Attachment Parenting – Just How Responsive Do You Have to Be?

“If baby cries, pick him up.”

That’s the parenting philosophy I’ve been following ever since I had Gavin.  I don’t subscribe to the belief that babies need to “cry-it-out” to “strengthen their lungs”.  If that last sounds unbelievable to you then we’re on the same page.

With Gavin, it was generally pretty easy to observe this fundamental rule of parenting.  Being the only child, there were no others vying for my attention.  The only time when it got difficult was when we were in the car where I’m driving and he’s strapped in the car seat.  There was also a particular period in Gavin’s infancy that I recall when driving alone with him in the car was particularly stressful.  There was a need to plan everything right down to the last detail.

For instance, if we wanted to go out, I had to make sure he was in the car within the first two hours after waking in the morning.  To take him home, I had to make sure he had been asleep for at least 10 minutes but not more than 20 minutes before attempting to put him into the car seat.  And if he was asleep, I had at least 30 minutes before he would wake up again.  I had to make sure he was well fed and well rested before attempting any car rides.  I would pack the car with lots of toys to distract him.  When he was on solids, I would bring easy snacks that he could feed himself with.

If I didn’t plan things right, Gavin would melt down in the car howling and screaming until he ended up puking all over himself.  It was a traumatic experience for the both of us and thankfully I can count on one hand the number of times that ever happened.  I never thought the day would come, but somewhere along the way, Gavin transitioned out of this difficult phase and car rides with him are generally pretty easy these days – or at least easy in comparison.

When Gareth was born, I had flashbacks of Gavin’s early days in the car all over again.  It was with great apprehension that I took my first few drives out alone with Gareth.  To my relief and delight, Gareth proved to be relatively easy to manage in the car.  He would fall asleep easily so he rarely fussed.  Then again, Gareth was very young – much younger than Gavin was when I first started going out alone with him.  Now that Gareth is older and more alert, he is starting to get upset when he’s in the car seat for too long.  Instead of whimpering and eventually falling asleep in the car seat, sometimes he’ll cry until he’s hysterical and even then he won’t sleep.

The first time it happened, I thought it was just a one off occurrence.  It had been a long day, Gareth might have been overtired, we had to make some modifications to the car seat, etc.  When it happened again, I started to get a little wary.  After the third time, I made sure I didn’t put Gareth into the car seat unless he was asleep.  We managed to get around without any further incidences although it did require more planning whenever I had to go out with Gareth.

As an attached parent, it distresses me greatly when I have to continue driving while my baby is bawling his eyes out in the back seat.  I know how important it is to be responsive to my baby and to pick him up as soon as I am able whenever he cries.  I am wrecked with guilt whenever I have left him to cry for an extended period of time such as the duration of a car ride (although I do make stops to try to settle him before driving again).  I know I cannot be the only parent who encounters this problem and I wonder how other parents manage this problem.  Even with the best of preparation, sometimes things don’t go the way you plan and baby will end up crying alone in the back seat.

I know that when babies are left to cry like this, their little bodies are often filled with stress hormones which can be very damaging.  As an attached parent, I attend to my baby quite promptly on most other occasions, but I still wonder if it is enough to make up for these negative experiences in the car.  What can be done?

Obviously, a couple of hysterical bouts aren’t going to scar your baby for life – especially not if you’re generally a responsive parent.  Although you can avoid them altogether by not getting into the car, sometimes you just have to go out and take the baby with you for a whole host of reasons.  What can you do if your baby starts crying?

Dr Sears offers the following advice which I remember reading some time back: break up the journey.  If you can’t stop your baby crying, then drive for ten minutes intervals, stopping in between to comfort your baby.

Jill Stamm also adds that you don’t have to stress yourself out trying to avoid every cry from your baby, nor is it necessary that you do.  For instance, you can have a bad day, wake up cranky from a sleepless night, and let your baby wail in his bouncy seat while you take a shower – this isn’t going to hurt your baby in the long run.  Life’s full of bumps and snags that your baby will have to learn to cope with.  The occasional wailing episode helps your baby learn to cope with these.  As long as you are generally loving and responsive, offering lots of touch and comfort to your baby, he will be fine.  Long-term damage only arises if there is a pattern of frequent negative experiences that occur on a regular basis.

Stamm explains that there are three types of stress – toxic stress, tolerable stress and positive stress.  Toxic stress is the type we should avoid at all cost.  It is the result of poor quality care, chaotic home life, physical/sexual abuse, or repeated threats to survival.  Toxic stress can lead to the development of a smaller brain and alters the way a child handles stress in later life.  Not only does the child have a lower tolerance for stress, but it can also affect well-being and learning.

Tolerable stress refers to incidences such as the death of a loved one.  In such cases, the stress response is strong enough to affect the brain but because it is experienced over a shorter period and there is usually a recovery period with support from loving relationships, the effects are usually not permanent.

Positive stress refers to incidences that evoke short-lived and moderate stress responses.  Some examples are having to say goodbye to a parent, getting an injection, losing a treasured toy, etc.  Such positive stresses are important in helping a child develop and thrive.  As long as they are well managed and there is adequate support from loving adults, children will learn to adapt to these stresses and respond appropriately.

I guess as that end of the day the aim is to manage as many of these stressful incidences as possible.  If you miss a few, there’s no need to beat yourself up over it.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

6 thoughts on “Attachment Parenting – Just How Responsive Do You Have to Be?

  1. Our car trips are also carefully planned; my husband drives while I take care of our son and entertains him to keep him in the carseat. We can’t imagine concentrating on driving with a crying baby; especially when I’m an inconfident driver.

    By the way, it is disturbing that many parents are using the Cry-It-Out method or some variation to force-train their babies to sleep through the night.


  2. You’re right – it’s very difficult to concentrate when baby is crying. Stress levels are high all around in the car when baby cries. It is slightly easier with Gavin around because Gareth feels comforted in the presence of his brother. I find we get by better when Gavin is in the back with Gareth. Unfortunately, Gavin doesn’t always want to sit in the back…


  3. I think a lot more Mums do the planning thing – just that we’re often so isolated in our own worlds that it can seem like we’re the only ones. That’s the benefit of the internet these days – the discovery that you’re not alone. It’s comforting to know because there’s always this tendency to wonder (at least I do) if I might have done something wrong with my kids and that’s why they are difficult to manage.


  4. Exactly! Mums nowadays get very less support, as we have few or no sisters / sisters-in-law with children, interact less with neighbours and advice from the older generation is commonly different from our thinking. It is much easier to find like-minded Mums from the Internet.


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