My husband and I always knew we wanted to practice attachment parenting, or AP. We'd read about it in the context of adoption and foster care, which we'd considered, and it seemed like a great way to raise healthy, confident children. So I did all the reading before our first child was born. I made a birth plan that involved a water birth and no pain medication (that didn’t work out, but I still got lots of birth bonding time). I educated myself about breastfeeding and bought two wraps for baby-wearing. We set up our room for safe co-sleeping. My husband was a university professor at the time and my baby was due over Christmas break. I knew I’d have plenty of help and plenty of bonding time, and eventually I decided I wasn’t going back to work and that I would stay home with our son.
I love being an attachment parent, but I have to admit that it works for me and my family because we had all the mechanisms in place to become attachment parents. That's because, often, attachment parenting is a function of privilege.
AP advocates don't like to admit this. Although attachment parenting espouses the benefits of "one or both parents" caring for their children at all times, according to Attachment Parenting International, many AP advocates mouth platitudes about how everyone can attachment parent, even working parents. If you fall into this category, API recommends “finding caregivers that respond with sensitivity, avoiding changes in caregivers if possible, helping to foster secure attachment with the caregiver, and when you are with your child before and after work, practicing the other API principles.”
But this might not be possible for many parents, such as those who might rely on daycare centers, which have a high staff turnover rate. It might not also be possible for parents to explore “a variety of economic and work arrangement options to permit your child to be cared for by one or both parents at all times" or to minimize “the number of hours in non-parental care as much as possible," as the website recommends. They have to maximize those hours, because they need to work as much as possible to make ends meet. That's why, as a parenting philosophy, AP is only a practical choice for the economically privileged.
At the surface, attachment parenting is a philosophy that all parents can theoretically practice. In its most basic form, it's the idea that all parents should form a close bond with their children as a way to raise "secure, independent, and empathetic children," according to WebMD. But in practice, attachment parenting is a bit different.
AP is an amazing parenting experience. It helped my children tremendously, and my husband and I benefited as well. But it’s not for everyone.
Take attachment parenting guru Dr. William Sears' “Baby B’s of Attachment Parenting," a list of the seven central tenets of attachment parenting. The list starts with “birth bonding," which “helps the early attachment unfold immediately after birth." If something happens to prevent the mother bonding with her baby at birth, like an emergency c-section, Dr. Sears recommends “catch-up bonding," including skin-to-skin contact, early breastfeeding, etc.
But many women don’t get the privilege of bonding with their baby right after birth at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a whopping 10% of all American children are born preterm — and preterm babies are more likely to require substantial medical intervention, NICU time, and other things that might keep them from spending time on their mother’s chest in the moments after birth. Preterm birth is also often associated with other health complications, which might make it harder for mothers to bond with their babies in the way that Sears suggests. If you're concerned about your baby's health because doctors have whisked him away from you immediately, you're probably not as concerned with the importance of skin-to-skin time.
Sears’ second “B” is breastfeeding. We know that breastfeeding can be difficult for moms who have NICU babies, especially because many preterm babies might be too weak to latch. We also know that breastfeeding requires time to establish — time lower-income mothers without access to paid maternity leave don't have.
Most of all, attachment parenting requires proximity, or time alone with your infant.
Because the United States doesn't guarantee paid maternity leave, only about 12% of women will have paid maternity leave after they give birth. Women who go back to work right after giving birth might not have the time to establish breastfeeding — and even if they do, they might have trouble finding a place to pump, as only employers with more than 50 workers are required to provide employees with a clean lactation room. Breastfeeding is also hard, and many women who struggle with it early on might simply resort to formula — because they can’t find a lactation consultant, because they don’t know what else to do, or because it’s just easier than nursing.
Most of all, however, attachment parenting requires proximity, or time alone with your infant, which can be facilitated by things like co-sleeping and breastfeeding and babywearing. But beyond these things, such proximity requires means that mama needs to be at home much of the time, and that baby needs to be with a stable caregiver when she isn’t. More often than not, that's just not possible. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58.6% of women with infants under a year old are employed full-time. That means more than half of all American mothers are participating in the workforce, meaning they just don't have time to be with their newborn in the way AP recommends.
Of course, attachment parents will insist that you can be a working parent and practice AP, because no one's citing a specific number of hours you need to be considered a good attachment parent. (Many AP devotees, however, cite a study that says that more than 20 hours a week of non-maternal care puts babies "at risk for future psychological and behavioral difficulties.") But if you do go to work, attachment parents recommend you leave your child with a stable caregiver — and if you don't have the salary to afford a full-time nanny, that's likely not gonna be in the cards for you.
My husband and I have practiced attachment parenting with all of our three children, and we were lucky to be able to do so. Most parents don’t have that luxury. AP is an amazing parenting experience. It helped my children tremendously, and my husband and I benefited as well. But it’s not for everyone. And that includes those who, for various reasons, simply might not have the support or economic resources to practice it.