How are today’s parents raising their children differently from the way grandparents raised them? Do you know what attachment parenting is? Do you think that children should sleep in their parent’s bed? For how long? Following is psychologist Dr. Mila N. DeWitt’s article on “Rearing Babies: Then and Now.”
Rearing Babies: Then and Now
By Mila N. DeWitt Ph.D.
“What! You SLEEP with the BABY?” Grandparents are often surprised and sometimes shocked at their own children’s parenting practices. But it is actually common today for parents to sleep with their babies and even cart them off to adult social events, nestled in little baby carriers. This is indeed very different from how grandparents themselves were raised and how they raised their own children. Grandparents should be aware that these differences did not just emerge on a whim. In fact, most are based on knowledge accumulated over the past three decades from research in child development and parents’ observations and experiences.
Parenting experts today stress the importance of raising an emotionally secure child. Children who are securely attached to their parents are not only more well adjusted as children, but become happier, more independent and more mentally healthy adults than “unconnected kids.” Attachment Parenting is a style of parenting that promotes healthy attachment and it includes techniques that maximize physical closeness between parents and infants. Physical closeness is important because it allows parents to be “tuned in” and respond to the baby’s biological, social, emotional, and cognitive needs. From the beginning of infancy, this means being sensitive and responsive to the child’s cues for hunger or comfort (e.g. fussing from hunger, crying for comfort). This type of nurturing helps lay the foundation for creating an emotionally secure bond between parent and child.
Staying in close contact with your child does not mean sitting by her crib all day and night. In fact, parents can stay in close proximity with their infant while still accomplishing their daily tasks. For example, parents can “wear” their infant in a baby sling or carrier while going about their daily routine. Since babies let you know when they have a need to be fulfilled, parents need not follow rigid schedules; babies can be nursed on command. Many parents also enjoy sleeping with their baby and have discovered that it is the best arrangement to get a good night’s sleep. Indeed, infants sleep better with their parents and so co-sleeping can reduce the number of night awakenings.
Attachment parenting is instinctive and in harmony with our biology as humans compared to more traditional parenting approaches. To illustrate, let us compare how traditional parenting techniques and attachment parenting techniques handle sleeping arrangements and crying. Traditional parents believe that babies should sleep alone in their crib, in a separate room, at a specific bedtime (they follow more rigid schedules). If the baby cannot fall asleep peacefully on her own, she can be left alone to “cry it out” until she falls asleep, often from exhaustion. In contrast, parents who use more “instinctive care” techniques do not let babies cry uncomforted and may bring their baby to bed with them on a regular basis. Although this may not be for everyone, in many cases it leads to a better night’s sleep for all. With increased physical proximity, the infant sleeps easily next to her mother. The mother, in turn, is assured that her baby is safe, warm, and content, and that she can quickly respond to her needs. Biologically, mothers and infants were designed to sleep this way and more often than not, find it quite natural.
To sum up, attachment parenting techniques are naturally designed to build the infant’s trust in her parents. The infant comes to learn that she can count on Mom or Dad to meet her needs. Her psyche is then “freed up” to explore the world, with the knowledge that she can return to a secure base. In toddlerhood, this may mean running over to grab Mommy or Daddy when a stranger enters the room. In the elementary school years, it may mean being able to focus on and enjoy school, with the knowledge that there is always a safe haven at home.
Dr. DeWitt is a developmental psychologist with a specialty in early childhood communication.
Small, M. (1999). Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. New York: Anchor Books.
Granju, K. A. & Kennedy, B. (1999). Attachment Parenting.
Sears, W. (2001). Ask Dr. Sears (a website). http://www.askdrsears.com.