The Psychology Behind Parenting Methods

Attachment, parent-led or winging-it: which method is right for you?

Breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding, sleep routine vs no routine, stay-at-home mums vs working mums: parenting is fraught with dichotomies. As a result, new parents can feel as though every decision they make comes with a label and places them firmly in one of two polarised camps.

It’s not surprising then that the literature on baby parenting methods tends to be divided broadly into two opposing factions: baby-led vs parent-led.

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There is also the danger that by subscribing to a prescriptive set of rules (or, in the case of attachment parenting, beliefs) you could be setting yourself up for a fall. What if you fail to adhere to the criteria because, for instance, you’ve only had two hours’ sleep or you’ve got mastitis? Pressure on parents is tough enough as it is.

But being faced with an infinite number of choices when you’re dealing with a crying baby on zero sleep can be a daunting prospect, which is perhaps why latching on to a tried-and-tested method can be so appealing.

They say that babies don’t come with an instruction manual but the reality is there are hundreds of instruction manuals out there – and if following one could take the decision making out of your hands, why wouldn’t you got there?

Arming yourself with scientific research findings and reading up on tried-and-tested ideas and approaches can certainly act as a helpful guide when you’re at a loss. But it’s important to look at both sides of the arguments if you want to make well-informed decisions. And ultimately, it’s up to you as a parent to do what feels right for you, your baby and your family.

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Attachment parenting

What is it? The cornerstones of attachment parenting – also known as baby-led parenting – are holding your baby close, long-term breastfeeding (on demand), never leaving your baby to cry and co-sleeping at night.

Developed in the 1980s by the American paediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha, attachment parenting (AP) is based on the importance of promoting a close relationship between mother and baby. The idea is that a secure, trusting attachment to parents during infanthood lays the foundation for secure relationships and independence as adults.

The method has been gaining popularity ever since, spawning the official organisation Attachment Parenting International (API), established in 1994, Attachment Parenting UK (APUK) in 2012, and hundreds of online groups and forums dedicated to the cause.

What are the benefits? There is a huge raft of evidence to support the benefits of baby-led approaches. Researchers have found that both mothers who are physically close to their babies (wearing them in a sling) and those who are emotionally available are more likely to have securely attached children.

A 2012 study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) also found that children who were fed on demand as babies had higher IQs and fared better in Sats tests at ages five, seven, 11 and 14.

However, the same study also found that mothers who stuck to scheduled feeding times scored better on wellbeing measures, reporting feeling more confident and less tearful.

Why the controversy? Although few would argue with the idea that a close bond with your child is the foundation of good parenting, one of the main arguments levelled at attachment parenting is that it fails to take into consideration the many factors that can affect the way a mother reacts to her child’s needs, such as her own emotional state, her personal circumstances and the particular nature or needs of her baby. By focusing on the research that supports AP, there is an implication that mothers who don’t follow these principles are at best inadequate, at worst neglectful or even implicitly abusive. This can leave non-AP mothers feeling judged and guilt-laden.

Parent-led scheduling

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What is it? In contrast to attachment parenting, parent-led scheduling, as the name suggests, puts parents in control of the agenda. The parents set the baby’s timetable – feed times, nap times, play time and bedtime – and ensure it’s adhered to consistently.

One of the best known advocates of parent-led scheduling is British maternity nurse Gina Ford, who caused a storm of controversy when she released her regimented, hard line parenting manual (with the not-so hard-line sounding name) The Contented Little Baby Book. The book promotes a daily routine for both the baby and the parents, with the day divided up into very precise five-minute slots.

What are the benefits? The idea behind parent-led scheduling is that consistency and routine can help babies to regulate their internal clock and give them the structure they need. The idea is that your baby should be able to sleep through the night by eight to 10 weeks and that you are able to plan your day around your baby’s routines.

Ford argues that parents who feed on-demand are at risk of misinterpreting their babies’ cries and failing to see the true source of the problem. She also claims that waking your baby in the night to feed at regular intervals safeguards against underfeeding.

What’s with the controversy? Gina Ford has come under plenty of criticism. She even has a page on her website dedicated to her responses to it. One of the biggest controversies around the Gina Ford method is that you can’t always respond to your baby when she cries with a recommendation that your leave her to cry for a total of an hour each day. Many parents believe this is cruel and unnatural. Conversely, a 2016 study conducted by researchers at Flinders University, Australia found that controlled-crying improved sleep patterns without causing any emotional harm - although the study was too small to draw any definitive conclusions.

Making it work

When it comes to parenting there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And despite the emphasis on these two extreme ends of the parenting spectrum, most parents will admit they are just making it up as they go along, somewhere in the middle. It’s not about sticking to someone else’s rules, it’s about making it work for you and learning from your own mistakes.