There is a myth that parenting with attachment can be outgrown, that families “graduate” sometime in the toddler or preschool years. This thought usually crosses parents’ minds when their once-sweet baby who was content to be carried and cuddled and cooed at begins to assert herself – and not sweetly.
Parenting with attachment in mind is not limited to the baby or toddler or early childhood years. The goal is secure parent-child attachment, and the thing about attachment bonds is that they’re able to change over time depending on the influence.
This is good when a child or person does not have a secure attachment history, but this also means that if a parent decides that enough is enough, and begins treating his son’s toddler tantrums in a way that does not promote attachment, the parent can actually go backwards in terms of attachment quality.
That secure attachment quality can be lost strikes fear in many parents’ hearts, but relationships decline over time. If your baby ends up crying himself to sleep inadvertently, here or there, there won’t be any lasting damage on your relationship.
For example, my son hates his car seat and cries hysterically on most car rides. I’ve tried holding his hand, singing, asking his sisters to try to distract him, you name it, but the whole activity that distracts him is actually getting out of the buckles. And, of course, that’s just not practical as we’re driving down the road. So, he ends up crying a bit, which is hard for me because, as a rule, I respond quickly and sensitively to my baby anywhere else, long before he has to cry to get my attention.
The difference is whether this letting your baby cry it out is a habit in your home. If it’s a regular thing, that will damage your attachment bond. If it happens every once in a while, because Mommy has to take a shower or put him in a car seat or has another need that just can’t be done with baby in tow, it’s OK.
Back to what I was saying, though: There isn’t a time in childhood when it’s appropriate for a child to no longer have a secure attachment with her parents. There just isn’t. Certainly, parenting changes as a child grows older. It becomes less physical and more mental – we’re not holding and cuddling and breastfeeding our children anymore, but they need us to guide them as they become more opinionated and vocal about their choices.
They need us to guide them with our values and wisdom. And we need to have a secure attachment bond with our children so that they trust us when we warn them or when we encourage them or when we support them.
Where do children turn if they feel they can’t trust their parents? If we’re lucky, they’ll talk to a trusted adult like an aunt or uncle or a teacher or coach. And hopefully, that adult can actually be trusted. Lately, though, a lot of children begin to glean their values from their peers. And this is dangerous, because their peers’ relationship skills are just as immature and their sense of self and values just as under-developed. It’s a bit like the blind leading the blind.
What makes parents think their children have outgrown the need for attachment-minded parenting? It tends to happen when their old stand-bys no longer work – their child is too old to breastfeed, is now sleeping through the night, or no longer is soothed by cuddles alone. And it tends to happen when their child starts having tantrums and non-punitive discipline doesn’t seem to be working.
The cornerstone of parenting with attachment is the primary caregiver responding with sensitivity. The specific parenting techniques are irrelevant; what matters is that whatever parents are choosing to do is what works for the family and promotes a secure attachment bond with their child.
With babies, parents are often prescribed certain, rather rigid techniques that “must” be done to be doing attachment parenting: For example, some say you can only be parenting with attachment if you’re breastfeeding; not so. Are you bottle-feeding? Are you feeding when your baby is hungry, rather than on a schedule? Are you holding your baby and therefore interacting while you’re bottle-feeding, rather than propping the bottle? Are you watching for allergies or gassiness to formula and are willing to change brands to make baby more comfortable? Then you’re feeding your baby with attachment in mind!
If not, examine the reasons why and see if there is a way to tweak what you’re doing to make it more attachment-minded. Keep in mind that the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that babies should be fed on demand, rather than a schedule, and bottles should not be propped, as there can be serious health consequences.
OK, I digressed again. Back to what I was saying: Attachment parenting changes what it looks like as our babies grow to toddlers to preschoolers to older children to teens to adult children. As our children hit more and more milestones, their independence blossoms and parenting itself changes. But the need for parenting with attachment can’t be outgrown. It’s just as important with our three- or six- or nine- or 12- or 18-year-old as it is with our 4-month-old.