Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Attachment parenting

I started reading baby blogs awhile before Marko was born. I really enjoyed them as a preview of things to come: adorable baby pictures, stories of babies' recent achievements, explanations of how the moms worked through various problems. Only, as I read several popular baby blogs, I found myself disagreeing intensely with the parenting choices of some of the moms. "I'm out for the first time without baby," one would cheer. "He's two weeks old and I'm SO GLAD to get away!" Or, "Baby's three months old and it still takes a half hour to put him down for the night. So tonight we let him cry it out instead!" Or, "It's been a week and I'm still not enjoying breastfeeding, so bottles it is!"

I have had very strong views on parenting since I was about sixteen years old and participated in the care of my younger brother, so things like this don't just make me shake my head and say "Different strokes for different folks," they make me cringe and have to hold myself back from commenting right away.

Luckily, I've since found more blogs that agree with more of my parenting views. But I think I should explain those views once and for all on this blog. Generally speaking, my style tends toward "attachment parenting." This is the theory, developed mostly by Dr. Sears, of keeping babies close to you and following your instincts in how to care for them. Seems fairly obvious to me, but the previous generation of childcare experts, like Dr. Spock, had insisted on a very detached style of childraising, where the baby is taught "independence" from the very beginning by being placed in a crib in a separate room, being fed a scientifically-determined number of ounces of formula on a strict schedule, and so forth. This way, children would grow up better-adjusted and more independent.

Well, here we are 50 years later and kids don't seem any better-adjusted than they used to be. To be honest, I'm not positive that the details of how you care for a baby are necessarily going to determine whether they end up in therapy 30 years later or not. After all, they won't remember whether they cried themselves to sleep in a crib at a year old or not. However, these things might make a difference, and besides, I just can't see treating a baby as an experimental object or an animal that needs to be trained just because they can't talk and might not remember what I do. Instead, I think of a baby as a human being that just can't communicate what he wants and can't understand how the adult world works. He runs on instinct for the most part, but instinct that tells him what he needs and how to communicate those needs. I don't believe that I know what a baby needs better than his instincts do.

Attachment parenting has seven principles. (Later, others added an eighth, "gentle discipline," but on the one hand, that doesn't apply to babies like the others do, and on the other, it's rather vague and doesn't seem very helpful to me.) Dr. Sears' formulation of the seven principles is the "Seven Baby B's": Birth bonding, Breastfeeding, Babywearing, Bedding close to baby, Belief in the language value of your baby's cry, Beware of baby trainers, Balance. I hope to write a post on each of these principles eventually, but for now I'll give a brief summary of each.

Birth bonding: The norm for the past generation or two, which is slowly changing (at last), is to separate a baby from its mother as soon as it is born. The baby is smacked, suctioned, and taken to the baby nursery for several hours before the mother ever gets a chance to hold it. Birth bonding suggests that mothers hold their babies as soon as possible, for a chance to begin bonding with them. Fathers, too, should get a chance to hold the baby soon. (Unfortunately, I did not get to hold Marko right away, as I had hoped and planned, as you can find from my birth story. But at least he remained in the same room, and I was able to hold him around 30 or 40 minutes later.)

Breastfeeding: It's the healthiest way to feed a baby, of course, but attachment parenting suggests that it has benefits beyond just a healthy meal. Breastfeeding promotes bonding and is very comforting to the baby. You can prop up a baby with a bottle in a bouncer, but you can't prop a baby up with a breast and leave it alone. Breastfeeding pretty much requires lots of snuggling. Attachment parenting eschews strict schedules and suggests cue feeding (also called demand feeding), that is, feeding when the baby is hungry.

Babywearing: This is the practice of carrying baby around in some kind of sling or carrier. It's practiced by most cultures around the world, as any National Geographic will tell you. Now Marko isn't all that keen on his wrap these days; he prefers to be held in my arms. However, he does like to be held. All babies do. This way they're close to mom and it's easy to make their needs known. All a carrier does is make it possible for mom to use her hands at the same time. I've heard lots of complaints from parents that they "just can't put the baby down" and "he wants to be held all the time!" Well, yeah. Babies do like to be held. Luckily I also like holding babies. Marko does spend a good amount of time on the floor or in his bouncy seat, but if he wants to be held, I hold him. Particularly if we're going somewhere, I carry him instead of plopping him in a stroller or lugging around a gigantic carseat. Sometimes this isn't quite as convenient, but he likes it better. I just don't want to leave the care of my baby to a lot of "artificial parents" like swings, strollers, carseats, bouncers, exersaucers, pack 'n' plays, and so forth. He feels right in my arms, so I keep him there.

Bedding close to baby: Cosleeping is encouraged in attachment parenting. Some people think it's unsafe for a baby to sleep in his parents' bed, but new research is beginning to show what people around the world have known for thousands of years -- it's quite a safe way for a baby to sleep, though certain precautions do need to be exercised. For those who don't cosleep in the same bed, there's sleeping in the same room, with the baby in a bassinet or crib nearby. This allows parents to be much more responsive to baby's needs. Besides, sleeping in the same room with mom and dad cuts the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in half! (Or, to put it another way, making a baby sleep in a separate room doubles his risk of SIDS.)

Belief in the language value of your baby's cry: In other words, when the baby cries, you shouldn't assume, as some do, that the baby is just "exercising his lungs" and actually feels fine. If he's crying, something is wrong. It may or may not be something you can fix -- colic, for instance, can be soothed to some extent, but the baby will still cry -- but it does mean something. Like adults, babies cry when they are unhappy. The sound of a baby crying stresses adults out big time. When I'm driving and the baby cries in the back seat, it's all I can do not to pull over at the side of the road and go help that baby. This is an example of instinct telling us what to do: comfort the baby and see what we can do to help. Maybe he's hungry, wet, or tired. Maybe he's just lonely and wants to be held. In any event, the one thing he isn't doing is trying to manipulate you. He's just trying to tell you something is wrong so you'll help him.

Beware of baby trainers: I think I've mentioned Ferber and Ezzo on this blog before, as examples of people who insist that parents put their babies on a strict schedule. If it's time to eat and baby's sleeping, you wake up the baby and feed him. If it's time to sleep and baby's crying, you are supposed to tune them out. I'm sorry, I just can't and won't ignore a crying baby, and I have a hard time approving those who do. I understand when a parent just can't take it anymore, and they lay the baby down in a crib for fifteen minutes while they step out of the room. But I don't understand a parent who isn't having any trouble establishing one of these schedules just to make things even easier, or from a false belief that this will teach a baby independence. I don't know if you've noticed, but a human infant is one of the most dependent creatures there are. Independence is something developed much later -- in the toddler and preschool years.

Balance: This is a nice reminder that we can't do everything. Of course we would like our babies to be happy all the time, but sometimes you have to accept that they won't be. Of course we would love to jump to our babies' needs all the time, but a mother of twins sometimes has to make one twin wait while she helps the other, or a mother of ten has to decide whose needs are the most urgent at the moment. An exhausted mother might need to call up a babysitter while she grabs a few hours of desperately needed sleep. Attachment parenting isn't about wearing yourself down, but about doing the best you can.

In addition to these seven standards, there's a current running through them all of staying close to your baby. Parents should, as much as possible, be the ones to care for their children, not passing them off to daycare at an early age. I know the current expectation is for six to twelve weeks of maternity leave before mom goes back to work. I also know that it's really hard to buck the trend when dads are paid so little. But I think a baby being with his parents all the time is the ideal. I've left Marko twice, but each time it was with his dad. He has never been apart from both parents since we brought him home from the hospital.

Someone suggested to me the other day that Marko won't be independent if he's never apart from me. Which I'm sure is true, but on the other hand, long before I'm ready he's going to be going off to college and apart from me all the time. When he's a few years older, he'll already start branching out from me a lot. But while he's a baby, he belongs with me. Not only am I the one with the food, but I'm one of the two he knows best and feels safest with.

At three months old, he's too young for much separation anxiety. That starts at about six months old, or around there. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of a baby's development, and it can't be skipped simply by keeping him alone or with strangers all the time. It is completely natural for a baby to want to be with mom. (Check out this comic!) As a nanny & babysitter, I've never seen a baby from six months to two years who happily waved goodbye to mom and didn't mind. I think that ought to tell us something.

So, there it is. I believe in staying close to my baby 24/7, in listening to him when he cries, in giving him all the snuggles he needs, in feeding him whenever he asks (which happens to be, at the moment, every 45 minutes or so. He's so distracted he's not eating a ton at once, but luckily I don't really mind feeding him in little snacks. It's better than never getting enough, right?). And I've been rewarded with a baby who is happy 90% of the time, who isn't generally clingy, who is very responsive and happy, whose face lights up when he sees Daddy and me. I admit I have an easier baby than most, but as I mentioned a few weeks ago, when we were on our trip to Seattle and he didn't get so much attention, he wasn't as happy. So I think the way I care for him has a lot to do with his good temper and "easy" ways.

Stay tuned for more specific parenting-related topics!


Charlemagne said...

But if the baby is used to you always being in the room, won't that creat problems for you in the future? Doesn't that lead to a child that refuses to go to sleep unless mom or dad is there constantly, leading parents to sleep in the kid's room up till age four or five? My wife just got back from babysitting a three year old with a severe case of seperation anxiety. She cried and screamed for two and a half hours until the mother came home, with a pause only to take a breath. Isn't that something we should try to avoid fostering in our children?

Sheila said...

Do you know that the parents of that child were "attachment parents"? Was that the first time she'd ever been left with a babysitter? Some children are more prone to separation anxiety than others, but I have never seen any evidence that children kept close to their parents have it any more than others.

The fact is, you cannot explain to a pre-verbal child the difference between an hour and forever. If you're gone, the child is faced with the possibility that you might never come back. With that the case, is it any surprise that most freak out about it? It would surprise me if they didn't!

However, the good news is that by four and five years old, independence begins to develop and kids no longer want to be with their parents at every moment. Whether you keep kids close or not, independence develops very soon. For two or three years, a child wants to be with parents constantly and will cry if separated. You can give them what they want to make them happy, or you can take it away from them and make them miserable. But neither choice is going to make them suddenly independent at two, or joined at the hip at six. Those are stages of development that are altered more by temperament than by parenting style.

For the record, though, studies have shown that strongly attached children are actually MORE independent when they're older, rather than less. The theory is that if they don't receive the security they need when they're little, they'll still crave it when they're older.

Sheila said...

As far as sleep goes, I'll talk more about it in another post, but cosleeping babies do "graduate" to their own room when they're ready. My siblings have managed it fine, and none of them was still sleeping with mom at four years old.

Marko sleeps in our room (in a one-bedroom apartment, it was really the only choice anyway) but he sleeps just fine in there whether we're there with him or not. Normally we put him down at nine or so and stay up for another hour, and it doesn't bother him. So I really have no worries about moving him to another room if we later want to do that.

MichelleKendall said...

I had two questions I was wondering your thoughts on:

First: My son rarely cries. From day one he has told me what he wanted by using his own sign language [tongue out=food, rubbing eyes=sleep, and as soon as he started cooing - singing in bed=come get me, arms up=pick me up, etc]. Because I listen, he hasn't really needed to cry. But when he does, it seems about the only way to soothe him about half the time is to put him down and leave the room. Within minutes he calms down.

Is this something attatchment parenting would consider good or bad? It seems to be now that when he cries he just needs to be left alone for a while.

Second, I generally agree wholeheartedly that parents need to be with their children. My mom [aka Grammy] lived with us the first month of my son's life since I was in bad shape after having had an emergency C-Section. He is as bonded to her as he is to my husband - especially since my mom lives one street away and we visit each other 3-4 days a week. In cases like that, do you see the Grammy as being equivalent to the parent for time away? [He's 7 months now and still could care less if I leave the room as long as Grammy's there. When Daddy's there - not so much]

Sheila said...

I think that attachment parenting is about responding to your baby's needs, and you seem to be doing that great! Sometimes Marko would cry in my arms and stop when I put him down. I later realized, doing the same thing with Michael only with no diaper on, that babies often don't like to pee on mom and prefer to be down for that. So sometimes they cry for that reason. Or else they just want to calm themselves on their own. Either way, it's about doing what they have shown you they need.

I have heard caretakers like this called "alloparents," meaning other parents. That is to say, the child has such a close bond with their caregiver as to make them just as comfortable with the caregiver as with their parents. It's an excellent thing, and one I think parents in former days had more recourse to than we have now. Sadly, our parents all live far away and my children are not bonded to them. But if they were I would have no problem leaving them, just like I have no problem leaving them with Daddy.

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