Back in January I had the privilege of attending a seminar by Dr. William Sears about attachment parenting (AP). While I detest labels and boxes, AP is something I relate to on many levels. I never set out to be an attachment parent / natural parent / instinctive parent. In fact, I never even questioned what type of mother I would be prior to having my first child because I had never consciously considered that there was such a thing as ‘mainstream’ parenting in order for there to be alternatives.
When I did become a mother and was faced with baby sleep issues (well, I thought they were baby sleep issues but they were not, they were expectation issues on my part. My baby was perfectly normal in every department, including sleep), I spent hours reading and researching everything I could find about life with a newborn. I read one book that shocked me and made me cry (Save Our Sleep, Tizzie Hall) and another that had me questioning whether it was real - I googled the author and discovered he’s a quack and that there are thousands of warnings by the medical community and others about his advice (Baby Wise, Gary Ezzo).
I also read some beautiful books which were respectful of babies as people (Loving Mama, Tiffany Palisi [ed]) and others that aligned more with what felt right to me to be doing (The No Cry Sleep Solution, Elizabeth Pantley). As I read more and talked with other mothers I came to realise that there are many approaches to parenting, and that my approach was about trusting and following my instincts. It felt natural and right for me to breastfeed my baby on demand, rather than on schedule. It felt wonderful to sleep with him cuddled up next to me at night. It felt empowering and special to wear him closely against me as I went about my daily business. I could not go against my instincts even if I tried. I was intimately connected with my newborn and he with me.
Much later on I learned that there was a name for what I was naturally doing; attachment parenting. Even though I dislike the restrictions and expectations that labels can bring, I am grateful that through this particular label I ‘found my tribe’, firstly through a Yahoo group centred around the fascinating book The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedoff, where I lurked and learned and sat at the feet of wise mamas, and secondly through some local AP groups on Facebook.
Fast forward a few years to just a few months ago. When I heard that Dr. Sears was coming to Australia, I knew I had to see him – Dr. Sears is considered the father of attachment parenting, even though it is something that has been practiced as long as humans have existed and is still practiced in most cultures around the world. He is a pediatrician and father of eight. When Dr. Sears had been practicing only a few years he began to notice differences between his patients and would question the parents in order to determine what influenced those differences. Over time, his curiosity and research lead him to share and publish his findings about ‘what works most of the time for most kids’. He was delightful and entertaining, and his wife Martha was impressive and wise. I took many notes from his seminar, some of which I have selected to share below. The seminar of course included slides with tables and graphs and links to specific research. I have not included those here as most of the time I was too busy madly scribbling down his spoken words to look up at the slides.
I would also like to suggest that I don’t especially care what kind of parent you are, nor am I judging you negatively if you choose to parent differently to the way I do. I do what is right for me and my family. It works, it feels right, I am blissfully happy and I wouldn’t change a single thing. You do what you know is right for you. Every baby is different. Every family is different. I am not dispensing any of these notes as advice. If they don’t resonate with you, then you never need to think of them again. But I know there are others out there like I once was, searching for confirmation that it’s okay to respond to your baby when they cry and to reject modern recommendations that don’t align with your instincts.
Definition of Attachment Parenting – instinctual. If you were stranded on a deserted island and had noone to tell you what to do and no books, how would you treat your baby? AP is not a controversial subject. It is natural and instinctive. The media has made it controversial.
In 40+ years of pediatric practice and studying what works most of the time for most parents, Dr Sears has developed the Bs:
Bedsharing / bedding close by
Believe baby’s cries
Beware of baby trainers
Baby trainers will train your baby so that they don’t cry, so that they are convenient and a ‘good baby’ – which is just shut down syndrome. Feeding on a strict parent-designed schedule can lead to malnutrition and dehydration.
In long-term studies of criminal minds, the number one common feature is the lack of empathy. They cannot think before they act. A highly-touched child automatically thinks first and responds with empathy. It is neurologically programmed forever in them. At-breast, in-arm babes grow into compassionate kids. Dr. Sears is yet to see an AP child who is a bully. A less-attached child is more likely to tease and taunt a hurt classmate in the playground. An AP child is more likely to go up and hug them and ask if they are ok. The neurological pathway in their brain is wired forever – when someone is hurt, I help.
How to get balance in a separated culture/society. We need a sense of community because it was never meant to be mum and dad and baby doing it alone. Mums need support.
Discipline – you must have the right relationship with your child before you get the right techniques. Lots of books and training workshops for parents use only techniques, which will never work long term if you don’t have the relationship right. When you have a connected child, often ‘the look’ is enough. Be firm, stern, loving and end with an ‘i love you’ smile. Instead of ‘no’ with babies and toddlers who want to get into everything, try ‘not for Saskia! not for Saskia!; repeat.
Co-sleeping – when you start resenting going to bed then it’s time to move them out. Bedsharing has stages of weaning, just like breastfeeding. Move them out of the bed and onto a mattress on the floor. Inch the mattress closer to the door slowly. It should not be a sad occasion. It’s all in the marketing! Read books AND tell stories, there is a difference. Key theme – investment. There is no magic answer to where should baby sleep. The answer is, where everyone sleeps best.
Baby Bs become Childhood Cs – caring, compassionate, communicative, connected, comfortable with intimacy, confident.
AP kids are smarter. When you breastfeed, you are feeding their brain. Brains are 60% fat, so is mothers milk. Coincidence? The brain triples in size by age 2 and is most affected by nutrition. The first two years is an opportunity to make connections. AP helps the developing brain make the RIGHT connections. Myelin is like electrical wires in the brain. The more myelin, the more electricity can travel. Every time you breastfeed, nurture, hold your baby you are making more myelin in their brain. Never in 48 years of practice has Dr Sears had someone say they regret breastfeeding for so long. It is always the opposite.
Science supports very clearly that AP kids are more independent and more inter-dependent (how to work and connect with others around you). Science says connected kids are
- better students
- more resilient
- play better with peers
- better lovers
- better behaved
-become connected parents
AP is a blueprint for future relationships.
Never advise other parents on the following – how long to breastfeed, whether to let baby cry, or how long to co-sleep for. Every answer is different because every situation is different.
AP is not the gold standard and is not about ‘if you’re not doing it then you’re missing out’. You do what you need to do. You make decisions that work for you.
During the seminar, it was so lovely to hear several testimonies from the audience from mothers who practiced attachment parenting and who now have teenage and adult children who are highly confident, independent and capable. One mum publicly thanked Dr. Sears for his book Nighttime Parenting. When her 25 year old was a baby he suffered silent reflux for 18 months. The advice from Dr Sears affirmed her intuition. The baby’s grandmother would warn and complain that he would be a spoilt child because of all the love and breastfeeding and co-sleeping. By the time he went to school, the grandmother was selling baby slings because she saw how confident and mature the child had become from the AP investment during infancy. Said child is now in Canada studying a double degree.
What a treasure it was for me to attend this seminar and listen to someone who has been in the child-rearing game for decades. It was also wonderful to be surrounded by mums and dads and babies and boobs and slings and carriers!