Good-Enough Attachment Parenting

TIME_20120521_CV1_685150_C1Time's controversial article on attachment parenting sparked a backlash: It is impossible for most parents to achieve the ideal of close to 24-hour-a-day physical connection to their baby. That doesn't negate the value of learning to mother and father in a way that gives your baby the best start in life: a system bathed in oxytocin.

As I wrote in Oxytocin Parenting, Donald Winnicutt came up with the idea of the "good-enough mother." He believed that not only do mothers -- and fathers -- not need to be perfect, there may be value in the times when we screw up as parents, maybe by being short-tempered or not able to respond immediately to a baby's cries.

As long as we can consistently meet a baby's needs for security, physical connection, being seen and being fed, we can achieve a secure bond and shape the baby's oxytocin response in a healthy way.

Oxytocin Parenting adds to the concepts of attachment parenting by explaining how the way we parent shapes a baby's neural pathways and his or her ability to respond to opportunities for safe connection in a healthy way.

Janice D'Arcy of the Washington Post sums up the controversy and calls for a more nuanced approach to the idea of attachment parenting -- although she seems to imply that attachment parenting means literally being physically attached to your baby, via breastfeeding, co-sleeping, etc.

Everyone can achieve a good-enough version of attachment parenting, even if your baby is in daycare, even if your baby was adopted, even if you aren't breastfeeding. Let's not throw out the attachment with the bathwater.

Rewriting Parenting for Kids with RAD and ODD - Free Webinar

Bryan Post is a psychologist who does ground-breaking work with families of kids who have severe behavior problems, mostly as the result of early trauma from adoption or spending time in the foster system. 

His approach takes into account the dynamics of the whole family, recognizing that a parent's anger or inability to connect can further traumatize the child. Post was himself an adopted and disruptive child. Now, at the Post Institute for Family-Centered Therapy and in workshops around the country, he helps parents learn to provide the brain-shaping experiences their children missed.

Bryan thinks that a parent's own attachment issues can get in the way of seeing that a child's out-of-control behavior comes from fear, not, as it often seems, from maliciousness, defiance, or an evil nature.  Once parents can remove their own fears from the relationship, it's easier for them to heal the child's fear. Sessions with parents begin with whatever behaviors or problems seem most critical to them. While the end goal certainly is to help the child develop into a loving, happy, and responsible member of the family, these first steps are as much about guiding the parents into a deeper understanding of themselves.In interviewed Bryan and included his work in my book. Since then, his model has evolved to include the new science of oxytocin and bonding. In fact, he and I are collaborating on a new book, tentatively titled Oxytocin Parenting.

Whether you are parent to a child who's been diagnosed with a disorder like RAD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, or are looking for a better way to parent, Bryan has practical approaches that help you create better bonds with your children -- which leads to better behavior and a happier home.You can learn how to use the new science of oxytocin and attachment to help your kid in a free webinar next Thursday, April 8, at 9 p.m. EDT. To reserve your spot, register at

Bryan is an inspiring, emotional teacher. Joining him will be Helene Timpone, LCSW, who's an expert in parenting teen-aged girls. I highly recommend this event. And I'm honored that they will feature my book. 

Pillow Talk for Kids

with Jasvir Singh

Not enough time to nurture your children in the day?  Nurture them in their sleep as well.  

We are not born knowing how to love—the kind of mothering we get shapes our oxytocin response. How many oxytocin receptors the baby brain develops depends on the nurturing, love and intimacy the baby gets in the first months of life. These days, parents are often so busy that it can be difficult to give their child the amount of love they need.

According to Nancy Beck, a good way to nurture a child is through pillow talk—a message you can deliver while you’re child is sleeping.  Beck, BSN, RN, developed a book called "Pillow Talk: Loving Affirmations to Encourage and Guide Your Children," that explains this unique parenting skill. She says that pillow talk is an effective and easy way to infuse children with love while they are asleep.

She explains how to give your child life- and love-affirming messages that will remind him or her that your loving presence is constant.

Beck's concept is not the same as subliminal learning; nor is it a form of brainwashing.  Pillow talk will not override a child’s free will. It shouldn’t be used to convince a child to do anything or alter their thoughts---rather, she says, it is there to support one’s nurturing parenting skills day and night. Pillow talk can help your child develop a strong oxytocin response that allows them to grow up to be more confident, less worried, and connect with others more deeply. You can view Nancy’s article on Pillow Talk and find out about her book on her website,

Sometimes, a hard-working parent can't even get home in time to spend an affectionate hour or two while kids are awake. Nancy's book reminds us that we can  help shape a healthy oxytocin response and build a strong bond with our children at any time of day or night.

A Boy's Choice: Purpose or Aggression

There's an excellent interview with Michael Gurian in Scouting MagazineMichael Gurian is author of many books on parenting boys that are based on brain science. I love his approach, which is to channel a boy's higher levels of testosterone away from violence and toward a higher purpose. Remember, boys' brains produce as much oxytocin as girls' brains do; but testosterone tends to mute oxytocin's bonding and connecting effects.

Here is just one of many interesting nuggets from Gurian's interview with Sean Mitchell.

We’ve heard a lot about the importance of self-esteem, but you write that self-esteem should not be conferred automatically on boys.

It has to be earned. And studies show that boys, after a certain age, don’t trust blanket praise. They want praise based on their achievement. It’s a little different with girls. Girls are so verbal, and their oxytocin level is so high, that if you say to a girl, “You’re great! Great job!” that has a different effect on the female brain than the male brain. It immediately stimulates oxytocin, which is a bonding chemical.

With sons, that doesn’t work as well, in general. They don’t get the same surge.

While we're using science in so many areas of life, parenting is too often left completely to the unconscious desires and attitudes of people who may not have been well-parented themselves. Gurian provides compassionate and wise guidance for parents -- and I think his views could change society for the better.

I had the privilege of interviewing Michael in 2007, as I was writing my book. (His work informs the chapter on adolescent love and lust.)  Read the interview here.

Is Your Brain Pink or Blue?

A new book by Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin Institute of Medicine, examines the role that very subtle differences in parents' expectations may create differences in brain development of boy and girl babies.

According to an article about Pink Brains, Blue Brains in Newsweek, many studies show that parents' expectations for gender-based behavior or competencies can lead to reinforcing those tendencies in kids.

For example, in a study where people were told that male newborns were female and vice versa, they rated the "male" babies as more irritable.

I haven't read the book, but the Newsweek article points up a bit of a contradiction. Eliot may be saying that all the differences in adult brains can be tied to differences in nurturing, but the article itself contradicts that:

For instance, baby boys are more irritable than girls. That makes parents likely to interact less with their "nonsocial" sons, which could cause the sexes' developmental pathways to diverge. By 4 months of age, boys and girls differ in how much eye contact they make, and differences in sociability, emotional expressivity, and verbal ability—all of which depend on interactions with parents—grow throughout childhood. The message that sons are wired to be nonverbal and emotionally distant thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This makes sense, except ... we're starting with, "baby boys are more irritable than girls." If this is the case, then it implies that there is an innate difference, perhaps because of the greater testosterone in the male baby's brain and body. 

I can certainly buy a theory that nurture can enhance these innate differences. But I have to agree with Michael Gurian (and a lot of science) that the differences in the amounts of testosterone and estrogen in a baby's brain guide neurodevelopment, especially in the first three years of life, when the neurons are forming connections that will last throughout our lives.

Gurian, authof of a series of excellent parenting books, including The Wonder of Boys, put out a press release saying,

It seems that most of the world already senses that boys and girls are inherently different (albeit on a vast spectrum, not stereotypes), but some people still fear this human experience, or aren't sure what to make of it.   Unfortunately, these books/articles select evidence and don’t take into account brain scans and other hard science; and they extrapolate the effect of socialization on formation of gender in the brain. For instance, PBBB provides a study of children who are encouraged to climb a hill a certain way and extrapolates that because there were differences in how parents talked to boys/girls, this could somehow account for the profound differences that show on PET and SPECT scans between girls and boys' brains.

He also posts some research on his site showing gender-based differences in the brain.

This is an argument that won't be resolved any time soon. It's important for parents to think about this and do what they can not to reinforce crippling gender roles on kids of either sex. For our grown-up relationships, I still think that looking at our emotions and interactions through the lens of neurochemistry can provide insight and comfort.

Laura Berman: Equal but Different

Dr. Laura Berman, author of Talking to Your Kids about Sex, has a nice way of navigating the issue of gender equality with neurochemical difference. From via MSNBC. Her advice for parents:

Try saying something like: “I know I have taught you that boys and girls are equal, and they are. But that doesn’t mean that we are the same. Men and women have different hormones that affect the way they think and feel, and some of your hormones might make you feel in love with your partner after you have sex.”

Mothering and Fathering Influence Bonding in Adult Voles

Larry Young and Todd Ahern of the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory found that "early life nurturing impacts later life relationships."

It's still another data point in the enormous body of evidence showing how important it is for kids to get early nurturing, love and care. Larry Young was one of the second wave of oxytocin researchers working on the monogamous prairie voles. This research showed that oxytocin was crucial for the prairie voles' ability to form pair bonds.

In this experiment, also with prairie voles, Young and Ahern compared prairie vole pups raised by a single mother with those raised by a male and female couple. In the wild, prairie voles mate for life in a system described as social monogamy. That is, the couples live together and cooperate in raising offspring; they may engage in some extra-pair copulation, the rodent version of affairs.

The pups raised by a single mother got a lower level of care than those raised by a cooperating couple.  And when they reached adulthood, they weren't as enthusiastic parents.

According to the press release,

"These results suggest naturalistic variation in social rearing conditions can introduce diversity into adult nurturing and attachment behaviors. S[ingle-mother]-raised pups were slower to make life-long partnerships, and they showed less interest in nurturing pups in their communal families," says Young.

What Babies Want

Whatbabies want ... is so simple. So, why aren't we giving it to them?

What Babies Want is a new film by Debby Takikawa, founder and director of the non-profit organization, Beginnings Inc.

Here's the synopsis:

This timely and heart-opening film brings together ground-breaking information about what babies truly are, what they know, and how we can support them to be their best as they develop and grow. The experiences we have at our births sets up our perceptive neurology and influences the way we perceive the events of our lives. These early interactions shape our human ability to learn, to trust, and to develop relationships as we grow older.

In fact, these early experiences are shaping the brain and its neurochemical responses. There's strong scientific evidence that the bath of chemicals bathing the baby's brain during labor and birth are designed to jumpstart our ability to bond with others. So it makes sense that the use of artificial oxytocin and anesthetic, isolation of the baby after birth, rough handling, anxiety and fear might set the receptors in a baby's brain in an unhealthy way.

Please help spread the word about this very important film!

Takikawa also produced and directed Reducing Infant Mortality, which you can watch free online.

Here's a link to the trailer for What Babies Want; you will need Quicktime:

Michael Gurian and "The Purpose of Boys"

I am a huge fan of Michael Gurian, a psychotherapist and author whose life's work is helping society understand how to raise children to be secure, happy and fulfilled. His special focus is boys, and how our culture doesn't support them in their development.

I have been very guilty in the past of being angry at men because they're not more like women. As I learned about the differences in the brains and neurochemistries of men and women as I wrote The Chemistry of Connection, I realized that it's neither fair to expect this nor possible for men to relate in the same way that women do.

Gurian has terrific ideas for ways that parents and society can help boys find ways to live honorable lives that harness their strengths. His latest book, The Purpose of Boys, is designed to help parents give boys what they need to thrive.

USA Today interviewed Gurian about the book, and it's well worth reading.

The Vasopressin Takeover

Evan of Two Puppies Enter, One Puppy Leaves posted a link to a BBC science podcast in which scientists explain that three years after the birth of a child, oxytocin receptors in the parents' brains wane, while vasopressin becomes more prevalent.

I don't have time to listen to the podcast or follow up on the journal articles right now, but according to his blog post, Lucy Vincent (neurobiologist at the French Scientific Research Center) and Dave Perrett (Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews) said that

after 12-18 months the infant becomes significantly less vulnerable (able to stand and perhaps throw off a bird or small animal attacking it), at which point only one parent would be necessary. And at that point, the oxytocin effect more or less ceases, yielding to increased vasopressin receptor activity- essentially a biochemical foundation for why people tend to “fall out of love” after a few years

I think maybe they were talking about the male brain, not the female's.

Motherhood and fatherhood both change a person's brain; changes in the mother's brain have been shown to be permanent in rats. However, oxytocin receptors, which become profuse during pregnancy, may disappear and/or become less sensitive.

Vasopressin, which is very closely related to oxytocin, may be more involved in male attachment, and lead to the expression of this attachment in protective behaviors. If you have the time, his post and the podcast are probably worth checking out.