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Beyond the TIME Magazine Cover: Some Thoughts on Parent-Infant Attachment

If I were pregnant for the first time, and read this weeks’ TIME magazine cover story about “attachment parenting,” I think I’d be fairly well freaked out. I probably would have judged the breastfeeding mom profiled (how could you not the way her story was told) and I’d be scared of the Attachment Parenting “guru” Dr. Sears. Or at least skeptical. The piece opens with the story of a how a mom is so dedicated to being “attached” to her baby that she quits work BEFORE giving birth, and goes on to parse our generation’s obsession with bonding.

Of course, like every other woman who has read the TIME story, I would have known I was being manipulated and provoked. And, for the most part, I’d write this piece off as a click-generating, misogynist crock. But I’d still wonder, I think, what is up with “healthy attachment”? Is this actually something I should take seriously?

The bulk of the story in TIME– not just the cover and the provocation– actually contains some timely and thoughtful considerations. It’s true that Attachment Parenting– which promotes breastfeeding, baby-wearing and co-sleeping–has taken off over the last couple of decades.

For some reason many parents of our generation have responded to responsive parenting. The Attachment Parenting books sell like hotcakes. The sling and co-sleeper industries are booming. And breastfeeding is all the rage. (Though I must  point out that the same week this piece came out so did a State of The World’s Mother Report calling America the least-supportive place in the developed world when it comes to breastfeeding.)

Why has this priority of being attached and responsive taken off with Generation X? Maybe it’s because we’re the children of the divorce boom of the 1970s and 1980s. We were raised in a time when parents were arguably the least like helicopters in recent history: There was formula. There were latch keys. Maybe it’s just the pendulum swinging.

Throughout the 20th century,  parenting trends have consistently swung from parent-led (disciplinarian) to child-led (responsive) modes. Dr. Spock the father of permissive parenting had a strict, unfeeling dad! Go figure.

In fact, looking at the history of modern parenting can actually be a huge relief for a new parent because you see clearly that there are always these broad trends or fads– lashes, backlashes, permissive-this, spanking-that. You learn that the *right* way to parent is a cultural idea or ideal that keeps changing. There is no perfect truth. And, most importantly, you see that at any given time in this history, individual parents struggle with a one-size-fits-all agenda.

Sure, there are people for whom strict parenting seems to have worked very well. And then there are others who are traumatized. Same goes for the so-called “permissive” strategies. Some kids of permissive parents are truly secure, smart grown-ups. Others are wandering and sad. The stereotypes don’t help us understand individuals at all.

So, let’s forget the trend aspect here for a minute since it’s obviously so overblown and irritating and inevitable and look at what healthy attachment is all about instead.

We know that when a baby/toddler or young child is responded to and cared for in a loving, confident and consistent way he or she will grow up to feel more confident and secure in the world and in relationships. “Children with a history of secure attachment show substantially greater self-esteem, emotional health and ego resilience, positive affect, initiative, social competence, and concentration in play than do their insecure peers” (Wallin, D. Attachment in Psychotherapy, 2007).

The idea of secure attachment comes from Attachment Theory which came out of studies of World War Two era orphans who were abandoned and left in cribs and who were literally not held or touched for many months. No one made eye contact with them or talked to them or cuddled them. They grew up with serious problems connecting to others.

Attachment Parenting is an off-shoot of this field of study. But here’s the deal: while Attachment Parenting, as described by Dr. Sears and others, involves breastfeeding, baby-wearing and co-sleeping, healthy attachment does not require these specific actions. The Sears books promote breastfeeding, co-cleeping and baby-wearing as three “tenets” of attachment parenting, but not the three requirements of healthy attachment. This is how it’s read sometimes but that’s not entirely what he was saying, or what’s really going on.

Breastfeeding is one way to bond with your baby. For many it’s a lovely way to bond. Co-sleeping (or sleeping near the newborn in the same room, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics) encourages responsiveness. And baby-wearing helps moms and dads become familiar with a baby’s cues — you’ve got the baby right there, so you sense the tiredness, the hunger, the curiosity, etc and you can respond to it. We have data to support these practices as healthy and potentially great for fostering connection.

But of course it’s not as simple as checking these things off a list. A mom can breastfeed around the clock and still be very distant and non-responsive if she’s extremely weary and depressed and/or exhausted and/or has no support. Or a mom can formula feed and be very in tune with, and responsive to, the baby’s emotions and needs. A psychologist once told me, “Bonding is about love. And it’s about touch. Not food.”

Though its readership is a small fraction of TIME magazine’s, the excellent blog Science and Sensibility published its own far less divisive story about attachment this week. It’s written by Dr. Jessica Zucker, a psychotherapist who specializes in early motherhood and infant bonding. Here’s what she has to say:

“Research shows the number of hours spent together is not necessarily equated with security of attachment. For example, if a mother is home with her child full-time feeling depressed, notably overwhelmed, and appreciably disconnected from her infant, the distressing quality of their interactions may deleteriously impact the child’s sense of poise and/or interpersonal security. Thus, having a nuanced sense of what makes you feel the most present with your child will benefit the emotional health of your family.


The caregiver-infant patterns of communication hold great potential in establishing a secure attachment. Consistent maternal attunement facilitates the infant’s ability to freely explore the world around her, engage in spontaneous play, and rely on the caregiver to provide loving responses.

Security is further felt when the caregiver illustrates thoughtful actions and mindful behaviors.

Positive behaviors to reinforce secure attachment include:

  • narrating for your child the events of the day as you move from one activity to the next,
  • prolonged gazing and smiling, cuddling and comforting, skin to skin gentle touch,
  • calmly and consistently tolerating the variety of emotional states your baby exhibits as she begins to take in the world around her.”

 

I encourage you to read the whole piece as she gets further into really important issues about how the way we were raised, and our worries and anxieties about our own childhoods are very significant in how we respond to our own kids and our new roles.

The TIME magazine article touches on Dr. Sears’ own childhood as one fraught with abandonment and punishment.  The story reminds one of Dr. Spock’s. But we all have our own narratives. And it makes much more sense for us to find tools that help us identify our own needs, our own stories and assumptions and fears and hopes and values than to follow a prescribed set of steps that are supposed to work for every parent and every kid.

Of course, it’s hard to write a hot cover story about “the nuance of what makes you feel present with your baby.” But really we should all be encouraged to trust our instincts way more than we do. Also, not to put too sappy a point on it, but bonding is one of the most pleasurable aspects of motherhood and fatherhood. Falling in love with your baby–whether it happens right away or over time, with breastfeeding or co-sleeping or without–is one of the best feelings in the whole world. Let that be a revelation. Not a to-do list.

Follow Ceridwen’s blogging on Facebook or check out her book, From The Hips.

 

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