THE SIXTH IDEAL OF ATTACHMENT PARENTING: Avoiding Frequent and Prolonged Separations from Baby / Being Together / Being There


This article was published in two parts, citation information below.


Ang, M. (2006). The Sixth Ideal of Attachment Parenting: Avoiding Frequent and Prolonged Separations from Baby / Being Together / Being There. In Infanity magazine, August and September 2006 issues.

The Sixth Ideal of Attachment Parenting is stated like this on the Attachment Parenting International website, “Avoid Frequent and Prolonged Separations from Your Baby”. To sum things up neatly, I’ve described the 8 ideals of AP as the “8Bs”, so I’ve termed this one as Being Together with baby or Being There for baby. In this article we will first consider the importance of secure attachment and what happens when a child is unable to form a secure attachment, then we will consider issues to do with separation of modern Malaysian parents from their babies, and finally we will consider options available towards resolving these issues.

Secure and Insecure Attachments
Frequent, prolonged separations can impair the attachment process and can have life-long effects on the infant's long-term psychological and emotional development. Babies have an intense need for the physical presence of a loving, responsive parent. Through daily care and loving interactions strong parent-child attachments are formed. Frequent turnover of caregivers is very damaging to the attachment process. The research has shown that for healthy individual emotional development, it is necessary for an infant to be cared for by a single primary caregiver for the first three years of life. Ideally this person should be the mother, although it can also be the father or even someone else. Secure attachment to an individual caregiver during the first three years of life forms the basis for the infant’s later relationships with other people, security in exploring the world, and his response to stress. Research indicates that if communication with the infant is secure at least a third of the time or more, that is enough to support a secure relationship.

Attachment disorders, also termed insecure attachments, occur when the attachment bond doesn’t occur regularly enough. These arise from failure to communicate emotionally.
Disorder Happens when Child’s response
Avoidant attachment parent is unavailable or rejecting avoids closeness and emotional connection
Ambivalent attachment parents’ communication is inconsistent and sometimes intrusive develops a sense of anxiety and feelings of insecurity
Disorganized attachment child’s’ need for emotional closeness remains unseen or ignored, and the parents behaviour is a source of disorientation or terror has difficulty regulating emotion, communicating with others, and with academic reasoning , often has severe emotional problems later

In contrast, secure attachments have the following attributes:
  1. The caregiver aligns her own internal state with that of the infant, and communicates this alignment in nonverbal ways that the baby understands, forming a bond of trust. For example:
    ­ Baby cries: mother feels concern and acts in such a way as to communicate this concern to baby.
    ­ Baby smiles and wants to play: mother smiles back, following baby's lead in play.
  2. These mutual interactions help baby develop a sense of balance in body and mind.
  3. The comfortable interaction between baby and mother creates a sense of safety within baby, inspiring him to want to interact with others as well.
Secure attachments should ideally continue as a lifelong relationship. There is some evidence to indicate abrupt cessation of a secure attachment relationship causes severe emotional trauma in a child who is unable to understand why the caregiver is no longer available.

Issues to do with Separation of modern Malaysian parents and their babies

While by no means the norm in Malaysian society, it is nevertheless not uncommon to hear of parents leaving their young child with a relative or babysitter for prolonged periods on a regular basis. At the extreme end of the spectrum are those parents that leave their child to be raised by a relative or babysitter in another town, visiting their child on weekends only, or even less frequently in some cases. Less extreme, but still generally perceived as absent by an infant or toddler, are parents who leave their child alone with a maid or grandparent all day long, leaving for work very early in the morning and coming home late at night, often after the child has gone to bed. Both these scenarios will typically lead to insecure attachments being formed with the parents. It is possible however for the child to form a secure attachment with the relative, babysitter or maid, who plays the role of primary caregiver, provided this person is willing to fulfil such a role and remains with the child for at least the first three years. Failing this, such children typically experience attachment disorders.

Does this mean working parents cannot form secure attachments with their children? Certainly not! What it does mean is that working parents have to work extra hard to spend time with their children on a regular basis, and to avoid prolonged separations from them. It is invaluable to put yourself in your baby’s shoes, to see things from his/her perspective. To an adult an hour or two passes by in the blink of an eye – to a young child missing his mom, this same period of time is an eternity. Young children are literally unable to grasp the concept of time – as far as they know when mom leaves the room it could be forever. For a very young child, below the age of 3, quality time equals quantity time. Certainly half an hour of your full attention is better than an hour of your being physically in the same room and completely ignoring your child, but don’t fool yourself into thinking half an hour of your full attention everyday is enough to satisfy your very young child and to bond effectively with him/her. It may work with a much older child, but with a very young child, research indicates that you will need to spend at least one third of his waking hours in positive interaction with him in order for him to form a secure attachment with you.

It also means that working parents will have to seriously consider the role of the person who actually spends the most waking hours in a day with their child and to be comfortable with the idea that their child should form a healthy secure attachment to this person as well. In the final section of our article this month we will look at practical options with regards to avoiding frequent and prolonged separation from your baby: 1. Do both parents really need to work? In this section we will do some basic calculations to see if it is financially possible for one parent to actually be with your baby full-time at least for the critical first three years of his life; 2. If the answer to question No.1 is yes, then what steps can parents take to ensure their child forms secure attachments? In this section we will look at practical steps working parents can undertake to ensure their child grows up with healthy emotional development; and 3. If one parent stays at home with the child, then what is the role of the other parent? Frequently we hear of fathers who grow increasingly distant from their family, sometimes complaining that mother now only has time for the children – what actually is the role of the parent who works full-time with regards to spending time with the children when the other parent already seems to fulfil all the child’s needs?

Being There for Baby

The first question we need to consider is “do both parents really need to work?” Many couples will automatically answer “yes” to this question, without really sitting down and calculating the costs in involved. In fact, there are many additional costs incurred when leaving your baby in the care of others and you may find that these costs actually outweigh any income earned! And I am talking here only of direct expenditures. If you add up the indirect expenses over the years, you will probably find that in most cases it is simply not financially viable for both parents to work full time during the first three years or so of your child’s life. So let’s do some basic calculations:
  1. Figure out how much you really earn in one year. We would typically consider our net income, after tax and other deductions, as how much we really earn. I would like you to go one step further – from that net figure, subtract the money you spend on working: petrol/transport to go to work, parking, clothing, meals (include any meals you have to buy ready-made, including eating out and catering, because you don’t have time to cook at home due to work), magazines you buy to read while on the LRT, makeup and other personal grooming expenses that you wouldn’t require were you not working, gifts you contribute towards for your colleagues birthdays/weddings/special events, club memberships you take up because of work… in fact any and all expenses you incur that are work-related. If you are unsure about your daily expenses, try keeping a record of every single sen you spend for an entire month to give you a clearer picture.
  2. You should now have a more accurate picture of how much you actually earn. Now, list down your new expenditures associated with having a baby that will be raised by someone other than yourself – you need to be aware that raising your baby yourself incurs less direct expenditure than leaving your baby with another caregiver – I will explain why in the paragraphs below:
    1. a. Your first expense will be your babysitter/nanny/maid’s fee. If you’re hiring a full-time live-in person, don’t forget to include their travel/flight/visa fees and any other non-monthly costs. Be fully aware that cheaper does not mean better – after all it is your own child that you will be leaving with this person, and with whom your child will likely form an attachment (more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better either in this case).
    2. b. Your next expense will be infant formula. Breastfeeding is always the preferred option when it comes to infant nutrition, and is completely free – this magazine has discussed the reasons for this in considerable depth over the past several months and much information is easily available on this matter so we will not discuss it again here – but an infant who is frequently separated from his/her mother typically ends up being completely formula fed. The reason for this comes down to basic logistics: for a working mother to provide breast milk for her infant she will need to pump frequently and regularly while at work and to find somewhere to store her milk as well. This is no easy task, by any standard, and it is not surprising that hardly any full-time working mothers succeed in pumping beyond a few weeks at most.
    3. c. Besides the recurrent cost of the formula itself, you will need to add in costs for all related gear such as bottles, bottle warmers, and bottle sterilizers. Many working mothers who start out breastfeeding also do make an attempt at pumping breast milk at least for several weeks – so you’ll need to add in costs for related gear such as an electric breast pump and breast milk storage bags as well. Full-time stay-at-home-mothers actually do not need any of this gear as they should be able to nurse whenever necessary, but many do buy breast pumps as well anyway. However, speaking from personal experience, it is actually not a necessity.
    4. d. Another additional expense comes from medical bills for common childhood illnesses. Statistics show that young children catch a common cold 6-8 times a year. Another very common illness in young children is gastroenteritis, with the symptoms of diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. Exclusively breastfed children typically do not have such frequent bouts with any of these common illnesses (the benefits of breastfeeding are too extensive to be covered here, please refer to for a detailed list). This is not to say they never get sick (although some never do seem to get sick at all!), but if they do, it is far less frequently than those infants and toddlers who do not have the protection of breast milk antibodies, for far shorter durations, and with minimal symptoms. Consider my own daughter – she had her first ever cough only at the age of about 22 months, and even then it lasted only for one day! Obviously, if mom is not there to breastfeed on demand, the child cannot benefit from this protection and consequently ends up getting sick as often as the statistics indicate, incurring medical bills that need to be settled.
I have just given you some examples of how you should get started tabulating your income and expenditure to work out whether or not it is in fact necessary for both parents to work full time, especially in the critical first three years of your child’s life. Obviously, my examples are not exhaustive. As a general guideline, work out your true net income and balance this against all fixed, monthly recurrent, seasonally recurrent and one-time expenses that you will incur once your child enters the picture. Identify which expenses would be incurred only if you were to leave the primary care of your child to someone else and which expenses would be incurred anyway. I have already identified some of these for you in the paragraphs above. Be aware that some other expenses often listed as “necessities” may not be needed at all if you are practising the ideals of AP, especially the ideals of breastfeeding, bedsharing and babywearing (covered in my articles on the 3rd, 4th and 5th ideals of AP in previous issues of Infanity). If you find you have a negative, zero or even only a slightly positive balance, it would certainly make sense for you to seriously consider taking 2-3 years off of work to raise your child yourself. Remember I am answering the question, “Do both parents really need to work?” – by no means am I implying that only those who cannot afford to continue working are those who should quit their jobs and raise their children themselves – I myself chose this path, and certainly not because of anything to do with money, but rather because I firmly believe in this 6th ideal of AP and that my baby is best raised by me, not by anyone else. In fact I believe in it so strongly that we delayed having any children until I was ready to raise her myself, having already achieved an illustrious career and not needing to find any fulfilment through holding any other job.

You really need to work – so what’s a parent to do?

If in spite of everything you truly find that neither parent can take time off work to be your child’s primary caregiver (stay-at-home-dads can work almost as well as stay-at-home-moms – I am not saying that only mothers have to make the decision to stay at home with the kids, fathers can also. Who actually does so depends on your particular family circumstances) and if you have to leave your child with someone else for a major part of their waking hours, how can you ensure your child forms healthy secure attachments? Your first step must be to ensure a consistent, loving and nurturing primary caregiver for the first three years of your child’s life at least. This person must not only be unconditionally available to your child all the time, she (typically it’s a grandmother, nanny or maid) must also have the same parenting philosophy and approach that you have, and you as the parent will have to make sure that this is truly so, or risk your child developing one of the insecure attachment types. The next thing you need to do is to be prepared to sacrifice some sleep for that period – your child will need to also spend time with you, every single day of his or her life, for several hours a day. Many children do what is termed “reverse cycling” in order to achieve this bonding with their parents, preferring to sleep in the day and stay awake at night when mom and dad are at home. Understand that this is a good thing – it proves your child needs you, needs your company, not just your RM. Of course you need to sleep too – no parent can survive for long if they have to work all day and stay awake all night as well! A good option to satisfy your child’s need for physical proximity to you is to cosleep. Give your child your undivided attention for an hour or two everyday and let them “hang out” with you the entire time you’re back from work – this includes cosleeping/bedsharing at night. Please never consider going on a holiday without your child. Plan all vacations with your child in mind, as well as all leisure time. Your child is only this young once in a lifetime. Consider every moment when you’re not working as bonding time – be there for them! Once they’re older, they will want to do things on their own. For now, they want to do things with you. Eat all meals together – never leave it to the maid/nanny/grandma to feed your child when you are at home. Every single moment when you are home should be your child’s special time with you.

What about when mom stays at home and dad goes to work?

Children need their dads as much as their moms. Sadly, many fathers live in their own worlds, leaving all childcare to their wives. This is tragic and causes many emotional problems later in life. Research has shown that fathers play an important role in developing healthy emotions in their children. In fact, everything we’ve been discussing so far in this article applies equally well to father as it does to mother. And everything I’ve said in the paragraph above this one applies to both parents as well.


Copyright ©2006 Minni Ang