I Co-sleep, But: Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting

I Co-sleep, But: Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting March 21, 2015

I’ve written before about not feeling “crunchy” enough for my hippie college town. I’m not sure, though, whether I’ve touched directly on Attachment Parenting (AP). I know I’ve wanted to. When I first left the authoritarian parenting and corporal punishment behind, I found AP very attractive. What is AP?

Attachment parenting focuses on the nurturing connection that parents can develop with their children. That nurturing connection is viewed as the ideal way to raise secure, independent, and empathetic children. Proponents of this parenting philosophy include the well-known pediatrician William Sears, MD. They make the case that a secure, trusting attachment to parents during childhood forms the basis for secure relationships and independence as adults.

There are a lot of things I like about AP, including its emphasis on positive discipline and working with, rather than against, children’s emotions and feelings. But as a mother of a very young child, some things about AP started to rub me wrong. Namely, the rules—which proponents will say are not rules per se, but sure feel like it.

Proponents of AP emphasize the importance of skin-to-skin contact between parent and child, which translates into constant baby-wearing, longterm breastfeeding, and regular co-sleeping. Proponents of AP also advise against daycare, arguing that children need their parents to be constantly present.

I’ve had AP proponents tell me that these things are just suggestions, and that what’s important is the general principles. But even if that were true (and if you read Dr. Sears, it’s pretty clearly not), I’m not sure all of the principles are actually good. Both parents and children need space, and time away from each other. I’ve seen AP drive new moms to utter desperation—they need time off, or permission to let their baby cry it out just once, but they’re read AP literature and are terrified of leaving lifelong insecurities in their child.

I was exploring AP about the time I put Sally in daycare for the first time, at around a year. I had already been nervous about putting Sally in daycare. I had been raised by a stay-at-home mom who spoke of putting a child in daycare as child abandonment. Having AP confirm this fear was not at all helpful, and actually, it’s the reason I first began to feel disillusioned with AP.

I realize that this is anecdotal, but daycare didn’t damage my close, nurturing relationship with Sally. I’ve had my son Bobby in daycare from six months on, and it hasn’t damaged my relationship with him, either. I don’t feel that daycare has been second best for either of my children. A year or two ago, Sean told me that if we have a third child and could technically work from home he would want that child to go to daycare anyway because of the good he had seen it do Sally, Bobby, and ourselves. I’m not saying daycare is necessarily best for every family and every child—but that’s the point, isn’t it? AP makes a declaration—that daycare is second best—and assumes that it is universally true, when it’s not.

Another sticking point with AP was co-sleeping. I have personal space issues and needed a place that was just mine. While I would often (carefully) take my babies into bed with me when breastfeeding, I transitioned them to a crib in another room as quickly as possible. Having both children in bed with me sounded suffocating, and I felt like AP undervalued my own needs as a person.

Ultimately, I found Attachment Parenting unhelpful because it struck too close to home. I grew up in a patriarchal home where I was taught that my role, as a woman, was to be a wife and mother. Raising children was held up as the most important role of a woman, and a good mother was one who sacrificed and gave until she had nothing left of herself. While AP is ostensibly less gendered, I needed permission to not always put my children’s needs above my own, and confirmation that my children wouldn’t be ruined if I had a career and put them in daycare, and AP gave me neither.

By now you may be wondering about the title—didn’t I say I co-sleep? Yes, I did—and I do. I’m not against specific aspects of AP—co-sleeping, longterm breastfeeding, constant baby-wearing, being a full-time caregiver—when they work for a family. In our case, our bedtime routine broke down around the time Bobby grew out of his crib, and co-sleeping turned out to be our ultimate salvation. And with enough mattresses to create a bed half again as big as a queen, I’m able to move to the other side of the bed and find space if I feel hemmed in.

And yet, when people find out we co-sleep, I feel like I have to add a “but.” Yes, we co-sleep—but only because that is what works best for us. Perhaps this isn’t necessarily, but in a parenting world increasingly familiar with an Attachment Parenting that treats separate beds, or daycare, or bouncer seats as second best, I want to make sure people know I am on Team What Works rather than Team Super Parent.

 

One of the biggest problems I have with AP is the way it undervalues parents’ needs. In many ways, I see childrearing as a constant balance between the parent and the child. Parents who expect instantaneous and unquestioning obedience are putting their needs above their children’s needs—but it can go the other way, too, when parents believe they have to do everything for their child and put their child’s needs above their own. Yes, children have needs that have to be met—but parents have needs too. Why is this so rarely recognized?

I’ve hinted at this already, but another problem I have with AP is that it rarely recognizes that what works for one family might not work for another. One parent may love constant baby-wearing, but another may simply need to put her baby down. One mother may breastfeed her two-year-old while another finds the very idea of breastfeeding invasive and opts to formula feed. When Sally was born, the doctor immediately put her slimy body on my bare chest, as recommended by the literature—it’s suppose to create this magical bonding experience. But it didn’t. I felt nothing. All I felt was relief that labor was over—and could they please take the baby away so that I could get some rest? It took me several weeks to bond with Sally. That doesn’t make me wrong, or broken—it makes me different.

If you’re reading this as a proponent of AP yourself, please try to understand where I’m coming from here. If you co-sleep, breastfeed your two-year-old, and love your Maya Wrap, that’s great! I’m not saying any of those things are wrong. I breastfed my first until she was two-and-a-half myself, and loved it. You may feel like I’ve got AP wrong, that it’s not supposed to be about judgement, but please understand that presenting things like formula feeding, or having separate bedrooms, or daycare as second best will of necessity create a hierarchy and make parents who can’t meet that standard feel judged.

Dr. Sears, who is widely known as the founder of AP, says he’s never seen a child raised on AP go wrong—that children raised this way are as a rule nicer, more compassionate, and on and on. I’ve seen this sort of promise before—from Michael Pearl. I am not saying that I put their parenting teachings in the same category—I most emphatically do not. It’s just that I don’t think these sorts of promises are ever realistic. Children are wild cards, and while parents certainly have some influence they don’t have the ability to definitively determine how their children turn out. Any time anyone makes this sort of promise, I get red flags.

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