There’s a new trend in the way parents are raising their children and it is getting attention. Many of the methods being embraced by Hollywood parents, such as breastfeeding to age 4 and beyond, wearing a baby in a sling all day, and the family bed, are part of the attachment parenting tidal wave.
Although practitioners claim what they are doing is brand new, it does bear a resemblance to the 1950s. Parents then were told in the book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care about the right way to raise a healthy and happy child. If the rules were bent or ignored, it was implied that the child was being raised the wrong way.
The current book at the top of the list is The Baby Book by Martha and Dr. William Sears. Published in 1992, it is the bible for the attachment parenting movement.
Boot camp for attachment parenting: the three Bs
The term “attachment parenting” was coined by Dr. Bill Sears, the highly popular but controversial pediatrician and author. His philosophy declares that in order for infants and babies to feel utterly secure and loved, they require all of the mother’s attention at all times. It encourages full immersion in the baby’s moment-to-moment life, claiming that is the only way to read your baby’s signals of what he needs, even before he can cry about it. This anticipation of needs and acting on them immediately is the goal.
The first component of this method is breastfeeding for an extended time. It must be on-demand for as many years as the child wants to nurse. The woman nursing her pre-school son on the cover of Time Magazine from May 2012 said she was breastfed until she was 6 years old.
Dr. Ken Saul, a Thousand Oaks pediatrician, has seen a wide array of parental methods, but only a few families in his practice do extended breastfeeding. Although Saul doesn’t endorse the endless nursing, he said the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is neutral on the subject, although it does encourage breastfeeding up to one year.
“Nobody is going to be so politically incorrect as to write an article that is negative on breastfeeding,” Saul said. He said back in the 1980s, he unintentionally incurred the wrath of what was then a far more militant La Leche League.
“Many years ago, I was doing research that found that babies who were breastfed had more jaundice,” Saul said. “I wasn’t saying not to breastfeed, just that those mothers needed to be more watchful. Somehow, La Leche League got wind of it. They called me up and actually threatened me. They said, ‘We heard about your article. We don’t want you to publish it because mothers cannot analyze jaundice properly.’ ”
Saul said it got really ugly at that point. “When I said I was just doing an observation, they got kind of nasty and said, ‘You’re young. You are just starting out in practice. Just let me tell you, our organization has many people in very high places that could make things very difficult for you if you pursue this line of research.’ ”
At that time, Saul was a resident at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. His supervisor was named Dr. Frank Sinatra. When Saul told his supervisor about what had happened, the supervisor had a solution.
Saul related Sinatra’s reply. “He said, ‘I’m Italian and I know many people in low places.’ It’s a true story but I don’t think he ever really called them.”
Saul said the lactation coaches from La Leche League with whom he now consults are a different breed and are very supportive.
Saul said, however, that he has seen the early results of children who are still nursing well into the pre-school years.
“I would have to say that the ones [children] that I see that are breastfeeding at 4 years old tend to be very clingy to the mother, difficult detaching from the mother, not interacting with other kids very well, and not interacting well with me. That’s my observation. I cannot prove that.”
Denise Guerrero of Simi Valley now has four grown children. When she started her family, she was working full time. As an executive, however, she had the flexibility to leave work at lunchtime to nurse her daughter and then return.
Guerrero said she also made all of her daughter’s baby food at that time out of concern about pesticides. But breastfeeding by working women was not yet understood by corporations, and it took a lot of effort on Guerrero’s part.
“It was something I wanted to do for her and I didn’t let it be compromised. I had ‘Jerseymaid’ tattooed on my butt. She’d still be breastfeeding if I hadn’t cut her off at about 15 months.”
The second B in Dr. Sears’ baby bible is baby wearing. For this, a sling is worn and the baby is kept on the mother’s body all day long. Obviously, this is also not very work-friendly. You can see it in practice wherever Los Angeles celebrities spend their days. It is ubiquitous in the area and is a trend that is continuing to grow. According to Sears, it uniquely provides security and comfort for the baby and encourages the maternal bond.
The third B is the most controversial aspect of attachment parenting: Bed sharing, also called co-sleeping. Saul sees a safety problem with bed sharing. “I definitely try to dissuade co-sleeping because I see evidence of increased risk of crib death. “
Several organizations agree with Saul that co-sleeping presents a real risk to the baby’s health. Those groups include AAP, the March of Dimes and U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
But Sears insists that there is no danger to the baby if done safely. His list of rules is full of common sense. A safe environment, safe placement of the baby, even a caboose-type co-sleeper (not endorsed by AAP), and parents who do not smoke, ever, are not under the influence of alcohol, drugs or even prescription drugs. He doesn’t mention the danger of a parent who is constantly sleep-deprived, which can’t be avoided when a baby sleeps in the family bed.
On the website “Ask Dr. Sears,” he addresses what he sees as an attack on his methods by the media.
“Every night, millions of mothers and babies the world over sleep close to each other, and the babies wake up just fine.”
Sears also claims that letting a baby cry for any length of time can eventually cause brain damage. He said that co-sleeping cuts the crying time down, bestowing another health benefit. Still, there is no hard scientific evidence that supports this claim of brain damage under normal circumstances. Studies found it only in extreme and neglectful situations such as institutional orphanages.
Sears concluded his discussion for co-sleeping, “I have promoted safe co-sleeping in our pediatric practice for nearly 40 years and have witnessed only positive outcomes.”
Another prominent proponent of attachment parenting, pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon of Santa Monica, posted on his own website a response to the 2010 Consumer Product Safety Commission warning against bed sharing with infants. It closely echoes the words of Sears.
Gordon wrote on his website: “Crib death may be prevented by co-sleeping, and breastfeeding is increased by sharing the family bed. Countless thousands of lives are saved by the family bed, and in 20 years as a pediatrician I have never seen a child in any way endangered by sleeping with her parents.”
The real extremes: undiapering, unschooling, unparenting
There are also some truly extreme practices that can accompany attachment parenting. These practices are not necessarily advocated by Sears.
The first, and perhaps the most difficult to master, is called elimination communication. The benefits are touted as a way to free the planet from landfill overflow, save money, and uniquely bond with your baby.
Why? Because the method involves letting your baby go diaperless. That’s right, the baby never wears a diaper, paper or cloth. Instead, using Third World impoverished civilizations as the template, mothers who are already carrying their babies in a sling will learn to anticipate exactly when the child has to go. At that point, they hold the baby over a receptacle, hopefully a toilet, just in time to catch the pee or poop. Proponents of this very difficult technique say they do catch on to the baby’s signals eventually, making the mother-child experience all the closer.
Mind meld or not, this reporter cannot even imagine what happens in the car. Or in a store. Or restaurant. Or at the in-laws. It is understood that this method need not be practiced 100 percent of the time.
Unschooling is not the same as home schooling. Unlike what happens with most home schoolers, there is no curriculum, there are no tests, no studying and no mandatory subjects. The child alone choose what to learn. If their interests are centered on sports, that is what they will study. Likewise history or cooking or building model planes. If they struggle with science or math, the parents believe that their children will do just fine without those subjects. And if the children later realize that they need to know more about them, they will seek out the information.
Likewise, unparenting is based on the premise that most parents need to unlearn the auto responses from their own childhood. Parents need to avoid the cycle of having expectations, such as expecting their child to clean up his or her room, and if the expectations are met, there is a reward. If they are not met, there is a punishment. Proponents say this system causes the child to blindly obey instead of learning why the room should be clean. There is no right or wrong way to do something, only the child’s way, and as such, the child will be allowed to become his or her own true self.
Unparenting can be seen in a household without rules. If the child wants to eat fish sticks all the time, and never wants to eat anything resembling fruit or vegetables, fish sticks it is. If children don’t want to wear clothes, at all, then they can feel free to run around the house naked. Don’t like taking showers? When they are ready, they will bathe.
Variations on attachment parenting
Dr. Mary Dobbins, Southern Illinois University chief of the Division of Adolescent and Pediatric Psychiatry, had mixed feelings about the Sears technique because of the underlying problem of adding to the “mommy wars,” which just make many new mothers feel inadequate.
“Dr. Sears is talking about specific concrete guidelines that some people can do but are not all easy to do in our culture. I think people become concerned if they can’t do them, they are a bad parent. Are people who do those things shaming people who don’t do those things? The question is how much does a parent have to be attached to be a good parent and still raise a healthy kid? If a baby or child knows that there is someone who loves them more than anything else and they are around them a reasonable amount of time, that’s going to be more important than somebody who is with their child all of the time and may be very disinterested in taking care of that child.”
Korrenna Borta of Santa Monica is a psychologist and embraces attachment parenting. She lost two of her young children in a car accident five years ago and now is raising her 2-year-old daughter.
“Attachment parenting is so close to my natural style of parenting, it was nice to have a name for it and a system and a model for it. This style is best for me because it trusts a parent’s instincts. It gives you some principles and guidelines and encourages you to adjust them to fit your family. I loved that about it. I think the flexibility keeps it from having any judgment.”
Borta added her hopes for her daughter’s future. “Truly, my goal is to raise a healthy, happy, connected, empathic, confident, loving, trusting, self-assured, independent child.”
That is a very different interpretation of the rules of Dr. Sears. Although he states that the system enhances the life of a working mother, by promoting closeness between her and her child from the moment she arrives at home, his other advice contradicts this compromise.
Sears recommends that women who financially need to work should quit their jobs and borrow money that can be paid back later when they return to work as the children reach school age. Not something that many women can realistically do.