ATTACHMENT PARENTING: Right for some, not for others

Ten years ago, few parents had heard the term Attachment Parenting. Today, it is gaining attention and attracting growing numbers of proponents, but with this rising awareness is increased controversy about some of its policies. The term “attachment parenting” was coined about 20 years ago by pediatrician Dr. William Sears, who has written 16 parenting books mostly with his wife, Martha Sears, R.N. Attachment Parenting (AP) is an approach to parenting based on nurturing methods that create a strong attachment between parents and child, enabling “the child to develop more secure, empathic, peaceful and enduring relationships,” according to the Attachment Parenting International (API) website. Lysa Parker, co-founder and executive director of API, an organization linking 80 like-minded groups worldwide, reports that in the past year, the API website has had a 60 percent increase in hits, with 80,000 hits per month in the last six months. Judyth Stavans, who founded the Westchester and Putnam AP Support Group six years ago, has also noticed increased interest in AP recently; she speculates that this might be because parents are looking for ways to stay closer to their children in the aftermath of 9/11.

The Pros and Cons of Attachment Parenting In his newest book, The Successful Child, Dr. Sears states: “Responsiveness is the guiding principle behind attachment parenting. Responding to your infant’s needs builds trust between you, and trust is at the heart of a strong connection between parents and child.” The “tools” to help create that connection, described on the API website, are: _ Preparation for childbirth. _ Emotional responsiveness to your baby. _ Breastfeeding your baby. _ Baby wearing _wearing baby close to one’s body). _ Sharing sleep. _ Avoiding frequent and prolonged separations from your baby. _ Positive discipline through non-violent means. _ Maintaining balance in your family life. While most experts agree on the importance of some of these recommendations, others have generated the kind of debates described below.

• Breastfeeding Most pediatricians and parenting experts today recommend breastfeeding infants for the first 6-12 months. What some consider controversial is AP’s advocacy of child-led weaning. In his book, Nighttime Parenting—How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep, Dr. Sears advises mothers to nurse as long as both they and their children are fulfilled, warning: “Whenever a child is weaned from any of these places of security before he is ready, he is at risk for developing what I call behaviors of premature weaning … anger, aggression, and moodiness, all of which can stay with the child through life.” Kim Shubert, founder of a Westchester AP playgroup, acknowledges the challenge extended breastfeeding places on women who return to the workplace, but says, “On the surface it seems like a lot of effort and sacrifice compared to just leaving your baby with a sitter and formula, but … the strong bond that will develop as a result of the breastfeeding is well worth it.” Many experts who promote breastfeeding reassure parents that such a bond is possible even if the baby is weaned early. John Rosemond, family psychologist, author of nine parenting books, and founder of The Center for Affirmative Parenting in North Carolina, believes, “If after 6 to 9 months, a parent feels she’s had enough of breastfeeding, that feeling should be respected. There is no evidence that weaning a child after 6, 9 or 12 months causes any psychological trauma.” Christine, a Yorktown Heights mother of two, breastfed her first son until he was 16 months old, then decided it was time to stop. “Parents have their own needs, and if a child is thriving, there’s no reason not to stop if you feel it’s time,” she says. She also maintains that parent-initiated weaning helps children learn how to accept change as they grow older.

• Baby Wearing AP advocates wearing a soft sling to carry your baby close to you. Tracy, one of the mothers at the Westchester/Putnam AP Support Group, notes that many of the baby gadgets mothers are encouraged to buy, such as infant seats and swings, are geared towards separating them from their infants. AP parents carry their babies with them wherever they go: to work, on vacation, and even out on social occasions. Stavans explains, “The anxiety of separation isn’t there if you don’t separate too early.” Dr. Georgina Lester, head of pediatrics at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow, concedes that baby wearing may help calm high-demand babies, but feels, “They also need to learn that they don’t always have to be on your chest.” She cautions that “babies do not need to be out on Saturday night… It’s more important for them to have routines and patterns in their life.” Parents do not have to be constant servants, even with infants, contends Rosemond. “Human beings can be trained to be less demanding and patient. You do it by gradually accustoming a child to separations and extending the time,” he explains.

• Shared Sleep AP proponents recommend co-sleeping, the sharing of a family bed, to help mothers get needed rest, reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and increase the frequency of breastfeeding. Supporters of shared sleep also feel it gives children assurances of love at night so they don’t experience night fears and abandonment. But co-sleeping is perhaps the most controversial aspect of AP. The results of a four-year study on SIDS and related deaths published in 2000 found that, “Nearly one half of the infants died while sharing a sleep surface with one or more bedmates… All deaths occurred on sleep surfaces that were not designed specifically for infant sleep.” Another recent study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association revealed that placing babies in adult beds puts them at risk for strangulation and suffocation, and recommended putting babies to sleep on their backs on firm mattresses without soft bedding and pillows in cribs that meet current safety standards. API challenges the reliability of CPSC’s research, and has issued guidelines for safe co-sleeping. These include putting infants to sleep on their backs, beside the mother rather than between the parents; using a large, firm bed and preventing the baby from falling out; not co-sleeping on a waterbed or couch; not putting an infant to sleep alone on an adult bed; not using a lot of pillows or fluffy bedding; not co-sleeping when sleep-deprived or under the influence of drugs, alcohol, cold or allergy medications; and permitting siblings and babysitters to sleep with an infant. Mary, the mother of two middle school aged children in New Rochelle, began co-sleeping with her first child because he was colicky. She found she could nurse him and they would fall asleep together. Criticized by family and friends, and warned that it would spoil the child and damage her marriage, Mary stresses that it is important for both parents to subscribe to the family bed. “Though co-sleeping is not easy to do in this culture,” she says, “it was absolutely the sweetest thing in the world.” As for the working mother, Shubert admits that co-sleeping can be difficult if the child is on an irregular schedule, but cites “the huge benefit of still being able to develop a strong bond with her child.” The notion that children need a regular bedtime and should be able to fall asleep themselves is embodied by Dr. Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston. In his 1985 book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, Dr. Ferber lays out his technique, often called “Ferberizing”, in which parents leave their children (6 months old and up) in bed to cry, intervening after 5-10 minutes to offer comfort (but not pick up the baby), then increasing the intervals to a maximum of 15 minutes until the baby falls asleep. Janet, an Ossining mother of two teenagers, “Ferberized” both sons when they were a year old and began waking in the night. “The first night, my older son cried for an hour before falling asleep. The second night, he cried for 10 minutes, then went right to sleep. He’s never had a problem going to sleep since. My second son was the same.” For parents who cannot stomach the crying, sleep expert Jodi Mindell, author of Sleeping Through the Night, offers a gentler version of Ferberization. If you can only tolerate the crying for one minute, she says, wait one minute before going in to comfort your child, but keep increasing the time before you intervene.

• Avoiding Prolonged Separations AP maintains that lengthy and prolonged separations between parent and child can cause a child to go through the stages of grief and even affect his attachment to the parent because babies do not understand that the parent will return. But Dr. Lester feels that if a baby is never separated from his parents during the first year, both mother and child may have heightened separation issues. Christine from Yorktown Heights concurs, suggesting that occasionally leaving children with a babysitter helps them learn to build relationships with others and realize that Mom and Dad always come back.

• Positive Discipline AP’s concept of discipline involves setting limits for your child in a loving manner through non-violent methods, while not sanctioning indulgence. Dr. Sears warns parents not to give in to their children’s every desire so they will learn to understand delayed gratification. Stavans explains that AP examines what is age-appropriate to try to understand what’s causing an underlying behavior. Beth from Mahopac reports that she has never had discipline problems with her 2-year-old daughter. They discuss everything and arrive at decisions through compromise. Tracy and her husband make choices based on what’s best for their 20-month-old son, and since all activities are family-centered, life runs smoothly. While Rosemond feels AP is appropriate in infancy and toddlerhood, he asserts that there are three seasons to parenthood. During the first season of infancy and early toddlerhood, parents should serve their children in order to make them feel special and powerful, and to “root” them in the world. During the second season, children aged 3 to 13, parents must shift from being caretakers to authority figures as their primary function becomes to provide leadership and teach social values. “Orbiting around a child is incompatible with the need to discipline. You end up with an undisciplined and self-centered child,” Rosemond says. The third season requires that parents of teenagers change from micromanaging to mentoring, establishing and enforcing rules so that children learn they are responsible for their own behavior.

Is AP Right For You? Attachment parenting is based on respecting the individual temperament of one’s child. When parents respond consistently to their child, the child learns that his needs will be met, bonds with people, and becomes sensitive and giving. Some criticize AP because they believe it makes children too dependent, but Stavans observes that “what makes children truly independent and successful is the feeling of being secure and loved.” Rosemond takes issue with AP’s “implication that if you don’t do what they advocate, you will harm your child, and there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. Today’s parents are anxious enough without this propaganda.” Although AP is sometimes characterized as judgmental of non-practitioners, API states on its website that it recognizes families have diverse circumstances in their lives that may make it difficult to practice all the AP ideals. What’s important, it continues, is to be sensitive to the child’s needs. Dr. Lester believes AP tenets work well for certain families, particularly those with high-demand children, but feels it’s too rigid a philosophy for everyone and can put added pressure on a family. Her parenting philosophy is one of practicality: use what works. Each family must make choices based on its circumstances, its particular needs, and the priorities and temperaments of its members. Yet remember the wise words of Dr. Benjamin Spock on page one of his classic, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, first published in 1945: "Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your common sense… You know more than you think you do."

Resources: _ Attachment Parenting of Westchester/Putnam Support Group: Meets 10am-noon the second Friday of each month at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Parish House, Katonah Ave., Katonah. Judyth Stavans (914) 245-0844 ( or Sherri (914) 276-0302 ( _ Attachment Parenting Playgroup: Meets in various locations around Westchester the first Monday of each month from 1-3:30pm. This month’s meeting is December 2. Kimberly Shubert (718) 885-2405, Sharon (914) 723-7017 or email _ Attachment Parenting International, 1508 Claremont Place, Nashville, TN 37215, (615) 298-4334 or _ The Successful Child by William Sears, M.D., and Martha Sears, R.N. (Little Brown and Company, 2002). _ A Family of Value by John Rosemond. (Andrews and McMeel, 1995). _ Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber, M.D. (Simon and Schuster, 1985). _ Sleeping Through the Night by Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D. (Harper Perennial, 1997)