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

By ceridwen |

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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About ceridwen

ceridwen

ceridwen

Ceridwen Morris is a writer, mother, and certified childbirth educator. She is the author of several books and screenplays, including (Three Rivers; 2007). She serves on the board of The Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York and teaches at Tribeca Parenting in New York City. Read bio and latest posts → Read Ceridwen's latest posts →

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

  1. Grace says:

    Thank you for this! As a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology whose research focuses on attachment THEORY, nothing is more infuriating than the misappropriation of the science by the attachment parenting movement. The point that virtually all children (with the exception of those raised in institutional settings or with severe developmental impairments) form attachments to their caregivers is so lost in a movement that proclaims to tell you how to become attached to your children and the fact that TIME is currently running an online quiz called “Are you too attached?” is equally ludicrous.

  2. The Mommy Psychologist says:

    Thank you fellow psychologist above! And thank you for this article, too! As a child psychologist and a mom, one of the things that is so misleading about attachment parenting is the name. It is only called attachment parenting because of the theory it was based upon. It is not called this because it is the only form of parenting which allows parents to develop a secure attachment relationship with their children. There are numerous ways to develop a secure attachment relationship with our kids. I explore more of this myth here for anyone who is interested:
    http://www.themommypsychologist.com/2012/04/15/what-does-the-mommy-psychologist-have-to-say-about-attachment-parenting/

  3. ceridwen says:

    Thank you guys! I appreciate and it and I really enjoyed themommypsychologist post.

  4. Shandra says:

    This is a very nuanced piece; thank you. I still enjoyed the Time piece a lot though because even a quick look at AP sites like mothering dot com reveal women telling women to sink their needs to the bottom of the pile in service of “bonding” — which, as you have pointed out, is pretty robust!

    I found the Dr. Sears books awful and my husband threw them out. Here’s a quote from a piece I agree with wholeheartedly: “We are struck that both Rosin and Warner still look to Dr. Sears and his disciples for affirmation. We were hoping we were about done with Dr. Sears and “attachment parenting”. I can’t count the number of mothers who have come to Soho Parenting with “Post-Traumatic Sears Disorder.” Here are the symptoms: debilitating guilt, exhaustion, crying outbursts, marital conflict and a baby who cannot sit or play independently for more than two minutes. Of course, that could describe any new mother, but the followers of Sears have a special brand of this overwhelmed state. They have drunk the Sears Kool-Aid that 24/7 nursing, holding, “bonding” with your baby is the only way to secure the mother baby attachment. They come for guidance when their babies are 6, 9, 12 months, feeling like complete failures. They just can’t manage what Dr. Sears’s wife, Martha Sears has purportedly done with her 11 children.”

    http://www.achildgrows.com/2009/04/13/the-case-against-dr-sears/

    I

  5. ashmom says:

    This is insightful, but I wish many Americans who get so hung up and passionate and judgmental about breastfeeding directed the same energy towards child hunger in the U.S. I have many international friends, and never have I heard from them even the slightest debate about breastfeeding. It is quite trivial when compared to real social issues in the world, although I will agree that breastfeeding moms and maternity leave laws need a major overhaul in our rights and respect for our privileges.

  6. dragop21 says:

    I am always perplexed by these discussions about attachment parenting. I think, in retrospect, that I was depressed my first year of motherhood due to a combination of factors that I won’t bother to list here. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I read a few books, but mostly felt like I was just trying to keep my head above the water. After I started to read about AP, I realised that I needed to become more in tune with my child, and see her as a person. To me, actually it was more about the positive discipline, than then baby wearing, breastfeeding stuff. at the time, I just did what did come naturally to me at the time, and I did breastfeed for a long time considering I wasn’t Attachment Parenting specifically at the time. anyway, I now have 4 children and I definitely have a philosophy and feel like I know what I am doing (as much as you can of course), but I am also NOT a helicopter parent. that is the weird thing to me. Just because I am attentive to their needs as infants doesn’t mean that I will be at their beck and call when they are 3 or 16. I don’t think so. I am not their slave. this also means I expect my children to do things independently sooner than I noticed a lot of my friends expect their kids to do things. I don’t save my child from every failure, I don’t tell them they are such special snowflakes, I am not that indulgent with them. I think by letting them fail, guiding them in problem solving, this will lead to independent thinkers who are creative and capable. and who can do their own laundry.

    1. ceridwen says:

      Dragop21, It baffles me when early months/years of being very enmeshed with/responsive to an infant is assumed to graduate to “helicopter parenting.” According to what I’ve read about the attachment style of parenting, this whole project is about creating a solid base FROM WHICH THE CHILD WILL LAUNCH. It’s not about keeping the kid by your side or otherwise hovered-over into adulthood. What you describe– your philosophy– sounds so reasonable and organic and actually more like what I see among my friends than any of the stereotypes. You are very close with an infant (because they are helpless) and because you’re this clever, responsive parent you see when they need their independence and bit by bit you let them out into the world and watch them feel safe in it…. Makes sense.

  7. B says:

    My parents did not divorce (and I think painting my entire generations the children of such situations does us all a disservice). And when I got a key to the house at age 9 I felt trusted not abandoned.
    I’m tired of most people equating helicoptering as a reaction to the 70s/80s. I’d much rather raise My kid like that than the way his bubble wrapped peers are being raised.

  8. Rachael says:

    Did you ever stop to think of the mother, who if they didn’t breastfeed their child would go hungry? Has no other option? Did it ever occur to you that baby wearing is to many moms/dads the only way to carry their child-have no access to modern strollers? and co-sleeping is from necessity?

  9. Mg says:

    What a wonderful post, thank you! Great to hear a balanced, reasonable, non-doctrinated point of view.

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