Attachment Parenting: Parenting in a Detached Society


By Stephanie Lehane  (January 2009)

There is a modern-day debate surrounding a centuries old practice that has been coined “attachment parenting”.  To first understand the controversy, one must define the term attachment parenting.  Attachment parenting is a way of child-rearing that serves as a guideline, rather than a rulebook, for parents to better understand the non-verbal communication they receive from their infants, babies, and children.   At odds with this concept is the parenting style popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century and passed down for several generations since. 

The three main modalities of attachment parenting as they relate to infants and babies are  breastfeeding, babywearing, and co-sleeping.  It seems the mere mention of any or all of these invites a plethora of advice and opinion.   In the face of all of the scientific data pointing toward breastfeeding as the best form of nutrition for babies, women of previous generations will often advise that new mothers bottle-feed.  This same troupe of well-intended matriarchs often tends to rally behind the concept that a baby, even an infant, can be spoiled.   And of course nursing mothers who opt to co-sleep with their infants receive dire warnings of increased risk for SIDS and children who will be in high school still climbing into bed with mom and dad.  Yet, for centuries, mothers out of instinct and necessity carried, cuddled, breastfed, and co-slept with their babies.  It wasn’t until the advent of modern medicine and the advancements of science that mothers began to question their innate sensibilities in favor of advice from professionals, typically men, who would tell them that there is a new and improved way to raise a healthy baby. 



All mammals nurse their young.  So why is this form of feeding and nurturing human babies controversial and how and when did it come under attack?  To be sure, breastfeeding mothers have an easier time avoiding stares and unsolicited advice when they choose to feed their babies in public today than they did a decade ago.  But some stigma still exists as a throwback to a more puritan, sterile era where doctors and formula companies alike, worked to convince society that not only was formula a better choice for babies, bottle-feeding was a more modest option for women.  The first commercial baby formula was invented in 1860 by Henri Nestle in Switzerland and became popularized during the Industrial Revolution when women were leaving the home to work in factories.  Bottle feeding reached its height in popularity during World War II with only 20-30% of women in the U.S. breastfeeding at all.   Many women still choose to bottle feed their babies today as it is seen as a more convenient method, in spite of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ current recommendation to exclusively breastfeed infants for six months and continue to nurse through age one.  However, breastfeeding is gaining in popularity during the Information Age where modern parents are growing confident in its overwhelming benefits for both baby and mother.  According to renowned pediatrician and father of eight, Dr. William Sears, not only is breast milk a sound nutritional choice, but the act of breastfeeding itself encourages the bond between mother and child.  In order to become successful at breastfeeding, mothers must be able to interpret baby’s cues and trust in their own instincts.  Mothers become child-centered and focus on their babies’ needs and how to meet them.  Likewise, baby is able to tap into and interpret her mother’s social signals and trust that her needs will be met.  A symbiotic relationship develops wherein both parties to the breastfeeding partnership must ebb and flow together.  Breastfeeding is often viewed as the first and most important aspect of attachment parenting.


Babywearing in all its various forms dates back to the origins of recorded history.  Anthropologists have uncovered ancient etchings depicting women carrying their babies wrapped in cloth as they worked, walked, and cared for older children.  Across cultural lines, many methods of wearing babies exists and a recently there has been a resurgence in popularity in the developed world.  However, around the same time as breastfeeding began to decline, so did the art and practice of babywearing, particularly in the West, and for the same reasons.  Mothers began to listen to the advice of their doctors who explained that holding and carrying their babies too much would lead to spoiled babies.  All sorts of inventions and devices, such as strollers and playpens, began to emerge as places for women to put their babies so as not to spoil them.  It took only a couple of generations to figure out that the opposite is actually true.  Babies who don’t receive enough tactile stimulation from being held are less organized, cry more, and in extreme cases experience “failure to thrive” which means they do not grow and develop as they should.  Recently, a Motrin ad was pulled because of the backlash from a new generation of babywearing moms and dads offended at the ads suggestion that babywearing is a new fad, something done to be seen as trendy and fashionable.  These parents opine that carrying baby close to them is not only convenient, but is a wonderfully fulfilling way to build a bond with their baby.  There are several different styles of babywearing devices such as slings, pouches, wraps and carriers and in some areas parents can find consultants to help them decide which style is best for them and their lifestyle. 


This is perhaps the most controversial of all of the different areas of attachment parenting.  Certainly, it may seem odd to western parents used to the concept of creating a separate nursery for baby, complete with crib, changing table, dresser, and rocking chair.  Historically, co-sleeping, or the practice whereby infants, babies, and/or children sleep in the same bed with their parents, has been a common practice worldwide.  Since the nineteenth century, this practice has decreased in popularity in North America, Europe, and Australia as separate sleeping arrangements became affordable and desirable.  Among the reasons opponents of co-sleeping cite in favor of separate sleeping arrangements are the possibility that a parent could roll over and inadvertently crush or suffocate her baby, increased risk of SIDS, and the inability of older babies and children to become independent and sleep alone.  However, recent research has shown significant benefits to babies and parents who co-sleep.  Studies have shown that co-sleeping may actually reduce the risk of SIDS due to the baby mirroring his mothers breathing and sleep-cycle patterns.  This is because a major factor in SIDS deaths may be the inability of babies to regulate their breathing, thereby actually “forgetting” to breathe.  Additionally, babies in the family bed experience shorter and fewer deep-sleep states.  This is important because prolonged states of deep sleep, such as occur after long bouts of crying or sleeping alone, are potentially another major cause of SIDS.  (Note:  co-sleeping is not recommended when parents smoke, use drugs or alcohol, or are obese).   But the number one benefit proponents of co-sleeping cite is more sleep for all.   The family bed may be particularly convenient for breastfeeding mothers who can easily resume nursing until both mother and child drift peacefully back to sleep.  These mothers point out that there is no awakening to the piercing cries of a hungry baby, frightened and alone, adrenaline pumping for all as bottles are warmed and parents attempt to stay awake to feed him, only to have him re-awaken when returned to a cold crib sheet.

So it seems that modern parents are beginning to embrace the wisdom of ancient times.  As tightly-knit communities wane in favor of loosely-knit networks, individuals are more connected and yet more alone.  The paradox of today’s society is that it is both easier and more difficult than ever to be a successful parent.  There is more information available to parents than at any time in history.  Yet, information comes at a price:  if not careful, it can take the place of instinct.  In the end, the best approach for parents is to read, research, and understand available parenting methods and then trust themselves and their babies to do what is best.

Ref.  Baby Matters, Dr. Linda Palmer
, Dr. William Sears

         Breastfeeding in a Bottle Feeding Culture, Tina Rychlik


Stephanie Lehane holds a B.Sc. in Business Management and has managed home-based businesses as well as mid-sized firms in the fields of transportation, real estate, direct sales and online retail. She is a work from home mother to four children aged 7 months to 14 years.
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