Mom 2 Mom: What is Attachment Parenting?
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Id like to learn more about AP. I see it on mom sites and even the news. What is attachment parenting? How is it different from regular parenting?
You asked the right person! I am actually a strong advocate of attachment parenting, and I also practice AP. Truthfully, I did not even know what Attachment Parenting was when I first became a mom; I just followed my instincts (which happened to be quite different from mainstream American parenting) later found out (after reading The Baby Book) that my beliefs lined up almost perfectly with AP, which led me to read more about AP.
Attachment parenting isn’t a strict set of rules; it is a philosophy, an approach. Unfortunately, the media grossly misrepresents the typical attachment parent, so there are a lot of general misconceptions about what AP is and is not.
According to Sears, who is “the guru of attachment parenting’” an experienced pediatrician and father of eight children, there are 7 B’s of attachment parenting: birth-bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedding close to the baby, belief that crying is communication, not manipulation, beware of sleep trainers (crying-it-out/ferberizing), and balance.
Birth-Bonding: This is the belief that the few hours, days, weeks, and months following a baby’s birth are critical to his/her bonding experience, but most AP parents will agree that this extends far beyond just birth. Therefore, I like the term “bonding” better than birth bonding. So what does bonding mean? First, it means being responsive to a child’s needs, both physical and emotional. Mainstream parenting often tells parents to be responsive to physical needs, but ignores the emotional. For example, parents are often told that if they rock a baby to sleep, they are spoiling the baby, or that if a baby is fed, clean, and healthy, and he cries at night, then he is crying for no real reason and is just manipulating the parent. But, the problem with that is babies have emotions, too (yes, even in the middle of the night). They get lonely, frightened, and they crave physical touch, just like adults do. (How many spouses like sleeping alone?) AP believes that ignoring these emotional needs greatly affects the parent-child bond and is unhealthy.
AP parents work very hard to protect their bond with their children. Some great ways to do this include responding quickly to a baby’s cry (or the emotions/tantrums of a toddler), maintaining eye-contact, practicing skin-to-skin cuddling, babywearing (instead of leaving baby in a stroller, swing, bouncy chair, etc.), breastfeeding, room sharing or co-sleeping, practicing no-cry sleep methods, giving massages, baby-led nursing and weaning, following baby-led routines, and, of course, interacting frequently with the child.
Breastfeeding: This is not to say that if you don’t breastfeed, you are kicked out of the AP club (which is not really a club at all); it just means that most AP parents put breastfeeding as a top priority, not only because it is the best nutrition, but also because of the intense bond it creates between mother and child. Breastfeeding releases “the bonding chemical” into the mother’s bloodstream. It is an intensely beautiful relationship that is hard to explain. Not only do most AP parents believe in breastfeeding, but they also believe in nursing on demand (instead of a parent-led schedule) and baby-led weaning. Even though the World Health Organization strongly recommends children breastfeed at least until the age of 2 and the natural weaning age for children is typically somewhere between 2 and 4 (which can be seen throughout history and in other countries all over the world), breastfeeding for this long is considered abnormal in American society, despite the numerous documented benefits of extended breastfeeding.
Bottlefeeding AP parents are likely to follow bottlefeeding on demand and reject things like bottle propping. These parents work hard to make bottlefeeding an intimate bonding experience.
Babywearing: The best way to think about babywearing is to think about the old phrase “attached at the hip.” AP parents wear their babies in wraps, slings, or carriers, and they also carry their children around a lot. Instead of putting a baby down for nap or putting a baby in a swing or bouncy chair, many AP parents wear their young children instead. This is because nurturing touch and physical proximity are extremely important in the bonding experience. Many AP parents don’t use strollers, even.
It is also just practical to wear a baby. Babies who are carried cry less, and by wearing a baby, a mother (or father!) can interact with her child and still have her hands free to get work done or play with her older children.
Bedding Close to Baby: This refers to co-sleeping or room sharing. Co-sleeping and room sharing have many benefits, both physically and emotionally. The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that parents room share to reduce the risk of SIDS. Room sharing and co-sleeping also make breastfeeding and responding to a child’s nighttime cries much easier. When children do sleep in their own room, AP parents still make sure to respond promptly and with empathy to nighttime needs.
Belief that Crying is Communication: AP parents reject the idea that babies and toddlers cry to manipulate parents. Instead, AP parents see crying as a form of communication, a need unmet. Crying is one if the only ways that young children can communicate. They cry when they are hungry, dirty, cold, hot, lonely, bored, frustrated, overwhelmed, overly-tired, anxious, scared… Babies and toddlers have no emotional regulation. That part of their brain does not develop until much later, so it is unrealistic to expect a baby or toddler to just stop crying. Many mainstream parents state that babies cry for no reason because as soon as the parent picks them up, they stop crying. Well, that is because the baby was probably lonely, scared, sad, of frightened, and by coming to the child, the parent met the need of the child. Crying is just a way to communicate physical and emotional needs.
Beware of baby trainers: This means avoiding rigorous parent-led schedules and sleep training. Most AP parents agree that baby trainers have unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of babies and toddlers. In other words, babies should be fed when they are hungry, sleep when they are sleepy.
Babies should be on their feeding schedule, not their parents’. Of course this doesn’t mean toddlers don’t eat dinner with the family, etc., or that you don’t wake a newborn for a feed, but that that infants and toddlers should be able to nurse on demand.
It also means that parents should be respectful of how babies sleep. Babies and toddlers who are not tired should not be forced to sleep, and babies and toddlers who are tired should not be forced to stay awake. AP also recognizes that there are significant biological differences in how young children sleep and how adults sleep. Therefore, it is unrealistic and unhealthy to expect babies to sleep long, uninterrupted stretches at night. In fact, many AP parents believe that this frequent waking is a survival mechanism to protect against SIDS, suffocation, etc., as cited by Dr. Sears. It is also unrealistic to expect babies to sleep in a room by themselves without support from a parent.
AP parents believe that forcing sleep and and rigid schedules on babies hurt the parent-child relationship, which creates mistrust. That does not mean that routines are bad. In fact, many children naturally fall into a routine, and those baby-led routines are great.
Balance: Balance is often what I find most AP parents struggle with (myself included). Attachment parenting takes a lot of time of and commitment. Parents work to meet their children’s physical and emotional needs 24/7, which differs from a lot of the mainstream advice (ignoring crying at night, early night-weaning, etc.) Things like babywearing and breastfeeding, while beautiful, are physically exhausting. A lot of parents forget that in order to nurture their children, they also have to nurture themselves and their relationship with their spouses. It is important to accept help when help is offered. It is important to have date nights (even if it is at home after the kids are asleep). It is important to make sure your needs are met so you can meet the needs of others.
In a nutshell, attachment parenting is responsive, empathetic, nurturing parenting. AP parents are concerned with both the physical and emotional needs of a child. They also work hard to understand why children behave the way they do, rather than trying to interpret their behavior from an adult prospective. For example, many behaviors that are considered “bad” or “defiant” by adults are just natural, instinctive behaviors of children. Instead of punishing children for them, AP parents gently teach appropriate behavior while also respecting the needs of the child (need to explore, need for interaction, etc.). This gets into positive discipline, which is practiced by many AP parents. For more information about positive discipline, see http://inparistexas.com/articles/positive-discipline/.
But I like to think of attachment parenting as instinctual parenting. How would you respond to your baby at 2 am if you never heard a sleep trainer telling you to let him cry or society telling you that you would be spoiling him if you picked him up? How would you feed your child if you were not introduced into parent-led schedules at the hospital? How would you respond to his cries? I think attachment parenting is all about getting back to the basics, trusting your instincts, and most importantly, trusting your relationship with your baby and your ability as a parent.
For more information on Attachment Parenting check out these great needs or head over to attachmentparenting.org and check out the “The Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting:”
- Attached at Heart by Barbara Nicholson
- The Baby Book and The Attachment Parenting Book and The Sleep Book by Dr. Sears
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