Early in our parenting career, a friend said to my wife, Martha, "It must be nice to be married to a pediatrician since he knows all about babies." Martha astutely responded, "Actually, he mainly knows how to take care of sick babies."
She was right: I had been well-trained in treating physical illnesses but had little experience in promoting emotional wellness. So I turned my office into sort of an experimental laboratory, watching those parents who seemed to enjoy their babies most and, admittedly, whose children I enjoyed most. After 10 years of observations, I came up with the concept of attachment parenting (AP), a high-touch, high-response style of parenting that I believe brings out the best in both you and your baby. Think of it this way: If you and your newborn were on a secluded island -- without the guidance of baby books, pediatricians or your mother-in-law -- and you had only your basic maternal instincts to guide you, I think AP is what you would instinctively do.
Attachment parenting is actually a simple concept: By developing a loving, connected relationship based on learning to read and respond to your baby's needs -- I call it getting behind the eyes of your baby -- you can raise a child who is confident and caring, and who has a solid foundation for becoming an assured, empathetic adult. To help parents learn to heed their natural instincts and incorporate AP into their everyday lives, I've developed seven attachment tools, which I call the Baby B's.
1. The first few weeks of your baby's life help set the stage for your relationship. I recommend that parents spend as much time in skin-to-skin and eye-to-eye contact as possible -- what I call birth bonding -- after all, cuddling with your brand-new baby is one of the richest rewards of parenthood. If medical complications disrupt this attachment time, don't despair. Birth bonding isn't like Super Glue; it's the start of a lifelong process. As the most valuable member of your baby's medical team, you can still find ways to connect with your newborn through your touch, your voice and your milk.
2. Breastfeed as often and as long as possible. Besides providing your baby with nature's perfect milk, it's an exercise in baby reading. The intimate contact promotes bonding by teaching you to read your baby's facial expressions and sense her body language, while the very act of nursing teaches baby that you are a source of care and comfort she can trust. If a medical or lifestyle complication prevents you from breastfeeding, you can make bottle-feeding a time of high touch and high communication too. Bottle-feeding also gives dad a chance to bond with baby in a caring, giving way. Whatever the method, think of feeding time as an opportunity for connecting and communicating in addition to delivering nourishment.
3. When new parents come into our office for their newborn's first checkup, we give them a crash-course in baby-wearing. I like to demonstrate the technique with dads. It's a treat for new moms to watch me drape the baby sling over dad, position baby comfortably inside and watch the pair stroll around the office. In addition to enjoying a physical connection with either parent, a baby can learn a lot in the arms of a busy caregiver: Getting a mom's-eye view helps baby tune into his environment and the people around him. It's also another way to involve dad in attachment parenting. In fact, I've had new moms in my practice tell me that once their mates get the hang of baby-wearing, they're hooked.
4. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as mother, on separate sleeping surfaces, to reap the benefits of nighttime attachment. When bedding close to baby, try a co-sleeper, a bedside bassinet that attaches safely to your bed, to keep baby within arm's reach and in a safe sleep environment.
5. A baby's cry is her way of communicating with you. Listen to it and believe in the value of her "language." Babies cry to communicate, not to manipulate, so learning how to decipher your baby's cries and respond appropriately -- whether with a feeding, a diaper change or a simple, comforting touch -- teaches her to trust you to understand her needs and take care of them. As that bond grows and you become accomplished at anticipating her needs before she becomes upset, you may even find that she cries less.
6. I'm sure you've heard well-meaning friends and relatives deluge you with their personal how-to's: "Get her on a schedule." "Let him cry it out so he learns not to manipulate you." "You're spoiling her by carrying her so much." Beware of this baby-training.
Certainly, you should modify attachment parenting to help your baby fit into your family and your lifestyle. After all, being child-focused is not the same thing as being indulgent. (In fact, I've based AP on the idea that being responsive to baby ultimately helps him develop the tools and confidence to become an independent, self-assured, caring person.) But when carried to an extreme, babytraining is a lose-lose situation. By following someone else's preconceived formula for interacting with your baby, you lose trust in your ability to read and respond to his cues, while he loses trust that you believe and value those cues.
7. When our son Matthew was a baby (and occasionally a high-needs one at that), my wife would sometimes lament that he needed her so much she didn't even have time to take a shower. Sound familiar? I would remind her that what a baby needs most is a happy, rested mother. Remember: The right dose of the right medicine is healing, but an overdose can sometimes hurt. The same is true of attachment parenting. This is why I think balance and boundaries are so important. In your zeal to give so much to your baby, it's easy to neglect your own needs and those of your marriage. Early on in the AP process I ask new parents, "Is this working for you? Is your baby thriving? Are you thriving? If not, let's modify things."
As you use and adapt these tools to enhance your family life, you should come to experience mutual giving. Though attachment parenting may initially seem like one big give-a-thon, it's really about parents and babies giving to each other. The more responsive you are to your baby, the more responsive baby will be to you. Before you know it, the principles of AP will become second nature for all of you, and you'll be well on your way to creating a happy, close-knit family.