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It’s Not the Breastfeeding That’s Wrong; It’s the Indulgence

Why your happiness is more important.

Attachment parenting – and especially the extended breastfeeding that goes with it – has everyone talking today after Time magazine featured a cover photo of a mother breastfeeding her nearly 4-year-old son. Yes, breastfeeding for that long is a little weird, but that’s not the main thing wrong with this picture.

Attachment parenting, which also involves baby-wearing and co-sleeping, with kids and parents in the same bed, has enjoyed a resurgence lately. The problem: There is virtually no research to support it.

Yes, kids need to be attached to their parents, but that can be done without having tiny feet in your back when you’re trying to sleep. Yes, it’s “natural” because this is (we think) the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors raised their babies. But just because it’s natural and historic does not make it right or best. It is also “natural” for many babies and young children to die of disease. It’s "natural" for starvation to always be just around the corner, and for women to be second-class citizens. These things were all as common as attachment parenting during our hunter-gatherer past.

So why turn to attachment parenting now? Proponents say it’s best for children, and that they grow up to be better-adjusted. It’s not at all clear that that’s true. If attachment parenting goes hand in hand with indulgence – letting the child run the household – that could instead be a recipe for narcissism. When we reviewed the literature on parenting and narcissism for The Narcissism Epidemic, the most common pattern was overindulgent parenting (overpraising, putting the child on a pedestal, permissiveness, and little discipline) leading to narcissism later in life.

But, as my new favorite book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids points out, such parenting effects are small. As twin and adoption studies show, most things parents wish for (intelligence, good health, good character) are determined much more by genetics than by parenting differences, especially within one culture. So whether your parenting tends toward attachment or its alternative will probably have only a small effect, if any, on how your kids turn out.

But your parenting will make a big difference in your life and whether you are happy. If you can’t sleep because your kid is in your bed, you will not be happy. If you can’t return to a job you like because you feel you have to breastfeed your toddler, you will not be happy. If your kids are wild and destructive because you’ve decided to give them everything they want, you will not be happy.

And as the saying goes, If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.

I am not suggesting that parents stop sacrificing for their kids. When you're taking care of a baby (as I happen to be right now), her needs for sleep and food come before yours. For me, that means that I can't go shopping or out to lunch and expect her to nap in her stroller: At almost four months, she wants to sleep in her crib. And when she's hungry, I breastfeed her. But she doesn't sleep in my bed (I wouldn't be able to sleep), I don't wear her (my bad back would last about 20 minutes), and I'm not her human pacifier (breastfeeding is for food, which means every two to three hours, and not every time she cries).

Giving her what she needs without overindulging or oversacrificing is what makes her a happy baby and me a happy mother.

And that's the best Mother's Day present ever.