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An Introduction to Attachment Parenting

by Jeri Carr

In our materialistic world, children learn from birth that things bring contentment. Babies who need comfort have a pacifier popped into their mouth. Babies who crave human contact are put into bed with a shirt that mommy has worn or with a stuffed animal that has a recording of another mommy’s heartbeat inside it. Babies are routinely put in strollers and left in bouncy seats and car seats for long periods of time instead of being carried in the arms of their mother. It’s common for caregivers to feed babies bottles of formula while mothers are busy making money that all too often goes for simply materialistic desires. Mother substitutes abound in our culture, and it appears that using them is the norm.

In our culture it’s popular to think that the end justifies the means--to think, for instance that letting a baby cry-it-out alone in his bed justifies the end of potentially having a baby who sleeps through the night at a young age. This pragmatic attitude is also seen when parents let their baby cry and refuse to feed him even when he shows clear hunger cues such as gnawing on his fists in order to get him on a schedule (or to show their baby who is boss) or slaps their exploring baby’s hand to keep him from touching something breakable. These attitudes toward parenting little children have led to a society that doesn’t realize the treasure that children are. This society expects even babies to comfort themselves and forces unnatural and dangerous independence on children who are not ready. We have children who are turning earlier and earlier to drugs, smoking, and boyfriends and girlfriends to find the love and acceptance they don’t find at home.

There has got to be a better way, a more gentle, attached way of parenting that will bring better results. Many parents feel they have found this way. It is an ancient, beautiful, natural way of parenting, and it often goes by the term “attachment parenting” because it helps to build a healthy, strong attachment between children and their parents. The phrase “attachment parenting” was coined by pediatrician and father of eight William Sears. It has come to mean many different things to different people, but it basically means trying to get to really know your baby and trying to meet his needs in the best way possible. This involves listening to your heart, a.k.a., your mothering instincts, so this type of parenting is sometimes referred to as “instinctive parenting.”

You are probably wondering what some of the practical aspects of attachment parenting are. One of the most obvious to observers of parents who practice attachment-style parenting [hereafter called “ap parents”] is that they tend to hold their baby more than the norm. Rather, though, than having a contest to see who can hold their baby the most, the thing that sets ap parents apart is their firm belief that babies cannot be held too much nor will picking them up when they cry to be held spoil them. Whereas some parents might put their baby down when they don’t seem to “need” them anymore--i.e., when baby is either not crying or all the “necessities” such as diaper changing, feeding, etc. have been taken care of--parents who practice attachment parenting will often continue to carry their baby because they enjoy doing it and because they believe it is good for their baby and good for themselves. Wearing their baby helps them get to know their baby and to be sensitive to his cues, and it helps their baby to know and feel that he is loved.

Another key element that helps ap parents build a strong attachment with their baby is breastfeeding. Certain intrinsic characteristics of breastfeeding naturally promote attachment. For instance, during breastfeeding hormones are released which have a relaxing effect on the mother and stimulate maternal instincts. The extra holding and skin-to-skin contact that breastfeeding provide also encourage the attachment between mother and baby to grow.

Bottle-feeding certainly isn’t an automatic cancel from being qualified to wear the ap label, though. Some mothers try their best to breastfeed and feel a sense of failure and deep sadness that they couldn’t breastfeed. Sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t work out because of bad information from doctors or nurses, lack of support, poor information from books, friends, or family, and sometimes, in a very few cases, mothers are unable to breastfeed because of physical reasons.

An important part of attachment parenting is the belief that nursing (whether by breast or bottle) should be a time for nurturing and communicating love to your baby. Breastfeeding moms have it far easier because, as mentioned above, many things that promote bonding are built into breastfeeding such as skin-to-skin contact and being in mama’s arms. Because of this and because breastfeeding is the norm our babies were designed to live and thrive on, it’s important that the bottle-feeding experience be made as close to breastfeeding as possible.

There are many ways to do this. First of all, bottle-feeding mothers should consider pumping breastmilk to put in the bottles. Bottle-feeding mothers can feed their baby on-cue--when they show signs of hunger. This may mean preparing small bottles in advance so baby can be fed quickly and can eat as much or as little as he needs at the time and never forcing him to finish the bottle. They can cuddle their baby so they can see their baby’s face, and they can look into their baby’s eyes while feeding him. Sometimes they might want to lift their shirt up so baby can rest skin-to-skin against his mama while being bottle-fed. They can hold their babies while they nurse from the bottle, and they can hold their baby’s bottle for him as long as their baby lets them. This means avoiding bottle-propping and resisting the urge to encourage their baby to learn to hold his own bottle. Instead of giving their baby a bottle in the stroller they could, for instance, consider offering their baby a bottle while wearing him in a sling.

Some people fear that this style of parenting creates fussy babies. The opposite is true. Attachment parenting helps children to meet their own unique potential and expands a child’s capacity to love and care for other people. Clearly, some babies come out the of the womb seeming to be upset with the world. These babies cry when they are put down, cry when they want to nurse (which may be several time an hour), cry when mommy tries to put them in their crib to sleep, etc. These babies have very definite needs, and parents who practice attachment parenting who have fussy babies tend to call them “high-need” rather than fussy because they believe that when their child cries and is upset, they are expressing their needs in the only way they know how. Being blessed with a high-need child can be quite a shock, and parents who have only “easy” babies will never fully understand what having a truly fussy baby means.

Attachment parenting suits high-need babies particularly well. Usually these babies enjoy being held a lot and holding them as much as possible, or at least several hours every day, helps their mama get to know her baby and helps to avoid much crying for carried babies simply cry less. This means they have more time to do other things such as learn to communicate in other ways besides crying. When their cues are responded to it encourages them to communicate in other ways.

Little babies have no concept of time and to them a minute is forever, but as they grow older they become better able to wait for things. They have leaned to trust their mommy and have been learning since birth that their needs will be met. Also, as babies grow older, attached mothers will sense that some cries don’t need to be answered as immediately as others. They can often tell when their baby is just fussing a wee bit to let off a little steam while trying to learn a new task, and when their baby needs assistance. They know that an older baby can sometimes be told, “Mommy’ll help you in just a minute!” while she finishes rinsing off the cooked noodles in the strainer.

Attachment parenting does not equal permissive parenting. Perhaps some people feel that it does because ap parents answer their baby’s cries so freely that they may seem to be able to get away with whatever they want. But as seen above, the responses evolve as a baby gets older and as his needs change.

It’s arguably easiest to practice attachment parenting with a little baby because they are so helpless and it’s easy to believe the truth that one so needy and fresh from the womb could never manipulate his parents. In the beginning his needs and his wants are synonymous, so mothers can respond to their baby’s cries without ever worrying about spoiling their baby. They can carry their baby for long periods of time and when they lay him down he stays put and can’t crawl yet or get into things he’s not supposed to.

But as babies get older they start exploring and their curiosity often gets them into interesting situations. Attached parents are very involved parents who are not afraid to offer their child loving guidance and gentle discipline when needed. Knowing their baby well and being in tune to his needs are crucial to making the right choices for their child. An attached parent and child have a relationship built on trust. A child who trusts his parents is more willing to listen to what his parents tell him and try to please them. Attachment parenting helps parents to become familiar with their child’s cues so they can tell when he is acting tired or hungry. They know when he is getting frustrated. They know when he needs some quiet time away from the bustling crowds at the mall. They can sense when he is hungry for more attention from mommy.

Parents won’t be perfect in their choices, because no human being knows another human being perfectly, but attachment parenting offers parents the best way to become an “expert” on their child. It’s not following a parenting recipe or doing something just because some doctor or friend or family member tells you that you should. It involves doing what is right for your individual child in your individual situation.

And the rewards are great. Attachment parenting helps children to value people over things. It helps them see that when we care for people we listen to them, we respond to them, we meet their needs. It gives them the opportunity to grow up at their own pace, and, as they become more independent, they know that their parents will be there for them. These children feel loved and treasured, and in turn, will love and treasure other people.

This article was first published on Suite101.com.
copyright 2000 by Jeri Carr
Used by permission


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