Feeding a child involves more than providing nutrients. From birth on, there is a very strong emotional component. This is easiest to recognize with babies and toddlers, who rely on comfort sucking as a way to cope with stress. But we continue to see it far beyond these early years, such as in how we crave a cookie or soft drink while unwinding after a hard day. This tendency to comfort ourselves through food is called “emotional eating.” We all do it sometimes, but some people rely on emotional eating as a primary coping mechanism, and this can lead to problems such as binge eating or obesity. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are also related because those affected find a level of comfort through controlling their food intake. The common link is an unhealthy relationship with food. Attachment Parenting International addressed this topic during Attachment Parenting Month 2009, when the theme “Full of Love” sparked discussions on how family relationships, particularly secure parent-child attachment, can promote a healthy relationship between children and food, and lower the risk of obesity and other eating disorders. I interviewed Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, PhD, as part of the effort. Dr. Tanofsky-Kraff is an associate psychology professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, as well as an obesity researcher at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, both located in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Previously, she was a binge-eating disorders research associate at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Her research program evaluates interpersonal psychotherapy with adolescent girls at high risk for obesity.
I grew up in a loving home. I knew my parents cared deeply for me, and our lifestyle was centered on the family. I know my mom did some crying-it-out methods, but I also know that she breastfed all four of her children, that she had unmedicated births and that she attended to each of us through the night, letting us sleep in her bedroom when we needed security. I even found a photo of her wearing me in a sling! While my mom spanked us when we were young, eventually her discipline methods gave way to more positive discipline. She worked full-time as a researcher before having children and for a year after having her oldest, before becoming a stay-at-home mom for the next 26 years, actively volunteering with many of our extracurricular activities. When my youngest sister went to high school, my mom got a part-time job that fit within the school’s hours, allowing her to see her daughter off to school every morning and welcome her home every afternoon.
My family loves watching the Olympics, and we marvel at how these athletes are able to get to such a high level of performance, often at very young ages—a 15-year-old ice-skating gold medalist, an 18-year-old skiing medalist and so on. When my children ask how these athletes get so good, I reply that it took them a lot of time and practice. No doubt there was also a lot of support from their parents. As parents, we all want our children to succeed in life and part of that is mastering some skill that they can call their own. So we help our children explore their natural talents and personal interests, and we guide them as they develop their skills set. It can be confusing learning how to be supportive of our children’s pursuits without becoming overbearing, which can actually have the opposite effect of helping our children grow into their potential, because certainly we don’t want to appear to not be proud of our children’s accomplishments.
There is a widespread belief that to be a good Attachment Parenting (AP) family, one parent must stay at home with the children full-time and that parent should be the mother. To be sure, this is a myth. Some parents are mistaken in thinking that “real” AP families don’t choose to put their children in daycare. However, parents need to look beyond the specific practices to realize the true goal in Attachment Parenting: Whether or not parents stay at home with their children is not as important as being sure to raise their children with secure attachments. If a dual-income family strives to maintain a strong parent-child emotional bond, this family is just as AP as one in which the mother or father stays at home full-time.
We often hear the cornerstone of healthy parenting quoted as consistently “responding with sensitivity” to our infants’ and children’s emotional and physical needs in relation to their biological-developmental stage. And while I agree this overarching idea is at the core of healthy parenting, I do not feel that it is necessarily as instinctual as many authors and parenting experts claim. Before parents can even fathom relying on their gut feelings in how to approach their parent-child relationships in a healthy, sensitive way, it is my firm belief that they must first address and heal from any childhood emotional wounds they may be carrying around, often without their realization until they bring a new child into the world, and even sometimes not even then. Depending on life circumstances, our individual attachment quality, the patterns of our relationships from childhood on, communication style, coping skills picked up along the way and other factors, even the most balanced people among us can still have areas in their emotional life needing attention. And every one of us always has room to improve, just because we humans are like that—if we’re not intentionally moving forward, we’ll slide backwards.
In response to the growing interest in responsive parenting within the scientific and professional communities, Attachment Parenting International (API) with prominent health psychologist Kathleen Kendall-Tackett announce the advent of the Journal of Attachment Parenting. Access to the online publication is free of charge. “Numerous recent studies have documented the importance of responsive parenting to both physical and mental health,” says Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, FAPA, guest editor of the Journal of Attachment Parenting, an annual review of the most eye-opening research in sensitive responsiveness. “We are finally recognizing that early parenting does make a difference. In fact, it is critically important to adult health. This volume summarizes recent studies that show this connection. I hope that it will provide an evidence base to both parents and professionals. This volume represents a critical gathering of recent science around responsive parenting.” For this debut issue, the Journal of Attachment Parenting highlights 41 studies selected through a review process that evaluated articles published in high-quality, peer-reviewed journals from around the world. An additional 324 studies have been recognized for their contributions to the Attachment Parenting community.
I’ve been helping my mom research our genealogy off and on over the last few years. Lately, she’s been hunting for tombstones. As I walk the oldest part of the cemeteries, reading the grave markers, I am continually taken aback by how many mark the burials of infants and young children. We know on an intellectual level why it was difficult for our ancestors to make it through childhood, with disease and famine and lack of medical technology and effective medications. But can you imagine the absolute heartbreak of these early generations? A mother in 1852 can’t have felt any less emotional pain from the death of her son or daughter than I would. And then, try to imagine what emotional wounds these parents faced with this sadness, anger and possibly guilt passed down to their genetic line? Epigenetics explains how certain genes responsible for diseases and mental illnesses can be turned off or on depending on the environment. In this documentary, “The Ghost in Your Genes,” researchers explain how looking at the genealogy of people affected with certain medical conditions often links them with certain environmental conditions. For example, people today suffering from type 2 diabetes likely had famine in the family tree and people with a tendency toward depression are linked with ancestors who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the type of research, we can’t say that PTSD causes depression susceptibility, but we can say that there seems to be a link.
Very few parents can resist the urge to use television at least occasionally to entertain their children. And occasional TV viewing isn’t concerning. It’s when parents are relying on TV for frequent “babysitting” or, more likely, early educational opportunity that there’s a need for change. Since the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation in 1999 that no child under two years old should watch any TV, there have been a number of studies that have demonstrated that not only do so-called educational programming not have any effect on children’s learning, but they actually may be detrimental. For example, researchers from the University of Washington (USA) found that babies 8 to 16 months old who watched “educational” programming started talking later than peers who didn’t. There was a direct link between the more hours of TV viewing and the smaller the child’s vocabulary. How much TV is too much? That depends on how much time parents are spending with their children. A researcher from Children’s Hospital Boston (USA) found that while an average of 1 hour of TV a day didn’t necessarily have any effect on cognitive development of babies and toddlers. What did was that the parents who are more likely to allow their children to watch TV are losing the opportunity to interact with their children, such as through conversation and reading, two important contributors to language development.
I attended a mother-and-tots group the other night. There were two babies in the corner, sitting in their car seats, one about two months old and the other closer to four months. The older baby was contently looking around, and the younger was sleeping, later waking to gaze out and only fussing when it was time to eat, afterwards being happy to lie on a blanket on the floor. I asked the mom of the younger baby how it was going at home, and she said that her baby is so quiet and calm that it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a baby at home. I can’t imagine. Each of my three children was impossible to forget as soon as they were delivered. Each craved touch and presence. Each protested loudly and violently at separation. Just riding around in the car was a trial, let alone sitting in a car seat at a community function. These were babies that refused to be put down. I was tempted with my oldest child to “teach” independence by way of crying it out, but she sank into depression that took years to break through. With my younger two, I focused on creating and strengthening a secure attachment, and didn’t try to change them. I just loved them, and continue to love all three of them, as they are. And over time, they have conquered many of their fears and anxieties on their own and have blossomed into secure, confident, happy, competent children.
There’s a lot of talk about the importance of secure attachment. We mostly hear of it in two circles: adult relationships and parenting, especially of adopted or foster children. We’re hearing more of it in parenting at large, mainly through organizations like Attachment Parenting International. But for the most part, the importance of individual attachment style continues to be downplayed. After all, we all grew up “just fine,” right? As a breastfeeding educator, I am continually wowed by the progress made over the past several decades of not only promoting mothers to breastfeed their infants but also of encouraging the medical community to embrace the practice that was once touted by post-World War II doctors as the “poor woman’s way of feeding her children,” second to the “superiority” of “modernization,” of formula. It is now well known what nature has always known, that breast is indeed best when it comes to feeding our babies. Breastfeeding is unique in that it not only delivers superior nutrition and health factors to our infants, as well as benefits mothers’ health in the long term, but also that it promotes a secure attachment relationship between mother and baby. We don’t hear about this much, because our medical community hasn’t yet completely acknowledged that how our brains work—the psychology of it all—is actually a biological, physical function of our body. And so, right now, the medical community is pretty much just interested in communicating the importance of the nutrition and health factors of breastmilk.