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Attachment parenting v behaviour modification

January 15th, 2015 | Blog

I am sometimes asked about my opinion on philosophy attachment parenting.  The context of the question is whether attachment parenting techniques or behaviour modification methods, which I use, are superior.

The context of my work is how to achieve optimal results for a baby’s or a child’s feeding, sleeping and behaviour.

Philosophies of childcare vary dramatically. To oversimplify a very complex field, the two major philosophies are attachment parenting and behaviour modification.

The philosophy that I use and strongly advocate for is based upon behaviour modification. A simple summary would be that sleep is a learned skill and like all other human skills can be learned.483375897

While my experience is that this works efficiently and with a minimum of distress, it is unfortunately a hugely emotive field. In particular, there is a body of authors who have adopted either attachment parenting or something very similar it.

The criticism, of my work, from those who advocate attachment parenting is that behaviour modification techniques interfere with attachment between child and parent or may produce some degree of emotional detachment or damage to the child.

I can state unambiguously, and with a confidence based upon both high-quality research and more than 30 years’ experience, that my techniques, strengthen bonds between mother and child, between father and mother and strengthen and stabilise the family unit. I have published significant work internationally showing improvements in sleep performance, maternal scores for depression, anxiety and stress.

In addition my own internal records of more than 10 000 families shows consistent improvements in the mother’s self-confidence, pleasure in parenting and decreased or very low scores for frustration with the child’s behaviour. These improved scores are all associated with improvement in infant or child sleep.

Conversely, my experience is that, unfortunately, attachment parenting leads to unstructured sleep, inappropriately hyper-responsive parenting techniques and the development of a family lifestyle that ultimately may be unsustainable. It is associated with babies who become over-tired and emotionally dependent.

Having said all of that, I strongly believe that parents should parent in whatever way they feel is best for them, their children and their family unit ( provided their approach is not causing harm). I believe parents should be armed with good information on which to make informed decisions about their parenting choices.

The Babysleep Doctor’s approach and attachment parenting

So to that end, I have taken the eight principles of attachment parenting (created by Attachment Parenting International) and noted how my approach compares. The principles are stated first with my approach or comments in parenthesis in italics second. While I do not support attachment parenting, you will see that my approach has much in common while it varies in some important areas.

1. Prepare for pregnancy, birth and parenting. (Logical)

2. Feed with love and respect

  • Breastfeed to satisfy nutritional and emotional needs. (True)
  • Feeding is an act of love. (Logical)
  • Feed on cues from the baby and not on schedule. (Certainly in the first 2-3 months)
  • Breast (or bottle) milk will be the primary source of nutrition until about age one. (The large majority of babies will need supplementary nutrition above and beyond milk between 8-12 weeks of age. Certainly all babies should be on complementary feeding by 16 weeks).

3. Respond with sensitivity

  • Frequent holding and interactions with baby increase bonding and promote secure attachment. (This is true, however, there is a time and a place. Once a child has been fully fed, has been prepared for sleep and has received an appropriate experience of affection, the outcomes for the family unit are significantly improved by allowing the child to achieve and maintain sleep independently).
  • Babies’ brains are immature and significantly underdeveloped at birth, and are unable to soothe themselves. (This is clearly not correct as babies routinely self sooth for the large majority of sleep achievement events).
  • Through the consistent, repeated responsiveness of a compassionate adult, children learn to soothe themselves. (This is not correct in my experience. Repeated responsiveness leads to parent-dependent sleep and sleep maintenance. This results in disrupted sleep for parents, increased fatigue and pressure upon all family relationships).
  • High levels of stress, such as during prolonged crying, cause a baby to experience an unbalanced chemical state in the brain and can place them at risk for physical and emotional problems later in life. (This is far too emotive and has no validated supporting evidence. In any case the children who receive my care cry significantly less than their peers).
  • A parent’s role in tantrums is to comfort the child, not to get angry or punish. (Parents will always have a positive emotional status for their children. Inappropriate rewards, through parent contact, for difficult behaviour can lead to significant increases in those behaviours).

4. Use nurturing touch

  • Nurturing touch helps meet a baby’s need for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation and movement. (True)
  • For the child, nurturing touch stimulates growth-promoting hormones, improves intellectual and motor development, and helps regulate a baby’s temperature, heart rate, and sleep/wake patterns. (I am unaware of high-quality research demonstrating these points but I entirely agree that nurturing touch, when appropriate, is a totally positive experience for parent and child).
  • Babies who receive nurturing touch gain weight faster, nurse better, cry less, are calmer, and have better intellectual and motor development. (As above)
  • Frequent hugs, snuggling, back rubs and massage all meet the older child’s need for touch, as do more physical play such as wrestling and tickling. (As above)

5. Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally

  • Sleep training techniques can have detrimental physiological and psychological effects. (I strongly disagree with this idea. This statement has no evidence to support it and amounts to emotional blackmail. My many years of experience with ‘sleep training’ demonstrates clear psychological and physical benefits).
  • New research suggests that these techniques can have detrimental physiological effects on the baby by increasing the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ in the brain, with potential long-term effects to emotional regulation, sleep patterns and behaviour. (Cortisol is a fundamental hormone of human health. Elevated levels occur with normal day-to-day activities and with physical activity. The authors of this dot point are implying that ‘sleep training’ techniques are associated with an increased total amount of crying. Exactly the reverse is true).
  • An infant is not neurologically or developmentally capable of calming or soothing themselves to sleep in a way that is healthy. (This is clearly incorrect. Even children who are sleeping poorly still self-settle for the large majority of arousal events within a block of sleep).
  • The part of the brain that helps with self-soothing isn’t well developed until the child is 2½-3 years of age. Until that time, a child depends on his parents to help them calm down and learn to regulate intense feelings. (This is clearly incorrect).
  • Co-sleeping is encouraged. Sleeping in ‘close proximity’ i.e., can be a separate sleep surface in the same room as the parents. (I am completely comfortable with children sleeping in close proximity if their sleep is working well. Certainly as a parent myself, our children slept in our bedroom for many months. We all slept very well. Co-sleeping on the same bed surface is not recommended).
  • Bed-sharing: Family members sleep on the same sleep surface. This practice is recommended for breastfeeding families. (Co-sleeping on the same bed surface is not recommended even when breastfeeding).

6. Provide consistent and loving care

  • Minimise the number of hours in non-parental care as much as possible. (While the child is asleep I would argue that parent contact is irrelevant. Independent sleep leads to better quality sleep for both parent and child. While a child is awake and ready for interaction I certainly encourage parent contact and play).

7. Practice positive discipline

  • Treat children the way they would want to be treated. (Positive emotional feedback for a child and the development of self-esteem and self-confidence is a fundamental element of good parenting. Equally important is establishing appropriate boundaries of behaviour. Sometimes inappropriate behaviour requires gentle but effective negative feedback).
  • Positive discipline is an overarching philosophy that helps a child develop a conscience guided by their own internal discipline and compassion for others. (As humans we learn codes of behaviour and moral standards by clear and consistent guidance by family and society. The concept of naturally occurring ‘internal discipline’ is inconsistent with my experiences as a parent and care provider).
  • Positive discipline begins at birth. The bonds of attachment and trust that are formed when parents consistently and compassionately respond to an infant’s needs become the foundation of discipline. (Consistent, compassionate and appropriate care for a baby is fundamental to a child’s wellbeing).
  • Use techniques such as prevention, distraction, and substitution to gently guide children away from harm. (While these techniques are completely appropriate, there will be occasions where a child challenges for authority and may behave in a way that is inappropriate. Effective but affectionate negative feedback may be required to develop appropriate behaviour)
  • Instilling fear from traditional discipline techniques in children serves no purpose. (I find this comment overly emotive).

8. Strive for balance in your personal and family life

  • Ensure that everyone’s needs and not just the child’s are recognised, validated, and met to the greatest extent possible. (Absolutely true.)

Sleep well

Dr Brian Symon

The Babysleep Doctor

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