I recently posted a picture on EP’s facebook wall of myself at the dentist with my daughter.  In the photo, she’s breastfeeding while I was getting my teeth cleaned.  You see, she had an appointment first because she broke a tooth and it was starting to look darker and they managed to get her in with my own appointment and her father’s.  We knew the appointment would be at her semi-usual naptime (she’s still variable) and that my husband and my appointments would overlap thirty minutes, but my insurance stops at the end of April and we wanted to get her in ASAP so we went for it.  (At previous appointments, she would hang with dad while I went in and then vice versa.)  She didn’t love having things in her mouth, but I will say she did a great job considering.  However, at the end of her appointment, she was tired and stressed and wouldn’t take to dad for comfort.  She was sad and asking for breastmilk, knowing herself that was what she needed to feel better.  Our dentist said it was no problem to feed her while I got my teeth cleaned, so that’s what we did.  She was unbelievably calm and content and eventually fell asleep on me before the cleaning was over.  My husband took a picture and out of joy over how amazing my dentist is, I shared it on the EP facebook page.  And by and large people at least enjoyed the picture, even if what I did wasn’t for them (which I don’t imagine it would be for many people).  Some kept going on about the dangers with it, though given my dentist wasn’t at all concerned, I see no reason they should be.  Some thought it was rude and disrespectful to the dentist, though I don’t know why when she encouraged it and we spent the time talking about how amazing breastfeeding is.  And then came the comments about how my daughter is old enough to learn she can’t have what she wants and that she should have waited; that by doing this I must be the type of parent who will praise everything she does and set no boundaries; that I will have a 30-year-old living in the basement because she can’t function in the world.  Frankly, I’m amazed people got there from a picture of a 21-month-old breastfeeding at the dentist, but apparently my daughter’s life is now etched out before her and it’s a bleak future indeed.

But the problem with these comments (beyond the obvious that they’re simply ridiculous given what little evidence of our lives is out there) is that they presuppose that responding to a child’s needs equates with “anything goes” parenting and that simply could not be further from the truth.  There may be people claiming to be attachment parents who are actually permissive parents, but the fact remains they aren’t the same thing at all; however, I know that the mainstream view of attachment parenting tends to miss some of the finer distinctions.

So what are the differences?  What is attachment or evolutionary parenting about that distinguishes it from permissive parenting or even harsher parenting?

Responding to Needs vs Responding to Wants

This seems to be the biggest problem when distinguishing between attachment style parenting and permissive parenting.  In the 60s and 70s there was a huge wave of permissive parenting, with new parents rebelling against the stricter upbringings they had by letting anything go.  That’s not attachment parenting.  Attachment parenting is based on evolutionary, biological, and psychological evidence that children who thrive have a strong attachment to their primary (and other) caregivers.  Attachment defines our relationships with others and can be positive or negative.  In running various research studies and utilizing anthropological research, various scholars have discovered that the primary component of attachment parenting is to respond to your child’s needs, particularly when the child is in distress (for evidence and reviews of evidence, see [1][2][3]).  It’s important to note that when our child has a need—whether it be for comfort, food, water, warmth, etc.—we are not “spoiling” them by giving in.  We all have needs and we thrive when these needs are met.

But needs and wants are different.  Giving in to whatever your child wants (once they’re old enough to be able to distinguish between the two, which is typically well after a year, though it varies) can lead to the child who expects the world on a platter without ever having to put work in.  How do you decide if it’s a need or a want?  It’s not just what they’re looking for (though generally we can assume a cookie or a new toy is always a want), but also the context in which it takes place.  First, people forget that humans, and especially children, have psychological needs that must be met.  They need to feel loved, safe, and secure, and know that when they’re scared, upset, or sad, that they can go to whom they need to go to for comfort.  Using my daughter at the dentist example, she was upset and needed to be comforted.  Some might say she didn’t need breastmilk, she simply wanted it, but in her sadness and upset she asked for breastmilk.  Now, physically she didn’t need the breastmilk, but psychologically, she needed to nurse to feel better.  Does this mean I drop anything to nurse her when she asks?  No, not at all.  Many times a day she’ll ask to nurse and I’ll tell her she has to wait until I’m finished whatever it is I’m doing—laundry, dishes, writing—and she’s okay with that.  She goes off to do something else until I’m done and then she nurses.  But in a moment when she’s upset and needing some comfort, she has learned what helps her calm down and will ask for it; in short, she’s asking for help.

The same goes for other wants.  She doesn’t get candy just because she wants it.  She doesn’t get the toys she wants.  She’s not allowed to just grab whatever from whomever.  The list goes on.  But as a responsive parent, I have learned to understand my daughter and I know when she needs something versus just wanting it.  If you don’t learn to understand your child, then that distinction will be blurred and you’ll find yourself veering on being too harsh or too lenient because you either set boundaries that ignore needs or boundaries that include all wants.

Learning to Self-Soothe or Accept Alternatives

I’ve written an entire post on the myth of early self-soothing, so I won’t repeat myself on that, but instead focus on the idea of self-soothing or comforting past infancy.  First, let it be known that emotion regulation happens gradually over years, starting in the second year of life (for a review, see [4]), so to assume that a two or three or four year old will have all the skills necessary to regulate their emotions on their own is simply incorrect.  In fact, I would argue that as adults we aren’t always able to regulate our own emotions without help, so why should we put that burden on children with far less experience and brain maturation?

Importantly for the current discussion though, one of the first ways in which toddlers learn to regulate their emotions comes from interactions with others[5], suggesting that “self-soothing” is actually a process that involves other individuals.  From a developmental point of view, it’s not surprising.  Toddlers have learned that others are a source of comfort and thus will work to elicit that comfort from them.  In the case of my daughter and the dentist, she was upset and while some could say she should have been happy with her dad, this was not one of those days—she needed mom and she needed milk to calm down (just as there are days and times she wants dad).  Frankly I think the fact that she knew what she needed to be a sign of her realizing how to help herself, even if it did come from me.  As a human being myself, I understand that: Sometimes I need to speak to a particular friend when feeling down, or better yet, sometimes I really need a hug from or to be held by my husband.  If he were to offer me a handshake or tell me to go to someone else, I’d be a little let down and it probably wouldn’t help me feel better.  So she knew what she needed and asked, and because we could offer it to her at that moment, we did.

This isn’t to say that toddlers don’t have methods of emotion regulation that don’t include others – they certainly do.  Some toddlers will display efforts to distract themselves during frustrating episodes, but one of the important things the research suggests is that they do better at these self-regulating behaviours when they have social support present[6].  Specifically, it has been found that a toddler’s ability to successfully self-distract is greater when there is social support available (in this case, an adult acting normally, even if the behaviour isn’t targeted to helping the child cope) as opposed to no social support or the presence of an adult who has been told not to engage with the child and sit back passively but to be there physically.  Furthermore, independent of whether or not an adult is there, children with mothers who display more positive affect towards their children have toddlers who are better able to regulate their emotions than those without such positive affect[7].

Because evolutionary parenting takes its cues from what we have evolved to handle, I hope it’s not surprising that I would be highly conscious of what my daughter is able to handle at a given point.   I accept that her asking for comfort from me is her way of regulating her own emotions.  In fairness, she never had a tantrum or anything, she was simply sad and trying to contain it while asking for breastmilk.  As her mother, I could see her efforts to keep her emotions in check while asking for what she needed.  This is what attached parents do over and over again.  Although many people may see these responses as being too lenient, I have to say that’s simply wrong – these are parents who know exactly where their children are developmentally and they are able to response appropriately.  They aren’t too harsh and they aren’t too lenient.  It’s just right for their child.

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[1] Bell SM, Ainsworth MSD. Infant crying and maternal responsiveness.  Child Development 1972; 43: 1171-1190.

[2] Ainsworth MDS. The development of infant-mother attachment. In BM Caldwell & HN Ricciutti (Eds.), Review of child development research 1973 (Volume 3, pp 1-94); Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Grusec JE, Davidov M. Integrating different perspectives on socialization theory and research: A domain-specific approach. Child Development 2010; 81: 687-709.

[4] Cole PM, Martin SE, Dennis TA. Emotion regulation as a scientific construct: methodological challenges and directions for child development research.  Child Development 2004; 75: 317-33.

[5] Diener ML, Mangelsdorff SC.  Behavior strategies for emotion regulation in toddlers: associations with maternal involvement and emotional expressions.  Infant Behavior and Development 1999; 22: 569-83.

[6] Grolnick WS, Bridges LJ, Connell JP.  Emotion regulation in two-year-olds: strategies and emotional expression in four contexts.  Child Development 1996; 67: 928-41.

[7] Garner PW.  Toddlers’ emotion regulation behaviors: the roles of social context and family expressiveness.  The Journal of Genetic Psychology 1995; 4: 417-30.