by Mary Jessica Hammes
June 21, 2012
“We did not actually know we were practicing Attachment Parenting until our first child was about 6 months old,” says Katryne Lukens Bull, a public health researcher and mother of two, ages 10 and 13. “We did what came naturally, was based on science and research, and made sense from a cross-cultural perspective. I knew from my public health career that I would breastfeed; from traveling in Southeast Asia and anthropology classes that I would want to wear my baby; and from studies on SIDS that I did not want to leave her alone in a crib.”
Bull describes herself and her anthropologist husband as “research parents and attachment parents.” They likened parenting to being immersed in a new culture, using solid research and theory to determine what works the best, forgetting for the moment preconceived ideas of what’s the “right” way or “wrong” way to parent.
“There was so much information to support keeping babies close, using gentle discipline, breastfeeding, co-sleeping,” she explains. “It was easy for us to build a theory of childrearing we later came to find out was AP.”
Korenna Barto, a psychologist specializing in parenting and couples therapy, didn’t know about AP until she and her husband were preparing for the birth of their second daughter, now 20 months old.
“It was really refreshing to learn there was a system, a model, and a community built around (AP),” says Barto. “AP was the approach that resonated with me and had the most scientific research backing it. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping, but I was willing to try it because the science was there.”
While many people assume AP applies to infants, AP parents hold on to that method of parenting as their children grow. Breastfeeding, babywearing, and co-sleeping eventually come to an end, but AP parents retain a certain closeness with their older children—a bond based on trust and respect that matures as the children age.
“People think [AP] is just something you do in infancy,” says Barto. “But it’s like a seed you plant…you plant these roots so the two of you will be attached at the heart forever. When they grow up, they’ll speak openly to you about their thoughts and feelings. They grow into secure, loving adults.”
As Bull’s children get older, the benefits of AP are apparent both in their behavior and in that of their friends who were also raised AP, she says. That kind of connection is not only crucial for brain development in peak growth periods but for social behavior later in life too.
“Although I cannot tell you that if you practice AP your child will be ‘perfect,’ I can tell you that you may be changing your child’s genetic makeup for the better by extending nursing and lowering stress hormone levels through responsive, sensitive care,” says Bull. “You may even be able to mitigate environmental exposures by providing a nurturing environment. I know for me, there was enough evidence to support Attachment Parenting my children to try to give them the best chance at good mental, physical, and social-emotional health.”
In fact, research suggests that in both human and non-humans, maternal care—not just DNA—influences brain development and levels of anxiety in infants. Yet, despite the science, there is plenty of misinformation about the practice.
Why the controversy?
One might argue that AP is controversial because parenting is controversial. Too often parents judge other parents, and when one parent’s philosophy doesn’t match their own, it’s easy to conclude, “they are doing it wrong.” And it doesn’t take much for “they are doing it wrong” to become “they are doing it dangerously.”
Before you know it, AP parents are cast to the periphery of “normal” parenting behavior.
Take one of the most controversial aspects of AP—extended breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in general in the U.S. is still not considered “normal” because it remains largely invisible. And despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization to breastfeed exclusively for six months (and to continue for at least a year or more), few women in the U.S. meet that goal.
Jamie Lynne Grumet, the breastfeeding mom featured on the cover of TIME Magazine, was widely criticized for the photo. She told TIME she was merely trying to bring attention to AP. (Mission accomplished!) While some may call her pose provocative, photographer Martin Schoeller, was more inspired by classic images of the Madonna and Child. However, the general public’s reaction focused more on the exploitation and perceived decency of the images rather than the benefits of breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding.
There’s also the notion that AP leads to entitled children who, rather than becoming self-sufficient, rule the roost. AP parents would say the opposite—that positive discipline is not the same thing as no discipline.
“I am not a pushover, permissive parent but I deeply respect my children as human beings,” says Bull. “Discipline often comes down to me wanting something a certain way and the other person wanting it another way…we think we need to teach the child that we are right. But that is not true discipline. True discipline is learning to know yourself, who you are, and what you will and will not do. I see myself as a guide and a role model.”
“We listen to their input but we’re still the parents, we know what’s best for them,” says Barto. “We’re attentive to their needs in a way that’s heavy on empathy. It’s not about no discipline or no boundaries. It’s about loving discipline and nurturing boundaries.”
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