in which i leave the cult of attachment parenting.

There is kindness in Love; but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness…is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object — we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they suffer. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled; the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition, are punished. It is people for whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms; with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.

-C.S. Lewis, The Intolerable Compliment, The Business of Heaven

This post  has been a long time coming. I normally try to keep things as light and airy as angel food cake over here, but for today I’ll make things a bit more like pound cake. I am not sure where the cake metaphors are coming from, except that I just had cake, but it was a birthday cake and neither angel food nor pound cake. I like cake. Anyway. I digress.

You may be wondering what I mean with my title and the C.S. Lewis quote. Before I explain I want to say that I have many friends (in real life and over the internet) who subscribe to an attachment-style philosophy of parenting. When I call it a “cult” in my title I mean my adherence to the “letter of the law” of attachment parenting, and the guilt I felt when I strayed. I do not mean to imply that parents who choose this style of parenting are in a cult. OK. Disclaimer over.

Before I had Sam, I told myself I’d never do certain things with my kids. I’d never let him have a crusty nose. I’d never let him wear Crocs. And I’d never let him cry himself to sleep. Well, he has had a crusty nose on more than one occasion, he’ll likely wear Crocs this summer, and last night he did cry himself to sleep.

Before you start sending me links to all the articles about how horrible cry-it-out is, and recommend I read No Cry Sleep Solution, let me first say to save it. I know. I’ve read everything about cry-it-out, and I think it is far from the best “sleep solution” out there. On some level it does seem cruel and heartless. I’ve read, and re-read, dog-earred, and highlighted, and done NCSS. We did see some improvement when we did what it said; a bedtime routine and set bedtime helped Sam go to sleep predictably and easily. We transitioned him from sleeping only in bed with us and while touching someone to his own crib and his own room over a matter of weeks with the helpful suggestions of the book. So, NCSS wasn’t a total loss.

However, nothing we have done has helped Sam not wake up every 2-3 hours all night long, even though NCSS said he would.

We took it a step further and tried the somewhat gentler version of Ferber in Jodi Mindell’s Sleeping Through the Night. Didn’t work, even after doing it for 2 months. Sam had simply learned that if we cried for long enough, we’d eventually come in. And after an entire year of never sleeping for more than 3 hours at a time (or, very rarely when he randomly would go 4 hours), things were not good. Not good at all. I was a wreck. My house was a wreck. My marriage, dare I say, was a wreck. And I knew that something needed to be done. I really did not want to do cry-it-out. Please let me reiterate that I had read everything about it and had set my heart as dead-set against it.  But, over time, I started to question a few things about attachment parenting in general, and specifically, in regards to sleep.

I tend to be pretty baby-led in most things. Sam has always nursed on demand, and we did (and are doing) baby-led weaning with him. However, it’s not like he was able to do whatever he wanted with those things. If he bit me while nursing, I’d stop the nursing session and put him down. When we offered him solids, we’d offer him healthy, nutritious foods.  So, it wasn’t truly baby-led, in the truest sense. I took charge as his mom because as an adult, I know better of what he needs than he does. I can listen to his desires, but it is up to me as his parent to determine whether those are legitimate needs or not.  The overwhelming sense I got from attachment parenting philosophy was that infants and children knew what they needed better than anyone, and it was our job as parents to listen to what they needed and give it to them. Over time, I started to doubt the truthfulness of that approach.

Proverbs 22:15 says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” I started to think about that in terms of Sam’s sleep. If I placed a framework around him in terms of nursing (i.e. no biting, we lie still, we don’t pinch, we don’t twiddle, we don’t put our feet in Mama’s face, etc), eating solids (i.e. healthy foods, as opposed to, oh…cake), and life in general (we don’t touch the lamp, or the electrical outlets even with plugs in them), why wouldn’t I create a framework with sleep? If folly is bound up in Sam’s heart (which I believe is true, as he was born with a sin nature), then can he really know what is best for him when it comes to sleep? Maybe some kids just sleep when they are tired. I did. My mom and dad would be like, “Where is Alissa?” and look around to find me in my bed, voluntarily taking a nap, at age 3.  Sam, it seems, is not a child who will just go to sleep when he is tired. He needs an adult who cares for him to step in and tell him when it is time to sleep.

I know some might argue that there are much gentler ways to teach Sam to sleep other than cry-it-out, and let me just say that we have tried them. All of them. I thought maybe he was sensitive to something in my diet so I cut out dairy to see if that helped him sleep longer (it didn’t). I thought maybe his pajamas were uncomfortable so we switched to cotton to see if that helped (it didn’t). We put a cool mist vaporizer in his room because I thought maybe the air was too dry to see if that helped (it didn’t). We tried giving him a big dinner to see if that helped (it didn’t). We created a bedtime routine and a set bedtime, which helped him go to sleep initially but didn’t stop the night waking. We tried putting him down drowsy but awake, which all the books said was the trick to stopping night waking. We tried chiropractic adjustments. We tried graduated extinction (i.e. Ferber, Mindell, et al) We tried literally everything, everything all the sleep books could throw at us, everything the internet could suggest, and nothing, NOTHING, helped him sleep longer than 2-3 hours.

Nothing, of course, except hardcore cry-it-out.

The very thought is repulsive to me. It is. But, I had to ask myself, which is worse: a few nights that really, really suck, or having a crazy, sleep-deprived mama who yells alot and bursts into tears randomly? A few nights of crying, or having his parents’ marriage fail because they were so tired and overextended and sad and grumpy all the time? It really was coming to that, folks. Things were not good around here.

In the end, we decided that we had exhausted all other options. Well, besides just continuing to function on 2 hours of sleep at a time for years until he decided to just sleep through the night magically.

I realize that deciding to do cry-it-out with my kid pretty much excludes me from the attachment parenting lunch table from now on. I’ll have to sit by myself in the mommyblog cafeteria and eat my organic, free-range chicken salad on sprouted whole wheat bread sandwich in isolation. It makes me kind of sad, being somewhere between the crunchy mamas and the not-so-crunchy mamas, because this is far from the only time in my life where I have felt I didn’t quite fit in any group. I liked belonging to something, which I think was partially my attraction to attachment parenting anyway. But it took me a while to realize also that my adherence to attachment parenting was an idol in my life.

Was I more committed to attachment parenting and what the moms on MotheringDotCommunity thought of me than I was to the well-being of my marriage and family? Was I out to prove to the world that I had “figured out” this whole mothering business and that everyone else was doing it wrong? It took me a while to realize that I was sticking with a failing experiment, something that attachment-parenting guru Dr. Bill Sears advocates against himself! All because I was too proud to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, didn’t have it all figured it out. As my friend Catherine points out on her awesome blog,

Methods are useful when they help you achieve your greater goals for your family. They are harmful when you find yourself serving the method rather than your family, or relying on a method more than you rely on God. It takes humility to admit that you’re on the wrong course and make a change.

I was relying more on a method than on God. And what’s funny is that God knows and loves my child even more than I do, and He made me Sam’s mama, faults and all.

At the end of the day, I do care about how Sam turns out. I don’t want him to suffer (to go back to the C.S. Lewis quote I mentioned, oh, eons ago), but I think he will suffer more having an insane mom and a grumpy dad than being left to figure it out and go to sleep on his own for a few nights.

As Sam’s mom I am called to more than mere kindness. Which means, of course, that I will have to make hard choices. I have a feeling that this one won’t be the last.


34 responses to “in which i leave the cult of attachment parenting.

  1. Great post. We must be kindred spirits. I vowed against crusty noses, crocs and crying it out myself (along with a few other things). Our son Cian slept through the night the 3rd night of letting him cry. I guess that means I’ll be joining you at the in-between table.

  2. Great post, Alissa. I’ll sit at your lunch table. I think there are more moms somewhere on the continuum between totally crunchy and totally not crunchy than you might think. It’s just that the totally moms from both sides are more vocal. Like the mamas who reamed me out on a natural childbirth board after I had Hannah totally naturally but said I thought pushing was terrifying. Apparently you’re only allowed to say it’s empowering or you’re out. Sigh. That sort of thing has happened to me more than once, and I think you’re handling things with much more grace and aplomb than I usually do.

    I hope Sam sleeps through very very soon. It’s a tough call and very hard.

  3. I’m definitely at your lunch table, too, though you’ll not want to look at the processed food I’ll be bringing to it or I’ll get dis-invited.

    I’m proud of you.

  4. Oh, and I’ll take responsibility for the potential that Sam might wear Crocs, so that’s not on your head.

  5. I think it’s true that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. Even if you want to do things a certain way, maybe your child won’t respond. It’s hard to “give up” and do something differently when you don’t necessarily agree with it in principle. That said, parenting is full of surprises. One thing that helped me a lot when we were doing CIO was reminding myself that we were allowing Mia to learn an important life skill – self-soothing. Going to her whenever she cried out or made a noise would not let her learn that. She would only rely on us, and our ultimate goal is for our children to be independent. Sometimes that has to start earlier than any of us would like. I’m glad that you have found the strength to do it. I think that it will really help your life and your marriage and your general outlook on everything. Sleep is amazing for that! 🙂 Also…even if you are doing CIO…you are still the crunchiest parent I know! 😉

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Thanks Kira! I agree with you on the self-soothing — how annoying would be it to have to rely on someone or something else to get back to sleep all the time? it was almost like he was in bondage to needing to be rocked or nursed back to sleep. i think this is more freeing for all of us.

  6. Great post Alissa!

    I also fit in with that lunch table. It took me a while to see I fit there also. We have found that Michaela won’t go back to sleep unless I nurse her constantly (not the best option anymore!) or we CIO to get back to sleep. We have to lay there next to her and hold her down but I think barring sickness it is getting easier. We also spank in love. It is the only method we have found to actually work with her personality and we don’t have to spank that often either and it is better than flying of the handle at her for throwing fits and not listening. It was a hard decision to come to but I had some wiser older Christian families disciple me in how to do it in a godly manner. I think the world’s philosophies sound good to our flesh but in the end they lead to death. Being a parent isn’t easy at all. Lots of tough decisions but we do as you point out have to remember that our children have a sinful nature that needs to be pruned with loving discipline and the Word of God.

    Anyways. Thanks for sharing this post it is right on and I do hope that the CIO phase doesn’t have to last long for you all. It is TOUGH! I know as last night Michaela was up at 1,3 and 4am!

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Oh I know what you mean about spanking. At first I was kind of against it, but I was reading the book of Proverbs and was struck by how many times Scripture references “the rod” in terms of child-rearing. Of course spanking must never be done in anger and is not punitive. There is a right way and a wrong way to spank. Right now I am struggling with how to get Sam to understand that when I tell him “No” I’m not kidding! It’s really tough. Have you read “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” by Tedd Tripp? It’s a really good book. I also have found this web site helpful:

      • Yeah, it really is a heart thing to make sure I spank in love and for the right reasons…but that is good for me to be thinking about throughout the day anyways! I keep telling myself that spanking is training not punishment. It has helped a lot because she really is more eager to obey since she knows that there is consequences otherwise.

        I need to read Tripp’s book. I have heard great things about it!

        Oh I hadn’t seen that website! Just read some from it. Wow, it’s great! Thanks.

  7. You know, I’ve always said that if attachment parenting is about doing what’s best for your kids then there comes a time when CIO *IS* attachment parenting!

    FWIW, I let my 1st CIO at 4mo. I’ve regretted it ever since. I’ve taken a much more relaxed approach with my other 3 (the youngest is 4.5mo, and the sleep deprivation is already killing me), and I wait until they’re about a year old to CIO. It ends up coming to that every time, but when they’re old enough to understand, “That’s enough. It’s bedtime,” then I don’t think CIO is as horrible as we make it out to be. As a mom, I know when that moment is with each of my kids, when suddenly they’re MAD AT ME rather than heartbroken that no one’s coming when they cry.

    I’m no good at this infant sleep thing, and it makes me sad that it’ll probably come time to CIO for this one too, but you know what, I’m confident she’ll come out unscathed!

    Thanks for sharing, from another in-between momma who has had three natural births (1 VBAC) but only breastfeeds until 1 yr and who limits sugar most days but picks up McDonald’s for lunch at least once a week!

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Thanks, Mandi, for stopping by! I totally agree with you — CIO is completely different when it’s a tiny baby who has no idea what’s going on or why no one is coming to get them (like Babywise) vs. a 1-year old who can understand that bedtime means bedtime. I think if I ever have another kid (which is possible) I will probably wait until he or she is an older infant before trying any sleep training.

  8. I found this post via Passionate Homemaker, and I just wanted to take a minute to encourage you. This is a great post, and you are doing a wonderful job with your little Sam.

    I am a follower of Christ and mother of four whose youngest is going to turn 11 next week. The most important parenting lesson I have learned is that parenting is a great way to show us our own idols. You are wise to allow yourself to see that so early in your parenting journey.

    I hope you don’t mind this comment from someone who has never seen your blog before. 🙂 It was meant to be encouraging.

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Thank you! Your comment was encouraging to me. You’re totally right — God uses parenting to show us where are our hearts are not in sync with His.

  9. GREAT post! With all four of our kids we took the “Do-what-works-for-us” approach. Unfortunately that usually put us in the middle of two schools of thought but it didn’t really matter because it really did work! I love how you talked about taking responsibility as the parents…again, GREAT job!

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      thanks! i tend to be kind of a rule-follower, so doing whatever works is scary for me. but i think that’s what i’ll end up doing, more often than not.

  10. Thanks for your honesty in your post. We had to eventually do the cry it out method too. But the book “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” by Marc Weissbluth, M.D. really helped. It’s also helped since then with nap struggles. It might be helpful for you too.

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Yes, that was one of the many books I read when trying to figure it out. I think with my next kid I might re-read it. Thanks!

  11. When you started CIO, you felt it would be best for Sam because he needs well-rested parents, and that is true. But I see in the comments section maybe a realization that Sam needed it for himself – the skill of self-soothing. But Sam also needed something else: a good night’s sleep, just like you! Which brings me to another comment, about not doing CIO until a baby is older, because of thinking a younger baby doesn’t understand as well. In my opinion, that is overestimating the older baby, because a one-year-old doesn’t understand his need for sleep any better than a one-month-old. And it is underestimating the younger baby, because the younger baby can learn those sleep skills just as well as the older baby and probably more quickly, and then be a well-rested baby from then on. I have no problems, though, with parents who want to soothe their children back to sleep. I just think most parents begin doing it, not realizing that they are making a long-term commitment to continue or face going through the awful stage you described.
    I love many of the ideas of natural and attachment parenting – I had all my six babies natural, carried them in a sling, nursed them until they weaned themselves (14-18 months), and felt no qualms about bringing them to bed with me when I felt it best for all of us. However, as you beautifully stated, mama knows best! And it seems to me that Sam (and whatever other little ones you may have) is blest to have a mama who loves him enough to meet his needs for emotional security as well as his need for boundaries.

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Hi Janet,
      what I meant about doing CIO with an older baby vs. a younger baby is that a younger baby has no sense of object permanence and understands very little language. So putting them in a dark room by themselves after saying “It’s bedtime, go to sleep” means very little…they probably don’t understand their need for sleep any more than a 1-year old does, but a 1-year old does have object permanence (i.e. knows that mom still exists even when she is out of sight) and can understand a simple phrase like “Go to sleep, it’s bedtime.” when Sam cries now, i know he’s not crying a terrified cry of abandonment and confusion; he is crying because he’s mad he’s in his crib and he has to go to sleep and stop playing. so, i guess i should say that while i think CIO is okay with an older baby, i do not advocate cry-it-out methods for very, very young babies (which programs like Babywise suggest). and most sleep books say that sleep training can begin when a baby is around 6 months.

      another reason i think i would wait to encourage sleeping through the night in a very young baby is milk supply. i think that, especially in the first 6 months of life, a baby is growing so much that they are physically hungry at night and do need to eat around the clock to thrive. i think that encouraging very young babies to sleep through the night by 8-9 weeks can adversely affect milk supply, as the mom’s milk supply is still growing at that point. once the baby is on solids, and not taking as much nutrition from mom, it makes sense that they could go longer at night without adversely affecting the breastfeeding relationship.

  12. Hey! I’m new to your blog … I found this post via Lindsey over at Passionate Homemaking. OH MY GOODNESS, you blessed my very soul with this post this morning! I have a beautiful 12 month old daughter … she is smart and energetic and generally a happy baby, but we have STRUGGLED with sleeping! She inherited her need to be awake as much as possible from her mommy. 🙂 I have been dealing with so much guilt over CIO, but like you, I tried the crying 5 minutes, going in to comfort method. I tried the establishing bedtime routine method. She’s usually good about going to sleep initially, but then wakes up every 3 to 4 hours all night long and screams until we pick her up.

    The thing about “cry 5 minutes and then go in to comfort” method that did NOT work for us was that she is SMART and she learned that if she held out and screamed, we’d eventually give in. I fully agree that younger infants aren’t able to understand why they’re being left to CIO, but TRUST ME, I know my daughter and I’ve learned to tell the difference between sad, lonely crying and angry-at-mommy screaming!

    The thing that makes this the most difficult has been friends and family members who religiously advocate ALWAYS picking up a baby who cries, no matter how old they are and think it’s wrong to let babies and young children sleep in their own beds. Co-sleeping and 2 hour feedings worked for us for the first few months, but after that it became a nightmare for everyone involved. It’s so difficult to stand up for what you know as a parent is best for your individual child. THANK YOU SO MUCH for the encouragement and you can sit at my semi-crunchy lunch table anytime you want! 🙂

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      I’m so glad I could encourage you! It really is a hard choice to make, especially in the face of opposition. I never knew before I had kids how many different strong opinions I’d get from so many different angles! I wasn’t really sure that CIO was the best for Sam, but I did know that having a happy, not crazy, well-rested mama was in his best interest. 🙂 I wasn’t able to be the mom I wanted to be when I was so exhausted and unhappy all the time.

  13. Found your blog through Lindsay at PH. Love your transparency and I think there are more moms out there in this situation…you are one of the few who will admit it.

    I’ll be at your table too…I had one child all natural, one with an epidural. One was breast-fed, one was on formula. We eat majority whole foods but love Chick-fil-a!


    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Well, that’s because Chick-Fil-A is awesome.

      Thanks for stopping by! I think I’m starting to realize that most people are in the middle somewhere. Which is a huge relief.

  14. Update: we found that moving our daughter into a portable crib set up in our living room where she couldn’t see or hear us really cut down on the middle of the night waking and crying. She’s been sleeping in a crib in our room since she was born. It seems that if she can’t see us, she is more agreeable to sleeping!

  15. I think it’s good you noted that your child was much older when you began sleep training. At that point, it really isn’t considered CIO. I would never recommend CIO in any circumstances ever; but sometimes for toddlers it becomes an obedience issue and at that time it is necessary to train them. I figured my kids would let me know when it was that time, and now they are good sleepers at 8 and 4. Eventually they learned to go to sleep on their own and are perfect sleepers, I didn’t do anything special for them though I was tempted to as one woke up every 3 hours ’round the clock until she was 2 years old!

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      Thanks for your comment! I think you’re right — it does become an obedience issue when they are old enough to understand what is going on, and old enough to resist. I really wish I could have waited it out, as I knew he had to sleep eventually, but things were getting rather dire, and I felt that letting him cry was the best situation when taking into account my sanity and ability to function. If I could have functioned normally on so little sleep (and some moms can), I probably would have waited it out.

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to imply I was well-functioning 😉 or that it was easy or fun. It wasn’t. It was a crucible that tested my mettle, but ultimately led me to depend more fully on God because I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own. It was a good time of character building and learning to wait on God for Him to supply my needs, not depending on my own strength but on His.

        On the flip side, I ALSO didn’t mean to imply you did something wrong or anything like that. I was just sharing my experience, which is nothing more than MY experience. 🙂 I have no doubt that you did exactly what was needed for you and your little one! Every kid, every parent, every family is different. I hope you didn’t take my comment that way, but I wasn’t sure so I thought I’d clarify!!

      • Again, I really hope I didn’t make you feel judged or guilty or anything. I thought it was really admirable that you did everything you could, most people would have given up right away. And like I said, he was older and it seemed, from what you wrote, that he was having issues allowing himself to self-soothe. It sounds to me, from what you wrote, that you did the best thing for all involved, and that it was done in a very loving and thoughtful manner!

  16. Pingback: toddlers scare me. « birkel family life.

  17. Is there room for me at your “lonesome” table? Your post almost makes me feel lucky that my planned-home-waterbirth-turned-emergency-csection sort of booted me from the cult right from the get-go. The crunchies are fairly uncomfortable around a not-so-triumphant birth story. They clam up, but when they do finally feel at liberty to talk to you, they suggest what your midwives, your husband, your doula, your parents, your dog or second cousin twice removed should have done differently so you could have avoided this. No one did anything wrong. Birth didn’t quite work for me. Trust Birth? I blame birth. And since, I’ve seen that a lot of the other AP sacraments have serious design flaws for me as well. Breastfeeding has been a miserable experience, and I’m proud of the 5 months I’ve put in, but if you tell me I must continue until he self-weans at age 7 I will tell you where you can shove my medela.

    I was so brainwashed. Letting it all go.

    • Tim and Alissa Birkel

      *hugs* i appreciate your honesty, and i am sorry that your birth and breastfeeding weren’t what you wanted or expected.

      you are absolutely right that sometimes things happen that are out of of control, and as mothers we just have to do what is best for us and for our kids with what we have been given.

      thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

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