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What is Attachment Parenting?

by Amy Scott |
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Many new parents today struggle with conflicting messages about how to care for and respond to their babies. Gone are the days when everything we knew about infant care was learned from extended family throughout our childhoods. Many of us are getting advice from family, but we are also hearing opinions of doctors, friends and other support groups of countless varieties. And of course, these opinions can conflict wildly. As a new mother, I found it helpful to determine an underlying guide by which I tried to base all of my practical decisions about my baby's care. When I fumbled with issues of sleep and feeding, crying and scheduling, each as separate concerns, I became confused and my baby was frustrated. Eventually I was able to set an overall goal for myself, an ideal on which I could focus when trying to make a concrete decision in my child-rearing. I found the beginnings for that framework in "attachment" parenting. In Creative Parenting, William Sears, a pediatrician and well-known author defines attachment parenting as "an uninterrupted, nurturing relationship, specifically attuned to a child's needs as he passes from one developmental stage to the next." From here I was able to get more specific, deciding how I would work out the daily dilemmas by keeping in mind the goal: an attuned, nurturing relationship.

What Is Attachment Parenting?

I've often felt that the term "attachment parenting" does not exactly hit the mark when it comes to describing the style of parenting I practice. It appropriately describes my mothering in some ways, and not at all in others. Physically, attachment perfectly describes my relationship with my newborns. It makes sense to me that as these tiny beings move from within my body, the next natural place for them is near it. The transition from inside mother to a plastic baby seat seems abrupt. I spent a good deal of my first child's infancy working to be able to put him down so I could get something done. Eventually with him, and always with my second, I gave up that goal and replaced it with a baby carrier. I use a baby sling, which can carry baby comfortably in many positions. He could be fed and nap in it, and I could do most of what needed doing without putting him down. Babies thrive on human contact; research indicates this, and it makes good common sense. Obviously babies must be put down at times, but my mindset has changed. Rather than working toward being able to put my baby down, I "wore" my baby, putting him down only when it was necessary.

Emotionally, "attachment" can describe my relationship with my children to some extent. We are undoubtedly bonded, and connected, and attuned. I am aware of the subtlest cues they give and often the briefest eye contact conveys paragraphs between us. But there are unhealthy attachments, situations where two people are so enmeshed that their identities are not allowed to develop and their natural strivings toward independence can be discouraged. I think many parents fear that this style of parenting will automatically foster such inability to separate. Indeed, that was my greatest obstacle (and still can be) to allowing them closeness to me as much as they asked. I feared that they would never learn to be independent, would develop bad habits, and would have no self-discipline. What I was missing was one vital piece of information: Children naturally want to grow toward independence. No one needs to force a blossom open, indeed we stand the risk of ruining a beautifully perfect flower by doing so. Likewise, children need no pressure to grow into adult people. They need a patient, gentle presence. Often they take longer than societal norms dictate, and that can produce worry and doubt for me. Nevertheless, I believe it is true, and it is working for my sons so far. What is required is constant mindfulness - an awareness that sometimes our children will need us intensely and other times they will need only our background presence. What they will not need is our forcing them into growth, nor will they need our pulling them from it willfully. It is a delicate dance, of careful attention but of resilient flexibility. Attachment parenting has no code, no formula. It is the dedicated and sometimes hard work of listening.

What types of parenting practices foster healthy attachments?

Opinions vary widely about what behaviors constitute the real attachment parenting. Must one use cloth diapers, homeschool, never offer pacifiers, never give a bottle? There are important reasons to try these and other less mainstream parenting techniques, but I think there are very few basic, nonnegotiable attachment-fostering practices. I am not saying one must do all of these to create a healthy connection with your child, but I believe that each one contains a natural and powerful effectiveness in allowing deeply loving and healthy parent-child relationships. These practices are gentle childbirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and non-violent discipline.

Gentle Childbirth

Gentle childbirth consists of allowing a healthy woman's body to do what it is capable of doing without interference, medical or otherwise. It can include any or all of the following: allowing labor to begin spontaneously, even if it takes longer than expected (very long pregnancies should be carefully monitored of course); eating, drinking, moving and vocalizing during labor; having spouses and children present at birth, refraining from narcotic-use during labor, giving birth in non-medical settings, not circumcising. Volumes could be said about each of these issues, the reasoning behind them, and the controversy surrounding them. They are simply decisions to consider, on which to educate one's self, and to make with awareness. Birth is a tremendous and glorious event - it was important to me to have it on my own terms, not based on the medical and convenience terms of a doctor trained in pathology rather than health.

Breastfeeding

Breastfed babies do not stand as great a risk of multiple illnesses, do not suffer the consequences of sucking on chemically poisonous rubber nipples continually, do not stand as great a chance of developing allergies or asthma, and are not deprived of the needed skin-to-skin contact many times each day. Their jaws are allowed to grow properly and their brains are not deprived of the countless necessary ingredients for full development. Babies should be breastfed on demand. Many mothers find that after a few weeks or months of offering the breast at the first sign of discontent, their babies rarely cry at all unless in pain. Baby and mother are in sync and have a rhythm that becomes unconscious and completely fulfilling. Baby feels right because her needs are met promptly and mother feels right because her baby is content. Ideally, weaning takes place when the child's need for nursing is gone. Breastfeeding is a relationship, however, and at times a mother could need to gently limit nursing. The give and take of the nursing relationship is a beautiful first lesson in cooperation for our children.

Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping is a difficult consideration for many people. Our culture holds strong beliefs about sleep, and children's sleep habits. Many experts consider it a "sleep problem" when children cannot sleep uninterrupted and alone. However, throughout history and across cultures babies have been sleeping with their parents for the first months or years of life. I have perhaps the most distinctly differing experiences between my first and second child with respect to sleep than with any other issue. My first son, for various reasons, struggled a great deal for many months to get the hang of nursing. Nursing lying down was difficult to impossible; therefore, we nursed sitting up, many times a night, for eighteen months. It was extremely exhausting. My second child nursed beside me in bed from his first night on, and I have felt absolutely no sleep deprivation whatsoever this past year. The idea of babies waking to nurse at night for more than a year sounds incredibly daunting, yet when their nighttime needs can be met so effortlessly (indeed, I sleep through most night nursing) it becomes a real pleasure. Opinions vary about whether babies "need" milk at night beyond this age or that age. Experiences vary about how easy or difficult it is to wean a child from your bed at an older age. What is fairly universal is this: parents need a lot of sleep, babies need a lot of nighttime contact, and nursing babies in bed with us accomplishes both of these things.

Babywearing

Babywearing means wearing the baby. Small babies grow better and feel better when they are in physical contact with a familiar adult. There are many good baby carriers on the market; I recommend cloth slings. When they are old enough to support their own backs and heads, a good backpack is indispensable. My babies will ride in one for hours happily peering over my shoulder, content to be close as I get my work done. A more expensive one is very much worth the investment if you plan to carry a heavy baby or older toddler.

Non-Violent Discipline

Nonviolent discipline can be difficult, particularly for people who were spanked or treated with other violence as children. It may feel very instinctual to hit. Nevertheless, most medical and psychological experts agree that it is not effective at best, and humiliating and damaging at worst. Although it requires a great deal more creativity and patience, the primary benefit of nonviolent discipline is that our children will "act right" out of an internal desire to do so rather than a fear of our hurting them.

Attachment parenting takes maturity and deliberate awareness, to nurture and develop a deep love for a child without holding expectations about their responses, personality traits, or developmental pace. In the future I hope to write further on these topics in greater detail.

About the Author: Amy Scott lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She is a sociologist, breastfeeding counselor, independent distributor for DK Family Learning, and owner of Wears The Baby Distributing cool and useful goodies for nurtured children and mindful family life.


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