Why Attachment Parenting is Best for Your Baby

Laura Markham's picture

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Attachment parenting is simply responding to your baby's needs. What do babies need? Their parents. Not the cute baby clothes you got at the shower. Not the baby swing, or seat, or crib. Not even diapers. You may need all that. But your baby needs his parents.

The basic idea is simple and intuitively obvious. Human babies are born helpless because of their big brains. To survive, they need parents to keep them from harm's way for many years, and to teach them survival skills. So all humans are born seeking close attachments. That's why newborns hang on to your finger and babies cry to be picked up.

There's nothing new about this; parents have been holding their babies and responding to their cries for as long as humans have existed. In fact, the human baby is perfectly adapted to demand parent-child interaction -- as you've no doubt noticed -- and depends on it for healthy development. Your baby's brain circuitry, emotional health, even his later ability to control his temper and delay gratification, all depend on his receiving adequate soothing while in infancy. And since the best way to sooth babies is usually to hold them, responsive parenting has become known as Attachment parenting.

Attachment parenting is supported by an impressive body of scientific research, including both longitudinal studies of children and their parents, and advances in understanding infant brain development. We know that babies need to be soothed when they cry, and to be held and carried much of the time. We know that babies who have "secure" attachments to their parents also have better relationships with peers and teachers, do better in school, and are happier as adolescents.

Some parents still worry that picking up their baby when she cries will spoil her. But if spoiling is "ruining" a child so that she's not developing optimally and may end up being difficult, then leaving her to cry uncomforted is what will "spoil" her. Your goal is to raise a cheerful, well-adjusted, adaptable child, who becomes increasingly independent and able to handle age-appropriate developmental tasks, right?

Once your baby learns that her caretakers are reliably nurturing and protective, she'll builds on this internal security as she proceeds to the next developmental tasks of exploration, mastery of the environment, and forming relationships with others. And any self-respecting baby wants you to put him down long before he can crawl, so he can start tearing up your house.

So how do you use the Attachment Parenting philosophy?

  1. Trust your own instincts. You're a mama lion, or a papa bear. You would protect this child with your life. Nature designed you and your baby as the perfect team. You may panic when you first hold your infant in your arms, but you have everything you need inside you. All you need to do is keep yourself calm and pay attention to your baby. She'll let you know what she needs.

  2. Buy a snuggly or a sling. For optimal development, newborns need to be in frequent physical contact with a parent. Most babies will let you know this by crying when you put them down. Because you will need your arms free at times, slings and snugglies are invaluable. When she's a little older, you'll find a backpack an invaluable alternative to a stroller. Babies love being safe against you and at adult height as they explore the world. Some baby carriers are better for your back than others, so ask experienced parents before you buy.

  3. Lower your expectations about everything except parenting. Your child will be an infant for six months of your life. Who cares if you get nothing else done for six months? What's your priority, after all? Once you lower your expectations, you'll be amazed at how much you can get done with a baby in a snuggly. Babies love to watch you fold laundry, grocery shop, and chat with other parents with babies.

  4. Nurse your baby. Don't "hope" you'll be able to breastfeed. INTEND to breastfeed. Breastfeed "on cue" rather than a schedule. Set yourself up with the resources and support you need so before the baby arrives so you have a phone number to easily call La Leche, or a lactation consultant if you have problems getting started.

  5. Sleep with or near your baby. You'll get more sleep. There's evidence he'll be healthier. And if you nap when he naps you'll maximize your sleep.

  6. Minimize non-parental care. Set up the adult work schedules in your family so your baby has a parent or other permanent -- that means not an employee, who by definition is not permanent -- intimate other available as many hours of the day and night as possible.

  7. This is the time to make yourself ask for help. And if you have family or friends kind enough to offer help, ask them for what you really need: dinner or laundry folding, not baby-minding. What you and your baby need is time to relax together. If you feel you need someone else to hold the baby because she's been crying nonstop, by all means hand her over -- but do read the section on Crying on the YourParentingSolutions.com site for some solutions that will really help, and pick up Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block for some help in calming your colicky little one.

  8. Get support. Find other parents who practice attachment parenting so that you have a community of support. Otherwise, it can be hard to stand up to all those well-meaning folks who tell you just to put the baby down and let him cry, even though that goes against all your instincts.

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com