The Truth About Attachment Parenting

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So often when it comes to raising children, it’s an all-or-nothing game:

  • Kids either turn out “good,” or they’re disrespectful, poorly behaved hellions.
  • Kids are either completely independent, or they will continue to sleep in their parents’ bed until they’re forcibly removed as an adult.
  • Parents either know exactly what they’re doing, or they couldn’t parent their way out of a paper bag.

It’s obvious (I hope) that I’m being facetious. Because life is so rarely black and white, all or nothing.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about parenting.

Let me back up.

Attachment Parenting Spoils Babies (And Other Nonsense You Don't Need To Worry About) Mother Holding Sleeping Baby

I recently had the misfortune of coming across an article published in The Atlantic, The Perils of Attachment Parenting, that argued against this “unsustainable,” “extreme” parenting style.

Set aside for a moment that none of the author’s credentials required an in-depth study of child development research. Try not to focus on the fact that, as a parenting/sleep consultant, the author has something to gain from parents who might mistakenly believe that her claims are backed by more than just her own anecdotal evidence.

In truth, the issue I take with this article has nothing to do with its author’s credentials. There is certainly something to be said of experience, and she indeed has a long history of handling children–much longer than mine!

No, instead my critique is of the author’s hard-line stance on attachment parenting, one so cliched it is far too often taken for truth.

ATTACHMENT PARENTING HAS A BAD RAP.

The term “attachment parenting” grew out of attachment theory: the idea that how an infant connects to his or her caregiver is strongly related to the emotional, behavioral and social development of the child.

There are decades of well-established research related to attachment theory. We’ve come to learn that “securely attached” infants–that is, infants who perceive their caregiver to be a “haven of safety and source of comfort” (source)–tend to fare better emotionally, behaviorally and socially. They tend to be more independent, better behaved, more protected from the effects of stress, more likely to have positive interpersonal relationships as adults, and tend to be the kinds of people who turn out “well.”

There is no question that the relationship between secure attachment and positive outcomes in children exists. The research on that is pretty clear–it even makes intuitive sense.

But there is a question about what sorts of parenting behaviors promote secure attachment.

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“Attachment Parenting” (AP) as it’s known today didn’t actually come to be until the 1980s, when Dr. William Sears and his wife Martha coined the term.

They developed a list of principles (summarized in the “7 Baby Bs”: Birth bonding, Breastfeeding, Babywearing, Bedding close to baby, Belief in the language value of baby’s cry, Beware of baby trainers, and Balance) that are supposed to be “natural,” promote secure attachment and therefore the best possible outcome for baby.

It’s a nice idea in theory, but as usual some parents (and possibly the Sears’ themselves) took a good idea too far.

THE BATTLE LINES–AS I SEE THEM:

Some moms are rather vocal about their belief in the superiority of attachment parenting. These “judgy” (for lack of better term) moms happily “followed the rules” to a T and may have told you that you need to follow them too if you want to avoid raising psychologically stunted children.

Moms who can’t or don’t want to attachment parent fall into a few different camps. Some caved into the pressure of following the “rules” in spite of their or their baby’s individual needs only to find themselves exhausted and disappointed–maybe even depressed, regretful, and resentful.

Others reject it as “hippie” or “indulgent” parenting. And still others I’ve spoken with are so turned off by the term “attachment parenting,” which they see as inherently judgmental, that they deny practicing it even though their parenting style indicates otherwise.

And so an all-or-nothing dichotomy began to spring up in parenting articles, blog posts, and mom groups online:

Either A) Attachment parenting is the best thing ever and if you DON’T do it, your kids will be irreparably psychologically damaged, or B) Attachment parenting is the worst thing ever, and if you DO do it, your kids will never achieve independence or have discipline.

While neither of these things are actually true, position A and position B make for great battle cries and pretty clearly demarcate the line between “us” and “them.” So the idea persists.

Because of bias.

And because another group of moms, those of us who don’t see parenting as quite so black and white, gets drowned out by all the yelling.

Group of moms at a playdate

ATTACHMENT PARENTING IN THEORY VS. PRACTICE

The truth is, there is a difference between how attachment parenting should work in theory and how it actually works in practice for most parents. In practice, attachment parenting falls on a spectrum.

The truth is, in practice most AP moms don’t follow all the rules all the time. Because when it comes down to it, the guiding principle of attachment parenting is meeting the unique needs of your baby. If you don’t want to breastfeed, it doesn’t mean you can’t meet your child’s need for physical closeness and nutrition. If sleeping in the same bed as your child terrifies you, it doesn’t mean you can’t meet your baby’s biologically normal need for comfort and connection at night.

The truth is, a sizable majority of AP moms don’t actually care if you follow the rules. Some of us only advocate for things on the “rules” list because we’ve found they worked well for us, not because we’re looking for ways to signify to the world that we’re better than you.

The truth is, a lot of the guilt that moms feel about not “following the rules” is actually self-imposed: a result of too much faith in the idea that specific parenting behaviors are necessary prerequisites for well-adjusted children, too much faith in how they imagine other AP moms parent, and too little faith in the power of their own love and a baby’s resilience.

The truth is, there ARE moms out there who are loudly judgmental about the alleged superiority of attachment parenting. But it’s important to remember that this kind of judgment is an unfortunate reality of humanity no matter how you choose to parent. Don’t fall prey to the assumption that the voices of the most vocal reflect a majority view.

The truth is, attachment parenting DOES carry with it certain drawbacks and risks, the potential for legalistic adherence to the “rules” being just one of them. Attachment parenting doesn’t always mesh with the ideals and expectations of Western culture, which tends to place more value on early independence, schedules, and efficiency and less value on connection, flexibility, and patience. This can cause conflict. Furthermore, it doesn’t always come naturally to see certain infant behaviors as developmentally appropriate; making that change and learning new ways to handle difficult issues can be a frustrating challenge. And of course, some AP moms might feel especially isolated or overwhelmed by being primarily responsible for feedings, and feminists have reasonably critiqued AP “ideals” for the effect they can have on a woman’s independence, career prospects, and ability to fully participate in life outside of the domestic sphere.

The truth is, most AP parents would tell the mom who is running herself into the ground by “constantly” putting baby’s needs ahead of her own that she needs to find balance. Because in practice, attachment parenting isn’t about “always” putting baby’s needs first, as the Perils author erroneously suggests.

It’s about seeing a baby’s needs as just as important as our own. And then acting accordingly, whatever that means for your family.

Because treating a child as you’d like to be treated if you were in their position is a noble endeavor, not an “extreme” or misguided one.

Because showing respect to the smallest members of your household doesn’t mean you can’t also enforce age-appropriate boundaries and limits as your baby grows, develops, and matures.

Your baby will not turn into a codependent, helpless adult because you breastfed her at night or cuddled him instead of sleep training. And those bottle-fed, sleep trained babies? It’s highly unlikely that they’ll be emotionally ruined for life.

Because it’s not all or nothing.

ATTACHMENT PARENTING SPOILS BABIES (AND OTHER NONSENSE YOU DON’T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT)

That attachment parenting is all good or all bad is a false dichotomy.

Although the principles of attachment theory hold water scientifically, not all attachment parenting behaviors work for every child or every family, and any good idea taken to an extreme (e.g. continuing to attempt breastfeeding even when a child is showing signs of failure to thrive, unsafe cosleeping arrangements, attempting to be a full-time caregiver when it’s not financially prudent or harms your mental health, etc.) is a bad idea.

This is a point that the author of Perils and I agree on wholeheartedly.

Where we disagree, however, is on what constitutes a “need” that ought to be met and on what should be considered “extreme.” And here is where I just have to go to bullet points:

  • Breastfeeding a baby on demand is not extreme. Because breast milk is tailor-made for baby and therefore digested extremely quickly and efficiently, babies literally have to consume breast milk frequently or they will go hungry. Not only is on-demand feeding endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization as optimal for growth, strict parent-led feeding schedules are associated with weight loss and failure to thrive. On-demand breastfeeding is also a critical component of maintaining breast milk supply. Discouraging on-demand breastfeeding actively harms a mother and baby’s breastfeeding relationship.
  • Nursing at night is not extreme. Studies have shown that most mothers report getting more sleep when they nurse at night, not less. Night nursing has been shown to maintain milk supply (prolactin–the hormone responsible for milk production–is highest at night and in the early morning) and mothers who night wean early are at increased risk for supply issues. Because breast milk is digested so efficiently, it is normal for a breastfed baby to be hungry during a long nighttime stretch. Not to mention that breast milk produced at night contains melatonin and tryptophan, two hormones that induce sleep, which is useful since babies don’t have adult-like circadian rhythms yet. In other words, breast milk at night helps babies sleep!
  • Keeping your baby by your side is not extreme. AP parents actually recommend babywearing because it’s how we “get things done” (an impossible feat, according to the Perils author) while still being available for baby.
Mom Washing dishes while wearing a sleeping baby
Notice how this mom uses her free hands to do dishes, not carry a sign that says “I’m a better mom than you” ;)
  • Not “training” children to sleep through the night by themselves is not extreme. Some babies naturally sleep through the night at a very early age. And they’re lovely babies and we all wish we had one. But most babies don’t. Believing the anthropological evidence that indicates night waking is biologically normal and treating it as such doesn’t mean your kids will never sleep through the night or by themselves. If infant sleep was predictive of future levels of adult independence, society would have been doomed long ago (and we would probably be seeing WAY more 18 year olds still sleeping in their parents’ bed).
  • Being responsive to your crying baby is not extreme. Parents who acknowledge every cry are perfectly capable of learning what different cries mean. In fact, we’re pretty darn good at identifying cries precisely because we never ignore them. Seeing crying as communication and not manipulation doesn’t mean that AP parents are incapable of setting firm boundaries and limits when a child is older. It does not have to be, as the author or Perils suggests, a slippery slope (<–logical fallacy) into indulgent, permissive parenting.

The Perils author suggests that attachment parents are encouraged to respond to a baby even “before” he cries. Please be advised that precognition is not a necessary requirement of attachment parenting.

Constantly putting your baby’s needs ahead of your own is indeed a recipe for disaster. But arguing that attachment parenting will yield “perilous” results proves equally disastrous.

Because parenting is NEVER all or nothing. Because every parent, child, and family system is different. And what works for me and my family might not work for you and yours. And that’s okay.

I am an advocate of attachment parenting because it has worked really well for us. It’s the result of following my instincts, and I believe there is research to support the benefits of many AP practices. Does that make me an extremist or judgmental? Not any more so than any other mom who holds any belief about parenting.

The truth is, we all have parenting convictions. Let’s not use them to fear-monger, judge, or hurt others.

Sound good?

IF YOU LIKED THIS ONE, THERE’S MORE!

Why All Moms Should Understand Attachment Parenting - Even if they disagree with it.

How did you discover attachment parenting? What about it has been difficult for you? Respectful disagreement is encouraged and appreciated. Thank you for your understanding!

Love,
Gabby

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Is attachment parenting really as easy and flawless as some moms say it is? Or is it actually an unsustainable, extreme parenting style?