up of files that determine the layout and design of your entire site. Basically, it’s a website structure you can add to the bare-bones WordPress framework.

Of course, while themes are incredibly convenient and a fantastic solution for many websites, they’re not always perfect straight out-of-the-box. So, a web designer or developer (like Southern Creative!) can customize a theme for your business.

That’s where WordPress child themes come in!


What is a WordPress child theme?

Whenever you install a theme on a WordPress website, you are installing the original files just as they were coded by a web developer. But it’s likely that you’ll want to make a few changes to the theme so that it perfectly fits your business. A WordPress child theme allows you to make those tweaks without changing the parent theme’s code.


How do WordPress child themes work?

A WordPress child theme is a copy of the parent theme that you layer on top of the parent theme to make changes.

You can think of it a little bit like ordering your perfect latte. The parent theme of a website is like the basic ingredients of a latte: espresso and milk. Those ingredients form the base recipe of your drink – just like a parent theme forms the basic design and structure of your website. 

A child theme is like all the flavorings and modifications you add to make your perfect latte. You might have vanilla and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I might order caramel with an extra shot of espresso. But no matter which customizations we make, it’s still a latte! And while the modifications don’t change the basic latte recipe underneath, they do make it uniquely yours.

A WordPress child theme allows you to craft your perfect website, without changing the “base recipe” provided by the parent WordPress theme.


Pro tip! A WordPress parent theme works like the “default” theme of your website. The child theme contains all modifications you’ve made. A child theme must have a parent theme to exist – but a parent theme can exist on its own!


Why do I need a WordPress child theme?

Using a child theme is absolutely key to protecting any changes you make to your website theme. You worked hard to get your website just right, and working with a WordPress child theme is miles safer than directly editing the files of your parent theme. 

Here’s the main reason: from time to time, the developer who made your parent theme will release updates. This is a good thing! It keeps your theme current on security measures and coding best practices.

However, if you’ve edited the parent theme files, any updates can override changes you’ve made to your website.

TLDR? All your customizations are gone and now your website looks like the new default version of the parent theme.

That Said, Even Those Who Are In The Know About Wordpress Themes Can Skip Over A Major Best Practice: Using A Wordpress Child Theme. When I’m Performing Website Audits, I See This Mistake All The Time! So Many Web Developers And Diy-Ers Alike Accidentally Skip This Step. 


A child theme maintains theme changes you’ve made, while still relying on the updated parent theme to be the backbone of your site.

The result? You get all the functionality and updates of your parent theme, without losing the code you’ve put into your WordPress child theme.


Why can’t I just update my WordPress theme’s parent files?

The core code files of any part of your website are important – and editing them can result in unintended site errors and malfunctions that can be tricky to fix. (Though a site backup can save you!)

Not to mention, as you work on your website, you might want to go back to your original parent theme as a base for modifications. Using a WordPress child theme allows you to get creative with your website, without losing the original template code you invested in! 


Pro tip: a WordPress child theme is only as good as its parent

WordPress child themes are the best way to make tweaks and changes to your WordPress theme to get the website of your dreams. But don’t forget that the parent WordPress theme you choose will still make up the foundation and core function of your website. 

It’s a little bit like buying a house. Finding something with “good bones” that needs freshening up with a new coat of paint or new kitchen appliances is SO much easier than adding a whole new bedroom or a second story.

While a WordPress child theme allows for customization, you’ll get the best results from a WordPress child theme if you keep things relatively close to the parent theme that’s installed on your site.

The more changes you implement in a child theme, the larger the chance you could end up with slowed-down site speeds or conflicting site code. 

So what kind of changes work best in WordPress child themes? Think small to medium shifts, like the placement of an image, color schemes, or switching up navigation menus. So, if you need a five-page website and your starting point is a blogging theme, that might not be the best fit.
If you find yourself implementing a ton of changes on your WordPress child theme, that’s a sign to find a parent theme that is better suited to your needs!


WordPress child themes vs. fully custom websites

I spent the first couple of years as a web designer building fully custom WordPress websites from scratch. But over time, I noticed that most small businesses and personal brands actually needed similar things from their websites. 

Fully custom websites are great for bigger businesses or unique situations where a client needs a truly bespoke solution. But WordPress child themes are ideal for people who want the look and feel of a customized website without having to go through the time and expense of custom solutions.

I’m a huge cheerleader for WordPress child themes for most business owners! In fact, our signature Launch Week and Scalable One-Page Website services are built on WordPress Astra parent and child themes. Astra is one of the most popular WordPress themes on the market, meaning it’s updated regularly (and has excellent security and functionality). Also, it’s super light, so there aren’t a lot of unnecessary add-ons clogging up site speed.


Now you know why WordPress child themes are important!

Website themes and templates make building a great-looking website SO much easier than custom coding. But if you want to protect the lovely semi-custom website you’ve worked so hard on, be sure to customize your site with WordPress child themes!


Does DIY website design make your head spin?

We can help! We make semi-custom websites (complete with WordPress child themes), ready for you in just one week.


Book a call now to chat about building your new site!


Steph O'Keefe, SEO strategist and WordPress designer sitting at desk wearing a white shirt in Raleigh, NC.

I'm Steph!

I'm the Founder and creative Director behind Southern Creative, a.k.a. your SEO strategist and web designer.

My passion is crafting websites rooted in strategy so you can put your focus where your heart is while we launch your dream website that shows up online.