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'Pick me up, Mommy!' How parents can set boundaries around touch — and why quality is better than quantity

Is your little one always wanting to be held? Here's how to set some boundaries — and get a bit of space. (Photo: Getty)
Is your little one always wanting to be held? Here's how to set some boundaries — and get a bit of space. (Photo: Getty)

It’s surprising how much you can accomplish while holding a child. I have eaten full meals, gone to the restroom, cooked, done yoga and more. Michelle El Khoury, a Philadelphia mom of three, recalls flying internationally with her youngest daughters climbing all over her or being used like a flotation device in the pool many times. Parents are often told to cherish this special time in which our little ones want nothing more than to be in our arms, and a hug can be an antidote for even the deepest pain. But are we meant to carry our kids around constantly? And how can parents set boundaries when they need space?

The extremes of attachment

Momfluencers are one of the groups regularly reminding parents (guilting?) of the importance of constantly holding your kids for their long-term development. This has gotten so extreme that there are now multiple videos on TikTok mom-shaming people for using strollers.

Many of the benefits of constant contact are rooted in science, such as the research around skin-to-skin contact, which shows that laying newborns unclothed on a caregiver’s chest can help regulate their heart rates and nervous systems. There is also the repeatedly proven attachment theory, which was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth throughout the mid-20th century, that shows that our earliest emotional bonds are critical for healthy long-term development.

But there is sometimes confusion between the well-researched and scientifically validated attachment theory and the attachment parenting style. Codified by Dr. William Sears and his registered nurse wife Martha, attachment parenting touts that parents must sensitively and constantly meet their children’s needs. It places a large importance on proximity and touch and, as such, followers of this style emphasize practices like baby-wearing, long-term breastfeeding and co-sleeping.

While each of these things can be beneficial on their own, many parents misinterpret this approach to mean you should avoid putting your kids down or use external devices, like strollers, to hold them. As a result, they end up prioritizing constant contact, while sacrificing their own well-being. Luckily, it may be less about the quantity of contact that is essential for creating a healthy bond, and much more about the quality of that contact.

Quality over quantity

Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, tells Yahoo Life that secure attachment in the scientific sense “is created by the quality of the relationship, not a specific set of practices."

“Attachment parenting practices do not necessarily lead to the formation of a child’s secure attachment to a caregiver," she adds. "They are not predictive of later life outcomes.”

In other words, it’s not constantly holding our kids or forgoing high chairs and strollers that will automatically lead to healthy development. It is the baby's trust in our ability to help them with their emotions and our support of their exploration that matters. Parents' mental health and emotional states matter, too.

If your arms or sanity need a break, it is not only OK to put your kids down, it may be necessary to create secure attachment. Our children’s nervous systems are highly in tune with our own nervous systems. “If you are holding [your child] but stressed, they will read stress from the situation, not comfort,“ Divecha explains, “Emotional responsiveness is the key.”

Another consideration is that children's need for touch changes as they get older. Newborns need a lot of physical touch, but for children entering stages that coincide with developing autonomy, like a baby learning to crawl or a toddler, that amount of touch “would not be necessary or even appropriate,” Divecha says.

"Boundaries are not about rejecting or abandoning our children," says Dr. Siggie. (Photo: Getty)
"Boundaries are not about rejecting or abandoning our children," says Dr. Siggie. (Photo: Getty)

Setting boundaries around touch

OK, phew, so we don’t have to carry our crawlers, toddlers and little kids all the time — but try telling them that, especially when they can’t talk yet. Kelsie Omura’s 8-month old cries almost every time she tries to put him down and the Las Vegas mom already has two other young children. How can we set boundaries in a way that our kids will respond and we can feel good about it?

Childhood development specialist and psychologist Siggie Cohen (affectionately known as Dr. Siggie) says that the first thing parents need to remind themselves is that “boundaries are not about rejecting or abandoning our children.” Parents are whole people, and setting boundaries around touch and holding our children can be opportunities to teach our children “how to cope with challenges and changes."

Cohen recommends the following three steps to setting boundaries with empathy and understanding:

  • Narrate the situation: Cohen recommends that your first step be describing aloud what is happening to your child. For example, if your crawler is next to you on the floor asking to be held while you are cooking, show you understand what they are asking for, even though you won’t accommodate them. “I see you want to be picked up right now. I am cooking.”

  • Validating emotions: Next, help your child see that their feelings around the experience are very real. You can say things like, “It’s hard when I don’t pick you up and it’s OK to feel upset about this. It’s OK to cry,” while still holding your boundary.

  • Coexistence through curiosity: Finally, she suggests teaching coexistence by helping children to be curious about and recognize all the things they can do independently while you are doing what you need to do. For example, try saying something like, “You are playing with that spoon. I am cooking the eggs.”

Bear in mind that there are always exceptions to navigate and consider. If you feel your child requires special attention, consider seeking guidance from an expert.

Remember: They probably (won't) cling forever

As challenging as it might feel at the moment, things do shift, though every kid is on a different timeline. Mom of three Omura says that her 5-year-old was by far her clingiest child; nowadays she’s lucky if she gets a hug. El Khoury’s 6-year-old, meanwhile, recently climbed into her bed for midnight cuddles. Everyone’s child needs change in their own time. But as the experts remind us, it’s both allowed and important to check in with what we, as the parents, need, too.

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