Attachment Parenting: A Style that Works
Each day, expectant couples come into my office with eager questions. "This is our first baby. We really want to do right by our child. Can you give us some tips on getting a good start?" I answer these couples by offering a style of parenting that works for most couples most of the time - attachment parenting.
This style of parenting helps a mother and father achieve two main goals:
1. To know their child.
2. To help their child feel right.
A child who feels right acts right and is a joy to parent. I want you as parents to enjoy your child.
What is Attachment Parenting?
One way to tell you more about attachment parenting is to share with you some attachment tips. This is the advice I give new parents in my practice who are eager to get a good start. These tips can help you know and understand your child so that you can help him feel right.
Make a Commitment
Very early in your parenting career, before the birth of your baby, make a commitment. Promise your faithful attention to two relationships: to yourselves as a married couple and to your child as his parents. One of the greatest gifts you can give your new baby is a home built on the foundation of a stable and fulfilled marriage.
To strengthen these commitments during pregnancy, I advise couples to follow a custom we have enjoyed in our own family. I suggest that each night before going to bed you as a couple lay your hands on the pregnant uterus. Talk about your commitment to each other as a married couple and your commitment to this tiny life inside. This beautiful nighttime ritual gets to be a habit that is likely to continue after your baby arrives. After the birth of our baby, I had become so accustomed to laying my hands on my unborn baby that I couldn't get to sleep at night unless I would go over and lay my hand on the head of our little newborn and reaffirm my commitment to fathering her. I was hooked! I was already attached before our infant was born.
Create a Peaceful Womb Experience
In the past twenty years there have been new and exciting discoveries about the fetus's sensory and emotional awareness. Mother and her unborn baby share emotions. When mother is upset, baby may be upset. If your pregnancy is cluttered with emotional stress (especially the last three months), you have a higher risk of having a child who is anxious, and an anxious child has a high risk of being a difficult sleeper. By creating a peaceful pregnancy experience you begin creating harmony with your baby. This prenatal harmony may well carry over into the baby's sleep patterns.
Many couples spend a lot of time and money preparing the properly appointed nursery. Your baby could care less what his or her room looks like. He wants you, so prepare yourselves. Parent support groups can assist you in this preparation by helping you arrive at a parenting style that best fits your level of commitment and your own family situation. In my opinion, the most effective parent support organization is La Leche League International, a worldwide mother-to-mother communication network. La Leche League is especially effective in the concept of attachment parenting for breastfeeding mothers. I advise new mothers to join this organization early in their parenting careers, preferably during pregnancy.
An important part of preparing yourself is to take a good prepared childbirth class and select your birthing options wisely. Choose a birthing environment which encourages you to stay in tune with your body during labour. Mothers who are properly prepared to decode their body's signals (for example, when to move around and when to lie still) and who give birth in an environment which allows them the freedom to do so are more likely to become quickly attached to their babies. Mothers who have a birthing experience where fear and lack of control predominate may have more difficulty forming an immediate attachment. There is also higher risk of having a difficult sleeper if you have a difficult labour and delivery.
Breastfeed with Child-Led Weaning
Breastfeeding encourages attachment and helps you take cues from your baby. It encourages you to watch your baby for signs of needing food and comfort rather than watching the clock and counting ounces. You and your baby will learn to know each other better and will be more in harmony with one another.
I have a sign in my office that says, "Early weaning not recommended for infants." New mothers are vulnerable to careless comments of well-meaning friends and relatives who exclaim, "What, you're still nursing?" Part of understanding the general philosophy of attachment parenting is understanding the real meaning of the term weaning. Parents often think of weaning as a -loss of a relationship, a detachment. Weaning is really not a negative term but a very positive one. In ancient writings, the term weaning meant "to ripen". It is a feeling of fulfillment and readiness whereby a child looks up to his mother and says or feels, "I am filled with this relationship and ready to pass on to another one. Thanks. Mom."
Life is a series of weanings - weaning from the womb, weaning from the breast, weaning from parents' bed or crib, weaning from home to school, from school to work. Whenever a child is weaned from any of these places of security before he is ready, he is at risk for developing what I call behaviours of premature weaning. These stem from an underlying feeling of "not right" and include anger, aggression, and moodiness, all of which can stay with the child through life.
Don't limit your breastfeeding to a predetermined number of months, what I call calendar parenting. As long as both parties of the nursing couple enjoy this relationship, then nurse until both of you are filled. Calendar parenting simply does not work, and it often produces a short-term gain for a long-term loss. It is much more realistic for parents to enter their parenting careers without any pre-conceived expectations of when a child should give up a certain need. The rate at which babies develop physically and emotionally varies tremendously. Having rigid and unrealistic expectations will only lead to frustration which can put a damper on your spontaneous interaction with your child and ultimately lessen your enjoyment. More importantly, imposing restraints on your child's source of security can have longlasting effects on his physical and mental well-being.
Respond Promptly to your Baby's Cries
Every baby comes wired with an ability to signal his needs. Adults call this unique language the cry. Every mother develops the "wiring" necessary to receive her baby's signal. This is a special communication network designed for the survival of the baby and the development of the mother. Promptly responding to your baby's cries increases your sensitivity to your baby. Sensitivity helps develop your parental intuition.
Be Open to Trying Various Sleeping Arrangements
Babies often give their parents cues as to where they want to sleep. Some babies sleep best in their own rooms; others sleep best in a bed in their parent's room; many babies sleep best in their parents' bed. Parents have varying preferences as well. The sleeping arrangement whereby all three of you (mother, father and baby) sleep best is the right one for your individual family. Your baby trusts that you are open and receptive to the cues that he is giving you about where he needs to sleep. You are also trusting yourself to respond to your baby's needs for a certain sleeping arrangement even though this may not be in accordance with the norms of your neighbourhood. One of the most important pieces of baby furniture I advise new parents to purchase is a kingsize bed. Welcoming your baby into your bed is just another part of a parenting style of trust and openness. If sleeping with your baby feels right to you and is working, then it is okay. As with any feature of a parenting style, if it is not working and does not feel right, then drop it.
Travel as a Father-Mother-Baby Unit
While traveling on a speaking tour of Australia I began to appreciate the " marsupial mothering" style of kangaroos, whose babies are nearly always in touch with the mother because they live in a pouch on the mother's abdomen. I advise couples not to succumb to the usual outside pressure to "get away from your baby", but instead to become accustomed to "wearing" the baby in an infant sling or baby carrier, as you get used to being a unit you will feel right when you are together and not right when you're apart. Functioning together by day makes it easier to function together by night.
Beware of Detachment Parenting
This is a restrained style of parenting that warns parents against taking cues from their child. The advocates of detachment parenting preach: "Let the baby cry it out. He has to learn to sleep through the night." "Don't be so quick to pick your baby up. You're spoiling her. "Get your baby on a schedule. He's manipulating you." "Don't let your baby in your bed. You're creating a terrible habit. " Besides being full of negatives, this style of parenting also features quick and easy recipes for difficult problems. For example, when a baby repeatedly awakens during the night, detachment parenting advises, "Let him cry one hour the first night, forty-five minutes the second night and by the third night, he'll sleep through the night."
Parents, let me caution you. Difficult problems in child rearing do not have easy answers. Children are too valuable and their needs too important to be made victims of cheap, shallow advice. In my experience, parents who practice detachment parenting are at risk of losing their intuition and confidence and are less likely to achieve those two important goals of parenting, knowing their child and helping their child feel right.
What's in it for Parents?
What difference does the attachment style of parenting make? Will it make you a better parent? I have been sharing the above attachment tips with my patients over the last ten years, and we practice them in our family. It does make a difference. Parents who practice the attachment style of parenting know their child well. They are observant of their infant's cues, respond to them intuitively, and are confident their responses are appropriate. They have realistic expectations of their child's behaviour at various stages of development, and they know how to convey expected behaviour to their child. Their children are a source of joy. The feeling that the attachment style of parenting gives you and your child can be summed up in one word, harmony.
Besides a harmonious relationship, the attachment style of parenting also promotes a "harmonious" relationship. Mothers who practice these attachment styles of parenting actually undergo chemical changes. The hormone prolactin, often called the "mothering hormone", may enhance a woman's ability to mother as well as create a feeling of calmness and well-being during trying times. In experiments where this hormone is injected into male birds, they act like mothers. Mothers who practice the attachment style of parenting actually have more prolactin than mothers who exercise restraint. What makes the prolactin go up? You guessed it: unrestricted breastfeeding, lots of skin-to-skin contact with the baby, and sleeping with the baby. Science is finally catching up with what intuitive mothers have known all long: Good things happen when mothers and babies spend more time with each other.
By now you may be thinking that attachment parenting is all giving, giving, giving. Well, to a certain extent, that is true. Mothers are givers and babies are takers - that is a realistic expectation of a mother-baby relationship. The baby's ability to give back will come later. Better takers usually become better givers. However, because of the hormone prolactin, as mothers give to babies, babies give something back to mothers. The attachment style of parenting allows mothering to stimulate more mothering.
Why Attachment Parenting Works
Attachment parenting works because it respects the individual temperament of the child. The child comes equipped with a certain level of needs and the ability to give cues about what these needs are. The parents, by first being open to the child's cues, learn how to read the child and respond. Because the response helps the child feel right, he learns to cue better and parents learn to respond better. In a nutshell, both members of the parentchild communication network participate in the development of each other's skills. A cue-giving child and a responsive parent bring out the best in each other. On the other hand, detachment parenting with its restrained responses brings out the worst in both. The child's cries become more disturbing and parents become more angry. Baby and parent learn not to trust each other and eventually become insensitive to each other. Insensitivity gets parents into trouble.
The attachment style of parenting is especially effective when parenting the high need child. This little child goes by many well known names: the fussy baby, the difficult baby, the demanding baby, the challenging baby, the strong-willed child. I prefer to call these children high need children. It is not only a more positive term, but it also describes the level of parenting these children need. These are the children who most need attachment parenting.
What's in it for your Child?
The infant who is the product of attachment parenting learns that his needs will be met consistently and predictably. The child learns to trust. Trust creates a feeling that "I am a special person". This is the emergence of your child's self-esteem, the feeling of rightness which is so vitally important to the development of personality.
The child learns to bond to persons, not things. The infant who is accustomed to being in arms, at breast, and in mommy and daddy's bed receives security and fulfillment from personal relationships. This infant is more likely to become a child who forms meaningful attachments with peers and in adulthood is more likely to develop a deep intimacy with a mate. The child who is often left by himself in swings, cribs, and playpens is at risk for developing shallow interpersonal relationships and becoming increasingly unfulfilled by a materialistic world. Nurturing Qualities
The child learns to be sensitive and giving. The child who receives the attachment style of parenting learns to care for others with the sensitive and giving quality that he received from his parents.
Practicing the attachment style of parenting actually makes discipline (that magic word you've all been waiting for) easier. Because you know your child better, you are able to read your child's behaviour more accurately and respond more appropriately. Because your child feels right, he is more likely to act right. The child who has this inner feeling of rightness is more likely to develop a healthy conscience. He feels right when he does right and feels wrong when he does wrong. This style of parenting makes it easier to create an attitude within your child and an atmosphere within your home that makes punishment less necessary. When necessary, it is administered more appropriately. Because of their attachment to one another, parent and child trust each other. Trust is the basis of authority, and a trusted authority figure disciplines more effectively.
Attachment parenting has long-term benefits too. Let me share with you a very important concept of child rearing called modeling: the parenting style children grow up with is the one they most likely will carry into their own parenting careers. Remember, you are parenting someone else's future husband or future wife, and your grandchildren's future mother or father.
I will illustrate the importance of modeling by sharing with you two incidents which occurred recently in my practice and my family. One day a new mother brought her newborn baby into my office for a check-up. She also brought along her twenty-two month old daughter, Tiffany. When the newborn began to cry, Tiffany rushed to her mother and exclaimed, "Mommy, baby cry. Pickup, rock-rock, nurse!"
Why had Tiffany responded so quickly to the cries of her sister? Because she had been modeled so. What will Tiffany do when she becomes a mother and her own baby cries? You guessed it! "Pick up, rock-rock, nurse!"
The importance of modeling parenting styles to teenagers was driven home to my wife and me one day when we heard our nine month old daughter, Erin, crying from our bedroom. Since we believe in ministering promptly to our baby's cries, Martha and I started toward the bedroom. But then we heard the cries stop. As we approached the bedroom door, we saw our fifteen-year old, Jim, lying down on our bed next to Erin and gentling her and consoling her. Why did Jim do this? Jim had modeled his behaviour after ours. He had learned that when babies cry someone listens and responds. As Martha and I witnessed this beautiful attachment scene we knew that both Erin and Jim felt right. Our hearts also felt right because we knew the attachment style of parenting was paying long-term dividends...
Two of his excellent books which are currently in print are The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two paperback 689 pages (1993) Little Brown & Co; ISBN 0316779059
and The Birth Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Safe and Satisfying Birth [paperback - 269 pages (1994) Little Brown & Co; ISBN 0316779075