The bad news: Attachment Parenting is hard when you don’t have an example to follow. The good news: Attachment Parenting has been made much harder than it has to be by a generation of moms who had no idea what we were doing. It doesn’t have to be as hard as we made it.
When I was a brand new mommy, way back in 2001, I decided attachment parenting was right for our family. As a 22-year-old mom, I was still learning about myself and my needs. I was learning as I went and trying hard not to make the same mistakes my parents made. It was a stressful undertaking. I want to save you some stress by telling you 10 things I wish someone had told me about attachment parenting before I became a mom.
Attachment Parenting is Hard & 10 Other Things I Wish I’d Known About Attachment Parenting
Breastfeeding is Hard
Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s easy. As I wrote in my breastfeeding story series, I didn’t do much research on breastfeeding before my son was born. I didn’t realize until a couple years before becoming a mom that formula wasn’t a prescription-only deal. My mother told me she couldn’t nurse me because I spit up or was allergic to her milk or something and the doctor “prescribed” formula.
I made the assumption that I was an exception to the rule and that most babies never need formula. And that misguiding mindset led me to believe that nursing was natural and therefore easy for most moms.
I was right and I was wrong. Nursing is absolutely natural with both mother and baby primed for a nursing relationship at the time of birth. Nature says to mother and baby, in most cases, here’s everything you need, but you’ve got to figure out how to use it! Good luck!
I was wrong that nursing occurs without struggles the majority of the time. In fact, my anecdotal evidence gathered from talking to and listening to thousands of moms over the years says the opposite. We have to work hard to make breastfeeding work and it is not easy.
The truth? Breastfeeding was easy for me 1 out of 3 times. It was easy with my youngest. It was easy because I already knew several tips and tricks to make it easier and because my youngest was one of those dear babies who had no trouble latching from birth. We still had some of the same tough issues that I’d had with my older two, though.
Let’s see . . . there’s latch issues, mastitis, thrush, reflux, supply problems (over supply and under supply are both problematic), painful nipples (which doesn’t accurately describe the excruciating nipples-on-fire, crying-through-the nursing-session pain), flat or inverted nipples, breast size issues (yep. Bigger is not better. Bigger makes things so much harder.), learning to pump, leaking, foremilk/hindmilk imbalance, on-demand nursing and the sheer exhaustion of it all. (And more!)
And that was just the first 12 weeks with my first child.
Here’s my advice to new moms who want to breastfeed. Go in expecting to fight a war to win your breastfeeding relationship with your baby. If you luck out with an easy time, you’ll be thrilled. If breastfeeding is a nightmare, you’ll be prepared.
If you do have a tough time breastfeeding remember these three things:
- You are not the only one who’s had whatever issues you’re having. You aren’t alone and we understand what you’re going through and how hard it is. Be gentle with yourself.
- Other moms have come out on the other side of their issues and established a wonderful breastfeeding relationship with their baby. (It took me about three months – you can read about it in the breastfeeding story series I linked above.) You can do it.
- But, most importantly remember this: Only YOU can decide if it’s worth it to continue through the struggles. If you decide it’s not worth it and that you can be a better parent by feeding formula instead of breastmilk, own your decision and create boundaries to keep the judgy-judgers out of your beeswax. Ultimately, it’s nobody’s business but your own. Don’t let anyone – even your well-meaning mom, sister, or best friend – try to make it their business.
Co-Sleeping is Not All Snuggles and Sleep Smiles
I never planned to co-sleep. I had never heard of attachment parenting before my oldest child was born. I thought co-sleeping was dangerous. I thought co-sleeping meant my kids would never leave my bed.
When my oldest son was born I only knew that it felt strange to have him over there in the hospital bassinet when for so long he was literally inside my body. So, we co-slept in the hospital. And the first night home it felt downright sinful to put him in his crib on the other side of the house from us while we slept.
We didn’t have a bassinet and the crib wouldn’t fit in our room, so we rigged up a laundry basket for him. But we never used it because it felt odd to have him on the floor in a laundry basket beside our bed. Plus, he was awake every 15 minutes and we were exhausted. Having him beside me in bed where I could lay down to comfort him or nurse him not only made sense but was absolutely necessary given my state of physical exhaustion.
So, my husband and I agreed we’d co-sleep until things got easier. When I discovered attachment parenting and its recommendation for safe co-sleeping, I was proud that I’d already been listening to my mommy intuition on this matter.
However, co-sleeping isn’t always easy.
- Co-sleeping sometimes means being kicked and toe-poked all night by a restless sleeper.
- Not all babies like co-sleeping! It took me nearly 6 months to realize that my oldest son slept better when I put him in his crib to fall asleep and then co-slept after his middle-of-the-night feed.
- Co-sleeping includes waking up in someone else’s urine when the diaper leaks.
- Co-sleeping means waking up in someone else’s vomit when spit-up happens.
- Co-sleeping means backaches and sore muscles from sleeping in one position night after night.
For me, the benefits of co-sleeping outweighed the costs and the difficulty of the situation varied with each child, but I’d have been better prepared for co-sleeping if someone would have told me that it’s not all sweet dreams.
My advice? Get one of these if you want to co-sleep.
Not All Babies Like Baby-Wearing or Being Held All the Time
As I’ve said, I didn’t realize quickly that my oldest son didn’t enjoy co-sleeping and slept much better in his own bed. My youngest two like co-sleeping and it was much easier with them.
However, my middle son hated being put in a baby sling or being held a lot. He preferred the baby swing that I broke down and bought after I dismissed the idea that baby swings are harmful to attachment. (More about that later.)
My middle son didn’t nurse for comfort, which made me feel like I was doing something wrong. See, my oldest son (who hated co-sleeping) nursed for up to 40 minutes every 1.5 hours as a baby. It felt like he was always attached to me during the day. My middle son would nurse for 20 minutes and be done.
Maybe my oldest son got all of his attachment needs met through breastfeeding and being held all day and my middle son got his attachment needs met through sweet snuggly co-sleeping all night.
Every baby is different. Attachment parenting is not about forcing attachment but instead fostering attachment. If one method of attachment doesn’t work for you or your baby, there are many other ways to get those attachment needs met.
You’ll Be Judged By Other Moms
Try explaining that you’re tandem nursing your three-year-old and one-year-old while you’re pregnant with baby number three. Then leave the room with them so they don’t have to watch your friend spank her two-year-old for spilling his snack because “he knows better”.
You’ll lose a friend that day. You’ll lose a friend because you want to protect your children from the harsh reality of physical punishment just as much as your friend wants to protect her child from seeing a three-year-old nurse.
Hey, mamas, other moms will judge you, but it’s okay. Parenting choices are a sensitive subject. When you’re a new parent you need support. If you and a friend can’t agree to disagree, you may have to find new, like-minded friends.
I promise you this won’t last forever. By the time you children are school-aged, the differences get smaller and smaller. You’re able to connect with other parents even if you parent differently. How you parented your two-year-old or whether or not you breastfed will eventually cease to matter to you and other parents.
For now, stay close to those who support you and set boundaries for those who don’t. And, for all moms’ sake, keep your opinions to yourself unless you’re asked for advice. And then, be very, very gentle and loving. It’s the least we can do for each other.
Your Baby Will Cry Just Like Everyone Else’s
Let’s get something straight. Attachment Parenting is not magic.
Oh, back in the day those of us who were in the AP cult tried to sell the story that attachment parenting meant our babies would be happier and healthier than babies who didn’t have the benefits of attachment parenting. Our children would grow up to be well-adjusted adults who were productive members of society and would eventually save the world through love and non-violent communication.
Well. Forgive us. We were a little influenced by a deluge of oxytocin, a lot of self-righteousness, a touch of pride, and sheer short-sightedness. I mean, we were young moms. We just didn’t know.
In a perfect world, attachment parenting might produce super-humans, sure. But, this ain’t the Garden of Eden, mamas.
You can AP your heart out and your baby will still cry. He will still experience health issues. She will still throw tantrums as a toddler and talk back as a preschooler. He’ll still meet developmental milestones more or less on target. She’ll still have her heartbroken. He’ll still deal with the angst and anxiety of puberty.
In other words, your baby will cry just like everyone else’s. The difference is that you’ll respond differently.
Attachment parenting and its eschewing of feeding schedules and baby training helps you learn to respond to your children’s needs as they occur instead of forcing their needs to occur when it’s convenient for you. This is an important lesson that is just as beneficial for your personal growth as it is for your baby’s.
Attachment Parenting Won’t Save You From Postpartum Depression
I know we AP mamas love those studies that show, for example, breastfeeding reduces postpartum depression. It’s true that nature sets us up with wonderful safeguards for a happy, healthy life. The problem is that nature can’t account for the many variables of modern life.
I experienced PPD after the birth of my second child. Nature couldn’t help me with the fact that I had spaced my babies too closely (my oldest was 2 and I’d had a 2nd-trimester miscarriage just a year before my rainbow baby was born), had just moved to a new home in a different town, had left my work-from-home job and reduced our finances and my feelings of independence, was trying to support my husband through a difficult loss-related depression, was very likely nutrient depleted from my first pregnancy, a miscarriage, a second pregnancy and now tandem nursing, and more.
Postpartum depression still happens to attachment parenting moms, but attachment parenting isn’t the problem. If you feel like attachment parenting is contributing to your postpartum depression read my article “Is Attachment Parenting Ruining Your Life?” You may be doing more than you actually need to do to get the benefits of attachment parenting for your and your child.
As a new mom, I believed I was immune to postpartum depression because I breastfed and kept my baby close. Because of that, my baby was nearly 4 months old before I got help for my postpartum depression. Instead of getting help early on, I beat myself up for being cranky and “out of it”. I let my anxiety run my life and I battled with perfectionism and fear of failure.
I’m incredibly grateful to the fellow AP mom who, in her wisdom as an older mom of many, gently pointed out that I might want to talk to my doctor about the possibility of postpartum depression.
Your Baby Won’t Be Harmed If You ______
When I was a new mom there were many internet discussion boards filled with other moms saying things like, “If you give your baby a pacifier, he’ll have nipple confusion and develop an overbite.”
“If you use a swing, your baby won’t know that you’re her mother.”
“You leave your baby at daycare so you can work? It’s only a matter of time before she becomes a juvenile delinquent.”
“Using formula guarantees your child will die of a heart attack when he’s 42.”
Okay, so those are exaggerated, but seriously, we all knew the drill. If you dared to use a baby swing or a pacifier or supplement with formula or use daycare instead of an AP nanny you were a bad mom. We were all so scared.
Fear is not a good motivator, mamas. It doesn’t prompt you to do things from a loving or rational place and can wind up causing you more grief and guilt than you deserve to have to deal with as a mom.
Sure, attachment parenting, in theory, is a list of ideals. But in real life attachment parenting is you doing the best with what you’ve got, following your intuition, and loving your babies the same way all emotionally healthy moms do.
So, use that swing and those pacifiers, don’t co-sleep if it doesn’t work for you, supplement with formula if you need to, go back to work or stay at home. In the end, an emotionally healthy mom is better for a child than a mom who parents from a place of fear while trying to follow the rules of a particular parenting style because she’s afraid of screwing things up.
You’ll Screw It Up But That’s Okay
You’ll get it wrong from time to time, but that’s okay. No one does attachment parenting perfectly. You’d have to be a saint to perfectly follow the recommendations of attachment parenting.
I had a bottle of formula in my oldest son’s mouth before we left the hospital because I couldn’t get him to latch. I was terrified he’d starve, though, I know now that’s not true. I even decided to exclusively pump for a week or two before gathering my courage to try nursing again. (He wound up nursing until he was four, so it all worked out.)
My youngest son stopped nursing abruptly at 15 months when he bit me and I screamed so loudly I scared him. Yeah, that’s how our nursing relationship ended, despite my attempts to get him to nurse again. Talk about guilt . . .
Even though I was firmly against crying-it-out, there were times I was so overwhelmed by a crying baby that I had to put him in his crib and walk away for a few minutes to get myself together. (Read “Is Crying it Out Ever Okay?”)
I’ve yelled at my children despite my commitment to gentle discipline.
You’re going to do it wrong from time to time. But, mamas, we aren’t looking at the details here. We’re focusing on the overall picture. I’ve got parenting regrets, but my mistakes haven’t messed up my kids forever. They are still happy and healthy because overall I’ve done it right.
And despite what you tell yourself on your worst parenting days, you’re getting it right overall, as well. Be gentle with yourself.
Remember attachment parenting is not all or nothing. At its core attachment parenting is about being responsive to your child and letting your child show you what he or she needs. When you do that, the rest falls into place despite your human ability to make mistakes.
The Results of Gentle Discipline Aren’t Immediate, but the Results of Punishment are Temporary
In my articles “Does Gentle Discipline Work?” and “Why I Don’t Punish My Kids” I talk about the fact that punishment gets fast results. Sometimes this fact makes parents who practice gentle discipline wonder if it’s actually working.
I admit I wondered this myself more than once when my toddler or preschooler was doing the very thing I’d just told him to stop doing.
How I wish someone had told me that it’s completely normal to question the efficacy of gentle discipline. When your best friend’s child stops his undesired behavior immediately upon being spanked, but you’re telling your 15-month-old not to pull the cat’s tail for the 30th time this week you question your methods.
But consider this: While your friend’s child is learning to fear punishment and your friend is learning . . . well . . . nothing, your child is learning that pulling the cat’s tail hurts the kitty (because you’re telling him so and he can see the cat’s reaction) and you’re learning to be more proactive as a parent by keeping the two separated.
Your child isn’t learning that he’s bad because he is behaving in a curious, age-appropriate way. He’s learning that he has to have self-control so he won’t hurt others. Your child is learning compassion and empathy. Your friend’s child is learning that, as long as he doesn’t get caught, he can do whatever he wants, no matter who it hurts.
Neither child is able to articulate this until decades later, but by then it’s too late to change the message that they began learning as toddlers.
The point of punishment is to immediately and forcefully stop a behavior. It creates an external locus of control. The point of gentle discipline is not to extinguish misbehavior immediately, but instead to help your child grow into a person who understands the consequences of their behavior on themselves and others. It creates an internal locus of control and healthy emotional intelligence.
Attachment Parenting is Worth It
I recently wrote how I feel about attachment parenting 16 years later. Was it worth it? Of course, my answer is yes.
Would my children be the same if I’d practiced attachment parenting or not? I say they wouldn’t be the same for one very important reason. Attachment Parenting sets you up for gentle discipline.
My relationship with my children is strong, healthy and open because I practice gentle discipline. If I hadn’t first practiced attachment parenting, I might have never naturally evolved into gentle discipline.
See, if I’d seen my baby as separate from me practices like child-led weaning, co-sleeping, baby wearing and night-time parenting might have seemed like too much of a burden. It’s easier to follow mainstream parenting practices. That’s why they were invented!
Gentle discipline tends to naturally follow attachment parenting. For example, I don’t have screaming matches with my teen because when he had tantrums as a toddler I worked with him on how to properly express his emotions. I didn’t prevent him from expressing them, though.
I didn’t see his big feelings as misbehavior or manipulation because, through attachment parenting, I learned that babies are straightforward about their needs and how they let you know those needs. I knew my toddler was only trying to get his needs met through a tantrum and it was my job to show him a socially acceptable way to get his needs met.
Ultimately, whether or not you choose attachment parenting has no bearing on how good of a mom you’ll be. Don’t let any overzealous AP’er tell you so. But, the benefits of attachment parenting are worth it. Give it a try before you decide if it’s right for your family. Throw out what doesn’t work for your family and keep what you love. You’ll grow as a person as your children grow. You’ll end up stronger than you ever thought possible.
Yes, attachment parenting is hard, but it’s worth it.