As a follow up to my previous article, I want to add my voice to the great internet Attachment Parenting debate. Attachment Parenting (AP) is a parenting style popularized in the 1990s by Dr. William Sears. I was drawn to AP long before I became a mother, for much the same reasons it has taken off as a successful movement: in reaction to common American practices that serve to distance us from our babies. Over the years, I have worked with a wide range of families. I have witnessed mothers naturally inclined to hold their babies close, readily available with the breast. And I have witnessed mothers leaving their babies in car seats and strollers for hours on end, bottle-propping to feed them with barely a glance in their direction. The former felt intuitively resonant, the latter quite dissonant and distressing to see. AP was the perfect match to my intuitive inclination. As I mature as a mother and professional, however, I am recognizing that adhering too strictly to any one parenting style has unintended consequences.
Though many people confuse the two, attachment is not synonymous with AP. As I discussed here, attachment is the “inborn system in the brain… (that) motivates an infant to seek proximity to parents” (Siegel, p 91). Attachment evolved to ensure the survival of human infants who, compared to other mammals, are born very immature and remain dependent for so long. However, healthy attachment is about much more than mere survival, it literally creates our sense of self. “For the infant and young child, attachment relationships are the major environmental factors that shape brain development during its period of maximal growth… Human connections create neuronal connections” (Siegel, p 112-113). As a result, a healthy attachment relationship (known as a secure attachment) is the heart of psycho-social functioning, wiring the brain for such diverse aspects of well-being as emotional regulation, resilience, autonomy, communication, problem solving, cooperation, pretend play, empathy and more.
AP developed to promote a secure attachment by returning to “the way that parents for centuries have taken care of babies” (Sears, AP). Modeled on traditional and tribal cultures around the world, AP has five original “tools”: connect with your baby early – minimize separations at birth, read and respond to your baby’s cues, breastfeed, baby-wear, and co-sleep – either by bed sharing or room sharing (Sears, p 5). These tools are especially valuable for newborns during the “fourth trimester” (0-3 months), when they are dependent upon close contact with their parents to develop neuro-physiological regulation through touch, rhythmic movement, and entrainment with our heartbeat and breath. Dr. Sears is quite clear that his suggestions form “an approach, not a strict set of rules” and that “parenting is too individual and baby too complex for there to be only one way” (Sears, AP-B). However, as with many movements, that message of flexibility is often lost upon its followers.
Much of the conflict around AP is centered upon the potential for burn-out and guilt in parents trying to adhere too strictly to the approach. Critics of AP argue that baby wearing and co-sleeping place too much demand on parents. Many who practice these activities (known as “proximal care”) disagree, while others find it impossible to maintain after a while. Personally, I love baby-wearing. I find it an ideal way to meet Dani’s needs for contact and attention while accomplishing other tasks. However, co-sleeping was not right for our family after the “fourth trimester”. These choices are deeply personal, and best made to meet the needs of each family and baby. When we parent based on pressure to conform – whether to a parenting style or other external expectations – we risk burnout and guilt, which directly interfere with AP’s intent. In order to securely attach, we must be present and emotionally available the majority of the time, able to see our baby’s inner experience, and accurately interpret their cries and non-verbal cues (Siegel). This is an impossible task when we are feeling exhausted and guilty.
In later years, Dr. Sears added “balance” to his list of basic tools, acknowledging that “in your zeal to give so much to your baby, it’s easy to neglect the needs of yourself and your marriage. As you will learn the key to putting balance in your parenting is being appropriately responsive to your baby” (Sears AP-B). Yet balance is extremely difficult accomplish within American parenting. As I discussed in the previous post, our attachment systems are stressed by the “poverty of relationships” inherent in our society. Unlike our nuclear or single-parent family structure, the traditional cultures AP is modeled upon practice distributed care, in which a circle of adults are available to help meet the infant’s needs. This is far better suited to the biological demands of the developing brain, which evolved in tribal settings where there were an average of 4 adults available for every child under 6-years old (Perry).
Parenting is particularly demanding in our culture in other ways as well. We tend to give intense, sequential attention to our babies. We will focus on them exclusively, making eye contact, playing and communicating directly, then we will turn our attention completely elsewhere – to housework, other adults, or screens – in an ongoing cycle. In contrast, many cultures that practice proximal care also practice “open attention”: a consistent, low level form of attention with “diffusion of focus… taking in the entire context in an ongoing basis…” engaging in caregiving and other activities simultaneously (Gaskins, p71).
I have been playing with this idea as I attempt to integrate starting my own business with parenting a 5-month old. Dani is probably at the best possible age for this attempt – busy and able to self-entertain for increasing periods, while also non-mobile and easily contained on the floor. I will sit beside her, letting her play while I work. But the types of work we do here in America don’t lend themselves well to open attention. Instead, I am frequently switching my attention back and forth from Dani to my computer, in a style of “multi-tasking” that has been proven ineffective (Kuhl). Each time I turn from my task to engage her, I loose my place in the process. And worse, it is sometimes hard to break my concentration on the task at hand in order to reengage when she requests it. I recently read an article online in which the author argued that the amount of time American parents spend on their computers, phones and other screens (up to 11 hours/day!) is harmless, because it is no different than traditional activities such as knitting that used to occupy mothers as they worked alongside their children. Actually, it is remarkably different – knitting requires exactly the type of diffuse attention noted above. It is a meditative act, ideal for keeping just enough of one”s mind on surrounding activities while also giving space to the child at play – quite the opposite of computer work.
Another striking difference between America and many traditional cultures, is that the latter tend to minimize adult participation in infant exploration, allowing babies to “engage in their own, intrinsically motivated activities” (Gaskins, p 73). We place such value on achieving developmental milestones, that we routinely engage in “highly mediated and scaffolded encounters,” purposefully directing infant play towards developmental goals (Gaskins, p 77). The combination of frequent face-to-face interaction and intensive, focused monitoring is “demanding and often stressful” for American parents. We cannot care for our infants and get other tasks done, or relax and take care of ourselves. Faced with this intense and demanding combination of attachment behaviors, it is sadly no wonder modern America has gotten so carried away in using car seats and other devices to contain and soothe babies. Those of us who intentionally veer away from such practices still end up needing what Dr. Sears now terms “baby breaks” (Sears, AP). If we don’t recognize this need and attend to it, we may unconsciously push our babies away, desperate to “catch our breath” or reconnect with our pre-parent sense of self. However, babies trained to “expect a lot of direct attention… may feel a psychological separation” if they cannot maintain it, “actively seeking more attention” just when we try to step back (Gaskins, p 72-3). When our needs are in conflict with those of our baby, we are out of attunement, and the original intent of AP is lost.
Co-sleeping conflicts are an excellent example of this dilemma. The sleep disruption many parents experience with a rolling, kicking, mobile baby or toddler in their bed is less relevant in cultures where infant care is less demanding and help is more readily available. American parents too often hit a wall of sleep-deprivation in which they suddenly and abruptly must move the baby into another room. Dr. Brazelton warns against this potential, encouraging parents to consider in advance “the changing pros and cons and long-term consequences of their decision” before choosing sleeping arrangements (Brazelton, p 91). Moving a child into their own room is not easy at any age. It requires thoughtfulness, attention to the child’s individual temperament, and willingness to dance in the delicate balance between our craving for sleep and their need for nighttime nurturing. None of this is readily available to us when sleep-deprived and desperate.
Critics of AP argue that proximal care does not allow babies the physical and emotional independence they need for optimal development. AP enthusiasts know that promoting a secure attachment leads to grater independence in the long run – this has repeatedly been proven true in the Strange Situation studies. When we are able to engage in sensitive, attuned care, we recognize that babies have alternating needs for both closeness and space. The balance varies from baby to baby, and within each baby by day and by developmental phase. Maintaining this ever shifting balance with your infant requires a “circular dance of attuned communication” (Siegel, p 95). As I am discovering with Dani, a baby who is learning to move will make it abundantly clear if she does not want to be picked up and distracted from her task, and quite clear when she is fed up with the process and needs help to re-regulate. Increasingly able to communicate specific desires, Dani will fuss until I pick her up and hold her over toys, then laugh with glee when she reaches down to grab them – only to fuss again moments later when she is done being held, and smile wide when I lay her on her tummy to play some more. By tuning into her communicative attempts, I not only meet her alternating dependence/independence needs, I help her develop a sense of mastery over her world – she is learning that can ask for what she needs and receive it.
I have witnessed too many people drain their inner resources and loose their capacity for empathic attunement, especially as their sweet babies turn into active toddlers and they have not adjusted their parenting style to meet these developmental shifts. However, I do not believe that the activities that promote secure attachment inherently prevent us from meeting our own needs. On the contrary, we cannot hope to be fully present for our babies unless we find a way to take care of ourselves. While the balance in the early years is naturally tipped towards baby, with awareness and creativity, we can find a blend that works for us. My latest attempt at this dance is to wear Dani in a front carrier and hike into the woods with her. When she is awake, I tell her about all we are seeing. When she falls asleep (as she inevitably does) I meditate on the silence of the oak trees. Quiet walks in nature have always been one of my greatest sources of renewal, and sharing this with my babe only enhances an already exquisite experience.
AP has much to offer parents as an opportunity to promote attachment, but like any parenting advice, is best taken as suggestions to be integrated into the unique, dynamic relationship we have with each of our children. The question to ask is not, what does this particular parenting style advocate, but what does this particular baby need? The best teachers of how to parent our babies – are our babies.
Brazelton, T Berry and Joshua D. Sparrow. Touchpoints: Birth to Three. Cambridge, Ma: Da Capo Press, 2006.
Gaskins, Suzanne. “The Puzzle of Attachment: Unscrambling Maturational and Cultural Contributions to the Development of Early Emotional Bonds.” Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory. Ed. Naomi Quinn & Jeannette Marie Mageo. New York, NY. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Kuhl, P. (November 7, 2014). Early Learning and the Child’s Developing Brain. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.
Perry, B. (June 27, 2014) Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.
Sears, WIlliam. “Attachment Parenting Explained.” Ask Dr. Sears. Retrieved from www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/attachment-parenting/attachment-parenting, January 25, 2015
Sears, William, “Attachment Parenting Babies.” Ask Dr. Sears. Retrieved from www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/attachment-parenting/attachment-parenting-babies, January 25, 2015
Sears, William, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N. The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby From Birth to Age Two. Little, Brown and Co: Boston, MA, 1993.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press: New York, NY. 2012.
Siegel, D. (November 9, 2013) Interpersonal Neurobiology, Mindsight and Wellness: The Essence of Working with Children and Parents. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.