Attachment parenting extremists believe that in order for a mother to form a strong bond with their child, they should co-sleep, breast feed exclusively, never use timeout as a method of discipline and carry their baby around with them all the time.
They cite psychological research as the basis for their beliefs but is this a distortion of the actual research?
Attachment research has found that for a secure attachment to form, mothers need to be responsive to their babies’ needs, provide social stimulation (talking to and playing with the infant) and express lots of affection. This is called sensitive responsiveness. Most mothers find it easy to communicate with their babies and fine tune their responses to the babies’ actions and expressions so secure attachments are formed relatively easily.
John Bowlby was the founder of attachment theory and he found that children who had experienced prolonged separation from their mothers in the early years had less capacity to empathise with others.
Chugani et al. (2001) used brain scans to study Romanian adoptees who had been left in their cots without love or stimulation for an average of 38 months before being adopted. He found that the adoptees showed significantly reduced brain activation compared to controls in the parts of the brain associated with emotion. This research highlights the importance of the mother-child bond but it does not mean that parents need to go to extremes to form a secure attachment with their child. Bowlby and Chugani were looking at children who had been deprived of their attachment figure.
Brazleton and colleagues (1979) found that it is instinctive and natural for mothers and babies to imitate each other’s movements and take turns to initiate new movements. In their study they asked mothers to ignore their babies’ signals for a short period of time. The babies quickly became concerned and some curled up and became motionless. This shows that it easy to see when there is a communication problem between a mother and baby.
What is not needed to form a secure attachment?
There is no evidence to suggest that for a baby to feel securely attached to their mother, they need to be held all the time or fall asleep on their mother. Although this is not to say a newborn infant does not need some help falling asleep. Babies also do not need to be played with all the time. In fact, babies will show clear signs when they want to just look around rather than be stimulated. Parents just need to be sensitive to their baby’s needs.
A mother has no reason to be unduly worried about forming an attachment with their baby as it is likely that their baby would be showing them distress signals if there was a problem. There are a number of studies, which show how distressed babies become when their needs are not met. Murray and Trevarthen (1985) set up interactions between mothers and their babies via a video link. They found that the babies became very distressed if the live link was replaced with a replay of the recording a few minutes later. This is because the mothers’ interactions were no longer synchronised with the babies’ actions.
Does breastfeeding affect attachment?
From a health point of view, breastfeeding has lots of benefits in terms of increased immunity for the infant and less likelihood of obesity later on. However, there is a question over whether breastfeeding affects a mother’s attachment to her child. Some breastfeeding advocates say that not breastfeeding your child may lead to a weakened emotional bond with your child but is this really true? Many mothers who give up breastfeeding early on or are unable to breastfeed from the start may feel guilty enough about it and this is compounded if they are told that it leads to worse bond with their child.
Britton et al. (2006) found no direct link between breastfeeding and the security of attachment (the strength of the emotional bond between a mother and child). However, they did find that the more responsive and sensitive a mother was to her infant, the more securely attached the infant was later on. Interestingly, although the study did not find the actual act of breastfeeding led to the secure attachment, it did find that mothers who chose to breastfeed were also more responsive to their infants.
This relates to an old study by Harlow (1959). He took baby monkeys and raised them in a lab, giving them a wire monkey to feed from and a cloth monkey to get comfort from/hold onto. The monkeys formed strong attachments to the cloth monkey, but not with the wire one. He concluded that the monkeys needed comfort more than food for a secure attachment.
One of my friend’s who was in real pain from breastfeeding persevered with the breastfeeding as long as she could bear it because she was worried that if she stopped it would weaken the bond between her and her baby. In the end she gave up after lots of tears and guilt. I don’t think that mothers should breastfeed under these circumstances. When I did move from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding at 5 months, I could actually see my son’s face while giving him his milk and it allowed more interaction not less. Therefore, I don’t believe that mothers need to punish themselves unnecessarily about giving up on breastfeeding despite their best attempts.
Does sleep-training psychologically damage your child?
Some people refer to crying down as just shutting the door and allowing your baby to fall asleep by itself. However, many people now use the term ‘crying down’ to refer to a sleep training method introduced by Dr. Ferber, where parents leave their child for increasing amounts of time e.g. 5 minutes, 10 minutes building up to 45 minutes on the seventh day, before going back to reassure them. This method is also referred to as graduated extinction and controlled crying and is controversial. Advocates of attachment parenting suggest that co-sleeping is a much better way to get your child to go to sleep and leads to lower levels of stress in both parents and child. However, it is important to look at the evidence when making a judgement and to understand why good sleep patterns are so important.
Touchette and colleagues (2005) found that many children, who did not sleep six consecutive hours at 5 months old, still had problems at 29-months-old sleeping six consecutive hours. They found that putting children to bed already asleep or staying with them until they were asleep rather than letting them fall asleep alone was a major factor in whether the children slept less than six hours in a row at 17- and 29-months-old. Rocking children or bringing them into the parent’s bed was also associated with less sleep as was co-sleeping. One example given in their report is that the risk of being a poor sleeper is 4.6 times greater at 17-months and 2.1 times greater at 29-months when children are lulled to sleep or had parental presence until asleep, compared with children who fell asleep on their own. They concluded that the ability to sleep through the night was learnt very early on and that parental behaviours could have a negative impact on a child’s ability to sleep. Parents should be concerned about this as research suggests that children who have problems sleeping early on are more likely to have behavioural difficulties later. Other studies show that sleep problems affect performance at school.
The way parents deal with their children’s night-time wakings is important. One study found that parents who comforted their toddlers out of bed at night-time or who gave their young children (not babies) food in the middle of the night were more likely to have children with sleep problems and behavioural difficulties later on. They also concluded that co-sleeping had a negative impact on the future sleep patterns of children (Simard et al, 2008).
Mindell and colleagues in a study for the National Sleep Foundation (2009) found that a late bedtime and a child falling asleep with their parent present had the most significant negative effects on sleep. A late bedtime led to children taking longer to fall asleep and sleeping for a shorter period of time. Parental presence led to children having more night-time wakings. Having a poor bedtime routine and having a television in the bedroom was also found to cause sleep problems.
Some of you may argue that good sleep patterns are all very well but not important relative to the possible psychological harm caused by leaving a baby to cry. Hiscock and colleagues (2008) looked at the long-term effects on both mother and child mental health of using Ferber’s graduated crying down method. They study recruited 328 mothers of 7-month-old babies who reported that their child had a sleep problem. Half of the mothers were taught a sleep training method (with more mothers choosing Ferber’s controlled crying method than other sleep training methods). The other half of the mothers were placed in a control group and not taught any method. The key findings were that the mothers who had been taught a sleep training method were less likely to have depressive symptoms and by the time their children were two years old, there were no differences in behaviour between the sleep-trained children and the non-sleep-trained children. This study suggests there are no long-term consequences of sleep-training your children. France (1992) studied the behaviour characteristics of babies who had been sleep-trained using Ferber’s extinction method. She found that the sleep-trained babies were just as secure as the control group babies at 24-months-old and their tension levels and likeability scores improved. However, even the proponents of sleep training recommend that a baby under 6-months-old should not be allowed to cry for long periods of time. Instead they suggest that parents need to look for cues suggesting their baby is ready for sleep and to let the baby settle themselves to sleep in their own cot or moses basket. Parents need to allow their baby to cry for brief periods whilst they are settling down as this develops the baby’s ability to self-soothe. Parents are also advised to establish a bedtime routine and when feeding in the middle of the night, to keep lights low and stimulation minimal. The experts advise parents not to over-stimulate their tired baby by rocking or holding them until they fall asleep as this can cause long-term sleep problems (France and Blampied, 1999).
More research still needs to be done on the subject of sleep-training and the long-term impacts. However, I would recommend looking at the ample research carried out by Mindell if you are sceptical about sleep-training. I am a strong advocate of being sensitive and responsive to you child but I also think it is important to teach your child to sleep well. Winnicott said that a good-enough mother is one that gives their child the attention they need but also allows their child to experience some frustrations. Sleep-training is hard to do as a parent and tugs at your heart-strings but I believe it has long-term benefits. Most sleep problems are a result of children being unable to self-soothe themselves to sleep and the need to have the parent present to sleep (Blunden, 2012). If parents find the graduated extinction method too difficult to implement, they may prefer the method of gradually moving further away from their child so that eventually they are outside the room when their child falls asleep. Initially, you can pat your child a few times every few minutes before sitting on chair nearby. This method is better if you think you are unable to deal with your child’s crying.
Does using discipline methods such as timeout destroy a child’s self-esteem?
Research suggests that parents should not dismiss or play down their children’s feelings or displays of anger and jealousy. If parents accept their children’s strong emotions, children feel validated. However, this does not mean that parents should not discipline their children for poor behaviour.
Authoritative parenting is considered to be the optimal parenting style for children. Authoritative parents set clear boundaries for their children and do not accept hitting or rudeness. They also give consequences such as timeout when their child does not follow the rules. However, they do not expect their children to accept all their values and goals without questioning and they listen to and consider their children’s views. Authoritative parents also encourage their children to do well at school whilst providing a warm and supportive home environment. Research suggests that children who have authoritative parents tend to be more socially secure, independent, achievement-orientated and adaptive (Baumrind, 1991).
If parents avoid giving consequences for poor behaviour as attachment parenting proponents suggest, the outcomes are worse for children. Parents who allow their children to make their own choices entirely and avoid confronting their children for lying, cheating or being rude are setting themselves up for trouble later. Children with permissive parents tend to perform and behave worse at school (Baumrind, 1991).
Attachment parenting is extremely hard work for parents and it plays on parents’ guilt. However, it is an extreme method of parenting and is not necessary to form a strong bond with your child. Children will become securely attached and empathic individuals as long as parents are loving and sensitive without the need for baby-wearing, co-sleeping, breastfeeding or avoidance of discipline methods.