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Crying and Attachment Parenting

Breastfeeding on Demand

Breastfeeding on Demand

Is the goal of attachment parenting to have a baby that never cries?  There is some debate over this, with critics of attachment parenting and supporters of infant sleep training claiming that feeding babies whenever they show hunger cues will cause them to become dependent on the breast, and later, on food, to calm themselves down after emotional upsets and frustration.  Even parents who don’t support crying it out can be reluctant to feed baby “on demand”, and this makes for some interesting and lively debates.

Attachment parenting advocates for feeding a baby on demand.  For a newborn, feeding on demand might look like feeding at every whimper because newborns have tiny, tiny bellies that digest breastmilk quickly and need to be refilled frequently.  However, older babies have refined their hunger cues and also have larger stomachs, which means that they can and do go longer between feeds.  Babies cry for a myriad of different reasons, but parents will quickly find that even if you try to feed a baby who is crying because she has a dirty diaper, she’s not going to actually feed very well at all.  She might pop on and off, squirm, scrunch up her face and continue to wail in frustration.  It is surprisingly difficult to breastfeed a baby who isn’t hungry and doesn’t want to be fed. If baby is demanding something other than food, she will keep demanding it until that need is met.

The tricky thing about breastfeeding is that it’s not just food.  Nursing is about closeness and comfort, about being picked up and cuddled for a while.  But even a little baby who is crying to be picked up and cuddled won’t really want to feed if she’s already full.

Parents who feel drawn to Attachment Parenting philosophy do tend to be more sensitive to the emotional pull of a baby’s cry, and I’m sure that part of their decision to practice AP does stem from not wanting to hear a baby cry more than is necessary.  I know this is part of why I chose to go and breastfeed my daughter to sleep night after night, for 15 months of her life, and why I still go to comfort her if she’s had a nightmare, or needs to go pee, or wants a cuddle.  Other techniques might have worked in the short term, but the only time I really wanted to try cry-it-out was when I was feeling frustrated and angry.  That didn’t seem like a good choice in the short term or the long term.

This doesn’t mean that being emotionally sensitive to a child’s cry inevitably or logically leads to suppressing every cry the child makes by filling their mouth with food instead.  Many AP parents choose to discipline toddlers and older children in an emotionally attached manner, by staying with a child during a tantrum instead of sending him away to ‘time out’.  In fact, many attached parents are probably more comfortable being present and supportive during a tantrum than parents who choose to use techniques like cry-it-out sleep training, time-outs and punishments such as spanking.  Attached parents who use gentle discipline are more likely to see a child’s crying as a natural, healthy part of growing up and not as something that must be suppressed in the first place.

Food and comfort are very closely linked in human beings, and that’s not going to change just because a parent chooses to breastfeed on demand or on a schedule.  It is certainly possible to use food to cover up emotional hurts, and it’s certainly possible to begin that in the toddler stage when feelings of independence and frustration are at high tide.  However, the parent’s own relationship with food and his or her ability to navigate difficult emotions are more likely to be the cause of “silencing” a child’s crying with food, not breastfeeding on demand or attachment parenting.

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  • Annie @ PhD in Parenting March 1, 2010, 12:33 pm

    Thank you for this very articulate post. :)

  • Hannah @A Mother in Israel March 1, 2010, 12:56 pm

    Breastfeeding on cue shouldn’t be associated with a particular parenting philosophy. Only a few mothers with large supplies will breastfeed successfully while following a strict schedule. Crying is a late sign of hunger.

    The Aware Baby by Aletha Solter advocates gentle parenting while arguing that babies “need” to cry. Quite controversial and she addresses some of the points you bring up.

    -Hannah (came via PhDinParenting’s Tweet)

  • Hollie March 1, 2010, 1:01 pm

    I don’t know any teenagers that seek out the breast during stressful times(apparently “they get over it”), but if toddlers do, so what? I read somewhere once that toddlers actually SHOULD have the calming hormones that nursing offers to help them through those frustrating years. All of them will eventually get over it.
    From what I’ve witnessed in life so far, there are parenting styles that create a trend toward food for comfort, but that usually appears to be a way of making up for a lacking in other parts of the relationship.

    This sounds like another way to ‘find fault’ with attachment parenting. We did it because it made sense to us, and as a bonus, our son never cried. We feel confident/baby never cries, where the loss? Now, as a 2.5 year old, though he is weaned, he does seek us out during times of stress. I think that’s the way it should be.

  • Janet Lansbury March 1, 2010, 7:13 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful commentary. Hannah, I have read Aletha Solter’s book and I highly recommend it.

    Tuning in sensitively to a baby’s needs means taking a moment to allow the baby to express those needs before we put her on the breast. Crying is the way a baby communicates a wide range of feelings. Crying is an expression of ‘self’ that must be welcomed, and not feared by the parent, or it is soon stifled. Psychologist Alice Miller’s book, “Drama of the Gifted Child,” examines the infant’s adaptation to a mother’s emotional needs. The sensitive infant wants to please the mother, it is basic survival. If the mother is uncomfortable with the baby’s cries, and rushes to fix them, a sensitive baby soon decides those feelings – that part of the baby’s ‘self’ – is unacceptable.

    No one likes to hear a infant cry, but we must be mindful of the messages we unwittingly give our children. We are extremely powerful in our child’s life. The first few years are vital, and babies deserve the very best. They want to know that we(the gods!)can handle their upsets, and that they can handle them too, with our comforting support. Many of us can relate to the sense of having lost touch with our anger and sadness.

  • michelle March 2, 2010, 3:10 pm

    Thanks for all the comments!

    Hannah – thanks for recommending The Aware Baby, I’ll check it out.

    Hollie – it’s true, babies and toddlers do outgrow the need for nursing and carrying faster than we expect. Now that I’m nursing #2 I know how quickly that time will fly by. :)

    Janet – I agree that parents are very powerful influences, and simply being with a child while they are upset is an important thing to do. We also need to know when to step in and make an effort to “fix” the hurt with comfort measures and when to let the child work through it themselves. This changes a lot with age, of course.

  • Janet Lansbury March 2, 2010, 9:00 pm

    Michelle, I agree with you. Thanks, @janetlansbury

  • Cynthia March 15, 2011, 3:26 pm

    “Attached parents who use gentle discipline are more likely to see a child’s crying as a natural, healthy part of growing up and not as something that must be suppressed in the first place.”

    Well said. Thanks for sharing this great entry!