By Dhara Thakar Meghani
Did you know?
Until the middle of the 20th century, attitudes in the Western world about caregiving generally reflected that babies should sleep alone and rarely be held.
Parents were warned that being too responsive to infants would result in selfish, spoiled children—a popular idea that gets passed down in many cultures, but has yet to be confirmed by research!
For a South Asian parent in today’s society, having a baby opens up a world of choices that were not always as available in previous generations. How many mothers a few decades ago imagined there were alternatives to breastfeeding and staying home with the baby?
How many fathers thought they could partake in the early bonding experiences of bottle feeding and baby wearing? Try asking your grandmother whether her children had the luxury of their own nurseries, and you’ll probably get a chuckle.
I can recall several conversations with new or soon-to-be parents in the South Asian community who struggle with making caregiving decisions that differ from their peers or seem at odds with what their grandparents did years ago, usually in a different country. Some common questions include the following, and may not be received openly by elders or traditionally-minded individuals, making you feel confused, guilty or defensive.
Will my baby be affected negatively if I choose to go back to work and leave her in the care of a nanny?
What if I really don’t like breastfeeding and want to give my baby formula?
How can I tell my mother-in-law that I don’t want to sleep train or let my baby “cry it out” even if she thinks it’ll make our lives much easier in the months to come?
It’s important to remember that parenting decisions have always depended on functional limits and a society’s values. For the modern South Asian family that has access to resources or in which both parents work outside the home, defaulting to the caregiving standards that our parents or grandparents practiced is not necessarily an option or a preference.
For example, co-sleeping (where parents and babies share beds on a nightly basis) is the rule¹ in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, reflecting both the cultural value of family connectedness, and often the issue of lack of space in some households. In countries such as the UK, Australia, or the US, where it is more typical to preserve intimacy in the couple’s bedroom, babies might be more likely to sleep in their own crib and room if the family has a large enough home.
At the same time, the infinite barrage of information, research findings and parenting advice available via the books and web, and friends and family undoubtedly complicate parents’ decisions. The recent cover image of TIME magazine of a mother breastfeeding her three year old son, which revived the controversial topic of attachment parenting is one example.
A phrase that was coined by American pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears and his wife Martha nearly 30 years ago, attachment parenting’s principles rest on breastfeeding “on-demand,” babywearing, and bedsharing, in addition to other practices that help keep parents and children in close touch—literally—with one another to foster a stronger emotional bond in their relationship.²
Attachment Parenting International, an organization that has gained momentum in the years following the introduction of this phrase, articulates and operationalizes these principles for interested parents here. As a South Asian parent, it might be striking to see the phenomenal level of detail that has been published about parenting behaviors that are often passed down without any explanation in our culture, even if you are unlikely to follow all these practices.
Advocates of attachment parenting profess that it is a parenting approach that has been around since the beginning of civilization, and is the best way to raise sensitive, empathic children. Critics argue that times have changed. While it may have worked for some cultures when being with baby 24/7 was feasible, the seemingly idyllic principles and outcomes of attachment parenting only make parents feel guilty and inadequate if they have to leave their baby with a nanny or other caregiver in order to make a living.
Whether you’ve considered or practiced elements of attachment parenting yourself, or whether you could never imagine such a lifestyle, know that there have been no scientific studies that recommend one approach over the other. At the end of the day, your instinct is always a good gauge of what to do, and without a doubt, your baby will thank you a hundred times over if you spend more time reading her cues than poring over parenting books.
Dhara* reminds you that all babies have different needs–find out why in next month’s article on infant temperament! Email her if you have any questions or want to suggest ideas for future articles at firstname.lastname@example.org
Borrowed Knowledge wants to take away the pressure from ‘perfect parenting’, and sheds light on valuable information, while also reminding parents of their innate abilities. It simplifies information from research, parenting books, and even the knowledge borrowed from ancestors, and considers how it applies (or doesn’t!) to a South Asian parent. More Borrowed Knowledge articles here!
¹Flavia, G. & Flavia, C. (2009). Family and Cultural Influences on Sleep Development. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 18(4), 849-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2009.04.003
²Sears, W., Sears, M., Sears, R., & Sears, J. (2008). The baby book: Everything you need to know about your baby from birth to age two. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
*Dhara Thakar Meghani, Ph.D is a Clinical Child and Family Psychologist, and Professor of Human Development at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. As a South Asian born in India and raised in the United States, she learned Gujarati before English, was the only Indian student at school, and was given the nickname ‘little professor’ right from the start because of her constant ‘smart alec’ chatter! Dhara observed her mother adjust to life in a completely new country, and babysit for toddlers of other families—she was inspired to study infancy and early childhood as she witnessed how those crucial years set the foundation for the future.