It’s been a few years since I first heard the phrase “Attachment Parenting”. I didn’t find myself looking too much into it until so many of my new parent peers began to embrace it with PASSION. Then I began to see parents in my office who were also strong advocates for this “Attachment Parenting” philosophy. And then I began to see the intense “mommy wars” associated with this type of parenting philosophy. I got interested. I started wondering if I had missed something in my education about child development and attachment. Were all my plans for parenting shot to hell because of this new, but not really new, philosophy?
As I did my research and continued working with and observing parents who gravitated towards this philosophy I began to realize a couple of things. I was thrilled that parents were beginning to think about child behavior as a way for children to communicate their needs vs. a way to “manipulate” their parents. I was also very happy that parents were making a shift from thinking of children as ways to meet a parent’s needs and instead recognizing that parents are responsible to meet their children’s emotional and physical needs. I was also happy that Attachment Parenting leaders were giving ALL new parents access to tools that would support in developing healthy attachment.
As with all things, I also had some concerns about the passion with which Attachment Parenting parents embraced this philosophy almost as a religion. It was unsettling to me that some parents began to say things like “I’m an attached parent” as if those who parented differently were not (all primary caregivers are attached to their children, it’s the quality of attachment that changes—but I digress). I became concerned when new moms in my office were significantly struggling with autonomy and the many mental health issues that come when we don’t have it. And I was frustrated when children who were 8 or 9 were struggling with an inability to be independent or soothe themselves due to parents embracing this philosophy without attention to how it must adapt, as children get older. Finally, I was very concerned about the parent shaming that came as a result of people embracing this philosophy with such vigor.
As I’ve paid more attention to this philosophy and it’s impact on parenting for my generation, I’ve noticed some mistakes that are easy to make when following the Attachment Parenting philosophy. When avoided, one can very successfully embrace this philosophy. But when these mistakes are made they can have a long-term impact on the health of the family and the health of our parent support community. So I decided to outline what I see here in order to support and remind. Not all Attachment Parenting followers make any or all of these mistakes and I don’t necessarily believe that the founders of the philosophy are to blame, but sometimes intention and impact don’t meet. Here are some examples.
Believing that Attachment Parenting philosophy is the same as Evolutionary Attachment Theory and is therefore research based.
Evolutionary Attachment Theory is evidence based and identifies ways in which humans form attachments. In this theory, four attachment styles are identified: Secure, Ambivalent, Avoidant and Disorganized (http://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html).
Attachment Parenting philosophy outlines strategies that the founders believe will lead to a Secure Attachment. The founders have theorized that there is an optimal way to form secure attachments. When you read through the list of suggestion (http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/principles.php) it is easy to see how they could lead to a more secure attachment and, even how it is based on Evolutionary Attachment Theory. But these are just suggestions, with little research to back up these particular parent behaviors in regards to attachment. If you like doing parenting that way, great, but it’s not gospel—it’s not science.
The mistake happens when parents begin to believe that children will only form secure attachments if they are born naturally without drugs, co-sleep, nurse until they decide not to anymore and are responded to immediately when they fuss. This is ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE and there is no research to support those ideas. While these tools definitely support secure attachments, there are many ways to create safety, predictability and sensitivity to needs without any of those things happening. And, yes, even sleep trained kids form secure attachments.
Evolutionary Attachment Theory indicates that the key to a secure attachment is for a primary caregiver to accurately assess the child’s needs and meet those needs appropriately the majority of the time. That seems simple enough until you remember that babies don’t talk and toddlers rarely understand their needs accurately enough to articulate them. So we have to guess. The most common mistake I see made by Attachment Parenting followers is to assume that the need is physical touch or breast milk. In the first few months, this is probably pretty accurate. But as they get older, it’s not so easy. The first unacknowledged need that I see folks miss is the need for sleep. The next is the need for autonomy. The reason I believe we miss these is that fussing or crying may increase as we allow space for children to get those needs met. We assume that if they are upset, we are not attending to their needs and, therefore, they won’t form a secure attachment.
The mistake happens when we get in the way of children’s expanding needs because we think we need to meet a need with physical touch or food. For example, it is common for infants above 3 months old to cry and be upset because they are tired and need a nap. As much as we’d like to believe that they will do so without any fussy adjustment, most children don’t. They cry and cry and cry in your arms until they fall asleep on their own completely exhausted and then they sleep like crap. This can lead to lots of sleep deprivation. Attachment Parenting purists might say that they just need to be closer to mom, but what about when they don’t ever get enough sleep that way? What if they actually would fall asleep on their own if left to do so? Another example is when a mother keeps responding to their 18-month-old baby by picking him up every time he cries and walks him around the house instead of helping him walk around while holding his hand. While it resolves the crying in the moment, most toddlers who are responded to in this manner will continue to be upset or angry when mom puts him down and will not begin to explore his world. The need is autonomy with support and it’s scary so he’s expressing his fear through tears. Misunderstanding these needs can lead to children who struggle with autonomy and sleep on a large scale.
Not Planning as a Couple
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard an Attachment Parenting parent say “he won’t be sleeping in your bed when he’s 18, so don’t worry about it”. While probably true (hopefully true), this statement sends the message that kids will just magically decide that they don’t want to sleep in bed with their parents anymore and that it will be a very natural transition without stress or hassle. This just isn’t true the vast majority of the time. They may decide on their own to move out of your bed before they are 18, but I know plenty of 10 year olds who still haven’t made that decision. That may be okay with you, and if so, I think that’s great! The Attachment Parenting founders swear by the family bed and feel that it was absolutely the right choice for their family. They are not alone. There is no evidence to say that a family bed, in itself, is bad for a child’s development or sense of autonomy and some would argue that there is evidence that it is very good for children’s sense of autonomy as it gives a stable foundation to explore the world from.
The mistake happens when you and your partner haven’t planned ahead. How long do you really want a family bed? How will it impact your sleep and how big of a deal is your sleep to your mental health (probably a bigger deal than you think)? How will it impact your marital relationship and the intimacy required for that relationship to maintain health? How will you get self-care time each day if your children share your bed? How long is it okay to be waking up several times a night?
What I find are parents who are exhausted, emotionally drained and no longer connected to their partner looking at each other asking “was this really the right choice for us?” More often than not, I see one parent still committed to the family bed and one on the verge of leaving because of the family bed. Or I see parents kicking their 2 year old out of the bed to make room for the arrival of their new baby and being surprised that it doesn’t go well at all. I like to tell parents that, like it or not, there will be a day when you’ll have to allow your children to be uncomfortable even while knowing that you could do something to make them more comfortable. Only you can decide when that day is, but know that there are pros and cons to doing it early and waiting. Getting an infant to sleep through the night in the crib with sleep training can be the hardest thing a parent will ever do, but getting a 4 year old to sleep in their own room when they’ve always slept with you isn’t a whole lot easier or less traumatic. So make these decisions with care for what is actually best for your family long term. Don’t assume that because it worked for Dr. Sears it will work for you. More importantly, don’t assume that because it worked for Dr. Sears, you are a selfish and weak parent for wanting your bed to yourself and your child will have anxiety and never feel securely attached! The science really doesn’t support that belief.
Not Allowing Kids to “Feel Their Feels”
Understanding behavior as need is a foundational step towards a more enjoyable parenting experience and growing up experience for your kids. Unfortunately, we can take this too far and jump in and fix every time our children feel an emotion that is less than comfortable. If we use the logic that behavior equals need so a response to behavior must always be to sooth or fix-- we wind up with a big problem on our hands. The obvious mistake here is when we wind up “spoiling” our children. When I say “spoiling” what I really mean is that we give them everything they want because we think they need it. The result is a child who can’t hear no, doesn’t follow instructions, hits, screams every time something doesn’t work out and is incapable of real autonomy. The other problem, though, is that we have an increasing amount of adults who are so unaccustomed to having uncomfortable feelings and knowing that they can recover from them that they are more prone to substance use, self-harm and suicidal thoughts when they become upset. Does Attachment Parenting do all of this? No—of course not. Dr. Sears doesn’t suggest fixing it every time a child is upset, but many parents read it this way.
The mistake happens when you misread anger as a need to be given something that the child wants. Instead it is a need to express feelings in a safe space and understand boundaries. Another example is when you misread a tantrum over bath time as a need to be closer to mom when it’s really a need to express feelings and understand boundaries. Because the need is a safe place to express and recover from emotions with clear and consistent boundaries, you meet the need by staying calm, not reacting, using empathetic statements (“I know it’s hard not to get what you want”) and maintaining an appropriate boundary while they work through their emotions. You do not meet it by giving them what they want.
Judging Other Moms
There is literally a website called “Smug Mommy” filled with blogs aimed at Attachment Parenting oriented moms. I’m going to take a moment to remind us all of the definition of “smug”: having or showing the annoying quality of people who feel very pleased or satisfied with their abilities, achievements, etc. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/smug). Please pay special attention to the word “annoying”. I’m all for parents being proud of their accomplishments—just not when it is at the expense of other parents. I have heard parents slam other moms for giving up on breastfeeding too early or “making” their kids sleep in a separate room or letting them cry when they wake up at night. I’ve heard parents call other parents “selfish” for wanting medication during birth. The insults certainly go both ways and Attachment Parenting moms are not alone—but the mistake happens when Attachment Parents begin to assume that their way is the “right” way because it’s based on “research” and is the “best way to parent children” and they happily say so out loud. Just a reminder, Attachment Parenting is NOT research based—Attachment Theory is. So there is no empirical data to support the idea that you actually ARE doing it better than the working mom next door who feeds with formula and sleep trains her baby. But more importantly, one of the core parts of the Attachment Parenting Philosophy is balance and this includes a healthy support system. When parents treat other parents as if they are making uneducated, ignorant or selfish parenting decisions, they do damage to these support systems for all parents.
Forgetting About Balance
I’ll never forget the day that a self-proclaimed Attachment Parent on one of my social media “support groups” told the group about how she nearly got into a wreck driving her 4 children somewhere because she fell asleep at the wheel. Why did she fall asleep at the wheel, you may ask? Because she had all four children sleeping with her in the bed and was nursing her twins every 2 hours with no bottle-feeding support from partner. I promise you that being dead would not be a good outcome of Attachment Parenting practices. I’m sure she did this because she believed that to be a good parent she had to be a super parent. And since she was committed to that premise, she figured there was no chance she would actually fall asleep at the wheel. Some other outcomes we think will never happen if we’re excellent parents:
· Injury or illness
When we assume that the only way to have a securely attached child is to exclusively breastfeed, co-sleep, never sleep train, hold your baby all the time, rarely hand the baby off to another person and jump to it every time they are upset we wind up in big trouble. With one very easy baby, this is all still incredibly difficult. With other children, a colicky baby, a premature baby, multiple babies, a job, postpartum depression or any other added dynamic, this approach becomes debilitating. And there truly is no solid research to say that these suggestions actually work any better than good old-fashioned attentive, involved and empathetic parenting.
So, as with all the parenting advice and philosophies out there, take what works for you and leave behind the rest. And for goodness sake don’t judge yourself harshly against the goals of this philosophy and avoid being smug!