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 Frequently Asked Questions relating Attachment

Answered by Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist,  specializing in relationship-based parenting.

"Won't my baby expect to be held all the time? "

Maybe, at least in the beginning.  Many babies do, unless we give them the message that we won't pick them up when they cry -- in which case they give up on having us meet their needs.  Not a great start to their emotional development, and proven to lessen their ability to self-soothe as toddlers, preschoolers, and later.

"Sounds like my baby will be awfully dependent on me." 

Isn't that great? You and your baby will have a closer relationship, he'll learn he can depend on you, and he'll feel more secure that lions won't eat him, thus leaving him free to concentrate on age appropriate developmental tasks.  Dependency is the natural state of small humans, and feeling safe is essential to early development.  But don’t worry, any self respecting baby wants you to put him down well before he can crawl, so he can explore and start tearing up your house. 

"But I won’t get anything done!"

That's an issue for most of us.  It helps a lot to buy a sling or wrap, so you have your hands free for food shopping or folding laundry.  But it helps even more if you just let go of everything on your "to-do" list that isn't essential.  Just because you're home with the baby doesn't mean it's your job to handle all the household chores by yourself.  Your job is the baby, and your own health and well-being.  It’s true that you will have a messier house, and pasta again for supper, but carrying your child as you go about your day will have positive resonance for the rest of his or her life, while messes are only temporary.
 
"Are you saying not to put my baby down?"  

Of course not.  All babies benefit from a certain amount of time to play independently, and to watch you from a safe place as you chop the onions for dinner or take a shower.  Babies learn how to be alone and do their own “work” by being in your presence but not interacting, and that's an important developmental  task for all babies to master. 

“I read in a magazine that babies need to learn to "self soothe,” but every time I put her down to sleep, she cries.”

The “self-soothing” argument is an outdated rationalization.  Research on brain development shows that babies don’t learn to self-soothe by being put down.  They learn not to depend on others because no one will come when they call.

Babies learn to self-soothe by being comforted, which teaches them not to panic, that their emotions are manageable. Being soothed when they cry actually changes the brain chemistry and neural connections so that babies learn to soothe themselves.  Being left to cry changes brain chemistry and neural connections so that babies become more easily upset and less able to soothe themselves as time goes on.  The amygdala actually becomes permanently enlarged.  Being soothed when upset is just as important to your baby's development as being fed and diapered.

“It can’t be good for the baby to be the center of attention all the time.” 

You’re right, it isn’t.  Babies love to watch you go about your work from the safe vantage point of a sling or backpack, until they start creeping.  That’s how they learn.  Babies who are carried actually demand less attention than babies who are made to sit by themselves in strollers, seats and playpens, probably because their needs for companionship and stimulation are met at the same time.

“How do we know infants need to be held?  They can’t tell us what they need.”  

It’s true that infants can’t use words to tell us what they need, but their crying certainly communicates, if we listen.  Only a century ago, it was thought that infants couldn’t feel pain, and operations on them were done without anesthetic.  (Of course, they didn’t verbally express their discomfort, they just screamed the whole time.)  

"But won’t this make my child dependent?  I always wonder about parents who seem to want their kids to cling to them."

We constantly give parents the message that dependency in their kids is a character flaw that’s attributable to bad parenting.  But clinging is appropriate in small humans, just as in small chimpanzees. 

We fill our children’s dependency needs so that, filled, they can go on to other things, like exploring the world.  We acknowledge that children are children, and need our tending as they grow. Kids who’ve been attachment-parented are age-appropriate in their relationship with their parents, moving from dependency to inter-dependence, and able to form fulfilling intimate relationships as adults. When kids’ attachment needs aren’t filled, those needs eventually get focused on their peer group, often with disastrous results as they get older.

"But what about Ferber who says babies need to be taught how to go to sleep by themselves?"

Many babies gradually  "learn" to go to sleep by themselves.  However, Ferber is right that many babies don't, because they have learned to fall asleep nursing or being rocked to sleep. These babies can indeed to be taught to go to sleep by themselves.  What attachment parents take issue with is Ferber's timing -- how old should the baby be? -- and his method.  There are gentle ways to teach babies this skill.  Ferber is a pediatrician, not a psychologist, and no disrespect intended, but pediatricians are trained almost entirely in how to keep children's bodies healthy.  They have very little training in psychological development.  And he wrote his book a long time ago, before we knew so much about infant brain development.

"My baby wakes up all night long. I hate to hear him cry, but I would give anything for a full night's sleep. I am starting to resent him, and that can't be good."

You're right, the most important thing in being able to be a loving parent is that you not resent your baby. Nobody is a good parent when they're exhausted from being awakened all  night long, and some babies do seem to wake up long past the time when we feel they “should be” hungry at night. (Although even toddlers have growth spurts that can make them hungry at night.)  That’s because they form “sleep associations” with being nursed or rocked, so when they get to a very light stage of their sleep cycle, they wake up and need our help to go back to sleep.

But babies need to be parented at night, and it traumatizes them to be “taught” to sleep at night before they can understand what’s happening.  What’s more, it traumatizes a child of any age to be left alone in the dark to cry without the comfort of a parent.  When your child is old enough to learn new sleep associations (during his second year), you can stop rocking or nursing, and just comfort your child back to sleep.  He may cry, but he will have the comfort of your love, and he will learn the skill of putting himself to sleep.

Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night offers a ten step plan for parents to teach their babies to sleep all night.  It does involve crying, but it is definitely not "cry it out" because the parent is there to hold the child while he cries.

Does this mean that if I let my baby "cry it out" she'll be damaged for life?”

There are researchers who claim this, but I would never say that.  I know many great kids whose parents used sleep training.  However, we do know that babies left to "cry it out" are flooded with "stress hormones" (cortisol, adrenaline, ACTH) which destabilize their immune systems, so we know that it is bad for them biologically, at the very least.  We also know that when the brain is flooded with stress hormones, we are forming panic memories.  Those memories don't vanish just because the child is preverbal; researchers now suspect that such memories are instrumental in later anxiety and mood issues for some people. 

Another problem is that leaving your child to "cry it out" damages not only her trust in you, but your empathy for her, so it undermines your ability to parent responsively, and that in itself is a risk factor for your child. 

Bottom line, "cry it out" sleep training gives your child messages you really don't want to give her about your love being conditional and not dependable.  It isn't necessary, given that little ones can be comforted and taught new sleep associations once they can understand.  So, frankly, why take the risk?

Please note that every baby is different. Secure attachment does not develop from imposing a set of practices on your baby and yourself. It comes from staying attuned to your baby and responding to her needs. So, for instance, some babies love being in a sling, some hate it. Some don't sleep well with you, some don't sleep well without you.  But all babies will communicate what works for them, if you listen. Most of all, enjoy your baby!

 

 

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