Parenting for the Perplexed: Become attached, but not superglued

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | by rachel biale

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

We are expecting our first baby soon and feel bombarded by different approaches to parenting. With the Time magazine cover “Are You Mom Enough?” vs. the buzz around the detached adult-centered French parenting of “Bringing Up Bébé” (we do know we are not signing up for the “Tiger Mother” approach!), we are in a tailspin. Is there a middle road? Expecting in Oakland

Dear Expecting: Let’s begin with the May 10 Time cover — indeed, a very provocative photograph (http://ti.me/KI02aO). A mature-looking 3-year-old boy (wearing, to add to the mix, military fatigue–style pants to underscore his masculinity) stands on a stool to reach for the breast of his lithe, overly skinny mom (another issue …) in skintight pants and top. He nurses, looking at the camera with an ambiguous expression. Is it saying “In your face!” or “Hope this doesn’t get on my Facebook page in five years”? And the title shamelessly exploits the natural anxiety mothers feel about being “good enough.”

rachel bialeUnfortunately, the cover belies the sensible, balanced story inside. The story does justice to ideas that predate the current buzz by more than 20 years (“The Continuum Concept,” the family bed, etc.). There has been an avalanche of responses in the media. For your sanity, I hope you don’t read them all.

So — this seems like the common situation when “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.” At the risk of pouring a teaspoon into the ocean, I share my views.

Surely much good comes for baby and parents (especially mother) from attachment parenting’s “trinity” of total, long-duration breast-feeding, co-sleeping and carrying (or baby-wearing). But the extremes advocated by some practitioners worry me for the parents’ sanity and the child’s development. What’s extreme? Here are examples:

• Nursing so often your baby is essentially latched onto the breast day and night

• Never letting a baby cry beyond a barely audible whimper

• Getting no uninterrupted sleep for three years

• Never leaving your baby with anyone else (not even grandparents)

• Never going out without your children

• Not putting your child down long enough so she can experiment with and learn how to entertain herself

• Nursing a 3-year-old in public (cover of Time included)

The intensity of the mother-child bond advocated by some attachment parenting adherents comes uncomfortably close to stereotypes of the Jewish mother. Not recommended!

You can, indeed, find valuable guidance in the Jewish view of the golden mean and respecting the wisdom of those who came before. Here are three recommendations that illustrate the “middle road” approach rather than generalities.

• I do support breast-feeding nearly exclusively in the first months of life, but advise new parents to start acquainting infants with a bottle around 4 weeks so the nursing mother can get some breaks. Sensible times to substitute a bottle for breast-feeding would be the first nighttime feeding or the afternoon so she can take a nap or a short outing.

• I encourage parents to introduce one or two trusted caretakers by 3 or 4 months so they can have a few “dates” each month for exclusive couple time. Accustoming a baby to a sitter then is usually fairly easy. Around 8 months, when many babies go through developmentally appropriate “stranger anxiety,” or when they are even older, it is much harder.

• Co-sleeping works well for some families (though I am obliged to note the Academy of Pediatrics’ continued opposition because of risk of suffocation). But most parents I have talked to — hundreds of them — can’t get the sleep they need to function sanely and competently with a baby or toddler squirming in their bed (true for many a stay-at-home parent, too). New parents manage without much sleep for the first few months, but sleep deprivation takes its toll. Most will give almost anything for seven hours of sleep. I know — I have counseled many of them. But teaching your baby to sleep on his or her own can be hard, so I promise to write more about it soon.

Do attach, but don’t become superglued. Keep a balance between devoted parenting and continuing your adult life. Trust your instincts and, on occasion, even listen to your mom.