Updated August 2021
In Part Five of my Infant Sleep Series, I revisit Dr. Sears’ bed-sharing and attachment parenting books as I am today, the mother of a 17-year-old son and a trained and experienced Licensed Professional Counselor. I first read about Dr. Sears' philosophies as a new mother learning how to breast-feed and learning how to parent, so long ago.
I approach this blog post with a great deal of trepidation. I have been putting off writing about Dr. Sears, as I have mixed thoughts and feelings about his methods. I am now well aware that, as an LPC, I have a serious responsibility to my clients to present and use evidence-based methods in my practice. With this in mind, I recently re-read his book, The Attachment Parenting Book, (2001), and his newer book, The Baby Sleep Book, (2005). Both of these books promote the attachment parenting style of parenting, which includes breast-feeding, baby wearing, and safe co-sleeping.
On the positive side, I think (and feel) Dr. Sears’ attachment parenting philosophy to be a beautiful and necessary addition to our culture. The American childcare culture was (is) heavily influenced by inaccurate Victorian and Behaviorist ideas about the nature of children. The Victorians thought children had the psychology of small adults. We now know that developmentally, children are not small adults. The Behaviorists thought that babies could be raised with little emotional connection and conducted experiments on babies which have been renounced and are now considered sociopathological. We now know that children are not little adults; there are developmental milestones that need to be met physically, psychologically in order to achieve adulthood. We also now know a normal emotional and biologically-based attachment process occurs in order to achieve both physical and emotional health.
So, Dr. Sears’ contribution to the American public regarding the true nature of babies cannot be overestimated. Dr. Sears was a forerunner for the emotional rights of children and families. To a broad audience, he introduced the idea that simply picking the baby up is a valid way of parenting. Building on the research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and integrating observation of primitive cultures, he introduced the idea at our adult relationships are influenced by our earliest experiences, and that early experience can be optimized by treating the newborn and infant with respect and love, to a broad audience.
This contribution cannot be over-estimated in the American culture where babies were thought to neither have significant feelings physically nor emotionally. Hats off to you, Dr. Sears, for that enormous and brave contribution.
On the con side, new parents, so emotionally vulnerable, need some guidance about how to strike a balance between their baby’s needs and their own needs.
Dr. Sears’ books and philosophies generally don’t offer solutions to specific problems, such as Dr. Harvey Karp’s Calming Reflex or Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s carefully documented research on the benefits of sleep and how-to structured sleep routines as a complementary or alternative method to breast-feeding and safe bed-sharing. Both pediatricians offer step-by-step solutions to exhausted parents in need of sleep. Mrs. Elizabeth Pantley also offers solid, kind solutions about infant sleep which consider both baby’s and mom’s needs.
In addition, very glaringly, Dr. Sears’ books are not research-based. They do not include references to valid, reliable, and current research materials nor are there references to research backing up his methods. His guides are labeled as “common sense” guides to understanding your baby.
Another unfortunate omission is Dr. Sears gives the impression to new parents that a healthy biological attachment can only occur in families that breast-feed and practice safe bed sharing. We know now emphatically this is not the case.
It is vitally important for parents to know that healthy biological attachment occurs in babies in families with a broad range of healthy parenting styles.
What I see in my private practice is that new parents reading his books take his information very literally. And, caught up in the normal psychological, emotional and biologically-induced parental preoccupation with their newborn, they get anxious or afraid that if they don’t practice attachment parenting properly, the biological attachment process will not enact. Moms become afraid if they don’t breast-feed or safely co-sleep the biological attachment process will be interrupted in some way. This is clearly not true. Over a person’s lifetime, there is no scientific evidence that suggests a formula fed baby cannot be normally emotionally attached to his mother and family.
In 2011, we now know the biological attachment is the result of a series of repetitive interactions which occur over time, and adopted babies can achieve healthy emotional biological attachment as well as biologically birthed babies.
The current infant sleep methods all take into account the immaturity of the nervous system during the fourth trimester, and suggest parents wait until at least 12 weeks to start sleep training. So, that information is now out there as common knowledge.
Dr. Sears does not offer any other suggestions other than breast-feeding and safe bed-sharing as part of his philosophy. And this can be very hard on moms and families who need some good structured solutions to help themselves stay emotionally, psychologically, and physically healthy.
What do I take away from this?
As I said before, I think Dr. Sears has a beautiful parenting philosophy. However I think the attachment parenting philosophy needs to be updated with current research to include information that helps parents meet their own sleep needs.
Growing into the role of a parent is a psychological and emotional process. It is a period of great change on many levels, body mind & spirit. With great change there are high emotions. And with a high emotional state, I know that people need permission to consider their own needs, their own mental and emotional health and practice self-care, as well as meeting their baby’s needs.
To be relevant to today’s parents, I think Dr. Sears needs to bring in current research regarding the attachment process and offer parents some alternative sleep parenting pathways in order to help preserve parents’ own mental and emotional health.