Does Attachment Parenting Result in a High-needs Baby?
Do we do attachment parenting because our babies are high need? Or are our babies high need because we do attachment parenting, so we let them be themselves and showing all their needs? So many times, I hear “easy baby” stories. I wonder whether I had chosen the harder road myself or due to the needs of my kids.
Attachment Parenting is Following Instinct
Back in the early eighties with the publication of our first book, Creative Parenting, we started promoting attachment parenting. We simply gave this name to a style of parenting that many mothers were doing anyway. This was to validate them following their instincts. Over the next forty years, we used our medical practice as sort of a laboratory to see if there was any difference between how the adult children turned out. Also, how much attachment parenting they received during that window of opportunity in the first five years, especially in the first two years. While certainly there was not a perfect correlation, we did notice that the most remarkable correlation between attachment-parented children and later young adults could be summarized in one word: compassionate. These children’s brains were full of compassion, empathy, and caring. We have never seen a school bully who was attachment-parented.
Yet, sort of like a side effect of good medicine, we did notice that many of the attachment-parented children were labeled as “so sensitive.” That meant they were more easily bothered by social injustices, scary scenes, unkindness to their friends, and so on. Less compassionate and less attached children, on the other hand, sometimes would say, “Oh, that doesn’t bother me.” While I didn’t say it, inside I thought: “Well it should bother you when a friend at school gets bullied.”
It’s Communication, Not Manipulate From Attachment Parenting
Your concern about them being high-need because of attachment parenting, which I assume you mean making them high-need by doing attachment parenting, is yes and no. In a good way, yes, you raise the bar on their need for continued compassion and caring and to help them carry a toolbox on managing their sensitivity, so it doesn’t escalate into anxiety. No, you do not “cause” a child to be high-need by practicing attachment parenting. This was one of the initial criticisms to our promoting attachment parenting. Once upon a time, even psychologists would accuse attachment parents of “letting their child manipulate them…” Tiny babies don’t manipulate, they communicate. Yes, a child who’s used to being in-arms, at breast, and generally in touch with a nurturer caregiver most of the day will become “high need” and fuss if they don’t continue to get that level of care. This is because the infant at a very young age learns that those Baby B’s, such as breastfeeding, baby-wearing, belief in the signal value of baby’s cries, bedding close to baby, and other skin-to-skin attachment tools help him or her thrive. Put yourself into the mind of a growing child. Caregiving practices that are attachment promoting make babies feel good and feel right so they don’t need to stress. They will cry less and can divert the energy they would have wasted on crying into growing. So, naturally, they are going to want to continue to get this “high-level parenting” because they instinctively know this is what causes them to thrive.
Regarding your easy baby concern, yes, there are so-called “easy babies.” Our first three children merited this title, but our fourth one did not. We didn’t cause them to be “easy babies” by our parenting style. Some babies just come wired to more easily self-soothe, schedule themselves, sleep longer, and so on. We didn’t cause our fourth to be high-need, we simply responded to her expressed needs for holding, nursing and so on according to our intuition.
All About Instincts
The best thing you can advise your new mommy friends is to validate their instincts: “Only the mother knows the level of parenting her individual child needs to thrive.” Given good social support, a mother will naturally raise the level of her attachment to meet the need level of her infant and then gradually and instinctively change or dial down her mode of attachment as the need level of her child changes. Notice I said “changes,” not decreases. One time a mother of a high-need child asked me, “When will my life get back to normal?” We both laughed as I said, “This is now your normal life. Certainly, it’s unlikely your child’s needs will get less, they’ll simply change.” She got the point.
Written by: Martha Sears, R.N
Martha is the mother of Dr. Bill’s eight children, a registered nurse, a former childbirth educator, a La Leche League leader, and a lactation consultant. Martha is the co-author of 25 parenting books and is a popular lecturer and media guest drawing on her 18 years of breastfeeding experience with her eight children (including Stephen with Down Syndrome and Lauren, her adopted daughter). Martha speaks frequently at national parenting conferences and is noted for her advice on how to handle the most common problems facing today’s mothers with their changing lifestyles. Martha is able to connect with both full-time, stay-at-home mothers and working mothers because she herself has experienced both styles of parenting. Martha takes great pride in referring to herself as a “professional mother” and one of her favorite quips when someone voices their concern about her having eight children in an already populated world is: “The world needs my children.”