I'm sure this will probably shock and offend many attachment parenting advocates, but with all the hype about co-sleeping and baby wearing out there, I think it's important to share my story about how attachment parenting nearly ruined my life.
Sure, after 6 years or so, I've restored my sanity (more or less) and my back has recovered after extensive rehabilitation, but I blame this “peaceful” parenting style for stealing years of my life via sleep deprivation and pain as well as imprinting me with an unattainable expectation that a good parent must be an ‘attached' parent. I also think the AP community deserves a smack on the wrist for unabashedly treating any other style of parenting with scorn.
Here's how attachment parenting led us astray…
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was clueless. My husband and I hadn't spent much time around kids since we were youngsters ourselves. As a holistic health practitioner, I knew I wanted to go the natural route in terms of birth, but that was the extent of my plan.
I did what any freaked-out newbie parent would do, and I began to research – I read Dr. Sears, chatted with midwives, poured over the internet, and generally immersed myself in learning the best ways to parent a newborn.
Not surprisingly, attachment parenting (AP) was the clear winner among the conscious-minded, crunchy-leaning parents and experts.
Attachment parenting, a term coined by William Sears, is a style interacting with babies that promotes development of connection, trust, and confidence between caregiver and child via skin to skin contact, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby wearing.
AP babies are said to have better behavior, development, and learning skills.
This all sounded perfectly reasonable and quite wonderful.
My son was born at home on a bright December day. My husband and I were in awe (you can read his story here). It was completely instinctual to want to be skin to skin with a newborn baby – our midwives had my husband remove his t-shirt to hold our son, and he fell quickly and deeply in love.
It also made perfect sense to sleep with our baby. We had weighed the pros and cons of co-sleeping, and were confident that we would not suffocate him.
I was particularly lured by the prospect of more sleep, and indeed, inhabiting the same bed with a small human that nurses every two hours ensured that I could at least get a full night of strung-together naps. After a few weeks, when we figured out side-lying nursing, I enjoyed full nights of sleep, only interrupted by the occasional roll-over-switch-sides.
As soon as I was cleared for exercise, I began wrapping the baby into my mai-tai carrier and marching on a mountain hike that was a few minutes walk from our home. While my friend's baby mostly slept through these hikes, my baby mostly screamed (despite trying different carriers, feeding schedules, bouncing, singing, etc).
Despite this, I was happy to get out of the house, and the AP-encouraged baby wearing made these outings possible. As time passed, however, my baby kept growing and growing.
By 4 months, he was beyond the 100th percentile in height and weight. My back began to ache, and I developed sciatica – a condition that makes sitting, standing, and walking excruciating. Over the next few years, my back “went out” three times, and I had to lay horizontal for nearly a week each time to coax my muscles out of spasm.
At around 6 months of age, my son began nursing non-stop throughout the night. No de-latching, just constant suck-suck-suck. I began to feel exhausted and dizzy from dehydration upon waking.
As part of our attachment parenting plan, my son was always nursed to sleep. If you've ever had the experience of having a milky baby snoozing at your breast, you know it's a precious thing. BUT the downside was that my baby would not go to sleep without nursing.
I would lay in bed with him for up to 45 minutes, and when he finally dosed off, I would try to gently detach him and tip-toe out the room. Most of the time, he would be awakened by my movement, and require my assistance to get back to sleep.
Needless to say, I spent hours most evenings trying to get my sweet boy to settle, leaving very little time for my husband and I to connect.
Nap time was a downward spiral, and I spent every afternoon for months in a rocking chair with my baby on my chest. Any attempt to “transfer” him to his bed resulted in the permanent end of nap time.
I grew more and more drained and emotionally frazzled. I looked forward to daily scheduled visits from friends, so I could hand off the baby to take a shower. My fatigue began to affect my appetite and I was washed with waves of nausea throughout the day.
By the time my son was one, he had all but completely rejected napping – leaving him (and me) exhausted and cranky most of the day.
Desperate for a solution, we finally decided that sleep training was the only way forward.
Now, I DO NOT recommend sleep training a one year old if you can avoid it (instead introduce a schedule no later than four months in most cases). Cry It Out is the stuff that makes skin crawl for attachment parenting advocates, and it is simply not pleasant for anyone.
On the first two nights of sleep training, I nursed my son on the sofa, and then we put him into his bed where he proceeded to scream for 30 minutes before he fell fast asleep. On the third day, he cried for only 10 minutes. From the fourth day forward, he almost always went to sleep without fussing.
After this, my son still nursed once per night until we did a similar screaming-in-the-middle-of-the-night intervention about 6 months later.
Nap time continued to be a struggle until he finally gave them up completely at the age of 2. Sleep schedules awry, our days often began at 4am (!) – an hour that both the sun and I never considered to be morning.
As for nursing, I deeply enjoyed the bonding and nurturing time until about 18 months, but struggling with sleep deprivation, I didn't have the energy or heart to wean. The last 4 months of nursing a feeling of resentment began to mount.
Not only had attachment parenting led me down a path to crazed sleep deprivation and chronic back pain, but I spend most of those first two years feeling guilty about my failures as a mother. After all, AP babies enjoy better behavior, development, and learning skills – but what happens when Attachment Parenting methods are a disaster?
Finally weaned and sleeping through the night, it wasn't until years later that he stopped screaming upon waking and frequently waking in the middle of the night needing to be consoled for no apparent reason. While only my opinion, I believe that his sleep patterns and feeling of “attachment” could have been greatly improved with earlier intervention sleep training.
When it came time for baby #2, I was determined to find a way of early parenting that was a better fit for me and my family.
My daughter (you can read her home birth story here) had a beautiful birth, lots of skin-to-skin time and was breastfed until 16 months – 6 months shy of when I weaned my son. While she still got plenty of snuggles and kisses, I carried her only minimally, and otherwise allowed her to explore from the floor whenever possible.
Without baby wearing or extended nursing, my back was pain-free and I never grew to resent nursing, but our biggest triumph with our hybrid-AP baby was sleep.
Using the sleep training plan laid out in Gina Ford's The Contented Little Baby Book (and ignoring her feeding advice), we began to gently guide my daughter to a schedule as soon as she regained her birth weight.
Admittedly, in the beginning I missed staying in my own bed through endless nights of nursing. But by only nine weeks, my daughter had begun to sleep from 10pm until 7am, and naps nearly always occurred like clockwork. At bed times my Contented Little Baby would lay down awake and drift off to sleep with a smile.
There was essentially NO crying involved with this process unless she had a dirty diaper. Occasionally she would make squeaky sounds, but never in distress. Now as a two and a half year old, she often sings herself to sleep.
Our entire family was rested and content. My daughter was good tempered, emotionally engaged, and physically thriving. Months and months of sleep deprivation and emotional exhaustion – circumvented. And absolutely no harm done.
Is attachment parenting evil?
In my clinical practice, week after week bleary-eyed parents (usually with babies 6 months or older) stagger into my office looking for advice about getting more sleep. These parents are faced with the choice to wait it out (usually until around 3 years of age) or the dreaded “cry it out” method.
It's my opinion that for most parents, the early days of parenthood would be much easier if healthy sleep patterns are introduced at a younger age.
Other moms and dads come in with chronic pain caused by baby wearing or awkward positions while co-sleeping. Parents need to know that they should not be suffering at the price of practicing attachment parenting.
Don't get me wrong, the message here is not that one way is better than the other, but in fact, the opposite.
Each baby has a unique temperament, and every child will respond differently to different methods. There is not one right way to parent a child. As such, each family needs to find the best methods that work for them. Hopefully this will include some attachment parenting principles such as skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding, but co-sleeping vs. sleep training as well as baby wearing are simply personal choice.
Let's help new parents understand their choices. What was your experience with your baby?
What parts of attachment parenting worked for you? Where did attachment parenting fail you?
Did you co-sleep, sleep train, or both?
Did you wear your baby? How long?
If you want more info on sleep, check out this post on co-sleeping vs. sleep training.
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