This post is part of a series on Attachment Parenting. See also:
Photo Credit: CYNEÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
That tiny little hand wrapped around your thumb. That indescribable scent of that downy-soft head. That feeling of warm, sweet breath against your skin. The sound of the little sighs and coos.
As a first time mother, I couldn’t get enough of holding my baby. I was amazed at how how deeply connected I felt to my child, how powerful my maternal instinct was, how strongly I desired to be near and nurture my little one.
As a first time mother, I was also amazed at how the advise of some “experts” bucked my maternal instinct. I wondered, why am I being told to let him cry when it makes me break my heart to hear it? Why am I being encouraged to feed him on a schedule when my body is prepared to feed my hungry child now?
I doubted if I was doing the right thing.
It wasn’t until I learned more about attachment theory and attachment parenting that I determined, wholeheartedly, that nurturing my baby and responding sensitively to him was exactly what God intended for the connection between mother and child.
A Brief Overview of Attachment Theory and Attachment Parenting
Attachment theory argues that in order for a child to feels secure in himself and with his place in the world at large, a child must have a secure attachment – which psychologist John Bowbly defined as a “lasting psychological connectedness” – to a primary caregiver. When there is healthy attachment, “the child uses the primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore and, when necessary, as a haven of safety and a source of comfort” (Benoit).
Attachment parenting, then, seeks to create a secure attachment with one’s child by being responsive and sensitive to their needs. When a parent is responsive to an child’s needs from infancy, the child trusts their caregiver(s) to lovingly meet their needs, setting up a lifelong mindset that he is worthy of love and can trust other people to meet his needs.
Attachment and Babies
Our earliest relationships are profoundly important.
Dr. Tim Clinton and Dr. Gary Sibcy
When our son, Levi, was born, it became clear to me that he needed me more than anything in the world. He had, of course, needed me in utero, but now that he was in the world, that hadn’t changed; we were both were acutely aware of his dependency on me.
In their book Attachments: Why You Love, Feel, and Act the Way you Do, Christian psychologists Clinton and Sibcy explain: “Unlike many of God’s creatures, a child is born into a world where it is utterly dependent on its mother for survival. It can’t even keep itself warm, much less fed and comforted. We are discovering increasingly each day how dependent a child’s developing brain is on its mother’s sensitive, attuned, and responsive care.”
When an attachment figure attends to a baby’s needs, two things are reiterated: firstly, that his needs are valid; secondly, that he can trust his attachment figure to meet his needs. Learning these things from the very beginning set the stage for having a healthy view of self and healthy view of relationships for the rest of his life.
Dr. Sears’ 7 Bs of Attachment with Babies
So how do you nurture a secure attachment in babies?
Respected doctor and author William Sears has coined what he has called the “7 Attachment Parenting Tools” for babies: birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby wearing, bedding close to baby, belief in the language of your baby’s cry, beware of baby trainers, and balance. Let’s unpack each.
A baby’s first hours of life are precious and optimal for connecting. Ideally, a mother and child should not be removed from each other for at least the “golden hour” after birth. During the golden hour, babies are amazingly alert and in tune, and it’s prime time for bonding! This is also a critical time for breastfeeding (if this opportunity is lost, breastfeeding can become a greater struggle).
Of course, this is not always possible because of the health of mother or child, or if the birth resulted in a C-section. If a C-section is necessary, Dad can do skin-to-skin with the new baby. Dad can regulate baby’s temperature and provide a calming presence. Babies greatly benefit from nurturing human contact after the chaos of birth, and Dad is a wonderful fill-in until Mama is able to.
After birth, ask for baby to room in with you. While giving birth is exhausting, your body produces hormones to energize and encourage bonding (especially when birth is completely natural). Having your baby near you during her first hours of life will provide opportunity for you to learn your baby’s cues, as well as provide more opportunities for breastfeeding.
If the opportunity for birth bonding is lost, don’t worry. Dr. Sears states: “Bonding is a series of steps in your lifelong growing together with your child. Immediate bonding simply gives the relationship between parents and attachment parenting babies a head-start.”
Breastfeeding is the biological norm for the mother-baby dyad. Choosing to breastfeed your little one not only has huge physical benefits, but also provides plenty of opportunities for learning baby’s cues. Breastfeeding also produces bonding hormones for the mother, which helps reaffirm the attachment between mother and child.
Breastfeeding on demand is ideal (read more on why here). That means, when the baby cries, offer her the breast, whether day or night. Do not wait for a certain time of day to feed her; babies’ needs change throughout the day and as she grows, just as ours do as adults. There is incredible information about how breastmilk changes to meet the needs of the child, which reaffirms to me that this is part of God’s design for attachment!
Breastfeeding is hard work, however, and without proper support and education, many women struggle. If you are one who has struggled, do not feel ashamed! There is still opportunity to bond with your baby when offering a bottle; the goal is to feed with love and respect. Feed your baby according to his cues. Utilize feeding time to connect to your child by making eye contact, caressing him, and speaking gently to him.
It is important to remember that babies are designed to eat many times throughout the day and night; it is necessary for their survival and growth! Take advantage of those times to reconnect and nurture attachment.
Baby wearing is a wonderful tool that anyone can use! I honestly don’t know how we would have got anything done in our house had we not utilized our wonderful Ergo or Mobywrap (read more on our experiences with baby wearing here).
Babies love being close to their caregivers. Not only does it help them feel more secure, but it enables them to be engaged with whatever you are doing. Babies who are carried are generally more content and also learn more quickly than their “container” counterparts.
Baby wearing also provides the caregiver with more opportunities to learn about their baby and become more sensitive to their needs.
Bedding Close to Baby
As of 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents for the first year of their lives in order to help prevent SIDS. But bedding down near baby also helps makes us attune to their needs and provides an atmosphere of safety for children to help them sleep at night.
One of the principles of attachment parenting is “ensuring safe sleep, both physically and emotionally.” Our culture surely emphasizes the physical safe sleep, but rarely addresses emotionally safe sleep.
Dr. Sears states: “Since nighttime is a scary time for little people, sleeping within close touching and nursing distance minimizes nighttime separation anxiety and helps attachment parenting babies learn that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in.”
We have found in our experience that having our children near us at night time has been a huge part of building trust with our children (you can read more about our co-sleeping experience here).
Belief in the Language Value of your Baby’s Cry
A baby’s cry causes a reaction in parents, and with good reason; it is a signal that something is not right and it is meant to get quick attention.
Unfortunately, there’s a section of our culture that has undervalued the significance of a baby’s cry. Instead of seeing it as a means of helpful communication, it is seen as tool of manipulation. There is also a belief that babies will learn to self-soothe on their own. This simply is untrue.
Parents are told that a baby left to cry will eventually stop crying, and that is true. The reason the baby stops crying, though, is because she realizes her communicating is fruitless. The baby will then stop communicating and her stress will internalize. Studies have shown that even though a baby is no longer crying, she still is producing cortisol, a stress hormone. Parents are left believing that their baby has self-soothed, when, in fact, she has withdrawn, succumbed to a state of stress, and no longer finds her parents reliable.
Science backs this. Harvard Medical School researchers determined that American babies, who are pushed to independence by sleeping separately from their parents and being left to cry, are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress and anxiety later in life. Michael L. Commons sates: “Parents should recognize that having their babies cry unnecessarily harms the baby permanently. It changes the nervous system so they’re overly sensitive to future trauma.”
On the other hand, Dr. Joan Luby found that children that are nurtured and attended to actually have a significantly larger amygdala and hippocampus (parts of the brain that regulate emotion and make memories) than children with “not-so-nurturing” caregivers. That means that babies that are nurtured are actually more capable of regulating their emotions, even into adulthood.
Babies can’t self-soothe. They need you to calm down. If want to teach your child how to self-soothe when they are capable, your best bet is to be responsive to their cries now, teaching her that her voice is valuable, her needs are valid, and that she is worthy of being comforted.
Beware of Baby Trainers
If you read the section above, you will understand why you need to be wary of baby trainers, especially those who push sleep training (you can read about why we couldn’t go through with sleep training here).
In general, baby trainers are looking to conform a baby to behave like adults before they are capable of doing so. We need to readjust our perspective. Babies are not meant to sleep through the night. Babies are not meant to eat three meals a day. When we educate ourselves on what is normal baby behavior, we will see that baby training is a choice that can cause more harm than good.
You are the expert on your child. Baby trainers are experts on making a profit off of unsure parents.
I’ll leave Dr. Sears to this one: “In your zeal to give so much to your baby, it’s easy to neglect the needs of yourself and your marriage. As you will learn the key to putting balance in your parenting is being appropriately responsive to your baby – knowing when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no,’ and having the wisdom to say ‘yes’ to yourself when you need help.”
This is something I continue to struggle with, but am learning how to do. Balance in all things in key, and parenting is no exception!
Nurture Attachment However You Can
There are so many ways in which you can foster a secure attachment with your baby. The main principles are to treat your baby with love and respect; in essence, treat them how you would like to be treated.
Babyhood Won’t Last
My little ones aren’t as little as they once were. Those sweet moments of a newborn nestled against my breast, clutching my thumb are now memories. But I walk forward in parenting with few regrets; I know that I took advantage of those moments, even when it felt difficult, and I’m so glad I did.
Utilizing the tools of attachment parenting has been entirely rewarding, and Kevin and I have wonderful relationships with our children because we have taken the time to know them and care for them from day one.
Taking care of a baby is a lot of work! It is at times exhausting, frustrating, and humbling. But know that you are doing the best kind of work, and when you practice attachment parenting principles, you are setting up your child for a healthy future. You are also setting yourself up for a great long-term relationship with your child.
This post is part of a series on Attachment Parenting. See also:
Plus, more attachment parenting articles coming soon.