Like many moms, I was determined to be the kind of mother I never had.
My own experience growing up was one of alienation; I spent much of my childhood crying alone, emotionally and physically far from my parents. I was fearful and at the mercy of other children stronger and less sensitive than myself. My parents’ philosophy was hands off; I emerged from my family disconnected and deeply lonely.
Before even trying to get pregnant, I researched parenting and child development so I could understand what children need to grow up happy. My cousin recommended Dr. William Sears’ The Baby Book, and I learned a whole new theory and practice of parenting. He coined the term Attachment Parenting (AP), which aims to promote a strong connection between baby and parent, especially Mom. This bond, the theory goes, will result in a healthy, well adjusted person. Since he published the book in 1993, AP has moved from the fringes into the mainstream, with many of its ideas pretty much the norm for modern parents.
As a list (see below), the principles of attachment parenting sound pretty obvious and not the sole domain of the Attachment Parenting philosophy. Who wouldn’t “prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenting”? And who wouldn’t “respond to their child with sensitivity”? They seem like no-brainers.
However, once my son, Alexi, was born, putting some of the ideals into practice was daunting at times. My partner, Lucie, and I continuously evaluated the AP-style decisions we’d made, including:
- breastfeeding, which was exhausting me on a daily basis (a key component of #2)
- carrying my baby in a sling instead of using a stroller when he weighed 25 pounds at six months (close body contact is part of #4)
- co-sleeping, which had worked well for Lucie and Alexi but not for me (not just sleeping in a cot next to our bed, but sleeping in the same bed – #5)
- using techniques like distraction instead of punishment, when I felt my child simply wasn’t listening to me (#7)
I went back to my original goals many times and our family revised a few of them along the way. What I’ve come away with, three years since my son was born, is that for us, it is worthwhile to parent with an underlying foundation of AP.
AP is actually more widespread than many people realize says Judy Arnall, president of Attachment Parenting Canada and author of the international bestseller, Discipline Without Distress. “People do it but they don’t know they’re doing it. It’s become more mainstream, especially in Canada.”
Judy says the research supporting AP has existed for close to 50 years, yet Canadian families have been slow to implement changes in parenting based on those findings.
“Our culture is very much focused on creating little independent individuals and the earlier the better. The corporate culture embraces that; they want rested mommies and daddies back to work very soon after baby’s born.”
Kelly Bartlett is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator, leader for AP International and author of Encouraging Words for Kids. She says AP can be practised in any number of ways, and not exclusively by Mom or Dad.
“Attachment parenting is not a set of rules and requirements; it’s simply about raising kids in ways that meet their physical and emotional needs. This creates a trust in children of their caregivers. So AP is not about staying home as the only option for raising securely attached kids; it’s about ensuring that their needs are met no matter whose care they’re in. Every family in any situation can choose the tools that work best for them.”
A bad rap
Somewhere along the line, AP has morphed in some people’s minds to mean laissez-faire parenting, or choosing the path of least resistance when it comes to dealing with kids. One common misconception is that AP moms and dads don’t use discipline and their children do what they please without limits or standards of behaviour. Kelly refutes that notion. “Attachment parenting doesn’t mean no discipline or giving in to a child’s every demand,” she says. “More accurately, AP means disciplining with the intent of maintaining a secure relationship. So, instead of using punitive methods that create distance between a parent and child, AP advocates for using positive discipline – tools that meet a child’s underlying needs and work to address behaviour on a deeper level.”
Media stereotypes have added to the bad rap. Images like the now infamous Time magazine cover showing L.A. mom Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding a very large three-year-old standing on a chair reinforce the idea that AP parents are too close to their kids. Alberta writer Kristy McKay says, “There might be some moms who are shy about practising AP; ‘if I carry my son too much, I’ll look like a hippie and people will judge me.’ There’s so much more to AP than the caricature.”
Like me, Kristy knew she didn’t want to parent her children the way she had been parented. “I was raised in a closed household, without a lot of physical touch or emotional connection. You would never openly say I love you, and you wouldn’t talk about your feelings. When I left my family home and went to university where I met my husband, I realized I didn’t like being that way; I like being able to tell people I love them.” Her research – and countless studies – confirm her instincts. “If you snuggle your kids, there’s a part of the brain that will develop more.”
Victoria, B.C. parent educator Linda Clement, whose children are now in their 20s, said she was drawn to AP practices early on. Before she had her children, she met a couple who had what she thought to be an unusual relationship with their children. “I didn’t know people who hung out with their kids because they liked them. The kids were eight and 10, they would be in the company of adults and they would sit at the table, look up and make eye contact and make a comment about the conversation going on. It was amazing to me.” She spent a great deal of time observing that family to understand and absorb what was happening. When she had her children, she implemented what she had learned.
Parenting in general can be overwhelming, time consuming and restrictive. For me, AP sometimes felt like a Herculean task; yielding to my son’s needs meant a lot more sacrifices than I was initially prepared for. There are a number of reasons why.
Breastfeeding past six months
While some mothers find breastfeeding easy and “natural”, many struggle with the experience, especially at first. Kyrsten Burns was one of them. As a doula, she knew that this was normal, and that hanging in there while finding support was key to success. Once her son learned to latch on, they were able to continue past her son’s second birthday. As a result, she’s committed to helping her clients who are challenged early on. “I tell them, ‘If this is not for you, you need to take care of yourself and your family.’ But if I have a mom who’s having a lot of problems but she’s committed, I am her champion. I tell her, ‘you can do this, here’s a lactation consultant who will help your baby latch if that’s the issue … you can absolutely do this.’”
There are still enormous social pressures against continuing breastfeeding into the toddler years. Kristy felt this acutely. “I would often hear ‘Oh my God, your son speaks full sentences and you’re still nursing him?’ I would never nurse him in front of my dad. I’d say, ‘Jasper needs a diaper change’ and go into another room. I didn’t want the flack.”
Yet Judy notes that bottle feeding is not an AP deal breaker. “There are many AP parents who choose to bottle feed. The most important thing is you treat your kids with nurturing and warmth. Breastfeeding is nice but it’s not the end all be all. The point is feeding with love and attunement.”
For me, this was the most difficult part of AP. Between sleep deprivation, hormonal imbalance from intensive breastfeeding and the physical struggle involved with carrying a massive-sized infant around instead of using a stroller, I found myself weepy on a regular basis.
Kristy reported a similar experience. “At first, there was no sense of taking care of myself. I went hard and gave so much. I would have people who love me saying things like, ‘you have to leave the house with me right now. We’re going to yoga class then tea!’”
Judy notes that support can also be found online. “I remember my partner was away and I was home a lot with four kids. One day some mom tore a strip off me in Costco for allowing my children to ride on their shopping carts, which was safe, but looked like they were horsing around.” Her AP approach guided her to let them keep playing instead of yelling or restricting them. “I got home and I had no one to talk to. So I got on my AP forums, and it was wonderful. You get 30 responses saying ‘you’re a good mom.’”
Instead of negative discipline tactics like time out or punishment, AP theory promotes what’s known as positive discipline. “Positive discipline isn’t about managing a child’s behaviour,” says Kelly. “It’s about teaching him to manage his own behaviour. The tools of positive discipline are non-punitive, yet kind and firm at the same time. They are about setting limits while supporting and accepting the child’s emotions. In the long run, this promotes attachment. Parent-child relationships become more about trust and less about fear.”
Many friends of mine continue using punitive tactics because they work: they stop the unwanted behaviour. Kelly agrees, but notes the reason why: “They work because of fear. Parents are instilling a sense of fear in a child… fear of being hurt, fear of making a mistake, fear of repeating the unwanted behaviour in the future, fear of a parent, fear of being a ‘bad’ person.”
One of the fears and misconceptions of AP children is that they will remain dependent or clingy. “The concept is that a child who first feels secure with his parents will be eventually more secure in the outside world,” says Kristy McKay. “When the kid is ready to explore, he will. That was the situation of my son. From day one, I couldn’t put him down, not for two seconds. He was bawling his eyes out while I took a shower. Then when he was one, all of a sudden he would crawl and toddle over to a new person, then scoot back to me. Now he is really coming out of his shell.”
Linda shares a similar experience. “My youngest is a highly sensitive person. She sat on my lap until she was 12, which bothered a lot of people. They predicted this child would never be independent. But at 17 she wanted to travel. She took the money she made as a youth supervisor and took a trip to England and Scotland. She planned it, she paid for it and she went, by herself. She picked out plane fares, hostels, plays and day trips. This is the kid who did not get off my lap for 12 years.”
Judy says that AP parents reap what they’ve sown when their children become teenagers. “I can’t tell you how rewarding it is through the teen years. Through that attachment you still keep connected emotionally. If you raise kids without punishing them, and always try to communicate and solve problems, you are less likely to have issues when they’re older. They still do silly things, but you have a connection, you can talk to them. You have a huge influence over what they do, just because they value you.”
Pick and choose
AP’s eighth principle, “strive for balance in personal and family life,” provides parents with the flexibility to adopt the AP tools that work for them to support healthy attachment and attend to their own needs so the family as a whole can be well. I know my family has gained tremendously from AP practices. My son will be three this month. He is an affectionate, outgoing and curious child who connects easily with others, expresses his feelings freely and enjoys life on a daily basis. Through conversations like this one, it is my hope that parents can continue learning with the goal of improving the health of our families.
How do you handle discipline?
AP discipline is neither punitive, nor is it wishy-washy. Using a typical challenge of getting your kids through a meal, Kelly Bartlett highlights the different ways of solving the problem.
A negative approach
“Some parents might attach a consequence to not eating, such as ‘If you’re not going to eat this, then no TV later/no trip to the park/you can’t go to the birthday party.’ Or, some parents might try to manipulate the child: ‘If you loved Mommy, you would take a bite…’ or, ‘If you don’t eat, you’ll shrivel up/ wither away to nothing.’ In the extreme, some parents might even do something directly punitive, such as send a child away to his room until he’s ‘ready’ to eat.”
A positive approach
At the end of the meal, the parent might say, “I can see you didn’t eat very much. You might be hungry in a while, but we’ll eat again at dinner time (or bedtime). An AP parent would try to avoid the conflict in the first place by making mealtime a bit more flexible, providing a few healthy options and allow your child to choose what to eat. Eat together and make meals a family affair. You’re setting a positive example for eating habits and mealtimes.”
Gail Marlene Schwartz lives in Montreal and has written frequently for ParentsCanada. She is also a proud contributor to the new nonfiction anthology, How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2013.