Attachment Parenting

By Anna-Marie During – Registered nurse and midwife, SACLC – SA certified lactation consultant

Attachment parenting techniques have always attracted a lot of attention. At some point in the process of becoming a mother, a woman goes through a massive priority shift. A combination of love, hormones and instinct mean that something happens for most people when they realise they are responsible for a completely dependent and vulnerable human being. Parents of infants and young children face many challenges when dealing with negative emotions such as crying, distress, fear and anger. Many parents feel strong and confident in their parenting choices and a great number of them probably operate on instinct and do not get distracted by other peoples’ opinions. But what if early parenting blindsides you, challenges everything you think you know? With so much advice on different styles of parenting, how do you know what works? Is trial and error best or should every parent test different approaches to see what ultimately works for them?

Attachment parenting is not a new phenomenon and research suggest that parents have been doing it naturally for years. Attachment parenting is child-centred and not parent-centred and for many parents this approach may feel intuitive. Becoming a parent is commonly imagined to be a joyful and “natural” life event. The reality is often very different. In the early weeks and months of life, parents must master new skills, usually whilst experiencing considerable sleep deprivation. Played out in media imagery, new parents have the perceptions and unrealistic expectations of instant bonding, instinctive breastfeeding and “perfect babies” being cared for by “perfect mothers”.

Attachment parenting is a phrase coined by paediatrician Dr. William Sears. It is rather an approach than a strict set of rules, it is a style of caring for your infant that brings out the best in the baby and the best in the parents. This approach intends to bring out strong, secure attachments between parents and infants / children. Human babies are born helpless and they need parents to keep them safe and secure. All humans are born seeking close attachments because that is the only way they will feel safe and secure. Attached babies thrive. All babies grow, but not all babies thrive. If babies thrive they grow and develop to their fullest potential.

Attachment parenting is first opening your heart and mind to your baby’s needs and then you will eventually develop the wisdom on how to make decisions on what works best for you and your baby. Now the question is: “Should you Attachment Parent your child?”

Attachment Parenting is about…….

  • Building strong bonds by responding to children’s needs in a timely and sensitive way.
  • Modelling behaviour and having respect, empathy and a desire for connection.
  • Life-long relationship quality, built on physical closeness & emotional understanding.
  • Feeling your way with trust in your instincts and compassion for yourself.

According to Dr William Sears Attachment parenting is based on Attachment theory and Developmental psychology. Attachment theory describes the influence or dynamics of long-term relationships between humans. Infants need to develop a relationship with at least one parent or guardian for social and emotional development. In infant’s attachment, as a motivational and behavioural system, the child seeks closeness or togetherness when they are alarmed, with the expectation that they will receive protection and emotional support and thus feel secure. In a safe place they learn how to regulate their emotions and feelings. Early patterns of attachment consequently shape individuals expectations in later relationships.

On the other hand Developmental psychology is the scientific study of changes that leads by Attachment parenting. The changes include a broad range of topics such as motor skills and other psycho-physiological processes. Cognitive development involves areas such as problem solving, understanding, social, personality and emotional development as well as self-concept and identity formation.

The most important Attachment parenting practices are:

  1. Co-sleeping
  2. Breastfeeding on demand
  3. Extensive carrying and holding of infants.

A close attachment after birth and beyond allows the natural, biological attachment-promoting behaviours of the infant and the natural caregiving qualities of the mother to come together. Both members of this dyad get off to the right start at a time when the infant is most needy and the mother is most ready to nurture. Infants and children attach with their parents because they are social beings of whom such relationships are natural and essential. With Attachment parenting the infant forms a strong emotional bond with the parents during childhood with lifelong consequences. Accordingly maternal deprivation may not only cause depression in children, but also decreasing their ability to form healthy relationships in adult life.

The child’s social-emotional wellbeing is formed and secured when parents are emotionally sensitive and available for their children. Insecure attachment style may lead to many mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Attachment parenting aims to increase development of a child’s secure attachment and decrease insecure attachment. Therefore when parents are sensitive to their infant’s needs and signals they increase their attachment security.

During World War II they noted impaired physical, psychological and social development of infants in hospitals and orphanages who were separated from their parents. They recognized that children did not only need food but physical contact as well. Caregivers were appointed to these children and they noticed vast improvements in their development. Clinical psychologists went on to propose theories of the value of these early mother-infant bonds. Some researchers have supported these claims with studies that indicated that extremely deprived infants may suffer neuro-cognitive impairment and socio-emotional problems.

According to the Behavioural Development Bulletin a lot of research was done on the benefits of Attachment Parenting for Infants and Children. They stated that if infants chronically experience negative emotions like crying, distress, fear and anger, evidence suggests that the stress can result in irreversible brain damage. These changes may increase serious, harmful and unexpected problems in children’s development. It can result in impaired learning and emotion regulation. It is also proved that Attachment parenting is very effective in decreasing these negative emotions because of the highly responsiveness of parents to the signals of infants. High stress and anxiety levels in infants can result in high cortisol levels which have been shown to result in damage to the areas in the brain involved in learning & memory and in the processing of emotions. Reducing a child’s stress may consequently produce both physical and psychological benefits. Therefore Attachment parenting can also moderate the negative physiological effects of stressful medical procedures in infants.

Benefits of Attachment Parenting:

A highly important benefit of Attachment parenting is that it assists infants to become physiologically and psychologically healthy. When parents are responsive and supportive to their infant they provide a warm and loving environment in infancy and beyond. The positive tone of interaction between parent and child will emphasize contact seeking and consequently lead to secure attachment. On the other hand when parents are not responsive when infants and children are distressed they will learn that they cannot rely on their parents for relief. These children will soon discover not to turn to their parents when distressed.

Attachment parenting improves a baby’s behaviour. A baby who feels right acts right. An in-arms baby whose cues are read and responded to feels connected and valued. These babies feel safe and secure. Attached babies cry less, are less colicky, fussy, whiny and clingy. Secure attached relationships between parents and children serves as an emotion regulation system.

Emotional self-regulation or regulation of emotion is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed.

Attachment Parenting improves the development of a baby. They use their cry-free time to grow and learn. When a baby feels content, they feel better, behave better and grow better. Attachment parenting encourages quiet alertness. Babies who are in a state of quiet alertness, are more receptive to interacting and learning from their environment. The state of quiet alertness promotes an inner organization that allows all the physiological systems of the body to work better. Babies use their energy that they would have spent on crying and fussing for growing, developing and interacting with their environment. In Attachment parenting the womb lasts a while longer and thus the baby can gradually adjust to life outside the womb.

Attachment parenting babies are smarter. It promotes brain development by feeding the brain with the correct kind of stimulation and food (breast milk) at a time in the child’s life when the brain needs the most nourishment. Therefore it helps the developing brain make the right connections. Brain researchers suggest that the most powerful enhancers of brain development are the quality of infant-parent attachment such as skin to skin contact and the responsiveness of parents to infant’s cues. Studies proved that the children of mothers who were trained in responsive parenting techniques, showed greater growth in cognitive skills.

Equally important: Attachment parenting assists a child to become more resilient and therefore more independent. Children need a great deal of protection from harm when they are little and do not realize the dangers of such situations. Parent’s behaviour when interacting with their children is considered to be a very important determinant of how this balance between attachment and exploration develop.

Secure attached children show less anxiety when moving away from their parents to explore and play. If children are excessively fearful, they may not be able to explore new environments or play with other children. Securely attached children use their parents as a safe haven from where they can explore their environment. That means that parents provide their children with a firm basis of support, if the child is fearful or distressed the child will seek contact with the parent and when his emotions are under control he will resume his exploring. Kids with secure attachment relationships and greater levels of maternal support show higher levels of positive mood, more constructive coping and better regulation of emotion in the classroom. In brief they are unlikely to experience executive function problems like problems with attention, focus, and impulse control.

With parents who practise positive parenting and sensitive discipline techniques children feel safe, loved and secure. Children are attached to these parents and know that they can go back to their “safe haven” when they feel unsafe. Research suggested a link between secure attachment and emotional availability. These children are more open to discuss emotions and are more ready to respond sensitively and appropriately to the emotions of others. Accordingly parents help a great deal to develop their infant / child’s emotion regulation system ie their behaviour.

Secure primary or secondary attachments may also be formed with other care-giving adults and should be supported by the parents. Caregivers and children should have a coordinated relationship in which the infant seeks to maintain closeness to the carer who responds to signals of distress or fear and provides a secure base for exploration. Secure attachment that is formed when carers are sensitive to the child’s emotional and biological needs will have an effect on the child’s functioning throughout life. Caregivers that focus on meeting the child’s needs are the continuation of nurturing care given by the parents. Caregivers always have to care in a way that strengthens the attachment relationship. Attachment parents have to make caregiving arrangements that are sensitive to the child whilst balancing their own needs as well.

The reward of Attachment parenting is that sensitive, responsive parenting leads children to form secure attachments, and securely-attached children are smarter, healthier and happier. This wonderful style of parenting has so many benefits for relationships.

How can I practise attachment parenting?

William and Martha Sears “7 Baby B’s of attachment parenting”

  1. Birth bonding

Prepare for pregnancy and birth. Eliminate all the negative thoughts and feelings about pregnancy. Golden hour (first hour after birth) is very important to promote attachment (skin-to-skin) and then breastfeeding. Lack of preparation can cause significant distress at a time when new parents already feel vulnerable.

  1. Belief in the signal value of your baby’s cries

Parents need to be sensitive and responsive to their baby’s cries. Tune in to what your child is communicating to you and then respond consistently and appropriately. Babies cannot be expected to self-soothe, they need calm, loving empathetic parents to help them learn to regulate their emotions. Build the foundation of trust and empathy in the beginning in infancy. Babies and children have an intense need for the physical presence of a consistent, loving responsive caregiver, ideally a parent.

  1. Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has lifelong physical and psychological advantages to the mother-baby pair. Breastfeeding is the optimal way to satisfy an infant’s nutritional and emotional needs. Breastfeeding is an ideal way to create a secure attachment. It also teaches infants that parents will listen to their cues and fulfil their needs. Follow the feeding cues for both infants and children, encouraging them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.

Research suggests that Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is characterized by a pattern of intense but unstable interpersonal relationships. Remarkably, it has been reported that the quality of mother-infant relationship is influenced by the feeding mode. Consequently lack of maternal bonding-related behaviour may increase the risk for later psychopathology and attachment problems as seen in BPD.

  1. Baby-wearing

Baby-wearing is to carry your baby in a sling close to your body. Baby-wearing may be associated with higher rates of secure attachment. Baby-wearing also meets the infant’s needs of attachment while on the go. Skin-to-skin contact is very effective for a baby’s needs for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation, and movement. Researchers found that children who’d received skin-to-skin contact in the first weeks postpartum had developed more healthy stress response systems, improved sleep patterns and better cognitive control.

  1. Bedding close to baby

Babies and children have needs at night just as they do during the day. Needs from hunger, loneliness, fear, or when they feel too hot or too cold. They rely on parents to soothe them. Sleep with your baby in the same room and preferably in the same bed. Always make your bed safe before co-sleeping. Safe co-sleeping has benefits for mother and baby. Co-sleeping will give mother and baby the most sleep and will make breastfeeding easier.

  1. Balance and boundaries

Provide constant loving care. For a healthy family parents need to know when to say yes and when to say no. It is easier to be emotionally responsive when you feel in balance. Be sensitive to individual needs in the family and meet them to the greatest extent possible without compromising your own physical and emotional health. Continuously educate yourself about developmental stages of childhood, setting realistic expectations and remaining flexible. Positive discipline helps a child develop a conscience guided by his own internal discipline and compassion for others. Attachment parenting aims at understanding what a child’s negative behaviour is communicating. Rather than reacting to the behaviour, discover the needs leading to the behaviour.

  1. Beware of baby trainers

Instead of taking advice about how to “train” your baby to make it cry less and sleep for longer stretches, parents need to listen to their own instinct and intuitions. Sleep training techniques can have detrimental physiological and emotional effects on a baby. Parents rather are encouraged to create a support network, live a healthy lifestyle, and prevent parenting burn-out.

In conclusion parenthood is never easy and no one can prepare you for that, but Attachment parenting seems to hold benefits and advantages for parents and children. It is linked with higher intellectual achievement. Mitigation of negative emotions such as fear and stress and optimal emotion regulation is what makes it possible for children to better engage with the world. There is more than sufficient evidence that young children who can regulate their emotions are socially more competent and have fewer behavioural problems. Support in emotional regulation also plays an important role in the component of relationships with peers, especially beginning in adolescence and in romantic relationships. Extensive research proved that securely attached adults have happier and less conflict-ridden lives. Research also suggests they may be better parents themselves having received this secure base in their own development. In this modern fast pace world wherein we live today, with high rates of divorce and abusive relationships, emotional security in the early years, can make a huge difference in future relationships.

In short all research emphasizes that securely attached children consequently become well-balanced teens and young adults, while the insecurely attached have a much rockier road through life.

Parents need to find the balance between encouraging independence and freedom while still allowing their child to feel safe and secure. An optimal sensitive parent knows how to read the child’s signals and responds appropriately. When parents are not sensitive and reactive to their children’s needs their children may tolerate their circumstances, but it is not the same as being able to flourish. Moreover Attachment parenting is always associated with positive attachment outcomes.

Hopefully this article will assist parents with their own choices in selecting a parenting style and the realisation of the utmost importance of strong emotional bonds with their baby and child. This will ensure that children of these parents will reach their full potential.

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