Attachment Parenting: In Praise of Attachment Parenting (Sort Of)

Every week, I buy groceries at our grungy, local health-food store. My daughter affectionately dubbed it "The Stinky Market" -- partly because of that characteristic "health-food store" smell, but also because of the bodily odors emanating from some of the motley group of customers frequenting the place -- a weird combination of surfers, hippies, homeless people, backpacking travelers, and "Euro-Trash". --- Oh, and the occasional yuppie mom like me. (Except I hope I'm not one of the stinky types. In all honestly there aren't TOO many stinky customers, but the one or two in there at any given time are certainly enough.) During each visit, I see at least 4 or 5 "Baby-Wearing" mamas in the store. These dedicated parents take their childrearing (and food shopping) very seriously, braving the narrow aisles with groceries piled precariously high atop rickety shelves, all the while with an infant (or toddler, or preschooler) attached to their bodies. These are the Attachment Parenting advocates living at a major heart of the AP movement. These are dedicated baby-wearers, extended-breastfeeders, family-bedders, and gentle-discipliners. And because I live in a nexus of strident AP, we have more than our fair share of AP fundamentalists. And in fact the Stinky Market is the very place where I've gotten an uninvited comment (and plenty "Stink-Eye") about using strollers.

But this week, I was feeling quite contrite about my last AP post -- not because I have changed my opinion (I haven't). But I realized that the AP parents are really coming from the same place that motivates me in my parenting approach -- we just get to somewhat different places with it. And I also feel really bad about offending some of you out there whom I consider to be readers, supporters, and friends....those of you who practice AP, and don't deserve the uninvited criticism from me. To any of you I offended -- you know who you are -- I offer my sincere apology.

But because it was on my mind so much, I went back to developmental theory, to remind myself exactly WHY I disagree with some of what AP espouses. This is the quick version:

Infant Development: A (Very) Quick Primer The infant starts out in life as a completely dependent being. She relies on her parents (usually the mother) for such fundamental things as nutrition and the regulation of bodily processes. In many ways, the infant is born "unfinished", being delivered at 40 weeks' gestation not because she's really ready to be born, but because the human mother is not physically capable of delivering a larger infant. She needs to be "attached" to her mother to fulfill these needs. This attachment allows successful development into later phases of growth.

Over time, the infant becomes capable of voluntary movement. She starts to control her body in ways SHE wants to; it's no longer up to her own random or reflexive movements. And with this voluntary movement comes the spark of the ability to be mobile, and to communicate.

Movement away from the parent requires a means of communicating over distance with that parent: When you crawl across the room, it's nice to be able to say "Doggie!" and to point at the doggie, to get your parents' attention. Communication becomes more necessary when the child can move away from the parent. And communication is a symbolic way of continuing attachment. We can tell older babies I love you! And their ability to understand abstract communication helps them to feel the love, without being physically held. It's not that physical comfort is no longer necessary, but rather, the baby now has a new, more advanced way to be attached; through communication. And that allows the baby to become more independent, and venture out, away from the parent.

And moving away from the parent is really the point of development, isn't it? It's called independence. This isn't dictated by some non-AP theory, it's simply accepted developmental fact. Remember reading about Margaret Mahler in your Intro Psych class? She was the acknowledged queen researcher of infant development. She observed infants all over the world moving through phases of complete dependence in early infancy, through the phases of Separation-Individuation later in toddlerhood. This phase is topped off by the challenging, difficult phase of Rapprochement, in which the infant is conflicted about independence. She varies between clingy attachment, and boldly venturing out on her own. Many of the questions I get here at BabyShrink have to do with the fundamental conflicts inherent during the Rapprochement phase.

Of course this does not mean that our 2-year-olds are completely independent; we shouldn't be expecting them to bring home a paycheck any time soon. But it does point out the slow modification that our parenting approach needs to make over time; the understanding that the increased ability of the infant to handle (and explore) independence requires us to give them room to do so. The infant starts out needing complete "attachment" to the parents, and gradually needs less and less attachment over time in order to develop independence.

How is this different from Attachment Parenting? Yeah, I know that AP understands and appreciates the nature of "attachment" -- they used it in the name of the approach, after all. And I'm totally with them on the use of AP principles, but only with very young infants, and only when that infant is constitutionally amenable to the intense physical contact of AP. As I said in my previous post, AP comments very little on those infants who simply do better with a little time and space on their own; a little less handling -- and little "breaks" from being "attached" all the time. Many of my readers have babies whose sensory systems simply could not handle all that attachment, and are so much happier with a little "breathing room". And as infants become toddlers, they crave less and less dependence -- and more and more independence. And we, as parents, need to walk that tightrope of "Rapprochement" with them.

So I guess this is my lengthy reply to all of you who commented and emailed on my last AP post -- and also my apology, to any of those I unintentionally offended. I hope this post shows that I agree wholeheartedly with the intended goals of AP -- we just vary in our approach.