Attachment parenting, detached debate
Time touched a nerve this week with its provocativeÂ cover photo of 26-year-old Jamie Lynne Grumet and her 3-year-old son standing on a chair next to her, nursing her left breast while both stare directly (and unapologetically) at readers.
The underlyingÂ story focused on the â€śattachment parentingâ€ť method developed byÂ Dr. William Sears, which advocates prolonged breastfeeding, â€śbaby wearingâ€ť (carrying the child in a sling throughout the day), and having babies sleep in parentsâ€™ beds. The issue, which appeared on newsstands over the weekend and coincided with Motherâ€™s Day, sparked thousands of responses from news outlets around the world.
ManyÂ reported thatÂ Time had â€śreignitedâ€ť the debate about parenting, and breastfeeding in particular. But thatâ€™s not true, at least not judging by the reactions in the mainstream media. WhatÂ Time reignited is the age-old and somewhat tiresome debate about incendiary magazine covers.Â Quarreling about whetherÂ Time had doneÂ good orÂ bad totally overshadowed commentary about the substance of its article, which is unfortunate for anyone interested in learning the basics of the medical communityâ€™s current thinking on attachment parenting.
Timeâ€™s story, by staff writerÂ Kate Pickert, doesnâ€™t go too deep into the evidence for and against attachment parenting, either. Its focus is Sears, a California pediatrician who wrote the seminal treatise on the method,Â The Baby Book, in 1992. The 20-year-anniversay peg is a bit weak and Sears is no stranger to the media, butÂ Time contended that, â€śFor all the bookâ€™s popularity and influence, surprisingly little is known about the author.â€ť
From there, the piece delved into Sears and his wifeâ€™s childhoods and their own child-rearing practices, arguing that attachment parenting is â€śrootedâ€ť in their upbringing and that â€śSearsâ€™ views are less extreme than his critics (and even many of his followers) realize.â€ť
Pickert doesnâ€™t go easy on Sears, however, mentioning right away that â€śa lot of people mightâ€ť call his philosophy crazy. She also dissects in detail one of his more controversial theoriesâ€”that allowing babies to â€ścry-it-outâ€ť can cause brain damage. According to Pickert:
Sears cites a number of academic studies to back up his point. A close look at the research, however, does not actually provide evidence that bouts of crying associated with sleep training affect brain development. Several papers Sears cites involved studies of rats. At least one looked at babies who suffered from cases of severe neglect or traumaâ€¦ Other research showed that babies who cry excessively are more likely to suffer from, for example, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but itâ€™s not clear if they cry because of underlying neurological problems that later manifest as ADHD or whether the crying causes ADHD.
Pickert stresses that â€śthe science on attachment is also easily misunderstood and misused.â€ť While there is evidence that children without â€śconsistent relationships with parentsâ€ť can suffer developmental and emotional problems, there is â€śno science to showâ€ť that babies who are fed formula, pushed in strollers, or sleep in bassinets â€świll turn out any different from children raised via the attachment method.â€ť
Sidebars in the story went into a little more detail.
â€śBed sharing can be deadly,â€ť science reporterÂ Jeffrey Kluger emphasized in one. â€śA sleeping adult can crush or suffocate a baby; the risk of SIDS increases as well.â€ť But Sears is largely in sync with the medical community in stating that itâ€™s fine for mothers to breastfeed â€śinto toddlerhood.â€ť The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the US Surgeon General encourage mothers to breast-feed exclusively for six months, introducing solid foods after that while continuing to nurse â€śone year or longer or as mutually desired by mother and infant,â€ť parenting reporterÂ Bonnie Rochman reported in another sidebar.
Thatâ€™s was about it for the science inÂ Timeâ€™s storyâ€”adequate, if not ample. But the thousands of commentators who responded to the piece made nothing of it. It took half an hour of searching to find thisÂ helpful information (relegated to an online sidebar) from BBC health and science reporter James Gallagher:
â€˘ No government or international body has a recommended upper age limit on when a mother should stop breast feeding her child
â€˘ The World Health Organization (WHO) says there are a range of health benefits for exclusively breast feeding babies for the first six months
â€˘ After that the WHO suggests a combination of foods, fluids and breast milk up to the age of two â€śor beyondâ€ť
â€˘ Dr Mary Fewtrell, who specialises in childhood nutrition at University College London, said that there isnâ€™t any research into the health benefits of continuing to breastfeed children up until school age
â€˘ She said that â€śeven for the health benefits of breastfeeding beyond a year or 18 months, there is little researchâ€ť and that this was far more a social than a nutritional issue
A much more thorough and fascinating history of the breastfeeding debate appeared in the March issue ofÂ Harperâ€™s. The magazine published anÂ essay by Elisabeth Badinter, adapted from her upcoming book about â€śhow modern motherhood undermines the status of women.â€ť Titled, â€śThe Tyranny of Breast-feeding,â€ť itâ€™s an account of the rise in influence ofÂ La Leche League, an international organization formed in the late 1950s, which advocates on-demand breastfeeding for as long a child wants.
The essay described how the league slowly but surely won the support of major national and international organizations worldwide, from the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. And Badinter made no secret of her misgivings about that effort, describing it as an ideological â€ścrusadeâ€ť for â€śincreasingly dictatorial and restrictiveâ€ť practices, waged by â€śbreast-feeding militants.â€ť
While acknowledging that â€śa motherâ€™s milk is perfectly adapted to the childâ€™s digestive system and developmental needs [and that] it reinforces natural immunities and reduces the risk of allergies,â€ť Badinter cast a skeptical eye on the growing list of advantages attributed to breast feeding:
Some studies claim that breast-feeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, type 1 and 2 diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, childhood Hodgkinâ€™s disease, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, asthma, even multiple sclerosis. Others have tried to demonstrate that breast-fed children show better cognitive development â€¦ Some of these advantagesâ€”enhanced immunity, for exampleâ€”require that breast-feeding continue for three to six months. Others have little basis in scientific data.
According to Badinter, â€śthe Society of French Pediatrics has published the most objective report on the subject, pointing out areas of uncertainty and bias.â€ť
That kind of information is useful to readers who know nothing, or next to nothing, about the current medical consensus surrounding parenting, attached or otherwise. Unfortunately, the science discussed inÂ Time andÂ Harperâ€™s was absent from the outcry of the last few days.
A spirited discussion about the latest research on parenting no doubt occurred on parenting blogs and forums, but anybody who is unfamiliar with that corner of the cyberwoods and lacks the inclination to wander inâ€”a reasonable positionâ€”would be at a loss. In the mainstream media all anybody seemed to care about as whether or not an attractive young woman suckling her son was too much for the cover of a national newsweekly.
That debateâ€”about the line between effective and exploitativeâ€”matters, too, but certainly not as much as the one about how to raise a healthy kid. The critics missed that.