Saturday, June 04, 2005

My good friend Kori recently wrote in her blog that when her baby shows up next month she's not going to do attachment parenting. I jokingly told her that I'll be happy to send her Babylu care packages in reform school once she's done totally messing her up with some "other" brand of parenting. But seriously, it got me thinking about why we chose the AP route, and whether it is working for us. And why mothers get so defensive and angry when faced with people making different parenting choices than they made.

Attachment parenting, touted in its current incarnation by Dr. Sears (not Dr. Barry Sears, that's the Zone Diet guy), means following your instincts and the baby's expressions of need. The idea is, if you are a lactating mother, your baby's cry causes your milk to start flowing, no matter what the clock says. So you answer your baby's cries by feeding her, or filling whatever other need she has right then.

This parenting philosophy is diametrically opposed to the other school of thought, with its very own doctor, Dr. Ferber. At the other end of the spectrum, parents feed babies on a schedule, put babies down to sleep and wake them on a schedule, no matter how the baby reacts to what's happening to him, and no matter what the parent feels at that time.

The situation where the opposing schools are most easily contrasted is bedtime. When bedtime comes, most babies cry if you lay them down in their crib and leave them there. Dr. Sears tells you to rock and nurse that baby into a deep sleep, then either carefully lay her down or take her to bed with you. Dr. Ferber tells you to shut the door and walk away. Yes, you can check on your baby periodically, but you're supposed to let her cry herself to sleep. My disclaimer here: I haven't actually read Dr. Ferber, but I'm going to go ahead and burn it like the intolerant liberal bigot I am.

Anyway, which camp you are in affects not just bedtime, but pretty much your whole relationship with your child. And of course it's a spectrum, with most people falling somewhere between the two extremes. So that's the intro. Here's my story.

The first time I heard about co-sleeping, that is, having your baby sleep with you in bed, was during my brief stint in Sunday School. We learned that story about two Biblical hos fighting over one baby because one of them had rolled over her baby in her sleep and killed it. So when I grew up and found out there was controversy over people sleeping alongside their infants, I thought, that's a terrible idea! It said right there in the Bible that your baby will die if you do that! And also, what if you spill your seed in bed next to your baby, and God strikes you down for that, and accidentally strikes your baby too?

But then a couple of my cousins had babies, and they told me they were co-sleeping and attatchment parenting. I read a little bit about it, but what really got me thinking was a book written by a relative of mine, Deborah Blum. It's called, "Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlowe and the Science of Affection," and it's all about this University of Wisconsin psychologist who did all kinds of experiments on the nature of mother's love on monkeys. Most of the experiments were cruel, and it's a difficult read for an emotional expectant mother. Yet I heartily recommend it to any parent to be.

One thing Harlowe observed was that a baby monkeys that hadn't had the chance to bond with a mother figure -- even a fake monkey mama made of cloth would do -- couldn't function in monkey society. The baby grew up to be an emotional wreck. Expose this monkey to something new and scary -- they used wind-up toys -- and he would cower in the corner. But show the same scary toy to a baby monkey who is happily clinging on to his mommy, and he'll hop off mom to check it out.

Maybe more importantly than the monkey stuff, the book goes over some of the history behind the beliefs about parenting popular in the 40s, when Harlowe started working, some of which persist today. It explains that once germs were discovered, people began to see the way mothers cuddle their babies as a threat to public health. We're all covered with germs, so why should we put our foul mitts on our vulnerable infants? Parents were banned from children's hospitals, because it was thought they'd just bring in germs. But then the nurses started to notice that the babies kept dying. The only long-term patient that had a fighting chance in a hospital was one that became the nurses' pet and got cuddled a lot. At the same time, psychiatry was blooming as a science, and a bunch of men started writing books about how children should be raised. Of course, everything mothers had been doing since the beginning of time, like rocking their babies to sleep, was declared harmful and wrong.

I started to notice how the norms in today's Western society regarding baby rearing differ from almost every other place and time. Three years ago, I happened to be in a hotel room in Seattle with a Taiwanese friend, watching an old episode of "Mad About You," in which Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt are sitting outside their baby (Mabel!)'s bedroom door in agony, waiting for her to cry herself to sleep. My Taiwanese friend asked me to explain what they were doing, and when I told him what little I'd heard about the cry-it-out approach (I think I learned about it originally from this very show, come to think of it), he was appalled.

By the way, there's a little clock counting down the half hour in the corner of the screen during this episode, and at the end, when the baby finally falls silent, Helen Hunt says, "Turn back the clock." She's sorry she did it.

Epu bought me the "Little House on the Prairie" books for Christmas that year, and I noticed that in the Ingalls house, baby Carrie slept in Ma and Pa's bed. Laura and Mary shared their bed until Mary went off to the school for the blind, at which point Carrie took her place.

When we got pregnant, I read more about attachment parenting, and Epu and I decided that this was for us. I was still scared about sleeping with the baby in bed though, even though I had learned that it is very rare for an infant to be smothered in the parents' bed -- unless the parents are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A co-worker gave me a book called "The Family Bed," in which I learned that sleeping one person to a bed is a historical rarity. Of course, you need a home that is heated 24-hours-a-day for it to even be possible to leave an infant all by itself in a crib.

Then I read on about research suggesting that co-sleeping could actually prevent sudden infant death syndrome. Dr. Sears believes that babies regulate their nighttime breathing to their mothers' breathing, and that each time the mother exhales, the tickle of breath on baby's head reminds him to breathe.

That convinced me to give co-sleeping a try. I have to say, it was not easy for me in the early months. Of course I liked having Nutmeg close at hand for nursing -- I can't imagine getting up and walking to another room in the middle of the night, much less going through all the trouble bottle feeders have to go through. But I was nervous about a pillow or blanket getting over her face, so Epu and I would make sure to sleep with an arm between our pillows and her head. I ended up with a lot of neck cramps. Next time I'm just going to buy one of those Snuggle Nest things.

The other aspects of attachment parenting felt very natural. I wore Nutmeg in the Baby Bjorn for five hours a day or more, and she would doze away contentedly, her fist clenched around my finger if I had a free hand. I read in the paper about how in Kenya, women were appalled when strollers went on sale at the depatment store, because they felt babies would be harmed by being left all alone to sit in a stroller instead of being strapped to the mother's body. Did I still use my stroller with the handy car seat attatched to it? Yes, I did. For one thing, I needed the basket to carry my groceries. For another, my back would get tired if I carried Nutmeg all day.

Now that Nutmeg is 13 months old, it seems as though AP is working out great for us. Of course, there's no way to truly compare her to what she would have been like without it. She's extremely self-confident. She'll plunge into a crowded room at a party to seek out new toys to play with, and she won't look for me or Epu for a couple of hours. Although we're still breastfeeding, she's allowed me to cut down on the number of daytime feedings and shift her diet to about 70% solids. She's getting to enjoy spending time with the Nanny. And as regular readers here know, I would not be exaggerating if I called her brilliant. Dr. Sears believes that babies learn to talk better and earlier if worn in a sling or other carrier, because the baby is right there in between mom and whoever she's talking to, all day. Did this help Nutmeg become baby fillibuster? Who knows. I was extremely chatty myself at her age. Of course, my mom wore me in a sling sometimes too.

Do I ever have doubts? About some things. I don't doubt the whole ap philosphy for a minute. It makes too much sense scientifically, anthropologically, historically. Like everything else is turning out to be, mothering is all about chemistry. The more time you spend touching your baby, thinking about your baby, nursing your baby, the more oxytocin and other mothering hormones you have, and the more you are driven to do these things. That's what I mean when I say that ap is doing what comes naturally. Other parenting techniques that stress discipline teach you to ignore what your chemistry is pushing you to do, and once you ignore that for long enough, the hormone levels drop, and the messages stop coming. I'm not saying that my instincts tell me whether or not I should use the big blue snotsucking bulb on Nutmeg or just turn on the steamer and hope that clears it up when she has a cold. Obviously there were plenty of things that we had to learn how to do and continue to learn. But my instincts do tell me what to do when she cries.

My doubts linger in that area where so many parents struggle: sleep. At 13 months, Nutmeg still wakes up twice at night, which many parents find shocking. On this topic, Dr. Sears just advises reminding yourself that it's a relatively short time in your baby's life when she needs this kind of round-the-clock nurturing. But I'm getting tired of it, as you might imagine. Dr. Sears also says that any practice that is wearing you out or causing you to resent your baby should end. So we're working on "night weaning" Nutmeg now. We've found that she'll settle without nursing at the first waking, if I just move her from her crib to our bed. For the second wake-up, which comes around 2 a.m., I'm going to let Epu cuddle her back to sleep while I sleep on the couch. The idea is that if she figures out that she won't be getting any more nanas at night, after about a week she'll stop waking up then. We'll let you know how it goes.

I was also jealous to find out that Nutmeg goes to sleep within a few minutes of being laid down in the crib when the Nanny is here. I have tried this, and she does not go to sleep by herself for me, not even after many, many minutes. Either she cries and cries, or she chatters and looks at the books I leave in her crib for her, but she dosn't sleep. In fact, now that nursing doesn't always send her straight to unconsciousness the way it used to, it's getting harder to get her down for naps and at bedtime. We might try "The No Cry Sleep Solution," a book that's endorsed by Dr. Sears.

So my biggest frustration with Dr. Sears is he doesn't tell me how long all this is supposed to go on. I've read internet posts by moms who say their 7-year-old still doesn't sleep through the night, and she wishes she'd done her the kindness of teaching her to soothe herself to sleep as an infant. And everyone who co-slept says it's hard to get a toddler or preschooler to sleep in his own bed. So I expect we'll be cosleeping for awhile, which is cool with us. We like it, and since Nutmeg does not join us in bed until we've already had our own cuddle time, it hasn't negatively affected our relationship at all.

In the end I don't think ap is about any one thing you do -- you don't have to co-sleep, you don't have to nurse, you don' t have to give away your stroller. It's about how you structure your family life. An ap family has the children right there in the middle of your life, in your bedroom, in your conversations, in your arms. A more conventional family, in today's world, maintains more of a separation between the parents as a couple and the children. They are in their own bedrooms, etc. And I just think that modern life already separates the family members more than is healthy. Soon enough Nutmeg will be going off to preschool, she's already spening two days a week with the Nanny. Her teachers will have more time with her than I will, and she will have media tailored to her age group, after-school activities, her peers. I don't want to be one of those families where holidays and family vacations are a bitch because the kids and the adults don't even know each other. My family wasn't like that growing up, but I think a lot of my peers' were.

And one final wild speculation before I post this long rant. I don't know how long Nutmeg will keep letting me cuddle her. But I remember when I got my first boyfriend at the age of 15, I was starved for human touch. The years between when it became uncool to sit on mommy's lap and when I learned to kiss and all that were like this no man's land. And I really think the lack of physical contact between parents and kids in our society drives kids to sexualize themselves at an earlier age. I've never read any research on this topic, but that's the way I felt as a teen. And I got hugged as much as any other teen, maybe more, but because that's just not done much in our society, I wasn't going out of my way to snuggle up to mom and dad. So when boys came along, it was like, thank god.

That's it.


Notta Wallflower said...

Wow, I'm reading a website on attachment parenting. I have to say, I agree with some things like "there is no such thing as spoiling your child with being fed/being held", but other things I do not agree with. I never had my son in bed with me - well I can't say never because I tried it once and got no sleep over fear of rolling over onto him and suffocating him. I was also worse off when I tried it because I got no sleep and was overly emotional - two conditions that led to me not being able to meet his needs as well as I would have if I'd had sleep. I think that, what is difficult about this approach is that many mothers do not have "natural instincts" for sensing their baby's needs. People told me all the time that I would automatically know what to do, which was certainly not the case. What I think is a good thing though, whether anyone agrees with this approach or not, is that educating yourself about pregnancy and child-raising is always a good idea.

True Mama said...

I'm pregnant with my first baby, but having been a nanny and a stepmom for ten years now has given me some insight into this whole child rearing deal. I have to agree with you that the AP approach just seems to make sense. I'm not sure we'll co-sleep, but I will have an Arm's Reach Co-sleeper next to the bed for the first few months, and I'm hoping I like using a sling, because that seems so nurturing. I also hope to breastfeed and cloth diaper.

What makes me sad, though, is the number of kids I've seen and see whose parents seem to value convenience over bonding with their kids. My husband's sisters were practically bragging the other day about how they never wanted to BF -- never even considered it -- because then you can't dump your kid off for someone else to take care of. And "dump off" they did -- and their daughters are the most whiny and annoying kids I know.

Just wanted to drop you a line and tell you how much I enjoyed your blog and agree with your view of parenting.

Jeevita said...

I've discovered this blog more than 2 years after your post. I started at 2004 and am working my way up and am really enjoying your narratives.

I am 6 months pregnant now and hope to co-sleep and BF my child...and its really nice to read about someone who has been there and done that. Thanks!