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Attachment Parenting: Is It For You?

By Pamela Kock

Is it possible to breastfeed your baby without practicing the art of attachment parenting? Sure, but once that tiny mouth makes contact, you may not want to. Attachment parenting (AP) encourages and honors the special bond between parent and child. What is AP, and why should parents follow its guidelines?

Attachment parenting is a concept that is often controversial, but it shouldn't be. The basic premise is that you can't "spoil" a baby by holding him too much, carrying him, feeding him on demand, or with any other form of contact. Babies ask for what they need, not just what they want; at this stage, a baby's wants and needs are one and the same. It's true that a baby who is denied attention when he cries will cry less often -- but what is he really learning? He is not learning to "behave"; he is learning that he can't count on having his needs met when he asks. Attachment parenting builds trust.

Here are some basic guidelines for beginning as an attached parent:

1. Breastfeed on demand, not according to a schedule, and practice child-led weaning.
2. Practice "night-time parenting" -- sleep with the baby, or at least place the crib in your bedroom. Comfort the baby till he falls asleep rather than forcing him to do it on his own.
3. Practice "baby-wearing" -- use slings and carriers to hold the baby close during your daily activities.
4. Respond to the baby's cries immediately, and make every effort to meet his needs.
5. Respect your baby's intuitive skill to know what he needs -- they're smarter than you think!

Following a feeding schedule can be the quickest way to sabotage a breastfeeding relationship. There will be days during which the baby's demands to nurse seem endless, but it happens for a reason. Let the baby be your guide -- with a few exceptions, healthy babies know when they need to nurse. During a period of rapid growth, he'll need more milk, and frequent nursing will increase the supply. It's also possible that the baby simply needs extra comfort, and this shouldn't be denied. Breastfed babies cannot be "overfed"; the milk supply adjusts to meet their requirements. Likewise, don't stop a nursing session because "time's up." The composition of breast milk changes throughout the nursing session, and the baby will be satisfied when he's received enough of the extra-fatty milk that appears later in the feeding; this extra fat is required for proper growth.

Practice child-led weaning. There is no pre-determined, one-size-fits-all age when a baby is ready to stop breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least the first twelve months, and as long thereafter as mutually desired. Nursing till a baby's second birthday is quite common. Nursing till the third birthday is certainly not unheard of. Does this seem inconceivable? Most toddlers only nurse one or two times a day, but still benefit from the additional nutrition and comfort. Since many toddlers are picky eaters, the small amount of breast milk they may receive can act as an insurance policy to prevent malnutrition. And at a time when they're being exposed to other kids and communicable diseases, the immunity boost may keep them healthier than they would be otherwise. How can you tell when your child is ready to wean? Watch his reaction when you say no. Does he throw a fit in outright panic? Or is his response something like "well, that's a bummer?" Do it gradually, and expect regression during times of illness or stress.

Getting baby to sleep at night or during naps is often a hot topic. Popular advice to let the baby "cry it out" or otherwise "teach" them to fall asleep on their own usually goes against a parent's natural impulses, for good reason! This method may work, or it may not, depending on how insistent your baby is on having his legitimate needs met. After several evenings of frazzled nerves, you'll be rewarded with a quiet, cooperative baby -- but at what cost? He's just learned that if he cries for help, you won't come. When he goes to bed without a fuss, it's a sign he's given up. This is an empty victory. A far better option is to encourage a night-time routine, and teach your child what to expect after bath, story, and some time in the rocking chair. He'll still learn to go to bed at night. It may take extra time to get him to bed, but the time you spend with the baby can be a very special time. Why would anyone want to miss that opportunity?

Will the baby learn to go to sleep on his own, someday, if you're always there to rock him or let him sleep with you? Yes, when he's ready. He may not be ready for a while. He may not be ready for five years, or he may be ready as soon as he weans. The key is to be flexible and compassionate. Your child may fall asleep on his own every day for a month, but then one day may need extra help. Or he may sneak into your bed in the middle of the night, and demand to co-sleep during a thunderstorm. Don't worry about it. Most parents do this anyway, even if they claim otherwise.

"Baby-wearing" -- a hip term for carrying the baby in a sling or "snuggly" -- is not for everyone, though it should at least be attempted. There are some beautifully designed slings and carriers on the market that make it easy to take the baby on outings, comfort him during ordinary household routines, and nurse discreetly. Slings and carriers solve many problems for some parents. A comfortable, happy baby is a quiet one, and an unobtrusive one in many settings; if you don't mind carrying the extra weight, slings can solve the problem of getting the housework done with a demanding infant. Even if you don't enjoy the baby's presence in a sling while you're doing the housework, carriers can be a much better option than strollers and prams while out and about. The baby gets a better view, extra comfort, and good support for his developing body. It shouldn't be only an experience for mothers, of course. Fathers can use baby carriers, too, and the baby will benefit from the variety and additional bonding opportunity.

What do you do when the baby cries? Pick him up, of course, and figure out what he needs. This sounds obvious, but many parents opt to let the baby lie there and fuss for fear of "spoiling" him. Crying is the only way that an infant has to communicate a need. For a baby, a "need" and a "want" are the same thing. You may hear advice to let the baby cry, that he's "manipulating" you. Wrapping you around his little finger, he is. Why shouldn't he? His crying and his engaging behavior are instinctive ways to gain your love, and your reaction teaches him how to love you back.

Attachment parenting, though it has some very passionate proponents, is not a religion. You can pick and choose the parts that fit your preferences and lifestyle, adjusting the method to your comfort level -- as long as the main concept is adhered to. For example, you may not be willing to carry the baby everywhere in a sling, or co-sleep with the baby. But if you respond to the baby's cries immediately, hold the baby whenever he needs soothing, and follow most of the other guidelines, you're still an attached parent, and both parent and baby will reap the rewards.

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Pamela Kock is a freelance writer, mother of two, and editor of IndoorJungle.net, the Indoor Gardener's Web-zine.

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