Sleep is one of those conflicting behaviours in new parenthood. Our babies need it. And so do we. And so often, it’s not that easy to come by. It just doesn’t come as naturally as we imagine it would.
And we get torn as new parents. Torn by the need to resurrect from our exhaustive state, to begin to feel whole again, to have the capacity to remain attentive and patient by day. Yet at the same time torn by wanting to give every piece of ourselves to our babies, around the clock, no matter the cost.
Torn between necessity and nurture.
And amongst the internal angst that we so often feel, a discourse has emerged surrounding just how nurturing we need to be for our babies to thrive. The terms attachment and connection and responsiveness are presented as the non-negotiables that we will give to our babies. An emphasis is placed on the practices that are intended to bring new caregivers closer to the ‘natural’ way of nurturing a new life. Skin-to-skin contact. Breast is best. Constant baby-wearing. Co-sleeping. Sensitivity to cries before they have even had time to emerge.
Because they deserve it.
And in so many ways, this attachment comes without effort. The wash of oxytocin when our skin touches that of our baby’s. The flood of warmth that emerges when those little eyes look deep into ours. The unbearable recoil that we feel at the sound of their cries. These innate tendencies call for us to be everything to our babies.
But in this narrative of attachment, what happens when we feel we cannot keep our heads above water? What happens if we are trying to give everything, but we are losing ourselves in the process? What happens if we feel shamed, guilty, or inadequate in our capacity to be the best possible parent for our new, tiny little humans?
If we cannot live up to the standards of the ‘natural’, nurturing way, are we somehow not good enough?
The birth of Attachment
In the mid twentieth century, researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pioneered the first empirical studies of attachment. Their work showed that infants develop attachments to their caregivers as a means of ensuring their own survival in a world full of inconsistencies and threats.
Using a paradigm known as the Strange Situation task, Ainsworth observed hundreds of children respond to temporary separations from their primary caregiver in an attempt to understand how attached they were to that figure. Ainsworth noted that children fell under four general categories:
Securely attached – the baby may show some distress when separated from their caregiver, but readily greets and makes an effort to reconnect emotionally upon reunion
Insecure-avoidant – the baby shows little to no distress when separated from their caregiver, and tends to ignore him/her upon reunion
Insecure-resistant/ambivalent – the baby is heavily distressed when separated from their caregiver, and remains preoccupied or inconsolable until the caregiver returns
Disorganized-disoriented – the baby shows contradictory behaviours, such as walking in the direction of the caregiver upon reunion but while avoiding eye contact or emotional connection
Now, if we were to make broad, overarching conclusions from these studies, then generally speaking infants whose caregivers are coded as more sensitive and responsive tend to be more securely attached. On the other hand, infants whose caregivers are coded as indifferent, intrusive, or inconsistent in responsiveness may be more insecure and avoidant.
And secure attachment is the gold standard of psychological wellbeing. Securely attached children are confident and independent in their exploration of the world. They trust that if they get into trouble, their parents will be there to get them back on their feet. Securely attached children are emotionally available and have better mood regulation and constructive coping skills. Securely attached children are better behaved and may score higher on tests of communication, cognitive engagement, and motivation.
So then, as parents, it makes sense that we should want to strive towards being as attached to our children as possible. Right?
Well, maybe. But some cautions should be made here.
First off, any one of these scenarios may seem to describe a baby in certain situations, while not in others. Behaviours are fluid and rarely so cut and dry.
Second, what is viewed as “secure” may vary from one culture to another – for example, independence may be differentially emphasized in some households and in some regions of the world.
Third, the majority of infants are placed within the securely attached category. Moreover, infants may form secure attachments to a variety of caregivers in their lives. There is not a SINGLE parenting style that results in secure attachment.
Fourth, even children that show inconsistencies in attachment at a young age can grow into securely attached adults. There is no linear path to secure attachment.
Yet despite these inconsistencies, we still have the tendency to believe that there is a “correct” way to parent. And that if we cannot live up to this standard for care, we are somehow committing our children to a life of psychological distress and emotional insecurity. That if one heralded way of parenting doesn’t resonate, or is overwhelming, or is just not enjoyable, that somehow we are doing it wrong.
That we are designed to forge the ‘natural’ path and if we cannot, there must be a design flaw.
From Attachment to Attachment Parenting
Nearly two decades after Bowlby and Ainsworth’s initial work on attachment theory, Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha Sears, coined a parenting style that has shaped much of the present-day conversation surrounding secure attachment: Attachment Parenting.
The Sears’ attachment parenting is governed by eight principles. Parents should:
- Prepare for pregnancy, birth, and parenting
- Feed with love and respect
- Respond with sensitivity
- Use nurturing touch
- Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally
- Provide consistent and loving care
- Practice positive discipline
- Strive for balance in your personal and family life
In order to successfully achieve these 8 principles, and thus a securely attached infant, parents need to practice:
The 7 B’s of attachment parenting
- Birth bonding
- Baby-wearing (“kangaroo care”)
- Bedding close to the baby
- Belief in the baby’s cry
- Balance and boundaries (positive discipline)
- Beware of baby trainers (interesting coming from a book on “how to parent”)
Now all of these practices are beautiful, loving parts of the parent-infant dyad. Many (but not all) of them have been shown scientifically to have immense benefits for our smallest of humans.
However, none of them has actually been equated to a baby’s secure attachment with their caregiver or as predictive of future psychological health. They may be pieces of a nurturing and connected bond with your baby, but they are NOT requirements.
We need to cut ourselves some slack.
There may be physiological or emotional barriers to birth bonding and breastfeeding. Bed or room-sharing may leave a caregiver so exhausted they are unable to be sensitive during the day. It may not be a reality to respond to every cry immediately, especially if there are siblings in the mix. And it may not be helpful to do so anyway. Some developmental psychologists argue that pre-emptive responsivity may make it more challenging to learn and discern what are babies really need in a given moment – it may be food, it may be touch, it may just be a passing gas bubble – inadvertently reinforcing, for example, regular wakings.
Even the Sears’ stress that these suggestions are not meant to be used as a checklist, rather they are recommendations to help guide new caregivers down a path of sensitivity and responsiveness to their infants. As Attachment Parenting International puts it
“Take what works and leave the rest. ”– ATTACHMENT PARENTING INTERNATIONAL
So then, how can we be everything that our babies need?
Secure attachment is about safety, security, warmth, and emotional availability. Sensitive and responsive care. A generalized trust that their primary caregivers have the answers to their needs. And when they are not immediately available? That they will return and reconnect. A balance between confidence and coping.
Secure attachment is about attunement. Being attuned to what our babies need and doing our best to meet those needs.
But even when you can’t, fear not. Studies have actually indicated that we can get it wrong 70% of the time. Let me reiterate. You can have every intention to read your little one’s cues and you can totally miss the mark, not quite be what they need in that moment, misread what they are asking for, 2 out of 3 times – and STILL they can be securely attached.
Secure attachment is about empathy. Acknowledging our little ones’ feelings. Using intuition to read what our babies need. And looking at, hugging, holding, and talking to our babies.
But if you can’t in this moment? You’re still good enough. And they will still see you as everything.