Strongly Attached

A parenting style with unexpected benefits.


Korean infants are held more than 90 percent of the time. In contrast, American babies spend two-thirds of their time alone, in infant seats, strollers, car seats, cribs or swings. Furthermore, in most countries other than the United States, "colic" — prolonged periods of inconsolable crying that usually happen 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.

Anthropologist Meredith Small cited these and many other examples of how different cultures parent, based on studies conducted during the past 30 years, in her book Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent (Anchor Books). As Small points out, our closely held beliefs about raising children are vastly different from those of most of the world.

But there is now a movement in this country toward "attachment parenting," a theory of child-rearing centered around responsiveness to children's needs. 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.

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 United States revealed that Japanese children actually sleep between their parents until adolescence. And while our society tends to judge how "good" a baby is by whether he is sleeping through the night, Italian mothers in the study 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.

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, Wash., says, "I can't believe how difficult most mothers make it for themselves: sleeping in a different room and having to go to the baby in the night, all the preparation and warming involved in bottle feeding, all the gadgets and equipment to pack when they go out. All attachment mothers need is a sling and their own body."

Secure and Strong Some fear that attachment parenting will create clingy, "spoiled" 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.

Mothers who choose the attachment parenting route may encounter criticism from others. Carrie Eisenbeisz is one mom who knew instinctively before 25-month-old Courtney was born that she wanted to sleep with her baby and breastfeed her into toddlerhood. "When someone questions me, 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 Society and Web site. "In short, attachment parenting means loving and trusting our children."