Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Attachment parenting 101

Do you remember Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in Away We Go? She was the stereotypical extreme of the hippie attachment parent, breastfeeding another woman’s child without her consent and refusing strollers because “why would you want to push your baby away from you?” I’d been reading a lot of good about attachment parenting, though, here and in various other places. So I decided to see what someone with a Ph.D. in neuroscience had to say about attachment parenting: I read Mayim Bialik’s Beyond the Sling, which made me realize that I’m more of an attachment parent than I thought. It shouldn’t have surprised me.

I was already familiar with John Bowlby’s attachment theory, thanks to my certificate in psychology. In essence, a baby who has a secure attachment to his parents (“upset when separated from parent, greets parents positively when they return, seeks comfort from parent when scared, prefers parents over strangers”*) usually grows up to be a well-adjusted adult (“trusting, loving relationships, good self-esteem, shares emotions easily with others, seeks social support”* – traits that many parents want to foster in their children). So the bond created by responding adequately to a child’s needs later fosters self-reliance and healthy independence in that child.

That theory is the basis of attachment parenting, but there’s more to it than that (and of course there are more ways to achieve secure attachment than just attachment parenting). Mayim Bialik says that Attachment Parenting International (API) identifies [attachment parenting] as guided by eight principles. The practical application varies greatly but it often looks something like this:
1. Birth: Prepare for birth and become educated about natural birth options and their benefits for baby and mother.
2. Breastfeeding/breast milk: A human mother’s milk is the optimal food for human babies, and bottle feeding should mimic as many aspects of breastfeeding as possible.
3. Be sensitive: Respond sensitively to your children.
4. Bonding through touch: Use physical contact such as baby wearing, breastfeeding, and massage to convey tenderness, love, and affection.
5. Bedding: Parent your children at night as well as in the day, looking to safe co-sleeping as an option.
6. Be there: Ensure consistent parenting by a primary caregiver or a trained and sensitive substitute.
7. Be gentle: Use positive discipline, forgoing corporal punishment.
8. Balance: Balance your needs with those of your child.
It should be noted that no one does all eight perfectly, nor do you have to subscribe to all of them to benefit from these principles. These are simply guidelines that can serve as a jumping-off place for your decision-making.”*

It is interesting to note that there seems to be a high correlation between attachment parents and parents who are vegans, who don’t vaccinate their children, who use elimination communication, who homeschool, etc., even though those are not requirements of attachment parenting.

We’re not a vegan household, but we are flexitarians. I personally believe in avoiding unnecessary medical intervention in general (and keep in mind that even the mildest medications aren’t 100% safe). This means that if for example my child had a viral (and not bacterial) infection, I wouldn’t give him antibiotics, as those would be utterly useless. I do, however, believe in vaccinating children; I think that any hypothetical risk would pale in comparison to, say, polio. And to get back to that list, I was all set for a natural birth (which didn’t happen), and I’m breastfeeding. I love baby-wearing, but I’m not doing it as often as I would like; the Little Prince is not too fond of it at this point (perhaps only because he isn’t used to it!), though he loves to be held. At four months, he is still sleeping in his bassinette in our bedroom, and while that works wonderfully for us at this point, I’ll need to consider transitioning soon, as I don’t see us having a family bed – but let’s get him through this sleep regression first. I do plan on emphasizing independent thinking and using positive discipline to raise the Little Prince, as that whole philosophy makes sense to me in theory – we’ll see how patient I am in practice. (See here for some actual data on the benefits of positive parenting.)

As for elimination communication, I feel that it isn’t something you can go into and do half-assed (pardon the pun). The more I read about it, the more I think it would work (as it does in so many cultures around the world, though it is now marginalized here) and be absolutely wonderful IF ONLY I COULD COMMIT TO IT 100%, which I don’t feel capable of doing. Too many surfaces to wash, too little understanding of the Little Prince’s pre-elimination cues, too much involvement, too daunting at this point. So cloth diapers it is. (But to give you an example, Ms. Bialik started EC when her first child was 6 months old, and when he was 13 months, he was wearing underwear exclusively, while still breastfed and non-verbal. Just to show how our modern Western preconceptions of “normal” aren’t all there is! You can read a quick explanation of EC here and learn more here.)

To be clear, I’m still cherry-picking my way through various parenting approaches, and I’m aware that a single idea can belong to various approaches (not to mention good old common sense) with a different term. I just thought I’d share a few things about this book, because I was pleasantly surprised with how much it resonated with me. I’m planning on reading Bringing Up Bébé next (I’m reading one non-parenting book between each child-related book, all at a much slower pace than before last summer).

*Excerpted from Beyond the Sling.

[Update, Dec. 4th, 2013: The Engineer would like it noted that he does not identify as flexitarian. I have to admit I’ve been less diligent than usual about coming up with vegetarian and vegan meals in the past 4 months, because I’m low on both time and energy these days. However, the reason that I said “we” are flexitarians is that when I’m in charge of dinner, the Engineer eats what I put on the table, and since that is flexitarian fare, he is flexitarian at least on that occasion, albeit more by accident than through any decision-making of his own.]

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