Empathic parenting is the heart of secure attachment and child thriving.
Listen to the book review:
Children are born expecting their needs to be met quickly, as in the womb—their bodies expect an external womb experience for the first 18 months or so because they are highly immature. Human babies look like fetuses of other mammals till about that age. Ashley Montagu (1986) put it this way: Babies need a “womb with a view.” Thus, it is best to be tightly attuned to their needs during this period to ensure optimal normal development.
To be an attuned parent requires empathic concern for the well-being of the child, taking the child’s perspective—imagining how the child is feeling and moving to meet the need. This requires some understanding of how a baby’s brain and body are co-constructed by parental care. Understanding babies’ needs, the evolved nest, and how meeting those needs shapes a healthy cooperative child is a place to start. After the first few years, parents can take a step away, after the child has developed self-regulation and confidence, with their help. But in the first 18 months or longer, babies need 24/7 attention and quick calming so that their body systems learn from quick calming experiences to calm themselves in a similar manner. What babies practice is what they become.
What does empathic parenting look like in the first few years? Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker show us in their book, Attached at the Heart: Eight Proven Parenting Principles for Raising Connected and Compassionate Children. It’s a conversational compendium of research, stories, and personal accounts aimed at parents of young children, but its principles extend to the lifespan of the parent-child relationship.
Empathic parenting is what peaceful cultures provide where optimal child development is the norm. It may also help parents heal from their own childhood wounds, educating them about child needs and positive parenting, and guiding them in providing the support they themselves may not have received.
The overall approach is to encourage falling in love with the child, then to listen to the child and one’s instincts. “Ask yourself, Will this strengthen my connection with my baby?” (p. xxvi)
“Good parenting begins in your heart and then continues on a moment-to-moment basis by engaging your children when feelings run high, when they are sad, angry, or scared.”
They present eight principles for which they cover multiple subtopics and provide ample suggestions:
Prepare yourself for pregnancy, birth, and parenting. Choose your obstetrician, mother-friendly hospital and doula. Avoid unnecessary ultrasounds due to their effect on fetal development. Stay fit.
Feed with love and respect. They describe many benefits of breastfeeding for mother and baby, how breastfeeding mothers get more sleep and have less chance for depression. “Comfort nursing” means providing the breast when the child needs comforting. This is a standard form of comforting used in traditional societies around the world. They urge gentle weaning when the time comes, whether less than a year or more years.
Respond with sensitivity. Building a strong heart connection with baby requires parental empathy, represented by an attitude of “Your feelings matter to me. You can trust me. I will help you feel better.”
Use nurturing touch. The authors describe how touch is a critical aspect of a “womb with a view.” In our ancestral context, infants are held or carried by someone all the time (only half the time by mother). They discuss the benefits of babywearing and infant massage (one of which may be compliance with riding in a car seat!).
Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally. Mother-baby sleep research is discussed including how it is not normal (or good) for babies to sleep through the night or to sleep alone. Reviewing research, they point out that more babies die alone in cribs than die in the family bed. As Dr. James McKenna has studied, babies need mother nearby when sleeping because sometimes they stop breathing. There are safe ways to bedshare and it is vital to co-sleep (same room) with an infant. They offer gentle ways to help baby sleep, describe the research showing the detrimental practice of sleep training.
Provide consistent, loving care. Babies are establishing their sense of trust and their attachment style in the early years. Stressing babies too much undermines their development. It is vital to provide long term responsive relationships, not a “caregiver roulette.”
Practice positive discipline. They provide 25 tips for practicing positive discipline. One of the key tips is to understand what unmet need is behind the child’s annoying behavior. They review the research regarding the harms of corporal punishment—from increased aggression in childhood and adulthood, worse mental health, and becoming abusive toward others. Using spanking on children comes from a misunderstanding of child development and what brings about goodness.
Strive for balance in your personal and family life. Every parent needs to make sure that they are taking care of themselves so they can care for their children. One mother’s story they include is of a mother of twins who let go of her own secondary needs for the first three years, but then things got easier. Young children are an investment of loving attention that pays off in the long term.
This classic book is a wonderful parental companion that can be read a few pages at a time. Inspirational stories and research nurture the parent into an empathic embrace of her child. Mary Tarsha and I did a podcast (at the top of the page) reviewing the book comparing its recommendations to those of the evolved nest. One thing we recommended for their next edition is nature connection, but otherwise their principles are similar to those of the evolved nest. We gave the book two thumbs up.
Montagu, A. (1986). Touching: The human significance of the skin. New York: Harper & Row.
Nicholson, B., & Parker, L. (2013). Attached at the heart: Eight proven parenting principles for raising connected and compassionate children. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.