The other day I made a comment that led to an animated online discussion with a blogger (Annie) who writes about Attachment Parenting. Attachment Parenting is a movement founded by William Sears, M.D. He recommends maintaining close physical contact with a baby 24 hours a day for the sake of bonding. Parents are encouraged to keep the baby next to them in their arms or in a baby carrier, to co-sleep, and to nurse a child for comfort whenever the baby cries or a toddler asks.
I commented on an article on ‘baby sleep tips’, much of which was valid and I could support. But the recommended “No Cry” book series and the responses to parent questions about children crying at bedtime gave me the impression that the goal of Attachment Parenting is a quiet baby at all costs – that a quieted child is a securely attached child. I disagree, and thought this spirited exchange was worth sharing.
Although I appreciate much of this advice, parents should never feel they are failing because a baby cries. When a baby’s needs for sustenance have been met, she should be allowed to cry in our comforting presence. Allowing a child to cry is loving, not ignoring. Although crying for extended periods of time can create stress in a baby, most crying relieves stress. Babies will never (and should never have to) be “No Cry.” If an adult friend cries we provide loving support and comfort, but don’t attempt to ‘fix’ them with food, a nipple in the mouth, rocking or “shushing.” Sometimes we all need to cry, and we need the expression and release of our feelings to be allowed and accepted.
I wholeheartedly agree that babies need lots of exercise and fresh air for good health and better sleep. But when a baby is kept in a carrier or stroller, the baby gets the air and the parent gets all the exercise. I encourage parents to allow a baby lots of time for unrestricted movement in a playpen or other safe area outside with a few simple toys. Babies are kept occupied for long periods of time this way, involved in self-initiated play. Parents can watch, and enjoy, trusting the baby to daydream, move and play as he wishes. It’s a healthy, blissful way to spend the day for everyone!
I agree that crying in arms is the appropriate response when a child just needs to express emotions. It can be a great way to teach them how to voice their emotions and to express their feelings.
That said, I also believe in meeting a baby’s physical and emotional needs. That means that if my baby needs something, I do not think it is an appropriate response to withhold that and hold her while she cries instead. For example, a lot of parents will say “I just fed her she can’t possibly need to nurse again”. However, nursing is not just about feeding. Nursing is about comfort and it is a lot of babies’ preferred source of comfort. To draw a parallel, if you are upset and just want your husband to hold you, but he instead decides to just pat you on the head while you cry because “he just gave you a hug, so you can’t possibly need another one”, he wouldn’t really be responding to your needs and you would reasonably get frustrated and annoyed at being patted on the head.
I agree wholeheartedly on your points around exercise.
I still believe we give parents (and babies) the wrong message when we suggest ‘nursing away’ tears. Many parents cannot nurse a baby for various reasons (like adoption). Are you suggesting they use a bottle or a pacifier every time a baby cries?
A nipple usually stops the tears instantly, because it goes in the mouth. If parents are encouraged to nurse for the purpose of arresting cries, why would they ever NOT do that, and allow a child’s feelings? Are you suggesting they only allow a child to cry as a last resort?
Should babies learn that when they are upset they need to eat or drink to feel better? Ask the overeaters or alcoholics you know about eating and drinking for comfort!
I occasionally have toddlers in my parenting classes who run to their parents every time they have the slightest disappointment and ask to be nursed, and I work with those parents to send a healthier message to the child. The child does not feel capable of handling situations that others her age can, because the parent has taught her to seek a nipple every time she is upset. We must give children the message that we believe they are capable of coping with feelings, with our calm support. Quieting them on the breast is much easier for us than hearing their feelings. Sometimes, truly loving a child means allowing her to cry, supporting her when it is excruciatingly hard for us.
1) Babies that are not nursed have other preferred ways to be comforted. But generally babies that do nurse prefer comfort at the breast.
2) Nursing is not always “eating”.
3) Do you also have toddlers in your parenting classes who run to their parents every time they have the slightest disappointment and ask to be comforted in some other way? What makes that other way better/worse than nursing? I agree that all parents need to teach their children to handle situations in an age appropriate way, but I don’t think that means saying no to nursing or other methods of comfort necessarily. You can comfort your child and then talk about what they could do next time to handle the situation. You can offer suggestions before offering to nurse and see if they are okay with that.
3) No. Children who are not trained to nurse whenever they are upset express their feelings openly, either in the parent’s arms or not, as they choose, and then move on, eager to engage in play again. But the toddlers who nurse on demand seem to be distracted by a need to test those boundaries with the mother. They play for shorter periods of time; have shorter attention spans, and have not developed coping skills. That is what I have observed in the 15 years that I have taught parent/infant and toddler classes.
My experience (supported by the research that I’ve read) has been that children who are not given the opportunity to develop a secure attachment to their parents tend to be more insecure and clingy by about preschool age. Nursing an infant on demand, with reasonable limits given as the child grows, helps to foster a secure attachment (as does responding to the child at night instead of doing cry it out), which helps them to build their confidence and become more independent as they are ready (as opposed to being pushed into false independence and experiencing severe insecurity as a result).
You are correct that secure attachment is vital for a baby! Secure attachment is fostered by a sensitive response to a baby’s physical and emotional needs, and is (thankfully) very possible for babies who are not breast fed, as well as those who are. Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to nourish for those lucky enough to be able to do so, but becomes problematic when used as a quick fix, and a feeling stuffer. A baby needs emotions to be allowed and accepted, not a breast in the mouth as soon as she cries, to make her “be quiet.” Obviously, the parent does not mean to send that message, but that is the one the child receives.
Parents should not feel pressured to go to any length to stop a baby’s cries. Crying is not to be feared; it is a healthy release. I don’t understand the expression “cry it out.” What are babies “crying out”? I do know that babies need to cry sometimes, as we all do. And they need support for crying, not parents rushing to plug their mouths.
Sir Richard Bowlby, son of John Bowlby who originated Attachment Theory, will be the keynote speaker at the 2010 RIE Conference (“RIE” is the acronym for Resources for Infant Educarers, a non-profit organization) in June, at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. I recommend this conference for anyone who would like to learn more about “secure attachment” and the research behind it, from the source of the theory.
(End of the orginal discussion, but Annie and I continue in the comments)
Annie’s website is phdinparenting.com. Please visit. And, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. For more about infants and secure attachment, I highly recommend the new book Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell, and Klaus, by Carol Garhart Mooney. There is a chapter devoted to each of six major theorists, including Magda Gerber, founder of RIE (but Dr. William Sears is not mentioned).