Andrea Loewen Nair: Connect-Four Parenting


Does "Attachment Parenting" Ensure Secure Attachment?

Improving the connection between parent and child

When I was pregnant with my first child, I wanted to know as much as I could about starting off on the right foot with my baby and, given my background as a psychotherapist, how to create a secure attachment with my child.

I discovered the term "attachment parenting" and thought, Perfect! If I do the tenets prescribed by Dr. Sears, I will ensure my child is cooperative, resilient, gets along well with others, has high self-esteem, optimal development, fewer tantrums, and will be more empathetic.

Except it wasn't so perfect.

As I got further into my parenting educator career, I heard weepy sleep-deprived mothers describing feelings of shame about not wanting to breastfeed and co-sleep. I saw toddlers be violent without a parent intervening, and parents reduced to quivering emotional-wrecks if their child had a tantrum. I felt the need to re-evaluate whether the attachment parenting tenets as listed by Dr. Sears, actually were helpful for parents. More importantly for myself, did following these rules foster MY well-being and MY mental health?

I discovered numerous parents admitting guiltily that they just couldn't keep up with the tenets. One more confidently said, "I am an attachment parenting drop-out. I don't need that gold star."

Thankfully, the research clearly indicates that secure attachment happens when parents are keenly attuned to their babies and are fulfilling their needs. Often fulfilling those needs does require close proximity, but that does not have to happen with baby-wearing or co-sleeping. Babies do best on all scales when they come to learn that their parents are listening, are there for them, and provide ample physical touch.

The challenges I see with parents following the attachment parenting tenets revolve around parental burnout and child behaviour. Parents report sleep deprivation and not having enough alone time to regroup or recharge. When families come to me for help with their child's behaviour, I see well intentioned parents scooping in too quickly to rescue wailing toddlers, and not setting limits on a child's aggressive behaviour.

Babies, toddlers, and parents are not at their best when sleep-deprived. In fact, if I had to pick the number one skill for parents to have to increase their connection with their child and reduce defiance, is to learn how to not be exhausted, and harder yet, do what it takes to not be exhausted.

When parents are rested, they can hear their own intuition which provides the best advice out there.

I smiled when I saw director and writer Sarah Polley post this on her twitter, "...PLEASE make a film about Mommy Wars! Attachment parents and sleep doulas getting in shoving matches!" We do not need to go to war against each other—we need to help each other be rested. If you can feel good about baby-wearing and co-sleeping and you and your partner feel rested and connected, then go for it. If you do not, please know that secure attachment will happen more if you are rested than if you co-sleep and feel badly about it.

The primary goal of secure attachment is to meet the child's needs. What can happen when a baby becomes a toddler is that the parent can start forgetting that and use the attachment philosophy as a means of meeting her own needs. I love this quote from Laura Markham, PhD, "Unfortunately, trying to control a child—rather than setting limits with empathy and focusing on a close relationship—results in a rebellious, uncooperative toddler." She goes on to remind parents that we need to respond to long-term as well as short-term needs that includes setting empathetic limits.

When parents scoop in to rescue their children every time they experience frustration, pain, or an intense feeling, that child might start to learn that she is not capable of managing her own frustration, she does NOT NEED to manage her own frustration (because a parent will jump in to save the day), and that big feelings are scary and should be avoided. So the need of the parent to get their child to stop crying trumps the need of the child to develop coping skills through learning by consequences.

Again, Dr Markham so clearly states, "Giving in to kids' demands because we can't bear their unhappiness isn't attachment parenting, it's irresponsible parenting. It gives kids the message that their sad and angry feelings are so unbearable they must be fended off at all costs and often that other people's needs aren't important."

Secure attachment happens with attunement and meeting the child's needs—breastfeeding, co-sleeping or baby-wearing notwithstanding. If these tenets suit the family, are helping the goal of meeting a child's needs, and are preserving the mental health of the parents, then please do use them. If the tenets make you feel badly, please find a way to connect with your child that feels natural for you. 

Attachment parenting is a philosophy to achieve secure attachment with a child. It is not a set of "shoulds" that will guarantee a positive connection between parent and child. It is not helpful for a family (usually moms) to do "attachment parenting" no matter if the parent or child is struggling, with hopes of assuring happy children down the line. This hope may not transpire.

It is important for parents to take time to consider their parenting goals and learn the methods to meet them. I do provide great resources to help you achieve your goals over on my facebook page.