Attachment parenting

Attachment parenting has recently become a catchphrase for bonding with children. But there's a lot more to it than babywearing and breastfeeding

When you hear the words “attachment parenting,” you probably picture moms and dads “wearing” their babies in slings, or toddlers sleeping in their parents’ beds. And while those are definitely components of attachment parenting, they’re only part of the bigger picture.

Up until about 100 years ago, parents didn’t think too much about what theory of parenting they were using. Mothers typically carried their babies in their arms or wrapped them against their bodies with strips of cloth; parents slept with their babies next to them, and babies nursed whenever they wanted to.

But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a more “scientific” approach to parenting became popular. Doctors like US psychologist John Watson warned against spoiling children, urged strict schedules and advised parents to minimize contact with their infants. This was partly because people now knew that germs caused disease and believed that less contact between people would help stop the spread of illness.

It took until the 1950s for British psychiatrist John Bowlby to point out the connection between healthy parent-child relationships and healthy development. He was the first to use the term “attachment” to refer to a consistent, reliable and positive relationship between a child and mother (Bowlby focused on mothers, but ongoing studies have confirmed that children can attach to any reliable caregiver). He argued that it is vital to a baby’s very survival, in the same way that food and sleep are. But his research also showed that a secure attachment in infancy and early childhood ultimately allows people to become independent and form good relationships with others.

Attachment is usually a natural by-product of parenting: Baby cries; parent instinctively picks her up and soothes her; baby feels cared for and comforted. But sometimes the connections fray. A sensitive high-need baby, for example, might frustrate parents who can’t figure out why she’s crying and become less and less responsive. Or a parent might become ill and need to be in the hospital, separating her from her baby for long periods, weakening the bond between them. When attachments are chronically disrupted or insecure, children may suffer from anxiety or depression, and can have relationship problems that continue throughout their lives.

Since Bowlby’s work came out, some experts have argued that parenting practices, such as feeding a baby on a schedule (rather than on demand) and keeping him in an infant seat or playpen, tend to reduce attachment rather than promote it. In 1987, US paediatrician William Sears published the book Creative Parenting, in which he suggested that these trends, as well as training a baby to fall sleep alone or using cry-it-out approaches to sleep, can sometimes threaten attachment. To help parents who wanted to try a different approach, he set out a B-list of “attachment tools.”

Attachment tools

1. Birth bonding (parents physically connecting with baby immediately following birth)
2. Breastfeeding
3. Babywearing (using a sling or soft carrier; see Sling safety)
4. Bedding (sleeping) close to baby
5. Belief in the language of baby’s cry
6. Beware of “baby trainers” (authors, instructors or experts who recommend specific schedules or routines for feeding, sleeping, etc., without knowing your baby or family personally)
7. Balance — meeting adults’ needs as well as children’s needs

The purpose of these seven B’s is to help keep parents and babies close around the clock and to encourage parents to be responsive to children. Sears stresses that they are meant as tools, not rigid rules, and, of course, not all tools work for everyone. This is a sentiment Judy Arnall, president of Attachment Parenting Canada Association, agrees with. She says it is sometimes easier to define attachment parenting by what its followers don’t do. “Generally, it’s about not using any physical punishment like spanking, not doing sleep training or leaving the child to ‘cry it out’ at night, not following a rigid schedule, not ignoring the baby when he cries,” she says.

Many people think co-sleeping is an essential part of attachment parenting, but Arnall points out that “the really important part is to respond to the baby who wakes at night,” and that doesn’t necessarily mean co-sleeping. “Co-sleeping is just an approach that makes it easier for some parents,” says Arnall. Breastfeeding is also seen as desirable, but mothers who bottle-feed their babies can also embrace the attachment parenting philosophy.

The list of criteria developed by Attachment Parenting International (or API, the umbrella group to which Attachment Parenting Canada Association belongs) uses language that leaves parents room for interpretation, such as “respond [to your baby] with sensitivity” and “use nurturing touch.” API also addresses the reality that children are sometimes separated from parents, and recommends that parents “provide consistent and loving care” by finding a daycare provider or babysitter who will respond to the child in the same way that the parents do. Arnall also underlines API’s principle about parents striving for balance in their personal and family lives. “The critics of attachment parenting say we are subverting parents’ needs to babies’ needs,” says Arnall. “That’s not what this is about. Babies need happy parents.”

Attachment parenting does have its critics. New York Times columnist Judith Warner says the approach leads to a “culture of total motherhood,” creating anxiety for women who feel they aren’t living up to certain ideals. She also sees negative effects for couples, and argued in her 2005 Valentine’s Day column: “With the widespread acceptance of ‘attachment parenting’ — family beds, long-term breastfeeding and all the rest — the physical boundaries between parents and children have worn away. Marital romance has dried up.”

Plus, says Joan Grusec, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, “attachment parenting can be negative if trying to follow the ‘rules’ leads to resentment on the parents’ part. That resentment can’t help but spill over into the parent-child relationship.”

Vancouver psychologist Gordon Neufeld, co-author of Hold On to Your Kids, tries to help parents see the bigger picture. “Many people reduce the concept of attachment to the need of a young child for physical contact, or to strategies for keeping children close,” he says. “But attachment refers to the need for contact and connection — and the corresponding drive for proximity.” The term “drive for proximity” is one that Bowlby used, and it simply refers to the desire to be close to the person you are attached to. In infants and young children, this often means wanting actual physical contact, but as children grow, they can seek closeness with a parent in ways that do not necessarily involve being held or touched.

From Neufeld’s point of view, parents don’t need to worry as much about the rules and tools: It’s about the relationship. “Parents have been practising attachment for millennia without even knowing it, without having any words for it, in hundreds of different cultures and in thousands of different ways,” he says. Neufeld doesn’t, however, dismiss the components of attachment parenting. “These ways of interacting with the baby should be practised much more widely than they are,” he says. “They should be normal in our society. But they are neither necessary nor sufficient for healthy attachment to occur.”

Sling safety

Last March, following reports of three infant deaths, Canada and the United States issued warnings about slings and soft carriers.

“Any baby carrier can be used in an unsafe manner,” says Maria Blois, a Texas doctor and author of Babywearing: The Benefits and Beauty of This Ancient Tradition. “This does not mean that babywearing is unsafe. We need studies on the best positioning for infants and the best designs to promote that positioning.” In the meantime, Blois offers these guidelines:

• Baby should be in an upright position, not curled with his chin against his chest.
• His face should always be visible, not hidden under the fabric of a sling or carrier.
• Baby’s mouth and nose must be clear, not pressed against the parent’s body or carrier.
• The head and neck of the baby should be in alignment.

For more information, and photos of safe positioning, check Health Canada’s website, hc-sc.gc.ca. Click on Advisories, Warnings and Recalls, go to A-Z Listing by Subject, and then search under Child Safety.

Attachment busters

Neufeld says behaviours that might lead to attachment problems have little to do with sleeping separately from your baby or using a stroller instead of a carrier. The most common mistakes he sees are:

• Letting the child take the lead in the relationship, especially in toddlerhood (for example, when a parent always asks what the child wants for meals and becomes a short-order cook to meet those demands). This triggers insecurity in children, Neufeld says, and they may become demanding, controlling and anxious.

• Using separation, or the threat of it, to control a child’s behaviour. Neufeld does not agree with the use of time outs. “When children have acted in a way that is not OK with us, it is even more important to get the message across that nothing can separate them from our love.”

• Not taking enough time to “matchmake” kids with other adults who will be caring for them. Neufeld recommends being there when your child first spends time with a sitter. For some, that might mean a couple of visits before being left with a new person; for others, a half-hour together might be enough.

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