Attachment Parenting - Does it Go Too Far?

Dr. Markham,

I just finished looking through your web site on "attachment parenting," and since you invited even those who do not fully agree with you to respond, I decided to take a few minutes to write you.

I have to admit I always find the tone of attachment parenting web sites, books, and discussion boards to be extremely sanctimonious and defensive. You might say the defensive posturing comes from being "attacked" by other kinds of parenting experts and so on, but honestly, I find that the dominant voice at this point is almost always pro-"attachment parenting." I read the same things over and over in connection with attachment parenting: that all parents should a.) wear their babies almost all the time, b.) breast feed until the age of 2, c.) co-sleep, d.) feed their children only breast milk until at least 6 months old, e.) and never let your baby cry. Parents who do not choose all of these things are risking damaging their child.

Most of these things make sense to me in more moderate doses than pro-attachment folks seem to insist on. For example, I just can't and don't want to wear my baby all the time, although we do not use a stroller, and we go everywhere in our ergo. My baby didn't ever want to be held all the time, although we all love to snuggle in our family, and do. We never co-slept, unless you count the 2 weeks she was in our room, the first few days in our bed, then in her Moses basket before we gradually transferred her to her crib. Honestly we all seemed to sleep better, including her, because we weren't waking her when we woke, and I wasn't picking her up at every single peep she made. I know some families prefer co-sleeping for various reasons (one couple I know lost their first child to SIDS, and therefore needed to co-sleep for their own reasons unrelated to the child). But I don't find their "way" to be better than mine, or vice versa. I breast feed my child, but I have no plans to breast feed until the age of two. I think that by then, she will be significantly more independent in the world, including in regard to food. I don't think I am depriving my child if I don;t breast feed her for two years. I plan on starting to give my child some rice cereal, and some organic veggies sometime this week (she is 5 months). She is interested in food, opens her mouth to try and eat our food, tries to take if from our plates, etc. Her primary source of food will still be breast milk, but she seems to want to experiment with more.

Lastly, we have used Ferber's techniques just in the last couple of weeks, with great success, although the methods we used sound like nothing you (and most "attachment parenting" advocates) attributed to Ferber on your site. For one thing, after rocking her to sleep for 4 months (and we didn't mind doing that and found it appropriate), we started focusing on putting her down drowsy. When she cried we came back every few minutes to soothe, and if she seemed really upset, we picked her up and soothed her that way. We adjusted her bedtime after reading Ferber's theories on what can disrupt sleep. We worked on trying to decide what kind of sleep rhythms she had: mine (late riser) or her fathers (early riser). We think probably mine. After 1 week, we were ready to let her cry a little bit to see if she could put herself to sleep on her own. We set our limits before we started, and got on the same page. The first night, she cried for about 30 mins, and my husband stayed in the room with her almost the whole time, soothing her and stroking her head. The next night she cried for about 10 minutes, and the next, 5 minutes. The same was true for her nap times. She has always been a great sleeper, but was getting used to needing rocking and breast feeding to sleep. Now, she wakes once in the night when she is hungry, and I feed her and she drifts off to sleep in her own crib without fussing. I will say here that Ferber says repeatedly that parents should know their limits. For us, vomiting would not have been acceptable, for us, more than 30 mins of crying altogether would have been not have been acceptable. That would have signaled to us that she was not ready.

You are right to say that for some children (like ours) this is a workable method, and it might not be for all kids. Attachment parenting says parents should simply follow their instincts, but then it proceeds to tell you what your instincts should be. Also, when experts like you focus only on one extreme interpretation of someone like Ferber, it doesn't bode well for your cause. Most attachment parenting people I know haven't even read Ferber (although I am sure you have, but simply choose to leave out all the advice he gives that has nothing to do with "crying it out."). Vilifying Ferber isn't really proving that attachment parenting is better. I saw no footnoted evidence for your claims that children develop PTSD from Ferberizing, for example. PTSD happens to abused kids, kids who have been through wars, car accidents, etc. Not kids who have cried for 30 mins. while their parents check on them and soothe them lovingly. Attachment parenting diatribes always just sound like guilt tripping scare tactics to me, that do not focus on the health of families, but rather set up dynamics where kids are in charge when they have no business (or skills) to be in charge. We love our daughter every bit as much as any attachment parenting practitioner, and what we do isn't that different. We just don't sanctimoniously bash people over the head with our personal parenting practices. We are learning where to set limits with her, and where to follow her lead. She is physically hardy, and smiles and laughs all the time. She is an engaging happy kid. I guess we didn't "damage" her when we decided against "attachment parenting."

Best,
Ingrid

Ingrid,
Thanks so much for taking the time to write, and to tell me your story. It sounds to me like your daughter was easy to sleep train and learned quickly. I am so happy for you that she is sleeping well, and I am sure that getting a good night's sleep makes you a better mother.

And I agree with you that she wasn't traumatized. In my opinion, it is being left alone to cry that is a risk factor for babies. It doesn't sound like that is what happened with your daughter; she had her father to comfort her.

After reading your comment I went back and edited my article to add the citation of the Harvard study, and to make it clear that I am not suggesting that Ferbering causes PTSD. It may cause a susceptibility to PTSD, which is what the study said, but that would require another trauma later in life. I just left in my article a reference to the study authors' opinion that it is a risk factor for panic and anxiety disorders, which is what they say their study proved.

I hear how much you love your daughter. I am sure you know that a great deal of conventional parenting advice over the past century has been very harmful to children, from medicated births to bottle-feeding to letting babies cry to exercise their lungs, to spanking. The more research we have -- and there is now quite a bit -- the more it is clear that children benefit tremendously when their parents use the basic practices you mention: holding/wearing the baby a lot, breastfeeding into the toddler years, co-sleeping, delaying solids until approximately six months, and not letting babies cry. You have a baby, so you do not mention discipline, but I would add to your list of harmful practices any kind of punitive discipline.

However, parenting is an art, and every child is different. Good parenting attends to the needs of the baby, whether it is for solid food at five months (which your daughter is clearly expressing her readiness for), or to be held. I don't think that babies need to be carried when they are happy to be put down, in fact I think they need tummy time to learn to use their muscles. I also think every baby is different and responsive parenting responds to the needs of that unique child. So I don't assume that there are ironclad rules that all parents need to follow. And I certainly don't think that children should be in charge in their families. My basic rule for raising great kids is to set limits, but to do it with empathy, which means I am not at all in the mold of the stereotype of attachment parents who are afraid to set limits.

Thanks for taking the time for this conversation. All parents benefit from real discussion of these issues rather than sanctimonious judgments. I'm grateful.
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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