There's being close to your children, and then there's being attached to your children.
Deirdre Chadwick carries her 3-year-old son, Noah, in a homemade baby sling that ties around her waist and neck. She avoids using a stroller, still nurses and sleeps next to her child in her queen-size bed -- Noah's on one side with a guardrail and her husband is on the other. It would be easier with a king-size bed, she admits, and "Noah kicks at night," but "we have an open-bed policy. He'll decide when he's ready to stop co-sleeping."
Chadwick, a 33-year-old musician who lives on Capitol Hill, practices "attachment parenting," popularized by the child-care guru William Sears, with techniques including co-sleeping, slow weaning and baby-wearing, all in order to form a deep emotional and physical parent-child bond. There's definitely no spanking, and for gosh sake, no letting the baby "cry it out."
The payoff, say the proponents of what some might call extreme parenting, is providing your child with "a lifelong foundation for healthy, enduring relationships."
Or so says a brochure for Attachment Parenting International, a nonprofit advocacy organization. API also says that parents shouldn't feel pressured to practice all of the group's ideals -- one of which is "maintaining balance in family life" -- but rather should take whatever works for them. They can even work full time and hire a nanny.
As Chadwick puts it, "The most important thing is honoring my child's desires and emotions as a member of humanity."
Society benefits from more attachment parenting, too, API argues, since the method has the potential to ultimately "reduce or prevent child abuse, behavioral disorders, criminal acts and other serious social problems."
Chadwick thinks it just makes sense.
"If babies feel secure and safe, then they're free to learn," she says. "If they're living in fear, then they're really blocked from learning."
She's part of a support group that formed this spring in Washington under the umbrella of API -- an offshoot of a large and growing Northern Virginia group that meets in the McLean area.
One of the new District leaders is Brook Markley, 29, who wears her 2-year-old son, Andrick, in a carrier against her chest. The "support" part of the group is crucial, she says, since attachment parenting is in direct conflict with the values of the nation's mainstream, where "women are so bombarded by things that are designed to take children from their parents. We're taught how to give them a bottle, put them in a crib and a stroller."
Ten mothers and their babies, all under age 3, show up for the most recent meeting of API-D.C., held the third Tuesday of the month at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (there are no fathers at the gathering, but they have come to previous ones). Issues discussed include finding AP-friendly pediatricians and babysitters, and how to sleep with a restless infant. One woman mentions that her husband's snoring wakes the baby, so the husband has been relegated to another room.
Some AP parents do hire babysitters. Markley, who once in a while will leave Andrick with Chadwick as caretaker, says, "Nobody is able to do this 24 hours for seven days a week."
Chadwick gives a little pep talk. Though this intense care-giving takes work, it's an investment in the future, she says.
"I feel like we're going to have it easy when our children are teenagers, and the people who let their babies cry it out are going to have hellions."
They are definitely not followers of Marc Weissbluth, whose well-known book "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" pushes for parents to stick with regular bedtime routines, even if it means a wailing baby.
In theory, attachment parenting never stops. Some mothers here say they plan to keep nursing and co-sleeping until the child decides to quit. Such physical closeness may diminish as children grow, but the intense emotional responsiveness is always on the table.
The idea of attachment parenting as a distinct method was first presented about 50 years ago by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, and the term has surfaced more recently thanks to the best-selling Sears. His books, including "The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby," describe the "Seven Baby B's of Attachment Parenting." They include "birth bonding," "babywearing" and "belief in the signal value of your baby's cries."
Nashville-based API, whose motto is "peaceful parenting for a peaceful world," was founded in 1994 by Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson and now claims a network of about 80 support groups, most in the United States. Nicholson, who like Parker is a former volunteer with La Leche League, the organization that encourages breast-feeding, explains that AP is based on the idea that "the ability to trust another human being and to believe that the world is a good place, that starts in infancy." Parker, now API's executive director, says that when the group formed in the 1990s, "there was a rash of juvenile violence. We had an epidemic of children who were growing up unattached to anyone."
Jerome Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard whose research has focused on the cognitive and emotional development of children, believes attachment parenting may exaggerate the importance of the early interactions between parent and baby. "No one doubts that nurture is better than no nurture," he concedes, "but the more interesting question is, what does [nurture] guarantee?"
There's no data that attachment parenting produces better-adjusted adults, he says, though the rituals of AP are harmless and give parents a psychologically necessary "illusion of control."
Plenty of AP believers refute the idea that there's no data, however.
Meredith F. Small, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and author of "Our Babies, Ourselves," supports AP. She points to the famous studies of psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1960s, in which he took rhesus monkey babies away from their mothers and they grew up to be socially inept. "If you want to make a baby monkey crazy, take it from its mother," says Small.
Other societies around the world take attachment parenting for granted, though they might not have a special name for it, she adds.
When someone first asked Small what she thought of attachment parenting, she recalls, her response was, "What other kind could there be? Isn't it sad that in our culture you have to become a kind of odd subculture to do what comes natural?"
It may be natural, but full-on AP looks pretty labor-intensive and patience-trying.
Some admit that it's hard to maintain romance in a marriage when there's a 2-year-old wiggling in the bed every night, and that relatives often think it's weird at worst, indulgent at best, to be so sensitive to a child's wants and needs. And skeptics like Kagan insist that in a loving family, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and constant bonding probably won't mold a much different person than if the parents had chosen a crib, stroller and more frequent separations. "Moderation above all" is his mantra.
Markley believes the parental excess, if that's what it is, is worth it.
"Molding an adult is serious business," she says, conceding that there are no guarantees with any kind of parenting.
"He's going to be in therapy for something when he grows up," she jokes. "There's no perfect mother."