Relax Parents, We Only Need To 'Get It Right' Half Of The Time

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
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When our oldest was a baby, he was what I called a “cling machine.” That little baby boy wanted to be held 24/7, to the point that both my wife and I wanted to spend each night in a “do not touch me” bubble.

Not that we got away from him for too long at night; he wouldn’t sleep unless someone held him while sitting up. I’d hold him in my right arm like a football, my head resting against a bookshelf, him sleeping soundly, me somewhere between sleep and madness.

Every time that kid was put down, he’d get emotional. He didn’t like being in a baby sling. He didn’t like to lie down next to anyone. He had to be held, all the time, one arm around him, or that chubby little baby would start to cry.

There were times we just had to let him sit on the floor and fuss for a bit so we could wash the dishes, or fold some laundry, or make a bed, or keep from going bonkers. And each time, I felt like a total failure. I felt like he was going to have an attachment disorder or something. It was maddening.

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Turns out, I didn’t need to be quite so hard on myself. What really matters when caring for your baby may be different than commonly thought, says Lehigh University researcher Susan S. Woodhouse, an expert on infant attachment. Her new study found that caregivers need only “get it right” 50 percent of the time when responding to babies’ need for attachment in order to have a positive impact on a baby.

I don’t want to state the obvious, but 50% is half. You only have to get it right half the time.

So does this mean that you only have to pick up your baby half as much as you used to? Does it mean that you can allow them to cry 12 hours out of 24? Well … no. It doesn’t.

But it does seem to contradict the fundamental idea of infant attachment theory, which is the deep emotional connection that an infant forms with his or her primary caregiver. It is a tie that binds them together, endures over time, and leads the infant to experience pleasure, joy, safety, and comfort in the caregiver’s company. It was developed in the 1950s, and pushes the idea that babies feel distress when their primary caregiver is absent. Soothing, comforting, and providing pleasure are primary elements of the relationship.

Attachment theory holds that a consistent primary caregiver is necessary for a child’s optimal development. It’s that idea of constant, 100%, all-the-time availability that has really pushed parents (particularly mothers) to feel like they can’t take a break from Mr. Fussy Pants. It is this idea that makes mothers wonder if they are doing something horribly wrong when they go back to work and leave the baby with a sitter, a shameful feeling that is all too present in single, low-income mothers who are faced with little other option.

It is the idea that mothers must strap the baby to their bodies 100% of the time, or the child will grow up with an attachment disorder, and in 25 years, you will all be on some daytime TV show talking about how your child never felt loved, and now they live in a commune where everyone dressed like fuzzy animals just to feel connection.

Okay, that was a bit much, but you get the idea. The goal of this study was to help low-income mothers understand how much attention they actually need to give their babies, and that it’s okay to work outside the home to make ends meet. In fact, the population used for this study was only low-income mothers with clingy babies.

What it all boils down to is this: If you have a baby, you can literally stress about attachment disorder half as much as you did.

You don’t need to feel horrible about dropping your child off at a sitter so you can go to work. Your baby will be okay.

You don’t have to strap the child to your body all the time. You can put the baby down for a bit, and rest your back, and change your shirt to something without a lima bean-shaped sweat spot.

If the baby cries whenever dad holds her, but you really, really, need a break, let him soothe her as best he can, and take a hot shower. It will be okay. The baby will be fine. Science just told you so.

Take some stress off your plate. According to Woodhouse, the author of the study, “You don’t have to do it 100 percent — you have to get it right about half of the time, and babies are very forgiving and it’s never too late. Keep trying. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be good enough.”

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