The Natural Child Project The Natural Child Project
View shopping cart

Getting Attached

Japanese children sleep between their parents until adolescence. Korean infants spend more than 90 percent of their time being held. In contrast, American babies spend two-thirds of their time alone, in infant seats, strollers, car seats, cribs or swings. and American mothers deliberately don't respond to their babies' cries 46 percent of time in the first three months, according to a study cited by Anthropologist Meredith Small in her book Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent (Anchor Books, 1998).

Furthermore, in most countries other than the US, colic - prolonged periods of inconsolable crying that usually happens in the evening - is unknown, according to pediatrician Ronald Barr, M.D., of Children's Hospital in Montreal, who conducted numerous studies on infant crying between 1988 and 1997. In fact, in most other parts of the world, babies rarely cry for long periods of time, perhaps because their needs are met immediately by their mothers, who are in constant contact with them.

Small cites these and many other examples of how different cultures parent, based on studies conducted during the past 30 years. As she points out, our closely held beliefs about raising children are vastly different from those of most of the world. In many other cultures around world, including other industrialized societies, babies are held in slings or front packs all day long, and are rarely observed to cry.

But now there is a growing movement in the U.S. toward "attachment parenting", a theory of child-rearing centered around responsiveness to children's needs and close physical contact between baby and mother. In practice, this means extended breast feeding and child-led weaning; sleeping with your child and allowing her to nurse throughout the night; and carrying or wearing your baby in a sling for much of the day. This type of parenting closely mimics the practice of "primitive" or "natural" societies - and flies in the face of modern Western notions of fostering independence in children.

The Powerful Bond

The term "attachment" was coined in the 1960s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, when he proposed a biological-bonding theory between a mother and her baby. While studying children under age 3 who were separated from their mothers for days or weeks during hospital stays, Bowlby, along with fellow researcher Mary Ainsworth, found the mother-child bond to be more powerful than previously realized. Bowlby and Ainsworth were struck by the depth of the children's attachment and their despair upon separation.

To nurture the mother-infant relationship, attachment parenting promotes close contact between baby and mother. This includes extended breast­feeding and child-led weaning, co-sleeping, "baby wearing" in a carrier during the day, and constant attention to the baby's physical and emotional needs.

Easier Than it Sounds

Although attachment parenting may sound like "New Age" thinking, it's actually the oldest style of child-rearing, and one that is widespread. For example, in two-thirds of the world, children sleep with their mothers, according to several studies cited by Small. A 1996 study of young children's sleep habits in Japan, Italy, and the U.S. revealed that Japanese children actually sleep between their parents until adolescence. Similarly, when a researcher queried mothers in Fiji about their sleeping arrangements, the Fijians were surprised by the question, and asked, "Is it true American mothers put their babies in cages at night?" While our society tends to judge how "good" a baby is by whether he is sleeping through the night, Italian mothers couldn't answer questions about how long their babies slept or how often they got up - their babies slept with them, and they simply didn't keep track of when the babies awoke.

The other main precept of attachment parenting is responsiveness and respect for children's needs. Although giving yourself over entirely to your child's needs may sound overwhelming, attachment parenting advocates maintain that this style of parenting is actually easier. Based on her experience with hundreds of families, nationally known family and parenting counselor Naomi Aldort, of Eastsound, Washington, says, "I can't believe how difficult most mothers make it for themselves: sleeping in a different room and having to get up and go to the baby in the night, all the preparation and warming involved in bottle feeding, all the gadgets and equipment to pack whenever they go out. All attachment mothers need is a sling and their own body."

Some fear that attachment parenting will create dependent, clingy children. Attachment proponents claim the opposite is true: "Attached children may be dependent longer, but because the dependency phase is completely fulfilled, the child can grow into an independent, secure adult," Aldort says. Further, proponents argue that each developmental stage, such as toilet learning, or weaning from the breast or bed, will be naturally achieved when the child is ready, and not according to an arbitrary, culturally determined timetable.

Mothers who choose the attachment parenting route may encounter criticism from others. Perhaps the biggest concern is that this style of parenting will lead to spoiled children. Aldort responds: "Human beings are meant to be bonded, and a baby takes for granted that he will be taken care of on his terms." Carrie Eisenbeiz is one mom who knew instinctively before 20-month-old Courtney was born that she wanted to sleep with her baby and breast­feed her into toddlerhood. "When someone asks me, 'Aren't you worried about spoiling her?', I say 'It's my intention to spoil her as much as possible.'"

The costs of not parenting in an attached way can be great, according to Aldort and other attachment proponents. "Several research studies show a clear connection between children not getting their needs met at an early age and malfunctions in adulthood, such as depression, drug use, violence and divorce," Aldort says.

"It is our job to be responsive parents, meeting the needs of our child; it is not the child's job to meet our needs for a quiet and perfectly well-behaved child," adds child psychologist Jan Hunt, M.Sc., director of The Natural Child Project and web site. "In short, attachment parenting means loving and trusting our children."

Jane McConnell and Jeff Heyman are the attached parents of three children.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 Fit Pregnancy, a special issue of Shape Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.