There is a pervasive myth that Attachment Parenting is done once the child has left the baby stage, when breastfeeding and babywearing are no longer appropriate or even possible to do. This is related to the same myth that prescribes only certain parenting techniques – namely breastfeeding, babywearing, bedsharing, and others – to parenting with secure attachment in mind.
Actually, Attachment Parenting – being an approach to childrearing – knows no age barriers and while this approach has to look drastically different in older children than it does with babies and toddlers, it is still vitally important to a child’s optimal development to continue to parent with attachment well beyond the early years.
Right now, I have a baby, a preschooler, and a school-ager in the house. I am using an Attachment Parenting approach with all three of them, but the techniques that go with each child development stage are very different. They have to be. What works for the baby just plain will not work with older children – as anyone can tell you. When someone mentions Attachment Parenting for the older child, that person isn’t so dense as to think that the same strategies used with babies can be applied to an older child. This isn’t a matter of breastfeeding a six-year-old. Rather, what can be applied to all age groups are the Attachment Parenting principles.
I must say – and this is supported by other parents using Attachment Parenting principles with their older children – that parenting with attachment gets significantly harder as the child grows. Parenting babies is intense; there’s no doubt about it. But it’s mostly physically intense, as the parent is the center of the universe for the baby. There may be some protesting, but for the most part, the parent-baby pair move as a single unit, each giving and taking in a fluid design of attachment because, well, babies are completely dependent on the parent for everything. As the child grows, certainly he continues to depend on his parent but the child is developing his independence rapidly – not only in physical ability but mentally, socially, and emotionally. A few years past birth, your child is able to state his opinion on matters and it doesn’t match yours, and then what will you do?
It’s at this point that Attachment Parenting morphs from strategies heavy on being physically comforting to techniques that focus more on mental development. Of course, Attachment Parenting has both elements all the way through, but the proportion of emphasis changes as the child grows older – as do the parenting tools. My baby’s need for exploration is supported by allowing him to take all the objects out of my purse, to feel, look at, and mouth. My older children’s need for exploration and play requires much more of my involvement. They need not just my physical presence but my social interaction.
When I was a new mother, I had this idea that once I got past the baby/toddler stage, that parenting would get easier because the child would be able to entertain themselves more often, not need diapers changed, pour their own milk, eat grapes without being cut up, they can vocalize using words. It’s true – they can do all of this – but it’s not easier. It can be deceptive, because older children have so many more abilities than babies and toddlers, but they are still children – even teenagers are still children – and they will surprise you at times by how much they still need your guidance in some areas.
So, what does Attachment Parenting look like in older children? Here are some ideas of differences between babies/toddlers and older children, using the Eight Principles of parenting with attachment:
- Preparing for Parenting, Pregnancy, and Birth – Obviously, this has to do much more with babies, but one part of the principles, “preparing for parenting” has to do with all ages. This is the principle that charges parents to learn how to overcome challenges in parenting any age child. I use this principle often when I am learning how to adjust my expectations to match child development. Included in this principle is continuing education for parents, in books, DVD courses, local classes, parent support groups, visiting with friends who are also parents, etc. in an effort to learn to be a better parent to our children.
- Feeding with Love and Respect – When babies, we feed our children from the breast or the bottle by cuddling. Then, we teach them how to eat solids in a safe way. With older children, we’re continuing to teach nutrition. We also get into topics such as emotional eating, body image, and the family table.
- Responding with Sensitivity – With babies, we’re responding to pre-cry signals quickly and appropriately. We don’t allow babies to cry it out in sleep training, and we feed on demand rather than on a schedule. This principle is considered the cornerstone to all the other principles. It continues to be vitally important with older children. Children will disagree with their parents; their temperaments may be considerably different than ours. Parents are responding with sensitivity when they are taking their toddler’s tantrums in stride or when they teach sportsmanship to their fifth-grader who is disappointed after losing the soccer match or when they provide a shoulder to cry on when their eighth-grader is jealous of a friend who gets asked to the school dance.
- Using Nurturing Touch – Babies love to be cuddled; older children, not so much. But they still enjoy hugs, sitting next to you on the couch during a movie, and younger children will gladly hold hands when walking somewhere. Even with teenagers, a quick touch on the shoulder can go a long way. Some children enjoy a back rub here or there.
- Ensure Safe Sleep – Babies, toddlers, and some preschoolers like to cosleep, whether in their parents’ bed or on a separate mattress in the same room. Even in their own room, children should feel open to coming to you if they have a scary dream, wet the bed, or have another need such as an asthma attack or nighttime fears. Some early elementary kids enjoy having a periodic sleepover in Mom and Dad’s room. Also included in this principle is making sure that children get enough sleep each night as well as naps as needed.
- Providing Consistent and Loving Care – It’s vital that babies and toddlers have the same consistent and loving caregiver, whether with a stay-at-home parent or in a daycare situation, for at least the first two years of life. But while the development of attachment style and quality is most impacted by having a consistent caregiver during these years, attachment is a lifelong phenomenon and providing consistent, loving, attachment-minded care – both at home and away at daycare, preschool, school, and other activities continues to be important in attachment development.
- Practicing Positive Discipline – Discipline for babies largely consists of baby-proofing the house, distracting the baby from undesirable situations, or substituting a safe object for an unsafe object, such as a cord. A child is able to understand what “no” means at about 18 months old, and then discipline changes from more of a preventive strategy to guiding and teaching, emotional coaching, and non-punitive discipline such as natural consequences.
- Striving for Personal and Family Balance – Life balance between family, work, and hobby, as well as stress management and healthy living, is important no matter what stage your child is in. This principle is the only principle that is directed only toward the parent, although how you live your life teaches a great deal to your children about your values.
There is no wrong or right way to parent within these principles. Every family looks different. Attachment Parenting is especially nice as it can be applied to nearly every parenting style and every family lifestyle. Attachment Parenting is a way to stay connected, but it’s more than that – it’s promoting optimal child development from an attachment foundation.
Article by Rita Brhel
Rita Brhel is a stay-at-home mother to three children. She is also a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor for the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska, the Publications Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International, the managing editor of the Attached Family magazine, an API Support Group Leader, PSI Postpartum Support Coordinator, Sidelines High-Risk Pregnancy Peer Counselor.
Rita has written 41 awesome articles for Natural Family Today.
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