Balancing Needs: The Downside of Attachment Parenting.

Via Lynn Shattuck
on Jan 26, 2014
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I’d heard whisperings about Attachment Parenting before I had kids.

Even the name was appealing—who doesn’t want to be an ‘attached’ parent?

Doesn’t the very name imply that if you’re not doing it, you’re practicing detachment parenting?

Attachment Parenting, or AP as many call it, sounded so cozy, like a carefully knit sweater. And I was pretty crunchy; I’d planned to breastfeed, cloth diaper and pass my vegetarianism on to our son until he could decide for himself whether to eat meat or not. I found an online mothering community devoted to attachment parenting. I perused the forums daily, while my son, curled against my body atop a Boppy, nursed.

The philosophy of Attachment Parenting, a term created by Dr. William Sears, promotes fostering a secure attachment between parents and their children. Sears suggests breastfeeding, sleeping close to the baby and babywearing as important tools to nurture the parent/child connection. Spending skin-to-skin time and breastfeeding immediately after birth, as well as responding to a baby’s cries swiftly are among other suggestions of Sears.

My son, a colicky, high needs baby, seemed amenable to AP. Because breastfeeding every 20 minutes was one of the few things that soothed him, I nursed “on-demand” (as opposed to on a schedule). We became accidental co-sleepers when Max roused every time we placed him in the bassinet next to our bed. And I wore Max in an Ergo carrier for hours each day; he was content to be snuggled in close enough to feel my heartbeat, and I was able to toss together a quick lunch, chuck some laundry into the washer or take a walk.

Parts of Attachment Parenting were working for Max and I both; if he was calmer, I was calmer.

Other parts were not working so well.

I never opened the bag of second-hand cloth diapers a friend had given us. I was past overwhelmed, and the idea of adding extra laundry to the mix was too much to face.

I ended my 20 years of vegetarianism when I went on an elimination diet because I thought my son was reacting to something in my breast milk. I needed protein, and that protein came in the form of bacon, the gateway meat.

But mostly, after months and months of Max waking up every hour or two all night long, I was unraveling. I was anxious, depressed and exhausted. I tried the book people on the online forum suggested: The No Cry Sleep Solution. I tried gripe water and homeopathy. I tried sliding Max into his crib after he’d fallen asleep, then slinking away like a bedtime ninja. I tried pacifiers and white noise, music and loveys.

We even tried a $200 “baby sleep hammock.”

Nothing worked.

As a highly co-dependent empathic person, I hated the idea of abandoning my son to cry himself to sleep. But as a human being who needed more than an hour or two of sleep strung together, we began to consider the controversial idea of sleep training.

The forum at the online mom community had a thread for nighttime parenting. I had spent hours there, looking for answers. Other exhausted moms posted there to commiserate and share methods similar to what I had tried, and there was comfort knowing I wasn’t the only mom who couldn’t piece together more than three hours of sleep. The forum also bulged with articles about the negative emotional effects of using the “cry it out” method of sleep training with babies or toddlers. In fact, users were banned from even talking about the “cry it out” technique on the forum.  

I was torn. The community which I had relied on for empathy, support and advice, left me feeling like a leper—or worse, a child abuser—for trying this last resort of getting some sleep.

Because I was a new mom, a neurotic and anxious mom, and an exhausted mom, I tortured myself with the decision. I talked to friends who had used variations of the “cry it out” method with a positive outcome. In fact, the absolute crunchiest people I knew—the ones who had passed on their cloth diapers to us—had successfully sleep-trained their daughter a few years before. My friends had used the most hard-ass style of sleep-training, the “extinction” method. This method has the parents leave their babies to cry themselves to sleep without going intermittently to comfort them.

I agonized over the options with my therapist, who’d been trying to convince me for months that my son needed a sane mom, and that he would not be emotionally broken if we taught him to fall asleep on his own.

AP, at least on the online forum I frequented, promotes meeting baby’s every need as quickly and naturally as possible.

But there is some invisible line between babyhood and toddlerhood where many of these needs—nursing to sleep, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and constant contact—become wants. Habits. Comforts. But not, necessarily, needs.

Meanwhile, I had some very real needs of my own. I needed to get some freaking sleep. I needed to not go to bed with Max at 7:00 PM every night, my boobs on pacifier duty until morning. I needed to have some time with my husband.

Should my almost-toddler’s wants outweigh my needs? Didn’t Max need and deserve a mom who didn’t feel like a wrung out washcloth? One who wasn’t so battered by sleep deprivation that she shouldn’t be driving?

And wouldn’t it be good for him to get a decent night’s sleep?

When Max was about ten months old, we started sleep training. First, we tried what the AP-friendly pediatrician we had visited for a sleep consult recommended: we stayed in the same room with Max while he “fussed,”—her terminology—himself to sleep. For three nights, my husband and I laid, stiff and silent, in our bed beside Max’s crib while he howled like a trapped animal. Tears welled in my eyes and my chest ached as he cruised the perimeter of his crib. I could feel his hot, angry gaze on us as he made his laps of rage.

After 90 minutes of torture for all three of us, Max passed out, making those little crying hiccups that you make when you’ve cried yourself silly.

After three nights of this, he started falling asleep with minimal crying. But he continued to wake up frequently throughout the night.

Later, we tried sleep training him without us in the room. We used the method where parents make timed visits to briefly let their baby know they’re there, but will not pick him up. Max started sleeping for longer than four hours at a time when he was about sixteen months old.

I stopped visiting the online forum for mothers. I am sure there are many people who are better able to live in the grey area—people who know that they can take what they need and leave the rest.

But not me.

I was too anxious, too vulnerable, and too exhausted. The stakes of parenting felt impossibly high, and I was petrified of breaking my child.

Slowly, I assembled my own tribe of moms. Moms who do some things differently than I, and some things similar. Moms who don’t judge my parenting—or if they do, they do it silently.

Parts of AP worked well for us: Though my youngest child is two years old, I still can’t bring myself to get rid of the baby carrier my kids spent so much time in. It hangs on a hook in the entry way, and every time I see it, it reminds me of all the hours spent with the straps sinking into my shoulders, my babies snuggled close to my heart.

Breastfeeding supported my babies and gave me new respect for my body; I could make food! With my boobies! Amazing.

Co-sleeping, at least in the haze of those earliest months, meant I could doze off while nursing my children, and at least string an hour or two of sleep together at a time. The memory of falling asleep inhaling the new-skin smell of my babies’ foreheads is beyond sweet.

On his website, Dr. Sears shares that “AP is an approach, rather than a strict set of rules.” He also encourages parents to care for themselves as well as their children. Attachment parenting offers many great tools. Like any movement, there are purists and extremists, and they can be found touting their ideas on the interwebs.

I imagine many people feel strong and confident in their parenting choices. And many probably operate on instinct and don’t get distracted by other peoples’ opinions. But if you’re like me? If early parenting blindsides you, challenges everything you think you know? If it leaves you floundering and feeling like every decision is a labyrinth, it is easy to get caught up in an illusion of perfect parenting. In the idea that there is one way to parent, and other ways are wrong.

If I could go back to my son’s first year knowing what I know now, I would do some things differently. I would ask for more help with caring for him while I took more breaks. I would sometimes use formula so I didn’t have to pump four times to make enough milk to fill one bottle. I would factor my needs into parenting and not completely disappear while trying to meet my son’s needs. I wouldn’t try to make one parenting style my religion. I would mother in the middle, like so many moms I respect do. I would be saner, possibly better rested, and yet still, so very attached.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: author’s own


About Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. She blogs about parenting, imperfection, spirit and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.


12 Responses to “Balancing Needs: The Downside of Attachment Parenting.”

  1. Anita says:

    You could have just slept instead of spending hours on the forums or reading or with your therapist. Instead of sleeping your whole life seemed to have been about your obsession with your and your baby's sleep. Often, it is not really the sleep deprivation that is the most exhausting but the anxiety, the depression and and limited help and confidence mothers have.

  2. Melinda says:

    I could’ve written this myself! And Anita, you make it sound so simple; however you’re very wrong.

  3. lynnola says:

    Thanks, Melinda!

  4. lynnola says:

    Anita, I think it's akin to when people are hungry, they think about food. I wanted to sleep~ unfortunately, my son kept waking up.

  5. mel says:

    a friend just sent this to me. i did not want to go the ap approach, but can say that i second guessed everything i did, looked through forums to try and find out how to make my daughter sleep and fell into depression after week 3 of giving up dairy to deal with my daughters gas….the dairy didn't make me fall into depression, but by that point (4 months) i was exhausted from waking every 1-3 hours to feed and depriving myself of something else just made me feel like more of a failure. at 5 months we started a bottle of formula (sometimes not organic…eee gad) and i got 4 hours of sleep in a row. life started to feel more manageable. it is all about balance and taking time for yourself. best of luck raising your kids.

  6. lynnola says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mel. Sleep is soooo important. I agree with your comments. Best of luck to you as well.

  7. Gabby says:

    My aunt gave me the best advice ever! She told me from the moment I bring the baby home, put her to sleep in her crib, never get her accustomed to sleeping with me. She told me at 6.00pm bathe her, feed her and put her in the room with all the lights off and only a night light on, that way she can know when it's sunny it's "awake time" and when it's dark it's "sleep" time. I timed her feeding pattern during the night and fed her before she was fully awake so she fell right back to sleep without fussing. I did this with my both girls and as they grow older the sleep routine started at 7.00pm and in their bed at 8.00pm lights off and all.

  8. Lolo says:

    I nursed on demand which was hell on me due to lack of a sleep. I couldn’t take it anymore. Around 9 months we finally broke down and tried various sleep training methods. Nothing worked except for flat out letting him crying it out. It was horrible but we now have an amazing little 22 month old sleeper. No brain damage. No negative side effects. We are all so much happier! Parents have got to do what they think is best.

  9. Sultana says:

    Thank you for this! My son is 2mos old now & he refuses to sleep in his crib. We have been co sleeping but I don’t want to make this “habit”. Any suggestions? Help!!!

  10. Amy says:

    Epiphany! I'm going through this right now with my 16MO and have realized it's about my own instincts and intuition rather than one set of philosophy, whether that's AP or strict CIO. It's still hard but accepting that nothing is perfect and straightforward in parenthood has alleviated some of the pressure. Thank you for this, and I wish I knew more parents like you.

  11. LCA says:

    I know you weren't asking me, but I just wanted to share my experience with you. We had our son co sleep with us in our bed until he was about 6 months old, and then at 6 months, we moved him into his own room, in a crib, and sleep trained all at once. We did CIO where you go in and check on him but don't take him out, every 20 minutes or so. After the first 3 days of sleep training he was on a schedule, sleeping through the night, and regular naps. Amazing! I think the "4th trimester" they still need you close. Everything with babies is a transition to the next thing. So don't sweat it! Co sleep until you feel that you and baby are ready to sleep separately. It might be in a week, might be in a few months. Only you know what's best for you both! Good luck!

  12. SUZI says:

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