What Is Attachment Parenting and Does It Work?

What Is Attachment Parenting and Does It Work?
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Attachment Parenting (AP) is not a new occurrence. In fact, Mary Slater Ainsworth((Simply Psychology: Mary Ainsworth)), a developmental psychologist best known for her work in attachment theory, worked with John Bowlby((Very Well Mind: Biography of Psychologist John Bowlby)) (the founder of attachment theory) at Tavistock Clinic in England, researching mother/infant attachments and studying what effects, if any, resulted from the parent and child connection.

The goal of attachment parenting—a child-centered versus parent-centered approach—is to bring up children that are happy, healthy, and able to emotionally connect with others throughout the course of their lives.

If you’re wondering where AP has its roots, it goes back to the World War II era. It was during that time that psychiatrists observed an impairment in the physical, psychological, and social development in children who were separated from their parents and either left in hospitals and/or orphanages. It was discerned that food and water were simply not the only necessary things needed for these children to thrive. Physical contact, they discovered, was essential for their development. Once they received that, a huge improvement was noted in the children’s emotional and psychological health.

The phrase Attachment Parenting was actually coined by pediatrician William Sears in his 1993 book, The Baby Book. Some of the most important principles based on his work include the items below:

  1. Feed with love and respect.
  2. Respond with sensitivity.
  3. Use nurturing touch.
  4. Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally.
  5. Provide consistent and loving care.
  6. Practice positive discipline.
  7. Strive for balance in your personal and family life.

The above-mentioned principles actually feel very Zen-like to me. Rather than a methodical approach, AP is considered more of a frame of mind. It’s an attitude of being there for your child whenever they need you. In other words, parents are continually in tune to their child’s needs and responsive to their demands, whatever and whenever they may be.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D, delineates the four components considered key in the care of infants when practicing attachment parenting((Psychology Today: The 4 Principles of Attachment Parenting and Why They Work)). We are going to look at these closely to understand their importance.

Components of Attachment Parenting

Co-Sleeping

With co-sleeping, your child sleeps in your room, or in your bed. If the latter is the case, then safety precautions must be practiced to avoid any harm coming to your child. Sadly, I once treated a client who practiced AP. In this tragic case, my client rolled over his little baby girl during the night. The grim discovery the next day still haunted my client decades later.

A common question about co-sleeping is, is it healthy? Is it a good idea to have your baby sleep with you? In 1999, a report titled “Hazards Associated with Children Placed in Adult Beds” was circulated((Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine: Review of hazards associated with children placed in adult beds)). The report detailed research that seemed to indicate an increase in infant deaths when co-sleeping was practiced. As a result, a nationwide campaign began to keep children under 2 out of adult beds.

In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics expanded its guidelines in 2011 to recommended that it was OK for a baby to sleep in the same room, but not in the same bed. This, they said, would prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), or having a parent roll over on their child during the night, like what happened to my client.

Certainly, some adjustments would be necessary for you as a parent if co-sleeping were incorporated into your child-rearing. Bedtime would revolve around your child, not your own personal schedule. You can see how this might cause issues if your bedtime is 11:00 p.m. and your child’s is 7:30 p.m. Other adjustments to be considered include scheduling intimacy in your relationship. This may seem like a sacrifice, but for parents who practice AP, the squeeze is worth the juice.

Feeding on Demand

Whether breastfed or bottle-fed, attachment parenting allows the infant to determine its own feeding schedule. Here’s the thing: breastfeeding is instinctual for babies. Your child will signal you when they need to be fed, which is in sync with how they grow and develop.

Paying attention to your child’s cues will also allow you to know when their food intake needs to be increased as your infant gets older. Your baby will let you know when it has had enough, or if it is still hungry.

Furthermore, feeding on demand also includes self-weaning. So what happens if your child turns three and still wants to be breastfed? This is something that needs to be considered. AP parents might soldier on, but for some, it may be too much to have their 3 year old still wanting to breastfeed. You need to ask yourself if that is something you’re willing to take on.

Holding and Touching

When your baby comes into the world, it arrives with strong and immediate needs, and they are completely dependent on you to provide them. For healthy development and attachment with others, physical contact is critical.

One of my clients adopted a little girl from India. The little girl was 18 months old when she was brought home to America. For the first 18 months, the child did not receive any of the essential physical contact or the affection and security that she needed in order to thrive. My client did the best she could and kept her new baby close to her all the time. To this day, her daughter, who is now 25 years old, doesn’t like to be touched and has other severe mental problems. Unfortunately, too much time had passed by the time the little girl was adopted and brought home. Despite my client’s best efforts, her little girl has grown up experiencing attachment disorders((Better Help: The Prevalence Of Attachment Disorder In Adults)).

Physical touch is important to AP, hence why parents who practice it hold and keep their babies close at all times. This could be done in various ways: cuddling, cradling, or wearing a little baby wrap or carrier where the child is held close to the chest. This allows the baby to feel the warmth and love of their caretaker at all times, which aids them in forming healthy attachments.

Responsiveness to Crying

Some parents, when their babies are crying, might say, “Don’t pick him up. Just let him cry it out! We can’t pick him up every time he cries; he’ll become spoiled!” Not so with parents who practice AP. If their infant cries, they respond almost immediately, before the child’s discomfort has a chance to escalate.

Their goal is to create a foundation of trust and understanding. Parents who practice AP believe that crying is their baby’s way of communicating discomfort and should be taken quite seriously. It is their belief that letting their child “cry it out” is too much to handle for their underdeveloped brain. Therefore, AP parents respond to tantrums in a loving, comforting away, never getting angry or punishing them. Constant response to their child’s sensitivities, parents believe, will strengthen the child’s trust muscle.

As good as AP might sound, it isn’t popular with everyone. Back in a May 2012 issue of Time Magazine, a woman by the name of Jamie Lynne Grummet was featured on the cover nursing her 3-year old child((HuffPost: Jamie Lynne Grumet, Breastfeeding Mom On ‘TIME Magazine’ Cover, Illustrates Attachment Parenting)). The title, Are You Mom Enough? sparked a great deal of controversy in the Anti-Attachment Parenting group, who claimed that there had to be something wrong with mothers who indulged their children to such an extent. Furthermore, the A-AP suggests that there is too much stress placed on parents, making them feel that anything less than constant pampering and attention would reflect badly on them as parents.

Downsides of Attachment Parenting

In an article featured in The Atlantic titled, “The Perils of Attachment Parenting,” by Emma Jenner, Jenner discusses various potential negative side-effects that come with AP((The Atlantic: The Perils of Attachment Parenting)). She writes:

“The dad and his wife had decided to try ‘attachment parenting’ with their newborn son. That meant they slept in bed with their son every night, fed him milk every time he cried, and carried him everywhere they went in a baby sling. Though the intentions behind the philosophy are wonderful—let’s raise secure, attached, emotionally healthy children—attachment parenting is an unsustainable model.”

Lack of personal time, lack of intimacy, and being constantly on baby mode can place a big stressor on any couple’s relationship. This is something to definitely keep in mind if you’re entertaining the possibility of AP. It’s important that you weigh all the pros and cons of AP, then decide how’d you’d like to bring up your little one.

Benefits of Attachment Parenting

Despite some of the controversy surrounding AP, there are multiple benefits attributed to its child-rearing practices. Let’s take a look at some of those. The children are:

  • Happier
  • Better at problem solving
  • Can create long-lasting friendships
  • Get along better with their brothers and sisters
  • Have higher self-esteem
  • Feel loved and protected by their caretakers
  • Are more trusting
  • Have a better outlook on life overall

Let’s look at more details regarding some of the most important benefits.

1. Biochemical Benefits

When you breastfeed your baby, you’re not only providing nourishment, you are also providing comfort. And not only is your baby soothed, but you, as a mother, will feel the positive effects when the prolactin hormone is released((Very Well Family: Your Guide to Prolactin and Breastfeeding)), making you feel tranquil and warmhearted. A happy and relaxed mother makes for a happy and relaxed baby.

2. Better Behavior

Attached babies tend to cry less. They may be less clingy and whiney as they feel connected and valued((Ask Dr. Sears: 7 Benefits of Attachment Parenting)).

An infant that feels good, so the theory goes, behaves better overall because they are operating from a place of inner calmness and happiness.

3. Enhanced Development

It is believed that a baby who isn’t constantly crying is, instead, learning. A quiet baby, then, is more receptive to absorbing information from its environment, assimilating it, and using their energy to learn instead of getting worked up. The peaceful child is better able to develop and interact with their environment in a healthier way.

Does Attachment Parenting Really Work?

I believe it is up to each parent to decide whether AP is right for them. Parenting is hard enough as it is without additional stress. AP can either alleviate the stress of child-rearing, or increase it, depending on each individual case.

Anything can work if you are aware of all the demands, are willing to try, and see them through. If you weigh out the benefits vs. the possible negatives and find yourself deciding on the AP style, then I believe it can certainly work. If you go into it half-heartedly, or without the support of your partner, then you may not be able to see AP through.

If you are considering AP but feel that maybe it’s too much, there may be other options. Perhaps you can create your own version that would work better for you and your partner—a hybrid of sorts. For example, you may want your baby to sleep in your room, but you’re not always going to feed on demand. You may be responsive to your baby’s cries, but you’re not willing to wear him or her on your body 24/7.

There are pros and cons to most situations. You just have to weigh out what you’re willing or unwilling to do with regards to your child. Choosing one over the other doesn’t make you a bad/better parent. And remember, not raising your child by following all the AP principles doesn’t mean you’re going to raise a sociopath.

I am of the opinion that no matter what parenting style you choose, if you’re there for your child, if you’re providing love, guidance, and understanding, you’re a “Good Enough Mother,” a phrase Dr. Donald Winnicott, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined in 1953.

In her article, “The Gift of the Good Enough Mother”((Seleni: The Gift of the Good Enough Mother)), Carla Naumburg, states:

“The process of becoming a good enough mother to our children happens over time. When our babies are infants, we try to be available constantly and respond to them immediately. As soon as they cry, we feed them or snuggle them or change their diapers – in other words, we do whatever it takes to help them feel better. This is important because it teaches our children that they are safe and will be cared for.

The thing is, we can’t sustain this level of attentiveness to our children forever, nor should we. That is precisely Winnicott’s point. He believed that the way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother. Children need their mother (or primary caretaker) to fail them in tolerable ways on a regular basis so they can learn to live in an imperfect world.”

Final Thoughts

Take it easy, and take the time to decide what type of parenting is right for you and your child. Remember, you can always change things if you find something isn’t work. Be flexible and raise the happiest, healthiest child you can.

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