Grand Forks parents discuss attachment parenting, how it works for them

It's not all about breastfeeding, yet that's the issue that seems to dominate the media's focus on attachment parenting, to the chagrin of those who embrace this increasingly popular approach to raising children.

Maura, Jonas, Mairi
Maura Ferguson of Grand Forks holds son Jonas, 4 months, while daughter Mairi, 2, plays recently at Lincoln Park in Grand Forks. Dorothy Edwards / Grand Forks Herald

It's not all about breastfeeding, yet that's the issue that seems to dominate the media's focus on attachment parenting, to the chagrin of those who embrace this increasingly popular approach to raising children.

Take the ruckus that recently ensued when TIME magazine's cover featured a 26-year-old model, Jamie Lynn Grumet, nursing her 3-year-old son.

The picture was supposed to illustrate and illuminate a story on attachment parenting, but the shot heard around the world focused on breastfeeding.

Blogs, social media and news shows lit up with the hows, the whys, the for-how-longs, and under what circumstance should women nurse their children.

"The picture was so confrontational, people lost sight of what attachment parenting is," said Maura Ferguson, a Grand Forks mother of two.


Local attachment parenting proponents say they don't object to TIME's photo but rather to the accompanying query, "Are You Mom Enough?," which suggests a competition with others.

TIME "treated it like we parent in this way to out-do someone else or for the purpose of being extreme," said Erin McSparron of Grand Forks in an email to the Herald.

"AP (attachment parenting) isn't about a contest or making others feel guilty for not doing it the way you are, but following your instincts and doing your best to meet (children's) needs.

"This starts before birth in making educated decisions for pregnancy and birth, choosing to feed with love (whether that be breast or bottle, though breast is obviously best), ensuring sleep, nurturing touch, responding with sensitivity and positive discipline, and of course, balance."

What is attachment parenting?

Attachment parenting focuses on forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children, according to the Attachment Parenting International website.

It "challenges us, as parents, to treat our children with kindness, respect and dignity, and to model in our interactions with them the way we'd like them to interact with others."

AP encourages parents to provide consistent and loving care, use nurturing touch and respond with sensitivity.


"Babies cannot be expected to self-soothe," API states, "they need calm, loving, empathetic parents to help them learn to regulate their emotions."

AP promotes co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, disciplining without spanking or shaming, and striving for balance in personal and family life, according to the API.

Parents are likely to use slings to keep the infant close rather than a stroller.

"Holding your baby lots or wearing your baby in a sling during the first year is very, very important," said Jennifer Kolodka of Grand Forks in an email. She is the mother of Dimitri, 6, and Alena, 2.

Ferguson enjoys carrying Jason, 4 months, in a sling because it makes him feel secure and keeps her hands free, she said.

AP also encourages parents to respond to children who wake up crying at night.

"They could be scared, lonely, hungry," Kolodka said. "To not respond, that was foreign to us."

Ferguson said crying is a baby's only means of communication.


"Infants are not manipulative in any way," she said. When they cry, they are feeling insecure.

"By picking them up, you're not giving in, you're responding to a need," she said.

"If you're crying and no one comes to you, you are taught that you don't have a voice."

With AP, "when you communicate, someone will communicate back to you," she said. "Babies know they're not alone. It's beautiful to me."

Meeting the child's needs

It's all part of tending to the child's needs, an idea that some people feel is extreme, Ferguson said. AP takes time and is not easy.

"But it's not a sacrifice because I know why I'm doing it."

Her husband, John, said, "I just want to be a good dad and comfort my kids."


He can see the effects on his 2-year-old daughter, Mairi, who, he said, "seems very bright and very secure."

The face of fatherhood is changing, he agrees. "Men are being held more accountable. It's not just Mom's responsibility to parent."

Because he works an early shift, he takes care of the children during the day. When people comment on his "Mr. Mom" role, he takes offense.

"I'm not playing 'Mr. Mom,' I'm not pretending to be anything," he said. "I'm being their father."

AP "gives us some techniques to do what we feel is best for our children," Maura Ferguson said. "It is certainly not meant to be followed to the letter. You can apply what works for you."

Kolodka acknowledges parents vary in their commitment to AP, which places a high value on full-time parenting.

"I know that not everybody can afford to be at home," she said, but parents can set up a system that follows AP tenets or choose caregivers who adhere to those tenets.

"When some people think of AP, they envision spoiled-brat kids and parents who can't cut the cord," she said. But kids who are raised this way, she said, become confident and independent because "they know they are valued and important."


'It made a lot of sense'

When pregnant with her first child, Maura Ferguson read "The Baby Book," by William Sears, who laid out AP precepts. "It made a lot of sense to me."

Ferguson said breastfeeding "is very important in establishing a solid mother-infant bond -- a bond that will affect nearly every relationship a child will ever have."

Her reading exposed her to "reactive attachment disorder," evidenced in children, particularly those in orphanages, who are unable to form a solid bond with an adult.

Breastfeeding is a good vehicle for creating that bond, she said, adding quickly, "That's not to say that those who formula-feed can't form it.

"Breastfeeding, by its nature, is an extremely intimate thing, and babies need that. It's just a more natural way to go."

Following AP precepts, she breastfed her daughter until she was ready to wean at 22 months.

"It's too bad that a good, natural, wholesome, normal thing that a mother would do is questioned because other people want to make a controversy out of it," Kolodka said.


Long-lasting health benefits to mother and child have been widely touted by groups such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Those benefits include "continued immune protection, better social adjustment and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency," the AAFP stated. "The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer."

The AAFP acknowledged that extended breastfeeding "is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement."

Not that new

In many ways, AP isn't new and shouldn't be controversial, say local parents who are putting its principles into practice.

The approach "goes back to the days when Mom was at home," said Kolodka. "You cook meals from scratch. You teach them... You talk about everything."

Attachment parenting "has never been out of existence," she said, "but society pushes it down. It's on the upswing now. It's about doing what feels natural."

She contrasts this approach with prevailing attitudes in the 1970s, which emphasized feeding with formula, being an independent woman and getting kids to sleep through the night.

Kolodka said her mother used a crib and stroller, yet slept near her children.

"I think she was torn between those messages."

AP requires a "huge time commitment," said Kolodka, a marriage and family therapist who is now a full-time mom. "It's something you and your spouse need to value together and decide that it is worth it to you above everything else because there will be sacrifices and it can be demanding."

Sacrifices may include alone time or trips with your spouse or pursuing individual interests and hobbies.

"But what some people don't realize is that it's not really that hard of a sacrifice," she said, "because there's no place in the world we'd rather be on a Friday night than in our playroom playing superheroes with our kids or tea party or Legos.

"Life has seasons, and for us right now, this is the season of unselfishness, of using every moment we have with them and focusing on parenting our children with love and guidance, so they grow up to be well-adjusted, loving, nurturing, smart and confident little people."

Raising empathic adults

The purpose of AP "is to raise children who will become adults with a highly developed capacity for empathy and connection," the API website states. "It eliminates violence as a means for raising children, and ultimately helps to prevent violence in society as a whole."

Ferguson said empathy has come very naturally to her daughter.

When her son was born, Mairi exhibited no jealousy.

"I was shocked at how at how much she loved him," she said. "She was very concerned with his well-being, that's what we taught her.

"Empathy is not something you see a lot of in a 2-year-old. I was really pleasantly surprised."

Kolodka said she isn't sure how much of what she's trying to teach will stick with her children long-term, but she's optimistic a foundation in AP will reap benefits.

She said another mother, whose children are older, maintained AP is a lot of work in the beginning but is worth it in pre-teen and teen years.

"They don't fight, they don't need to," she said. "They've been treated with respect. They know they're going to be listened to."

Kolodka said the media has not portrayed AP accurately, and wants the public to know that families who practice it are "pretty normal."

"I just wish it wasn't a public debate. Women shouldn't have to defend their choices."

The McClatchy-Tribune News Service's Debra-Lynn B. Hook contributed to this article. Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to .

Maura and John Ferguson
Maura and John Ferguson of Grand Forks play with children Mairi, 2, and Jonas, 4 months, recently at Lincoln Park in Grand Forks. The Fergusons practice attachment parenting with their children. Dorothy Edwards / Grand Forks Herald

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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