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How Much Attachment Parenting Is Necessary? The real keys to bonding

Erica Jong’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal kicked off yet another round of heated debate over attachment parenting. Writers, bloggers and moms echoed her view that women are in a bind: wearing our babies all day long while we puree farmer’s market vegetables, foregoing career and nursing around the clock – it’s a modern parenting prison. Others pointed out that moms are big girls, too – they can make choices for themselves, and we should be supporting things like more maternity leave so they can do so.

The conversation inevitably ends up at the doorstep of Dr. Sears, because we see him as occupying the most attached end of the spectrum. But, as I wrote about on this space before, Dr. Sears did not create, nor does he own the term “attachment.” Not only that, he actually diverges from attachment research at times. His parenting philosophy, like any other, draws on his personal life and clinical observations. Attachment itself is grounded in science – and it doesn’t have much to do with whether you wear your baby, sleep with her or even put her in daycare.

Sorting science from parenting advice

Sears’ term attachment parenting uses the developmental psychology term attachment, but in fact they’re very separate things. Attachment theory is the culmination of decades of experimental, observational, and, more recently, neuroscience research about how children bond and grow. Attachment parenting is expert advice, codified into tools and practices.

Once you separate the two terms, it’s easier to see that the end goal is attachment, but how you get there could be through any number of parenting strategies.

Research on attachment and human bonding started in the mid-1900s with the insights of British psychiatrist John Bowlby – before him, strict Watson-style theory dictated limited affection so as not to spoil a child – as Watson famously told parents, “Never let a child sit on your lap.”

Studying animals and humans, we learned that we come pre-packaged with an instinctive, hardwired attachment system. Babies are biologically programmed with signals like cooing, smiling, crying and reaching that keep parents close. As I pointed out last week, our brains are, in turn, biologically driven to respond through a feel-good chemical reward loop.

Over time, an attachment forms. A baby, and then a toddler, internalizes a mental map of the world – ideally it goes something like, “I am cared for, I can trust people, things will work out.” Peace of mind on the kid’s part tells him it’s okay to go out and explore because a “secure base” (you) will be there when he needs it.

Eye contact, physical affection, warmth, humor, play – these are essential ingredients. But baby-wearing, co-sleeping and staying home rather than using childcare are all options, not necessities. These things speak to our lifestyle choices and what works for individual families. They don’t have much to do with the security of our kids’ attachment.

That’s because the bonding system is biological, but how it plays out is unique to each parent-kid relationship.

Some families cuddle in to share a bed at night, others sleep separately and tickle, read books, talk and joke at the breakfast table. Some moms wear their babies, and others push them in a stroller and then stop in a park to pick them up, nuzzle, and point out ducks and airplanes. I see moms breastfeeding while talking on their cell phones (guilty as charged), and bottle feeding moms giggling and chatting up their babies.

No particular parenting style has the exclusive claim on attachment; bonds can be made regardless of what’s in your parenting repertoire.

More is not necessarily better

We know we’re supposed to interact with our babies – most of us got that memo a long time ago. In fact, from my point of view, the lesson is so engrained that many moms need permission to give their baby a little space. It helps to remember that just because something is good, doesn’t mean that more of it is better.

Attached doesn’t mean fused, and it doesn’t have to involve constant interaction. Recently, attachment researchers have seen that one of the best predictors of a healthy attachment is the parent’s ability to “mentalize” – meaning to see (or try to see) the feelings and perspective of their child – more so than the parent’s sheer volume of interaction. Sometimes our babies are telling us that they’re enjoying playing with their toes and grinning at a mobile, just like sometimes older kids are telling us they’re captivated in their own world vrooming a Matchbox car. Being attuned to the cues for space are just as important as responding to the cues for our company.

I think the more-is-not-necessarily-better stance is why daycare research surprises us. It doesn’t really jive with Sears-branded attachment parenting, but decades of research on daycare shows that daycare kids – provided they’re in a loving, stable, and stimulating environment – fare just as well as ones who are at home with parents, and they’re equally likely to be securely attached.

That’s probably because attachment is more about quality than quantity. And it works overtime to keep us bonded even when we’re physically separated.

I actually overlapped a lot with attachment parenting as a new mom: I breastfed my son for 18 months, and I wore him in a sling all the time. It felt right to me – and frankly, more convenient. A lot of Dr. Sears’ ideas fit for me – and I think he’s more flexible about doing what works for your family than people interpret him to be.

But my attachment with my son unfolded in ways that you couldn’t measure, reduce to a “tip,” or boil down to slings versus strollers or breast versus bottle.

We fell in love when he knocked over blocks and looked at me and I cracked up, when we had dance parties in the living room, when I watched him connect trains, and when I put him on the counter to chat every morning while I made breakfast. Multiply those moments by a thousand (and change the quirks for each family, because there’s truly no one right way), and that’s what makes up our attachment to our kids.

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