Helping children process and heal from strong emotions

My daughter, who’s on the verge of turning 3, recently had a brief scary moment where she couldn’t find me at the playground. Though it was less than a minute before she spotted me again, for a child that young, that’s a long time and it can really leave an impression.

As I scooped her up into my arms, she started to cry and said, “I was looking for you everywhere. I couldn’t find you!” In the moment, I empathized with her sadness and acknowledged that it had been really scary for her. I held her for a while and then suggested we ride the swings, which is her favorite thing to do at the park.

After this incident, occasionally, she’s wanted to talk about what had happened. Sometimes when we mention that playground, she’ll talk about “one time I didn’t know where you were,” or when we’re snuggling at bedtime, she’ll suddenly start reminiscing about it and going over the details of it again. She also occasionally replays other upsetting moments — like when she was running outside her brother’s school and skinned her knee.

Often parents try to stop their child from reliving a sad or scary moment, worrying that it will only upset them more. Since the moment has passed, it could seem like nothing good can come from being sad over it again. In reality, many children need to talk about upsetting moments multiple times as they work to process the intense emotions they felt. While it may seem counterproductive, this helps them to work through it.

Trying to stop a child from discussing it again can actually cause them to stuff the emotions inside and never really resolve their pain. Talking about it can help them to feel better.

When my daughter brings it up now, after I acknowledge her feelings again, I also remind her, “But then you found me and I hugged you. Then, I pushed you on the swings.” I want to make sure she remembers how I comforted her afterwards and that we turned it into an opportunity to connect. This way, it doesn’t seem quite as upsetting, and it helps to turn it into more of a positive memory than one that makes her sad. I hope that in this way I’m helping her to process her emotions and to show that I’m there to support her through them.


Inspired to read more about children and strong emotions?

Identifying emotions

Creating space to “hold” your child’s

Helping children through divorce

Stay patient while teaching toddlers how to handle strong emotions


Tantrums are opportunities to connect

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 1)

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 2)

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

How little we really know about the topic of shame

Connection after breastfeeding

My 3-year-old daughter recently found our old nursing pillow in the closet. It had been about a year since we finished nursing, so I was surprised when she said, “Remember I used to lay on this?”

She didn’t remember actually nursing, though, and when I told her that’s how I used to feed her, she had a lot of questions like, “Was the food on the floor?” I explained what nursing was, and she smiled and asked sweetly, “Can we do that now?”

While we couldn’t nurse, I did set the pillow on my lap and let her climb up on it. She lay there smiling up at me and started twirling my hair, her favorite relaxing activity.

I hear a lot of moms who are starting to wean worrying that they’ll be sad once they’re done nursing, or that they’ll miss this time for connection.

My daughter and I have found many other ways of bonding as she’s grown older. There are more “I love yous” and kisses from her and more time for playing her favorite activities one-on-one. We still lie together often and bedshare part of the night. While these activities aren’t quite replacements for nursing, they are wonderful ways that we can keep a strong attachment.

After she laid on the nursing pillow on my lap, we were able to play together for about 30 minutes while her brothers were playing on their own. She created a game for us where she’d pretend that it was nighttime and we would pretend to sleep, sharing a pillow and cuddling under the same blanket.

It’s nice for us to reminisce about the time we nursed and to remember that it was one of the ways that our attachment developed in her earliest years, but we’re still enjoying other opportunities for connection now. And I know that even when she’s older and these games are over, there will be other things to replace them, such as times where we can talk about her day at school or other one-on-one activities we can do together.


Inspired to read more about breastfeeding?

API’s Breastfeeding Library

Nature’s Case for Breastfeeding

The Real Breastfeeding Story

A story of working and breastfeeding, and staying determined

Editor’s pick: To promote breastfeeding is to promote Attachment Parenting

4 ideas for gentle weaning

Morning cuddles: a story of child-led weaning

When Your Partner Wants You to Wean: Heart Advice for Nursing Mothers

5 tips for a strong nursing relationship while working away from home

Smartphones and parenting


Editor’s note: This week, May 1-7, is Screen-Free Week — an annual observance founded by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Plan to unplug from digital entertainment this week and instead connect with your family. Need more inspiration? This post was originally published by Attachment Parenting International in 2015, and it is as thought-provoking today as ever:

Instinct tells you it’s been too long. She’s been too quiet. It has only been a few minutes since you held her. Probably all is well, but you can never be sure without checking.

And, even if all is fine, you long to lift her, hold her, gaze at her. You wonder why you didn’t carry her everywhere today as you often do, wearing her and, instead, have put her down across the room. As you look toward her, just out of sight, you consider loading the dishwasher. You walk toward the sink, but mid-stride, that first instinct wins out. You tell yourself it will be just for a minute and then you’ll get back to work. Just a quick check in.

You always have an ear listening in her direction as she often calls for you first.  But this time, you are the one to seek out, lift and hold the rectangular little body of…your smartphone.

Could it be that our smartphones are hijacking our inborn biological systems, the bonding instincts that are activated when we become parents? Are we actually driven by borrowed biological systems to hold these devices, carry them, interact with them and be concerned about “feeding” — aka, charging — them in ways that go beyond our tendencies with other tools?

While pregnant with our first child at age 18, I worried that one day I might forget the new baby in the grocery store. I knew I would love our baby, but what if I became distracted for just long enough to get in the car and drive away? Once our son arrived, I was thrilled to discover that not only was it impossible to forget him, but that it was challenging to leave him home with his dad because he was perpetually on my mind and I felt empty without him in my arms or at least nearby. When I went back to college, I studied maternal attachment in an attempt to grasp the science behind the apparent magic of maternal attachment. I was awed to learn from the research of Klaus and Kennell that mothers of newborns have instinctive ways of touching, holding and gazing at their babies in their first moments. How much, I wondered, did instinct support our roles as mothers and fathers?

kim allsupNow, 45 years later, I am an elementary school teacher. I started to think about a potential link between smartphone addiction and parental attachment systems just after I taught my students about the cuckoo bird. My students had looked curious when I told them how the cuckoo lays her egg in the nests of other birds that, unwittingly, raise the nestling as their own. They grimaced as I spoke about the interloper pushing the natural offspring out of the nest and how the baby cuckoos behave in ways that trigger an instinct to care and feed from their new mother.

I wondered, could our smartphones be like baby cuckoo birds that activate the magical bonding system I experienced as a young mother? Teenagers today certainly appear to be as attached to their smartphones as I was bonded with my baby back in the era when all phones were attached to a wall and did not offer Facebook, Twitter, a camera and a flashlight. Is addiction to our smartphones and their ability to connect to social media rooted in a deeper place than a fondness for cute cat videos?

In the case of the birds that unwittingly become foster parents, the calls and the gaping mouth of the chick automatically trigger the feeding instinct. Similarly, are there features of the smartphone that automatically turn on our biologically based attachment behaviors?

I can hear readers saying, “Hold on there. One baby bird looks similar to other baby birds, but my smartphone looks nothing like my baby!” This is true enough. It seems far more believable that pets, especially dogs, with their expressive faces, hijack our attachment systems. In fact, research highlighted in this April 2015 New York Times article suggests that that our dogs routinely utilize our parental attachment mechanisms, that gazing into the eyes of our own dogs and our own babies both cause a surge of oxytocin.

This bonding hormone that is released in some animals and in people in a variety of pleasant social interactions, oxytocin is especially strong in women during and after childbirth and during breastfeeding, and high levels of oxytocin are found in both mothers and fathers of babies. We are all likely to experience a surge in this hormone that reduces stress hormones when we get and receive hugs. Now scientists are discovering that contact with others through social media or a phone call from a loved one also causes the release of oxytocin.

So, while a smartphone does not look like a baby, it is — like a baby — associated with a frequent surge of this hormone that brings relaxation, reduces fear and promotes bonding. A second similarity between the smartphone and a baby is that they are carried continually or, when not carried, kept in continual awareness. We also maintain an awareness of the need to feed babies and to charge cell phones.

Finally, the classic pose of the phone cradled between the palms of two hands is very similar to the “encompassing palm contact on the trunk” along with “intense eye-to-eye contact” observed by researchers Klaus and Kennell when studying mothers’ first contact with their babies. It is not that the baby looks like a smartphone, but that our inner experience of ongoing awareness along with bursts of the bonding hormone during connection is similar whether we carry and connect with a baby or a socially connected smartphone.

Do you experience your smartphone as a cuckoo in your nest?  Please share your thoughts about the possibility that your smartphone could tap into your instinctive attachment systems.

Bedtime together, beautiful and attached

IMAG00863My daughter and I stopped bedsharing a few months ago, just before her 2nd birthday. She was excited to move out of the daybed we shared in her room and into her own toddler bed.

Even though we’ve shifted away from bedsharing, bedtime still remains for us a wonderful time of connection. Sometimes I hold her and sing to her, which usually puts her to sleep before the first song is over. Most of the time, we lie together in her bed. She’ll play with my hair and cuddle up against me.

Lately, as her vocabulary and her brain continue to grow and develop, she’s been talking a lot as we lie together. She often talks about times when she was sad and frequently repeats a story about a time when I was out at the store and she was home with my husband: “I wanted you and you weren’t there, and I was crying.”

I believe this comes up often at bedtime, because it’s a time when she feels a need for comfort and knows she is safe. She can share a sad memory while knowing that I’m there for her at that moment.

I’ll listen to her story and acknowledge that it was a really upsetting time. Then I’ll remind her that in this moment she has me and I explain that now, when sadness is over, our emotions change and feeling sad is temporary. I reinforce that I am there to comfort her when she needs me.

Even though she’s no longer a newborn with an intense physiological need for me to hold her, bedtime can still be a scary time or a sad time if a child is alone. I love being able to be with her at this time and to let this be something positive and happy. While I don’t sleep with her in her bed, she still refers to it as “Mommy and me’s bed.”

When she wakes in the morning, she finds me sleeping in the daybed in her bedroom. She’ll walk over, and I’ll lift her up into bed. We’ll snuggle together until we’re ready to wake up. It’s the best part of my day and the best way to wake up. I love that I’m one of the first things she sees in the morning and that, even half-asleep, she knows that she just has to walk a few steps to find me and to feel that comfort and love. It’s beautiful to see how our sleep situation has evolved but is still a way for us to stay connected and attached.

Preserving Bonds at Birth: Scent and Smell

Sometimes, life-saving and injury-preventing medical interventions are necessary for the best birth outcome. Always consult with a trusted and qualified midwife or obstetrician when planning your birth experience. 

I thought about naming this series ‘Bonding at Birth’, but realized that wasn’t an accurate depiction of what happens at birth. The fact is, you and your baby already have a bond at birth. Your baby has spent 9 months in the womb listening to you and your partner’s voice, knowing the sound and tempo of your heartbeat, and living to the rhythm of your lifestyle.

Birth is a transition in your bond, and instead of thinking of it as “the moment” a bond begins, I like to think of it as crucial moments in which a bond must be carefully preserved and a transition in your relationship honored.

Why Bonds Need Preserving

We often think of birth as a series of events: pregnancy, labor, and birth. But, birth is much more than that. To quote midwife Carla Hartley, “Birth is more chemical than it is mechanical.”

Birth is a physiological process that should be left alone when possible. Any non-medical intervention alters the natural state of birth, interfering with the process and complicating things which may have otherwise remained uncomplicated.

Most women have a natural instinct after birth for a quiet, calm environment where they can meet their baby and make the transition from bonding in the womb to bonding “in person”. This type of environment allows the mother and baby close contact, with little interruption, and an exchange of scents, smells, noises, and intimate bonding activities including breastfeeding.

The Role of Scent and Smell in Birth

Scents and smell play a crucial role in birth and in the moments just after birth, both in the transitional bond and in safety. Your baby is comforted by your scent. Your scent plays a role in your baby bonding deeply to you after birth and facilitates breastfeeding.

Research is clear that each mother has a distinct breast odor that can be identified by her baby. This identification, which takes place in both you and your baby’s olfactory system memory, is a crucial part of the mother infant bond and in normal development of your baby.

Scent and smell is not only crucial for your baby. Your ability to smell your baby after birth can also play a major role in preventing postpartum complications, including postpartum hemorrhage.

Biologically, we are designed as mammals to “identify” our babies after birth. Your olfactory and limbic system are waiting for cues that it’s time to proceed to the next step in the physiological process. The smell of your baby let’s your body know that it’s time for oxytocin to be released so that your uterus can contract properly after birth.

How to Preserve Scent and Smell at Birth

Anything that interferes with the ability for you and your baby to smell each other after birth can interfere with bonding and biological cues. So, what can you do to preserve that bond?

Firstly, make sure that your birth attendants and support persons recognize the importance of these factors play during the moments postpartum. A quiet, calm, intimate environment should be created for you and your baby as much as possible.

Your baby should be allowed to stay in your arms as much as possible after the birth, while touching and “checking” by others should be kept to a minimum.

Tips for After Birth:

  • Don’t put a hat on your newborn. It can interfere with scent exchange, and there is not science to support the use of infant hats to regulate body temperature.
  • Stay skin to skin (no clothes) as much as possible. Put a blanket over you and baby if warmth is needed.
  • Allow your baby to explore the breast and breastfeed for the first time without pressure.
  • Avoid bathing your baby for as long as you are comfortable. Bathing washes away the natural scent of your newborn.

Remember, there is a reason our babies are born naked and covered in the scent of birth.

I know that the perfect conditions for bonding will not exist at every birth. When interventions are needed, you can still take steps to preserve as much of the biologically normal bonding process as you can.


Bath time in our house is a social event. Since becoming the parents of a demanding toddler (armed with a growing vocabulary), my husband and I can hardly remember the days when taking a shower added up to a) showering alone, and b) getting in, washing up, and getting out.

In our childhood, my husband and I both remember bathing and showering with our siblings and mothers, probably out of convenience and because bathing together equaled more playtime (does anyone else remember playing with tub town toys?). However, once we reached a certain age, our parents designated separate bathing times for each person; co-bathing became something special that only small children could do, and bath playtime was all but lost.

Fast forward a few decades to the present. Nowadays, showering is a two-person activity and sometimes a group event. When Annabelle was a newborn and even a baby under age one, we bathed her in our tub or placed her in a toddler tub. This worked swimmingly so far as getting her clean was concerned; however, she howled with disapproval whenever mom or dad tried to sneak off to the tub by their lonesomes. Eventually, being the swift thinkers that her parents are, we realized that our little one might be more content if we simply invited her to bathe with us. And well, she is.

On a typical day, Annabelle likely showers twice in the morning, once with my husband and another time with me; and if it’s been a particularly messy day or we’ve been at the public swimming pool, she showers yet again. Most of the time, she sits down in the tub and plays with her toys while one of us focuses on the business of washing up. My husband tends to shower first, so he takes care of soaping Annabelle and getting her clean. By the time I make my way to the shower, Annabelle is eager to join me for a second round of tub fun (though this time I shower and simply let her play with toys, collect dripping water with a cup, and splish and splash).

Bathing together serves many purposes for our family. As most folks in the western world do, we bathe for cleanliness. But now that our toddler insists (and I’d say rightly so) on bathing with her mom and dad (and sometimes both at the same time), taking a shower or running a bath invites play, allows us to bond, and offers the opportunity to relax and heal after difficult days. Additionally, cobathing allows breastfeeding mothers, like myself, to nurture their babies, soothe engorged breasts, and to enhance milk production. A La Leche League article recommends that parents of adopted babies nurture their breastfeeding relationship by bathing together. Another La Leche League article suggests that breastfeeding mothers of newborns who have had a difficult time establishing nursing try cobathing as a natural way to soothe mom and baby, connect with each other, and relax into the breastfeeding relationship.

For our family, cobathing is more often than not, a positive way to spend time together, to play, and stay clean and healthy. To establish a safe and fun bath in your family, you may want to check out Dr. Sears’ Bathing with Baby tips. What are your thoughts about cobathing? Does your family enjoy showering together or is bath time a sacred ritual for spending some time on your own?