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May 18, 2012

STAWAR: Can parents attach too much?

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Time magazine sparked a national controversy with its May 21, 2012 edition cover photo of  a young mother  breast feeding  her 3-year-old son. Everyone seems to have an opinion, ranging from “beautiful and  natural” to “disgusting and pornographic.”   The cover story on “Attachment Parenting” by health care journalist Kate Pickert describes the major influence of physician William Sears,  whom she refers to as “The Man who Remade Motherhood.” Sears, a California based pediatrician and prolific author, along with  his wife Maratha, a nurse, are known as the gurus of the “Attachment  Parenting  Movement.” They codified their ideas about parenting in the best-seller, “The Baby Book,” first  published in 1992.

According to Pickert, “Attachment Parenting” is founded on three basic tenets; (1) The importance of breast feeding. (2) Having infants sleep in the “Family Bed” and (3) Baby wearing, in which infants are physically attached to the mother with slings.

As a parenting philosophy, this approach holds that sensitive and emotionally available parenting allows the child to form  a secure attachment which is crucial for healthy emotional development and well-being. Psychologist Ken Magid, author of “High Risk: Children Without a Conscience,” believes that the failure to establish appropriate attachments in infancy can result in children who cannot trust or love, and who ultimately refuse to be loved. Depending on their severity attachment problems, according to Magid, can progressively lead to more and more chilling forms of emotional problems and antisocial behaviors.

In the last two decades “Attachment Parenting” has  significantly impacted how Americans parent, according to Pickert.   Breast feeding, for  example, is more popular today than any time since the 1950s. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  reported last year that three-fourths of American mothers start out breast feeding their babies. By the time babies are 6 months old about 44 percent continue and by the time the babies turn 1-year of age, about a quarter of them are still nursing.

So far as breast feeding is concerned, the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with Sears that nursing is the best alternative, when possible, and feeding on demand is preferred. Like many authorities, they believe the frequency and duration should ultimately be determined by the mother and infant. The extension of breast-feeding into toddlerhood remains controversial, although there is little evidence that it’s particularly harmful or helpful. The intense social backlash may be the most destructive aspect about it to consider.

In 2005, the CDC also reported that almost 20 percent of 2-year-olds now sleep with their mothers, which is a major increase from the negligible numbers back in the 1980s. On this issue there is even more disagreement. While attached bassinets are considered to be fine, co-sleeping, is opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The possibility of accidentally  suffocating or crushing the infant  and  an increased risk for  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)  has been often cited as a reason to avoid this practice. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has also advised against co-sleeping, although  Attachment Parenting International, a non-for-profit organization that promotes attachment parenting, challenged the objectivity of the data used by the Commission. Besides possible risks to the child, opponents also believe that the infant may disrupt the quality and amount of the parent’s sleep.       

The “Attachment Parenting” approach also holds that infants should never be left crying for any extended length of time. Every whimper is viewed as a legitimate cry for help that should not be ignored. Sears believes that failing to comfort teaches the child that the mother is unresponsive and that the crying can even cause brain damage. This was one of the main arguments brought forth in Sears’ rivalry with fellow pediatrician Richard Ferber, on how to best address childhood sleep   problems. Ferber, author of “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,”  advocated for a graduated extinction method, that involves some degree of crying-it-out, which he believes is harmless. An objective review of the research doesn’t offer much direct support for Sears’ alarmist contention, but it certainly resonates with many parents who simply can’t bear to hear their children cry.

I suppose there might be one unusual scenario in which the crying-it-out method could lead to brain damage. When our middle son was 18 months old, whenever we put him to bed, he would start crying and if we did not respond he would stand up and violently propel himself over the top rail of the crib, landing on the floor with a thud. Friends suggested we buy a top for the crib to contain the little terrorist. We finally gave up on the crib and put him in a regular bed. It’s not surprising that with a stubborn argumentative temperament like that, he became a lawyer.

 Many aspects of “Attachment Parenting” are extremely demanding on parents both emotionally as well as physically. It can be a source of stress, anxiety, and guilt, especially for many mothers who simply cannot afford to be full-time stay at home parents.  Writer Judith Warner suggests things like “Attachment Parenting have created a culture of total motherhood,”  that has had a host of negative effects on American women. Pickert refers to two parenting consultants who refer to persistent feelings of parental inadequacy as “Posttraumatic Sears Disorder.”

On the other hand “Attachment Parenting” seems to help some parents avoid taking responsibility for uncomfortable confrontations with their children. While we all want to avoid placing unrealistic expectations on children, we may vigorously disagree about what constitutes an unrealistic expectation and where limits should be set.

Some critics may even view many aspects of “Attachment Parenting” as taking the easy way out.  For example, are you risking the child’s health just because you don’t want to get out of bed to nurse or do you fail to appropriately discipline, because you want to avoid your own discomfort at seeing your  child in distress? Can you rely on such a parent to hold a screaming baby in tepid water to try to get a high fever down?

Finally, there is suspicion that instead of creating a generation of secure, well-adjusted and emotionally healthy children, all that comfort and security lead to a generation not only bereft of anxiety, but also bereft of conscience. Has “Attachment Parenting” contributed to “helicopter parents,” who constantly hover over their children, as well as the rise of the so-called “over indulged child” who can’t handle frustration, because he or she so seldom experiences it?  

Back in college one of my psychology professors told me the apocryphal story of “The Child Who Never Spoke.” There once was a boy who had the most efficient and loving parents in the world. They devoted their lives to him and anticipated his every need. They were always Johnny on the spot. The boy thrived and seemed healthy and intelligent, but when the time came to talk, he never uttered a word. The parents were frantic and took him to every specialist and expert they could find, but no one could help. Over time the parents sadly accepted this tragic situation. Then one day, when the child was about 8 years old, he looked up from the breakfast table and said, “The toast is burnt.” The parents were beside themselves and shouted, ”Billy!  You can talk! Why haven’t you ever said anything before?” He replied, “Well, up until now, everything has  been all right.”  

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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