Attachment Parenting and Bonding in the NICU

Today I'd like to discuss bonding with an infant in the NICU, which is undoubtedly a challenge, particularly if you are interested in using some attachment parenting ideas. 

Regardless of how you intended to parent, your plans got disrupted by the NICU, and I hope to help shed some light on enhancing your bonding with your baby under such difficult circumstances.

First, let's briefly talk about attachment parenting, which some of you may have heard of, while others of you may not.

As the Attachment Parenting International website explains:

Rooted in attachment theory, Attachment Parenting has been studied extensively for over 60 years by psychology and child development researchers, and more recently, by researchers studying the brain. 

These studies revealed that infants are born "hardwired" with strong needs to be nurtured and to remain physically close to the primary caregiver, usually the mother, during the first few years of life. 

The child's emotional, physical, and neurological development is greatly enhanced when these basic needs are met consistently and appropriately. 

These needs can be summarized as proximity, protection, and predictability.

The baby's crying, clinging, and sucking are early techniques to keep her mother nearby. As the child grows and feels more secure in her relationship with her mother, she is better able to explore the world around her and to develop strong, healthy bonds with other important people in her life.

In essence, attachment parenting involves a high level attention to nurturing the parent-baby bond, including physical contact between parent and baby, as well as a dedication to respecting and honoring communication between a baby and its parents. It involves honoring the baby's communication abilities (crying), responding to baby's needs (sucking, holding, contact), and sensitive, emotionally available parenting. 

No, it is not a cult, it is not for freaky hippie parents only (as I've heard parents say before). I myself utilized many of the attachment parenting ideas, but not all of them, because the benefits were clear to me, and think it's been a huge help in the short & long term for myself and my kids. 

Attachment parenting truly is more about the intentions and the emotional connections than it is about specific techniques or habits, but some of those techniques include lots of baby-wearing, skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, feeding on demand rather than a schedule, co-sleeping, responding to baby's cries, no pacifiers, and more. 

Some families use a few of these practices, others do it all and then more! 

I have had experiences where the family built a solid, mutually-respectful, supportive environment with the NICU staff, so that the family could practice their attachment-style parenting in the NICU. It was a beautiful thing, I always loved participating. 

But I have also seen parents who have had enormous disappointment in the NICU, unable to achieve the parenting of their newborn in a way that they had dreamed of, hoped for. 

My basic feelings on attachment parenting in the NICU are these: If you want it, it will be hard but it is well worth it.

You will have to speak up, be flexible, and expand your attachment ideals to include a big group of caregivers for the time being. You have my support, even when it feels like maybe nobody else supports you. 

 I hope the following suggestions will help you, if you are interested in making your NICU experience more attachment-parenting friendly. Even if you never planned on attachment parenting, I hope you'll look into it, learn a little about it. By having your baby in the NICU, your bonding is already being interrupted, and you may find that some attachment parenting ideas will help you re-establish a strong, nurturing connection. 

So, what do you do? In a nutshell, I suggest you make the best of it, this whole NICU situation. I know, easier said than done. I do realize what I'm suggesting is not easy. It's incredibly difficult. I know. But I suggest it anyway. Because, in life, when bumps show up in the road, you choose how you proceed, and now's your chance to proceed in the best way possible. How?

Steps for Getting Started with Attachment Parenting in the NICU

1. Grieve

You will miss your baby, badly. Breastfeeding is going to be harder. Your baby will get pacifiers and bottles. You will not be able to be with your baby 100 % of the time. You will not be able to hold your baby nearly as often as you would like. Your baby may cry when you're not there and the staff may not respond the way you wish they would. Not to mention your baby's health is at risk, to varying degrees. There are MANY difficulties in the NICU, and probably most of them make you sad. Disappointed. Frustrated. Guilty. Angry.

I get it. I wouldn't want it for my baby, regardless of how amazing the nurses may be.

I wouldn't want it for myself, no matter how important it is for the health of my child. I get it. There's plenty to mourn.

Go ahead and grieve it. You are not getting the ideal you hoped for. Acknowledge it, allow yourself to mourn it.

2. Let Go

As much as it's good to mourn, it's also important to jump in and start attachment parenting anyway. 

So your baby is in the NICU? Well, welcome to parenting, it never goes as planned.

This is not what you want, but you need to adapt and adjust. You need to commit to learning how to attachment parent under these circumstances.

3. Move Forward, Gracefully

Speak up. This means sharing your ideas with the staff, so they know where you're coming from. They have a much better chance of supporting your wishes if they know them. 

 Communicate clearly with the staff, request care conferences as needed, call and ask about your baby as much as you need to feel connected. Tell your nurses that you hope your baby will be picked up and held when she's crying, that you want volunteer cuddlers to snuggle your baby when available. All of this is discussed in this post in being your baby's advocate.

Request the staff who support your ideas for bonding and parenting. It is ok to ask for particular nurses, as long as your respect the fact that your wishes can't always be met. 

Often staffing needs dictate which nurse takes care of which babies, and your desires are secondary to the staffing needs of the unit. But ask, nicely, anyway, because it increases your odds of getting the staff who support attachment parenting. 

One suggestion I really like, from this mother, is getting to know the charge nurse. You may not think it's very important, because the charge nurse usually doesn't do actual bedside nursing. They have more of a management role. However, if you feel comfortable with the person who makes the decisions about which nurse has which babies, you will feel more comfortable requesting nurses who you do or don't want caring for your baby.

Build a mutually respectful relationship with the staff. This is often easy for many parents, but sadly this is something I've found to be particularly difficult with the more stringent attachment parents. 

I have seen a bad situation all too often over the years - parents who treat the NICU staff as enemies. It's hard to articulate, but I've seen it and felt it, and I guarantee you that does not make for a fulfilling and respectful experience. It feels awful, because while I understand the disappointment and frustration of the parents, I can't help but feel upset when parents refuse to truly see and appreciate the excellent care and nurturing we are providing, all of the life saving efforts we are making for their babies. 

It ends up frustrating both the parents and the staff. 

If I had the power to change nurses across the country, if I could guarantee they were all supportive of you and your parenting goals, I would. But I can't. You can't either. 

But you can choose to make the best of it, and to find the compassion in your heart to appreciate the care they do provide. 

Be respectful of them, behave in respectable and cooperative manners, and the whole experience benefits.

Read up. Most of what I have to say throughout the website is actually very attachment-parenting friendly. The suggestions about asking questions and being your baby's advocate are critical for attachment parents, because educating yourself and speaking up are vitally important. Vitally. 

Educate yourself more about attachment parenting, so you understand it's more about your intention and the quality of the care provided, not particular techniques (Good article in The Atlantic, for starters).

However, be extremely cautious about doing blind google searches, reading just anything you find on the internet. Lots of harm is done reading other people's negativity, reading misinformation. 

Be willing to give up control. But don't give it all up. You may see all the ways you have lost control - the doctors tell you exactly what your baby needs, what treatments and medicines, the nurses tell you when and how to feed your baby, and on and on. Gracefully accept these as true and necessary. But don't give it all up. Ask for the nurses you want. Refuse the nurses who blatantly stand in your way of attachment parenting. Ask, and keep asking until you feel satisfied, about the ideas you have and the wishes you hope for.

Connect with others. Find support where you can, either locally or online. Sharing your frustrations and your successes with others who understand is mighty helpful. Try this Attachment Parenting Facebook page, or search for others.

Remember, you have a lifetime to develop your attachment with your child.

I understand that attachment parenting emphasizes attachment techniques right from birth, and in an ideal situation that's desirable. But in the NICU, the initial ability to connect is hampered. Don't let that dissuade you. You are and will be the parent for as long as the child lives. Do the best that you can now, and trust that your intentions and your connection post-NICU will do wonders for the connection you have with your child throughout her lifetime.

I hope these ideas help. 

I'm sure there's so much more that will help you over the next few days & weeks, but know that your love and intention will guide you. 

Now, go get some rest, and then go love your little baby! 

For those of you looking for more information on attachment parenting

Attachment Parenting and Bonding in the NICU

Trish Ringley is the founder and CEO of Every Tiny Thing. She has been a NICU nurse since 1997, and she's been creating the products and accessories that NICU parents love since 2014. When she's not at work caring for NICU families, she's raising her two teenage kids, gardening, and raising service dog puppies for Canine Companions for Independence.

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