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Friday, 27 July 2012

Attachment Parenting: When Love Hurts

Thanks to Australian media, attachment parenting and it's barrage of common misconceptions are back on the lips of parents.

Earlier this week, 60 Minutes aired a piece entitled 'On Demand'. Headlines leading up to the show included: "WRONG or RIGHT: Already at school and still breastfeeding?" and "What baby wants... baby gets - Could Attachment Parenting be the answer?" Given these ostensibly provocative headlines, I initially didn't watch the piece, assuming it would be typical media sensationalism.

But after it aired, I began to hear a few friends admit their pleasant surprise. They said the piece had been uncritical, with some well-qualified experts interviewed, and the overall tone was positive.

I thought: how refreshing! Maybe we might begin to see an end to this media-fuelled mother bashing?

But then, people started sending me some responses from the 60 Minutes Australia Facebook page.

This is a mere snippet of the 600+ responses on the page in the hours after the segment was aired.
Oh. Maybe not.

"Child abuse"? "Incest"? "FFS .. need a shrink"? Child abuse again? What were people so angry about?

So I watched it.

The piece opened with the image of Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her 3-year-old from the recent controversial Time Magazine cover. The reporter then began with the following statement:
"What you are about to see challenges all conventional notions about parenting. It may offend, perhaps even anger, many of you. It's called "attachment parenting" — a back-to-basics approach to child raising that's becoming more and more popular with mums here and around the world.
 The idea is that mothers agree to every demand a child makes — any time — day or night. They ask their permission to change a nappy, let them sleep in the grown-ups' bed and even breastfeed them through preschool and beyond.
But don't just dismiss all of this as new age extremism. There is some compelling science behind it."
After this rousing (and, of course, misleading) opener, I awaited what followed with a sense of trepidation ... but was met with a pleasant anti-climax. The piece included interviews with well-qualified experts Dr James McKenna and Dr William Sears, along with many quotes from mothers simply sharing their experiences and thoughts on parenting this way. The overall tone presented attachment parenting in a relatively positive light.

So why the furore? Why were literally hundreds of people responding with the wrath and vitriol reserved perhaps for the most heinous of serial child molesters?

Why does a mother demonstrating nothing but unconditional love and respect for her child receive such scathing, raw, emotion-fuelled attack?

In order to answer that, allow me to quickly touch on what attachment parenting is. According to Attachment Parenting Australia:
"Attachment parenting (also called “natural parenting” or “instinctive parenting”) is an approach to parenting that has been practised widely for thousands of years... Attachment parenting is based on the principle of understanding a child’s emotional and physical needs and responding sensitively to these needs. The focus of attachment parenting is on building a strong relationship between parents and child."
That last sentence is the key: building a strong relationship between parents and child.

That's it. Nothing about leaving a child in a nappy if they don't want it changed, nothing about sacrificing your marriage for the children in the bed, and nothing about breastfeeding a 14-year-old.

The word 'attachment' in the 'attachment parenting' label stems from psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory, describing attachment as a:
"lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194).
The three most common types of attachment are: secure, avoidant and ambivalent, with a fourth more recently recognised as disorganised.
The reason that attachment parenting philosophies are met by full-term breastfeeding, co-sleeping and babywearing are because all of these help foster a healthy, secure emotional attachment between mother and child. Unfortunately, many commonly accepted baby-care practices can potentially compromise a secure attachment: sleep training programs, enforced feeding routines, denial of a baby's need to be held or prolonged or repeated separation of mother and infant.

Contrary to popular belief, attachment parenting isn't about saying "yes" to all a child's demands, it isn't about breastfeeding a teenager or sleeping with your children until they move out of home. It isn't about martyring yourself into a lifeless husk, bled dry by insatiable children. In fact, it is entirely possible to practice the philosophies of attachment parenting and bottle-feed, sleep separately and use a pram for everything – it's just a little harder. The truth is, instinctive mothering is easy, once one sheds the cultural handcuffs.
According to Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor, authors of Helping Your Baby to Sleep, only about 60% of babies have a secure attachment: meaning that almost half of babies and young children have an insecure attachment to a caregiver.
"Human beings are born in an immature state and need to keep a parent close by. This means they are born with an instinctive urge to form an attachment to a parent. To a baby, having consistent affection, touch and care is actually as important as food. The continual care of a parent also enables a baby to mature into a feeling, thinking human being – our brains and emotions can only develop properly under the close guidance of another person." (1)
If babies are so instinctively driven to form secure attachments, why are so many children insecurely attached? And what happens if the security of a child's attachment is compromised?
"Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behavior in later childhood and throughout the life. While attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, research indicates that early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. For example, those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships and the ability to self-disclose to others. As adults, they tend to have healthy, happy and lasting relationships." (Source) 
When Dr Sears first began advocating this return to instinctive parenting and labelled it "attachment parenting," based on attachment theory, it probably sounded like a radical alternative to what was still overwhelmingly the norm in western baby-raising practices. Holding a baby almost constantly, breastfeeding around the clock on demand and keeping your baby within arms reach – even in the same bed as the parents, is a stark contrast to what remained of the early 1900's model of parenting carried over by Dr Truby King's advocation of rigid, 4-hourly feeding and sleeping schedules, no contact overnight, and strict advice to build a child's character by avoiding cuddling or extra attention.

Although Dr Truby King's methods are now mostly discredited, plenty of other take-offs of this kind of behaviourist advice have succeeded him in the likes of baby care 'experts' popular the world over today, such as: Gary Ezzo, Tizzie Hall, Gina Ford, and many more... Although today's baby-care regimes are painted in a much 'nicer' sounding language, they are essentially the same thing. For example:
  • In the early 1900's, Truby King recommended that babies should be trained from birth to feed at four-hourly intervals, and should be expected to sleep from 10pm to 6am. He wrote: 'Don't form in the baby at the dawn of life any avoidable habit which would be injurious afterwards.' (2)
  • Today, Tizzie Hall recommends that a baby aged 1-2 weeks of age be fed three-hourly, with only 1 feed between 10pm and 7am. (3) She writes: 'Let baby know that no matter how much shouting [crying] takes place you will not be coming in until he's asleep... You must be strong and determined if you want to win this argument.' (4)
Following this, we now have a generation of adults; grandparents or new parents, raised within some form of these guidelines of emotional abandonment and lack of maternal contact. So what we have is not only a generation of adults suffering insecure attachment, but a generation of parents currently – unwittingly, perhaps – continuing this insecure attachment and its potential problems by subjecting their own children to these compromising regimes: because they are told and believe it is the right thing to do.

Former president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, psychiatrist Isla Lonie says:
When we look back in time, we can find that methods of controlling the chaos which babies bring have always been popular... Because of this, there have been a great many adults in our society, by now in their fifties or older, who have had this early experience. Numbers of them have ended up having psychotherapy, so we are in a good position to see what long-term effects this system has had... Many of these patients suffer from low self-esteem...they do not believe they are valuable or worthwhile people... We do know that those who believe that they are worthless people often end up with even worse problems, such as drug or alcohol problems, or abusive relationships. (5)
In Australia, around one in five people will experience mental illness at some stage in their life. Depression is currently the highest medical cause of disability worldwide and predicted to be the second highest medical cause of death and disability worldwide by 2020. (source)Between 1992 and 2001, more than 31,000 deaths were attributed to risky or high-risk alcohol consumption. (source). We have an adult generation of substance abuse and addictions. We are addicted almost everything – from alcohol and gambling to shopping.

Are we really as 'fine' as those who oppose attachment parenting would like us to believe? You'll often hear older people talking about how they were smacked as a child and they're 'fine', or parents in one breath proudly proclaiming their son was the fastest runner or highest scorer in his class but in the next breath lament that he sits in his room all day ignoring them, or even parents with toddlers or pre-schoolers struggling with a child "not listening." 

So, are we really fine? Humans are intelligent, progressive and abundantly curious. Are we really living to the best of our ability?

As an infant, I was left to cry myself to sleep. As a child, I was often shut away in my own room alone when I was angry or crying. However, for the most part, my parents were attentive, loving and very respectful. I had what is outwardly considered a very good childhood. A crying infant or raging toddler can be incredibly triggering for me; bringing up feelings of intense sorrow, helplessness and even anger. When my first child was born, a typically 'colicky' infant; I was met with feelings of utter despair: everyone told me to leave her to cry or to "put her on a routine" – but my body screamed with angst at this idea.

Which brings me to what I believe is the root of the issue: we have a generation of adults nursing unhealed childhood wounds – and they can lash out in anger when triggered.

Australian psychologist and author Robin Grille says:
"It is our own personal childhood history, with its unique blend of oft-forgotten joys and sorrows, which holds the key to our parenting... At various times during parenting, we all must confront and heal our own childhood wounds that confound our ability to see our children for who they are." (6)
Why does the idea of a mother breastfeeding her 4-year-old fill many adults with such rage? If their rage is based on an apparent concern for the child's welfare – it seems a bizarre contradiction to me that such a loving act as breastfeeding could trigger such concern. Are they angry because they feel that children should be shown less love? If so, what level of love is acceptable?

Robin Grille continues:
"If we felt rejected or abandoned as infants, it is possible that we may find ourselves feeling resentful, even hostile toward our children. If our own childhood emotional needs weren't met, we might find our children's dependency intolerable. It is hard to give what has not been given to us." (7)
Does this outrage to attachment parenting principles, this expression of disgust and hurt, come from our own deep, long-held childhood grief? Does it come from having our own attachment-seeking instincts denied and ignored?

Does seeing a child nurtured, respected and loved so unashamedly swell within us a repressed rage and jealousy from our own hurting inner child? 

Are we envious of these children whose parents demonstrate such simple biological nurturance?

Fears of 'spoiling' when it comes to attachment parenting are completely misguided. How can a child be 'spoiled' with love and respect? A child can be 'spoiled' in the cultural sense with material possessions and a lack of boundaries. Attachment parenting is actually about modelling a healthy respect of boundaries: modelling to the growing child that their needs matter, their autonomy matters, and treating them with empathy: even if they have a tantrum when you say 'no', you can still be kind to them. It's not about dropping everything and saying yes to your child no matter what.

Most people understand that respect is earned, not entitled. Children learn by imitation: if we model respect to them, they're far more likely to understand it, and demonstrate it to others. Should we demand obedience? Or model healthy respect and boundaries?

What kind of adults are do we seek for the future of humanity? Adults who unquestioningly obey what they are told to do, adults brought up with no self-worth or a tendency toward aggression and violence? Or who are secure and self-confident, respectful and compassionate?
" was recently estimated that it would cost as little as US$10 billion to bring education to the 180 million children in the world who don't have access to schools. This is 40 times less than what the world spends on cigarettes, 300 times less that what the world spends on military and 16 times less than what the world spends on beer... we can be assured that any society that invests in its families, and in its children's emotional development, will see a huge proportion of it's costly social problems dissolve." (8)
So if you are struggling with a fear of attachment parenting philosophies, I'd suggest asking yourself: why? What grief or hurt is causing that fear – and how can you heal from it?

Attachment parenting isn't a new, radical or extreme set of self-sacrificing parenting check-boxes. It is simply a life philosophy: that babies are human, that humans deserve respect, and that raising compassionate and respectful children can nurture a more peaceful future generation.

(1, 2) Gethin, Anni & Macgregor, Beth. 2007. Helping Your Baby to Sleep, p. 22 & 43 Finch Publishing, Sydney, Australia.
(3) Hall, Tizzie. 2008. Routine Breastfed Baby Aged 1 to 2 Weeks. (self-published article from

(4, 5) Gethin, Anni & Macgregor, Beth. 2007. Helping Your Baby to Sleep, p. 77 & 43. Finch Publishing, Sydney, Australia.
(6, 7, 8) Grille, Robin. 2005. Parenting For a Peaceful World, p.363, 364 & 388. Longueville Media, Sydney, Australia.


  1. Very well said, I totally agree, why do these people spend so much time and energy complaining about something that is normal, healthy, loving and right? There are plenty of abnormal, unhealthy, hateful and wrong things happening in the world which we should be complaining about. Why can't they divert their energies to those subjects and leave mums and babies to what they do naturally and instinctively?

  2. I read your blog on occasion, and it's the first time I read this post. Absolutely brilliant! Thank you for such eloquent words.