You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook Page.
Today I’m getting opinionated. I’m going to tell you my feelings re: Attachment Parenting. Now before we get into this I want to put a big, flashing, in red DISCLAIMER on this post alright? I don’t give a shit how you parent. That might be an odd thing for a parenting coach to say, but I really don’t. These are my opinions, and while they’re informed opinions- they’re still opinions. I TRULY DEEP DOWN believe that every parent does what he or she believes to be the best for their child and that we all have different priorities, and personalities, and tolerances. So I genuinely don’t give a shit how you parent as long as it’s working for you, it’s working for your child, and there’s no form of mental or physical abuse happening. As long as you can tick those three boxes, YOU DO YOU. I’m not judging you or anyone else. Capiche?
With that being said, it took me a bit of time to organise my thoughts on this so it didn’t just come out in like this- BLAH of opinions. On the surface I’ve got nothing bad to say about attachment parenting. There’s the 8 principles of Attachment Parenting: prepare for pregnancy and birth, feed with love and respect, respond with sensitivity, use nurturing touch, engage in nighttime parenting, provide constant loving care, practice positive discipline, and strive for balance. There are absolutely zero negative things there. The reasons I dislike attachment parenting doesn’t have anything to do with those concepts- it’s the INTERPRETATION of those concepts that dare I say most people who identify as “attachment parents” use, that I dislike- and the tactics used- mainly on social media, but I’ve seen a fair amount of it play out in real life too to push those interpretations on others.
So I came up with 3 main criticisms I have of what I’ll call “mainstream attachment parenting”. And I’ll go through each one. I won’t go TOO in depth or we’ll be here all day. But I’ll try and be thorough without talking your ear off. And I’ll warn you now because if you’re reading this whole thing you’re going to find it strange but between each point I make I’m going to refer everyone BACK to the disclaimer at the beginning of this post because I KNOW people are going to skim this post and get their hackles up so here’s your reminder: if you’re reading this please, for the love of babies everywhere, go back to the beginning and read the disclaimer, okay?
Alright, so my first beef is the blanket assumption that distress is automatically toxic all the time. If your child cries, they’re experiencing toxic stress. They often point to some studies on rats and if you want these links, let me know and I’ll happily provide them. Personally, reading rat research makes my brain melt, but if that sounds like fun to you have I got the peer-reviewed research for you! They point to rat research and research on Reactive Attachment Disorder to support their view.
Here’s the problem: the conclusions they’re drawing from that research is very much cherry picked and SO FAR OUT in left field. They manipulate, catastrophise, and take out of context the conclusions of those studies and apply them to children. One great example is sleep training, and I can point you to a FANTASTIC article by Alexis Dubief of Precious Little Sleep. I actually created a short link for it because I post it so often. You can find it here. Actually, a lot of the rat research is linked in her article too. She wrote an article in response to this horrible blog post that was going around that basically made it sound like by letting your child cry it out you were destroying any chance at a secure attachment and you would neurologically damage your child for life. And the article she’s responding to- I actually think she refers to it as Ol’ Yeller…was spreading like WILDFIRE in parenting groups of all forms but ESPECIALLY in attachment parenting groups. I know a lot of my friends who identify as attachment parents shared it and even some parenting professionals I kind of respected shared it and it really destroyed my respect for them. Because it wasn’t cited, it was a complete opinion piece. And what Alexis did was she went and tried to hunt down the research she THINKS the author was referring to- because it wasn’t cited, she had to guess- and that’s NOT what that research said at all! The author of the anti-sleep training article made these WILD inflations on the actual conclusions of the research, and in most aspects went on total tangents and drew conclusions that weren’t even present. It was pointing to these examples of newborn rats being put in prolonged isolation and orphans in third world countries being abandoned at birth and put in overcrowded orphanages where their basic physical needs were met but there were no primary caregivers at all. In what world is that the equivalent of a child in a loving home crying for an hour? There is NO DATA that point to sleep training being abusive or destroying attachment. NONE. There IS research on the effects of extreme sleep deprivation on infant development and maternal mental health, though.
So it’s this EXTREME belief that ANY distress in any shape or form is damaging your child irreparably that really makes me want to scream. Manageable amounts of distress are good for children. It helps them build resiliency and independence, and yes- EVEN SECURE ATTACHMENT. Crying is how young children communicate and sometimes they have to do shit they don’t want to do and that SUCKS so they express it by crying, because they don’t have emotional control or often language yet, but when they struggle through it and come out the other side, they feel accomplished, and proud, and it builds their belief in their competence. We’re not talking about locking them in their room and throwing away the key and passing bowls of gruel under the door.
And this is going to be a common theme but the SHAME this heaps on parents. Especially parents who already got the shit stick end of the deal. And I’ll put my hand up high here- parents like me who had a baby who CRIED no matter what I did or how I did it and landed me in the hospital for sleep deprivation. They’ve got it hard enough- they don’t need this message- that isn’t supported by any facts- that if they aren’t responding to their child 24/7 their child is going to grow up despondent and damaged and hateful.
And that leads me into my second beef.
First beef is the blanket assumption that distress = toxic.
Second beef is the martyr and shaming culture Attachment Parenting has around it. And I find it kind of strange because one of the “8 principles of Attachment Parenting” is supposed to be balance. But that’s why we’re talking “mainstream Attachment Parenting” rather than the book definition of attachment parenting. Because I agree, on paper there’s not much to object to. We’re talking how it actually plays out in mainstream society.
SO MUCH of what I not only read in Facebook groups, but that I experienced living in a VERY attachment-parenting oriented city- was this “I’ve suffered more than you, I’ve sacrificed more of myself than you, so I love my kids more than you love yours.” attitude. And I THINK this comes out of the whole Dr. Sears “convenience parenting” condemnation again just taken WAY TOO FAR. This idea that if you do ANYTHING for your own convenience or mental health that you are putting yourself above your child’s “needs” and that makes you a shit mom.
If you choose to bottle feed instead of breastfeed- you’re a shit Mom. “Do you know how HARD breastfeeding is? How many hours I have to stay up pumping? How many foods I’ve had to eliminate from my diet? I haven’t had so much of a lick of ice cream in over a year. I haven’t gone into a deep sleep in 2 years because I have to stay half awake to make sure I don’t roll over my child. I wake up with feet in my temples every morning. My back is ACHING because I carry my child around on me 24/7 because if I put her down for a second she screams in protest.” ON AND ON AND ON AND ON- it becomes the bloody Hardship Olympics. Only nobody’s giving you a medal for suffering! You do not impress anyone with your “dedication to your child’s needs.”
Sleep is important, it’s okay to sleep train and it’s okay to put your child in their own bed, full stop. It doesn’t make you a shit parent for putting your quote-unquote “comfort and convenience” first.
Food is important. If you’re struggling with breastfeeding, or you’re like me and can’t breastfeed because of a medical reason, or hell you just don’t WANT to breastfeed- that’s okay. You’re not a shit Mom for feeding your child a perfectly acceptable diet. Again, there is no evidence of children in a loving family in the western world suffering one iota from not breastfeeding or it having any effect on parental attachment.
Physical and mental health is IMPORTANT. It’s OKAY to make some decisions because it helps you feel less like you want to stab someone in the eye with a fork. Maternal mental health has a PROVEN effect on child mental health, there are no wildly exaggerated conclusions there. It’s been pretty roundly given the “fact stamp”. So if you’re MISERABLE and can barely function because you’re very literally putting your child first in every aspect of life- THAT’S NOT TO YOUR CHILD’S BENEFIT.
And again, the SHAME. Here’s my personal experience with it. As you may or may not know depending on how long you’ve been hanging around here- I have a medical condition called hypoplasia of the breasts. Apparently, it’s extremely rare but I’ve actually met quite a few women with the same diagnosis. The practical consequence of that is that I produce basically no breast milk. And I was SO BRAINWASHED by the AP “breast is best” BS that I literally starved my son for 3 weeks attempting to breastfeed- refusing to give him formula- until it was confirmed that I have one golf ball sized mass of mammary glands in my right breast and the rest is so insignificant that it’s not even worth mentioning.
That’s the back-story. My experience with AP was going to a babywearing meetup, sitting with my infant son, pulling out a bottle to feed him and having some Martyr Mary look over at me and say “I sure hope that’s breastmilk.” And when I was like “No, it’s not.” Literally, everyone around me got up and moved away from me. Eventually, at one of these meetings, someone got up the courage to come over to me and offer to help me re-lactate. And when I shared my diagnosis, then spent 30 minutes trying to convince me that no really- I could exclusively breastfeed- I just had to try hard enough. And when I was like “No, I really don’t feel like taking 14 pills of Dom Peridone a day and pumping every half hour around the clock” I got the “Oh well, I guess it’s more convenient for you to just use formula then, hmm? You don’t even want to put in the effort to get him donor milk.” Like- it STILL makes me mad to this day.
THIS ISN’T THE HARDSHIP OLYMPICS. Suffering doesn’t make you the best parent in the world. It doesn’t prove- to whomever you’re trying to prove it to- that you’ve “tried your very best.”
Don’t get me wrong- I’m a trained babywearing educator. I LOVE babywearing. A lot of the original members of the Parenting Posse were people I taught to use a baby wrap in real life. And a good chunk of them came to me because other educators in the area refused to work with them because they bottle fed. I love snuggling with my kids in bed in the morning. There are aspects of attachment parenting I really quite like. What I just can’t get behind is this EXTREME martyr level adherence to it to the point where we’re putting ourselves at the very bottom of the barrel.
And quite frankly, I think it’s a weapon of oppression. It keeps women exhausted, barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. You can’t be a working mother if you’ve got a baby attached to your boob and you’re terrified that if you remove them you’ll damage them for life. You can’t be commuting to work and climbing the corporate ladder when you’re so exhausted because you haven’t slept well in 3 years. You can’t be making an impact, taking names and kicking ass when you’re afraid it might cause you to be separated from your child and cause them irreparable toxic stress.
And again, I’m going to say it for good measure, if it’s working for you, it’s working for your kids, and it’s not physical or mentally abusive- YOU DO YOU. It’s the aspect of scaring women into doing anything else that I object to.
So just to recap, my first beef is the blanket association of distress with toxic stress. Second is the martyr culture it seems to breed.
The third is the tunnel vision it creates.
Now if you remember in my disclaimer I said that I don’t give a shit how you parent as long as it’s working for you, it’s working for your child, and it’s not mentally or physically abusive. This beef is mostly professional but also somewhat personal because I’ve had this experience with a few of my friends as well.
Usually how it plays out is that someone comes to me- friend, friend of a friend, potential client, a client who’s already paid me, and they say “So this is what’s happening with my kid, it’s driving me insane, how do I fix it?” And I start breaking it down into the developmental, neurological, social and societal reasons it could be happening and then I give them some strategies I KNOW from over a decade of experience working in early intervention- work. And work relatively quickly, and remain effective long-term.
And then they go “Oh I can’t do that. I’m an attachment parent. Is there any way I can fix this in a gentle way?” And then I feel an undeniable urge to go punch my punching bag. Because what that sentence really means is, “Is there a way for me to change my child’s behaviour without changing mine?” and the answer to that is NO. There is not. That’s not how this works. The MAIN REASON I became a parenting coach is because so much of child behaviour is learned and moulded by the significant adults in their life. Not all of it but a significant amount of it. And the better skills the parent has, the better they understand how the brain develops, the better grasp they have of behaviourism…the easier it is to parent. Period. Doesn’t matter what your child’s predispositions are. If you understand child development, parenting is way easier.
And I HATE that phrase “in a gentle way.” The implication here is that what I’m suggesting is violent. Or rough. And it’s not. Is it easy? No. Is it uncomfortable? Yeah, usually, making any kind of change, whether it’s in parenting or any other aspect of your life is generally uncomfortable. There’s going to be an extinction burst.
And to an extent, this goes back to my first two issues. Parents who are genuinely not okay with how their child is behaving. It’s having an effect on their mental health, it’s causing them physical harm…or the child is spiralling out of control- pigeonhole themselves and martyr themselves because “they’re an attachment parent so they can’t fix the problem, they just have to live with it.” Now I’m not okay with it because you just told me it’s not working for you, and it may or may not be working for your child…so WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?!
It’s this rigid thinking that “attachment parents have to do things this way no matter what” and that’s caused by the SHAME. The shame that if you aren’t doing it the “AP way” you’re going to harm your child. You’re not good enough. You don’t love your child enough. And those aren’t GENTLE thoughts. And they aren’t substantiated by ANYTHING factual.
Versus how I see it, which is: you love your child enough to support them through this messy, difficult stage of life and get to a place where you’re both happy and comfortable and competent. You accept the big emotions for what they are, expressions of struggle and you help them through it, or you give them the safe space to figure it out. You remain present, and consistent, and predictable, and that allows them to struggle, to figure it out, to fail…and to see that hey- Mom and Dad still love me. The world keeps turning, even if I’m not perfect, even if I have to struggle to achieve something, even if something is hard, even if I have to do something I don’t want to do.
If it’s not working for you, you have to change what you’re doing. There’s a quote: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. What got you here will generally not get you there. When I recommend people to other groups for kids age 6 and over it’s not cause I have no idea what works for kids 6 and over it’s because the methods I use are designed specifically for the toddler/preschooler stage and what got you here will not get you there. It’s not only okay, but it should be expected that you will have to change tact as your child ages and the parenting techniques that have gotten you here are no longer serving you. It shouldn’t be a surprise that what worked at 5 months isn’t working anymore when they’re 3, 4, 5. If it is, awesome! For most people, it won’t. And when something stops working, you’ve got to be open to trying something new.
So those are my 3 main criticisms of mainstream attachment parenting. And I get it, this may not be how EVERYBODY who identifies as an attachment parent interprets those 8 principles. I understand I’m painting with a broad brush. I understand there are various interpretations and a spectrum that ranges from “oh those are some neat ideas” to dogma. These are my criticisms of what I’ve experienced as mainstream attachment parenting and that I know from being in Facebook groups and speaking to my very WIDE network of friends and colleagues all over the world have experienced it as well.
I want to invite you to come join us in the Parenting Posse. It’s an AMAZING community of over 2 thousand parents. It’s pretty much drama-free which is unheard of. And we’re all waiting to get to know you and help you figure out what that looks like for you. One of my main rules for the Posse is we don’t judge people for where they’re coming from or how they’ve parented in the past. So if you’re making a transition, we’re there to support you- and you can join by either searching the Parenting Posse in the Facebook search bar or going to my page and clicking “join group” in the header.