Attachment Parenting (AP) is not a new occurrence. In fact, Mary Slater Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist best known for her work in attachment theory, worked with John Bowlby (the founder of attachment theory) at Tavistock Clinic in England, researching mother/infant attachments and studying what effects, if any, resulted from the parent and child connection.
The goal of attachment parenting—a child-centered versus parent-centered approach—is to bring up children that are happy, healthy, and able to emotionally connect with others throughout the course of their lives.
If you’re wondering where AP has its roots, it goes back to the World War II era. It was during that time that psychiatrists observed an impairment in the physical, psychological, and social development in children who were separated from their parents and either left in hospitals and/or orphanages. It was discerned that food and water were simply not the only necessary things needed for these children to thrive. Physical contact, they discovered, was essential for their development. Once they received that, a huge improvement was noted in the children’s emotional and psychological health.
The phrase Attachment Parenting was actually coined by pediatrician William Sears in his 1993 book, The Baby Book. Some of the most important principles based on his work include the items below:
- Feed with love and respect.
- Respond with sensitivity.
- Use nurturing touch.
- Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally.
- Provide consistent and loving care.
- Practice positive discipline.
- Strive for balance in your personal and family life.
The above-mentioned principles actually feel very Zen-like to me. Rather than a methodical approach, AP is considered more of a frame of mind. It’s an attitude of being there for your child whenever they need you. In other words, parents are continually in tune to their child’s needs and responsive to their demands, whatever and whenever they may be.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D, delineates the four components considered key in the care of infants when practicing attachment parenting. We are going to look at these closely to understand their importance.
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Components of Attachment Parenting
With co-sleeping, your child sleeps in your room, or in your bed. If the latter is the case, then safety precautions must be practiced to avoid any harm coming to your child. Sadly, I once treated a client who practiced AP. In this tragic case, my client rolled over his little baby girl during the night. The grim discovery the next day still haunted my client decades later.
A common question about co-sleeping is, is it healthy? Is it a good idea to have your baby sleep with you? In 1999, a report titled “Hazards Associated with Children Placed in Adult Beds” was circulated. The report detailed research that seemed to indicate an increase in infant deaths when co-sleeping was practiced. As a result, a nationwide campaign began to keep children under 2 out of adult beds.
In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics expanded its guidelines in 2011 to recommended that it was OK for a baby to sleep in the same room, but not in the same bed. This, they said, would prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), or having a parent roll over on their child during the night, like what happened to my client.
Certainly, some adjustments would be necessary for you as a parent if co-sleeping were incorporated into your child-rearing. Bedtime would revolve around your child, not your own personal schedule. You can see how this might cause issues if your bedtime is 11:00 p.m. and your child’s is 7:30 p.m. Other adjustments to be considered include scheduling intimacy in your relationship. This may seem like a sacrifice, but for parents who practice AP, the squeeze is worth the juice.
Feeding on Demand
Whether breastfed or bottle-fed, attachment parenting allows the infant to determine its own feeding schedule. Here’s the thing: breastfeeding is instinctual for babies. Your child will signal you when they need to be fed, which is in sync with how they grow and develop.
Paying attention to your child’s cues will also allow you to know when their food intake needs to be increased as your infant gets older. Your baby will let you know when it has had enough, or if it is still hungry.
Furthermore, feeding on demand also includes self-weaning. So what happens if your child turns three and still wants to be breastfed? This is something that needs to be considered. AP parents might soldier on, but for some, it may be too much to have their 3 year old still wanting to breastfeed. You need to ask yourself if that is something you’re willing to take on.
Holding and Touching
When your baby comes into the world, it arrives with strong and immediate needs, and they are completely dependent on you to provide them. For healthy development and attachment with others, physical contact is critical.
One of my clients adopted a little girl from India. The little girl was 18 months old when she was brought home to America. For the first 18 months, the child did not receive any of the essential physical contact or the affection and security that she needed in order to thrive. My client did the best she could and kept her new baby close to her all the time. To this day, her daughter, who is now 25 years old, doesn’t like to be touched and has other severe mental problems. Unfortunately, too much time had passed by the time the little girl was adopted and brought home. Despite my client’s best efforts, her little girl has grown up experiencing attachment disorders.
Physical touch is important to AP, hence why parents who practice it hold and keep their babies close at all times. This could be done in various ways: cuddling, cradling, or wearing a little baby wrap or carrier where the child is held close to the chest. This allows the baby to feel the warmth and love of their caretaker at all times, which aids them in forming healthy attachments.
Responsiveness to Crying
Some parents, when their babies are crying, might say, “Don’t pick him up. Just let him cry it out! We can’t pick him up every time he cries; he’ll become spoiled!” Not so with parents who practice AP. If their infant cries, they respond almost immediately, before the child’s discomfort has a chance to escalate.
Their goal is to create a foundation of trust and understanding. Parents who practice AP believe that crying is their baby’s way of communicating discomfort and should be taken quite seriously. It is their belief that letting their child “cry it out” is too much to handle for their underdeveloped brain. Therefore, AP parents respond to tantrums in a loving, comforting away, never getting angry or punishing them. Constant response to their child’s sensitivities, parents believe, will strengthen the child’s trust muscle.
As good as AP might sound, it isn’t popular with everyone. Back in a May 2012 issue of Time Magazine, a woman by the name of Jamie Lynne Grummet was featured on the cover nursing her 3-year old child. The title, Are You Mom Enough? sparked a great deal of controversy in the Anti-Attachment Parenting group, who claimed that there had to be something wrong with mothers who indulged their children to such an extent. Furthermore, the A-AP suggests that there is too much stress placed on parents, making them feel that anything less than constant pampering and attention would reflect badly on them as parents.
Downsides of Attachment Parenting
In an article featured in The Atlantic titled, “The Perils of Attachment Parenting,” by Emma Jenner, Jenner discusses various potential negative side-effects that come with AP. She writes:
“The dad and his wife had decided to try ‘attachment parenting’ with their newborn son. That meant they slept in bed with their son every night, fed him milk every time he cried, and carried him everywhere they went in a baby sling. Though the intentions behind the philosophy are wonderful—let’s raise secure, attached, emotionally healthy children—attachment parenting is an unsustainable model.”
Lack of personal time, lack of intimacy, and being constantly on baby mode can place a big stressor on any couple’s relationship. This is something to definitely keep in mind if you’re entertaining the possibility of AP. It’s important that you weigh all the pros and cons of AP, then decide how’d you’d like to bring up your little one.
Benefits of Attachment Parenting
Despite some of the controversy surrounding AP, there are multiple benefits attributed to its child-rearing practices. Let’s take a look at some of those. The children are:
- Better at problem solving
- Can create long-lasting friendships
- Get along better with their brothers and sisters
- Have higher self-esteem
- Feel loved and protected by their caretakers
- Are more trusting
- Have a better outlook on life overall
Let’s look at more details regarding some of the most important benefits.
1. Biochemical Benefits
When you breastfeed your baby, you’re not only providing nourishment, you are also providing comfort. And not only is your baby soothed, but you, as a mother, will feel the positive effects when the prolactin hormone is released, making you feel tranquil and warmhearted. A happy and relaxed mother makes for a happy and relaxed baby.
2. Better Behavior
Attached babies tend to cry less. They may be less clingy and whiney as they feel connected and valued.
An infant that feels good, so the theory goes, behaves better overall because they are operating from a place of inner calmness and happiness.
3. Enhanced Development
It is believed that a baby who isn’t constantly crying is, instead, learning. A quiet baby, then, is more receptive to absorbing information from its environment, assimilating it, and using their energy to learn instead of getting worked up. The peaceful child is better able to develop and interact with their environment in a healthier way.
Does Attachment Parenting Really Work?
I believe it is up to each parent to decide whether AP is right for them. Parenting is hard enough as it is without additional stress. AP can either alleviate the stress of child-rearing, or increase it, depending on each individual case.
Anything can work if you are aware of all the demands, are willing to try, and see them through. If you weigh out the benefits vs. the possible negatives and find yourself deciding on the AP style, then I believe it can certainly work. If you go into it half-heartedly, or without the support of your partner, then you may not be able to see AP through.
If you are considering AP but feel that maybe it’s too much, there may be other options. Perhaps you can create your own version that would work better for you and your partner—a hybrid of sorts. For example, you may want your baby to sleep in your room, but you’re not always going to feed on demand. You may be responsive to your baby’s cries, but you’re not willing to wear him or her on your body 24/7.
There are pros and cons to most situations. You just have to weigh out what you’re willing or unwilling to do with regards to your child. Choosing one over the other doesn’t make you a bad/better parent. And remember, not raising your child by following all the AP principles doesn’t mean you’re going to raise a sociopath.
I am of the opinion that no matter what parenting style you choose, if you’re there for your child, if you’re providing love, guidance, and understanding, you’re a “Good Enough Mother,” a phrase Dr. Donald Winnicott, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined in 1953.
In her article, “The Gift of the Good Enough Mother”, Carla Naumburg, states:
“The process of becoming a good enough mother to our children happens over time. When our babies are infants, we try to be available constantly and respond to them immediately. As soon as they cry, we feed them or snuggle them or change their diapers – in other words, we do whatever it takes to help them feel better. This is important because it teaches our children that they are safe and will be cared for.
The thing is, we can’t sustain this level of attentiveness to our children forever, nor should we. That is precisely Winnicott’s point. He believed that the way to be a good mother is to be a good enough mother. Children need their mother (or primary caretaker) to fail them in tolerable ways on a regular basis so they can learn to live in an imperfect world.”
Take it easy, and take the time to decide what type of parenting is right for you and your child. Remember, you can always change things if you find something isn’t work. Be flexible and raise the happiest, healthiest child you can.
More on Attachment Parenting
I am a parent of three children aged 8, 6, and 6. Like many parents, I struggle with knowing the right balance of activities for them. I don’t want my kids to miss out on opportunities to play sports and participate in activities that will enhance their lives and help them grow as individuals. However, I also don’t want them to become overscheduled kids, to the extent that they get worn out and stressed out.
There is a balance in providing activities for our children and overscheduling them. The tendency for the latter is prevalent these days. Our lives — and the lives of our kids — are increasingly overscheduled and overworked. Thus, we need to understand the dangers of having overscheduled kids and how to prevent this from happening in our own families.
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What’s Wrong with Overscheduling Your Kids?
1. Overscheduling Can Burn Out Our Kids
When our kids are on the go and scheduled to the max from a young age, their potential to get burned out before reaching high school is quite high. The New York Times reported some research on burnout and found that burnout with kids relates to their workload, along with their parents’ propensity to experience it. This means that overworked children are more likely to get burned out than others. Similarly, overscheduled parents tend to have overscheduled kids more often than not.
When a person is burned out, they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by what others expect them to get done daily. Children who are involved in too many activities with little to no downtime have a high chance of experiencing burnout. When parents place too many expectations on their kids, they also have an increased potential to burn out.
If you get the sense that your child is feeling overworked or overwhelmed by their daily activities, you need to know which ones can be cut back. If they have too many activities outside of school work, for instance, then that is one area that likely needs to be downsized.
An overworked child will present various symptoms like moodiness, irritability, crankiness, despondency, anger, stomach aches, headaches, rebellion, etc. Cutting back their activities will help to relieve their stress and reduce the said burnout signs. If your kid has severe burnout symptoms, though, then professional help from a pediatrician or therapist for children should be sought.
Downtime is key to helping relieve burnout. If children don’t have free time during the day to have any rest, they are more likely to become burned out than others. Downtime means unorganized free time to do what they enjoy or relax. Cut back your kids’ extra-curricular activities if they don’t have downtime in their schedule.
Here are more tips on creating downtime for the children: How to Create Downtime for Kids.
2. Overscheduling Kills Playtime and Creativity
Kids need time to be kids. When their schedules are filled every day with activities like organized ballet, soccer, and music lessons, and they only take a break for dinner and bedtime, then they are overscheduled. They need to have free time after school to relax and play. When they don’t have that and proceed from one scheduled activity to the next, they are missing out on playtime.
Playtime is crucial to child development. If they cannot get enough time to play, then their ability to develop their creativity decreases. The Genius of Play explains that there are six major developmental benefits that children get from playtime:
- Social skill development
- Cognitive development
- Physical development (i.e., balance, coordination)
- Communication skills
- Emotional development
If children don’t have time to play because they are always on-the-go, then they are missing out on the developmental benefits of play.
Children need downtime after school so that they can unwind, play, and decompress. Research from the Journal of Early Childhood Development and Care showed that kids need to play to deal with anxiety, stress, and worry. Playtime provides an outlet for them to manage these emotions in a healthy manner and helps with the development of their creativity.
Children need free time to play every day. Fifteen minutes at recess is not enough. They need time for it after school, at home, outside of the constraints of scheduled activities.
Ensure that your child has time to play after school. This is especially important for young children who greatly benefit from playing. Limit organized activities so that your child is not scheduled every day and can play after school. If they have an activity every hour, then it doesn’t allow for playtime.
3. Overscheduling Causes Stress and Pressure
When kids are overscheduled because their parents are so intent on having high-performing children, then they will feel stressed. Parental pressure upon a child to do well in academics, music, multiple sports, and religious studies is a reality for many kids. The children scheduled in all of these activities can often feel stress and pressure, especially when they are expected to succeed in all of them.
It is hard enough for kids to be good or succeed at a single activity. For a parent to overschedule their child and expect superior performance in various activities, that is a recipe for a stressed-out child.
Parents should not schedule kids in multiple activities with the expectation of superior performance in all. They should also consider the child’s interests. If the child is not interested in one activity, then they are likely to feel stressed and pressured to do it.
For example, if Suzy has been taking piano lessons for four years, and she no longer enjoys learning the instrument, then perhaps it is time to take a break. If Suzy is forced to continue with the lessons and daily practices, then she may feel pressured to continue performing simply because her mom wants her to do so. This can lead Suzy to resent her mother for forcing her to keep on doing something that she doesn’t like anymore.
Let your child help in selecting the activities that they get involved in. Also, put a cap on the number of activities they are doing. If they have a different activity every weekday, then they are likely overscheduled.
Kids need downtime and time to play, too. If they need to do a new activity every day, that downtime is diminished, considering the time at home or outside of the scheduled activities is limited. This limited time is then filled with homework, mealtime, and bedtime prep. Eliminating activities several days a week will allow the child to have some time to play freely. The younger the kid is, the more time they need playtime. As they get older, they can take on more activities; however, under the age of 13, playing daily is a must for children.
4. Healthy Eating Falls by the Wayside
Any parent who’s busy chauffeuring multiple kids to different activities after school knows how tempting fast food can become. Fast food, however, leads to less healthy food choices. French fries and hamburgers — the staple combo in most fast-food joints — cannot help your child thrive nutritionally.
When families are overscheduled, they tend to go for easy and quick meals. When rushed, many of us make poor food choices because we aren’t taking the time to think about a meal’s nutritional value and a balanced diet for our children.
5. Family Mealtimes Become a Thing of the Past
When we are taking our kids to sports and other extra-curricular activities that fall during dinnertime, the family often misses out on sharing a meal at home.
This is true in our own home. There are certain nights of the week that we have practices, and so we either eat together early (if possible) or eat separately, depending on what our schedules allow.
There is so much value in having family dinners. It provides an opportunity for family members to discuss their day, including their work and school activities. It is a time when technology is set aside so that everyone can truly focus on communicating with one another and catching up on what is happening in each other’s lives. When a kid’s activities are scheduled every evening, then that family time at the dining table gets lost. Dinnertime becomes a thing of the past as we overschedule kids and ourselves.
Try learning more about family time here: How to Maximize Family Time? 13 Simple Ways You Can Try Immediately.
Assess our schedule during the week to ensure that there’s always time for dinner with the family. Make it a point to establish a dinnertime schedule for the evenings that you do not have prior engagements scheduled. Remember: the time that you have with your kids under your roof is fleeting. Before long, they will be grownups and start living on their own. You need not dismiss or minimize the opportunity to bond with your children over meals.
Having family mealtimes also allows you to make excellent food choices. This way, parents can create balanced and healthy meals and teach their children about the importance of eating good food for their bodies.
How to Turn Things Around?
1. Fix the Displaced Ambitions
Parents with overscheduled kids often mean well. They want their children to succeed, so they give them every chance to make it happen. They sign them up for various lessons, sports, and activities that may help the kids find success in life.
In other cases, the parent probably didn’t get such opportunities when they were young and felt that they missed out on many things. Hence, they provide those missed opportunities to their kids during their own childhood.
Carla is an example of such a parent. Carla always wanted to take dance and ballet classes as a child. She heard her friends talk about dance classes and performances, and they would even bring recital photos to school, showing their beautiful, detailed costumes. Carla wanted to be in those dance classes and learn ballet and have the opportunity to perform in a beautiful costume in front of an audience. Unfortunately, her family could not afford to give her that opportunity.
When Carla gave birth to a baby girl, she had visions of her little one growing big enough to take dance, ballet, and even tap classes someday. She was looking forward to dressing her daughter in dance costumes and watching her take lessons and eventually performing in recitals. When Carla’s daughter Anna was old enough to enroll at a dance class at four years old, she was thrilled. However, after a few months, it became clear that Anna was not enjoying these classes. She would cry before every lesson, begging Carla to let her stay home and not go to class. Her daughter had no interest in learning to dance.
In truth, it happens to many parents. They would enroll their kid in an activity that they wanted to do as a child but never got to try. Unfortunately, a parent’s interest is not always the same as that of their kids’. The child may humor mom or dad for some time and do the activity out of compliance. But if the child does not enjoy it anymore, they will eventually make things clear to their parents.
Parents should listen to their children. If the activity is something that they do not enjoy doing, ask the children what they think they would like to do, and then eliminate activities that they are not into. Similarly, teach them commitment by finishing a program, but don’t enroll them again in the same class if they absolutely do not want to do it.
Let the kids try different activities at a young age. Sometimes they don’t know if they like something until they try it out.
2. Try Clinics of Camps Before Committing
Don’t enroll your child in three sports at the same time to see which one they like or excel at. Doing so will make your kid overscheduled. Instead, you can use the summer break or preseason camps or clinics to try a variety of activities they are interested in.
As an example, all three of my children said that they wanted to do lacrosse. We had already tried soccer, and it was not successful for two out of three of them. They would rather chase butterflies down the field or play tag than actually participate in their games. Therefore, before committing to lacrosse and spending a great deal of money on their gear, I signed them up for a sample clinic. It was a one-day program that intended to expose children to the sport and see if they would perhaps enjoy playing it. I was surprised to find that the three kids enjoyed lacrosse, so we signed up for the season. It was nice to be able to see them try out the sport in a clinic before committing to an entire season.
Most towns and cities have parks and recreation department. This is often a good place to check for clinics and camps for various activities. Our local department even offers art and dance classes. Most of them meet between two and four times total, so the children can get some exposure to the activity before signing them up at a private facility for a more long-term commitment.
3. Take an Inventory of Your Weekly Activities
Often, we do an activity without reflecting on how much we are already committed to doing each week. Before we commit to any more activities, we must be willing to look at everything that each family member does. Every child’s commitment is another responsibility for the parent as well. Parents must take children to and from each practice, so you need to consider the drive time for any activity.
For instance, if each of my three kids signed up for three different activities each week, I would be running myself ragged. Three activities for three kids means taking them to nine activities during the week. That doesn’t include the games that will likely be scheduled on the weekends. Three activities for every child, therefore, is too much for our family.
If some practices overlap on the schedule, then you need two parents or responsible adults to transport the children to different locations. Before you sign them up for multiple activities, you need to factor downtime, stress levels, and your ability to take them to each activity in the equation.
Consider the following before your kids can commit to various activities:
- What is the time commitment for the child each week? Do they have enough energy and stamina for the activities? Do they get enough downtime daily to prevent burnout?
- Is practice time required outside of their scheduled team practices and games?
- How long is the travel time for you as a parent, along with wait time during practices? Do you have time allowances for these activities in your own schedule?
- Does the activity time conflict with other activities on the schedule? Will it eliminate family dinners on a regular basis?
- Does the child really want to do the activity?
- What is the motivation for signing up for the activity?
- Is this activity or commitment going to cause a great deal of stress on the child or other family members?
Check out these time-management tips for parents: 10 Time Management Tips Every Busy Parent Needs to Know.
Get The Kids Active and Involved!
Despite everything, it does not mean that you shouldn’t sign your child up for different activities like sports, music, dance, karate, etc. They are all great activities that can help children develop a variety of valuable life skills. The goal is to enroll them in things that they genuinely enjoy and avoid overscheduling kids by not letting them sign up for too many activities at a time.