When Did "Attachment Parenting" Come to Mean Vaccine Refusal?
May 24, 2011

Our Vaccinate Your Baby Facebook page is not only a place for people to connect, it has also become a place for people to take action.   This diverse community – of over 20,000 “friends” – consists of parents, concerned citizens, health care providers and public health advocates who want to stay informed and educated regarding immunization news.  We are proud to announce that several of our members have even established a new pro-vax parenting group called “Wear ’em, nurse ’em, and vax ’em, too!” as a result of connecting through our page.

During the course of their online discussions, our Facebook friends often share their personal opinions and experiences with one another.  In one scenario, we were concerned to hear that parents were being ostracized from a well-known parenting support group as a result of immunizing their children.  Each of the women involved in the discussion had been committed to a style of parenting referred to as “attachment parenting”.  Some of the child rearing behaviors commonly encouraged by Attachment Parenting International (API) include breastfeeding, babywearing and co-sleeping, among many others.

According to the API website their philosophy is about “forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children”.  Their mission statement is to “educate and support all parents in raising secure, joyful and empathic children in order to strengthen families and create a more compassionate world.”
While no one was arguing that this is an admirable mission, these parents were concerned about the  anti-vaccine influences that have become prevalent in the local API support groups.  Even though these women were dedicated to the principles of API, they were chastised at local meetings based on their pro-vaccination views.

As Kristine Munroe-Mahoney explains, “I left the Attachment Parenting community largely because of the vaccination debate. While I love to co-sleep, babywear, cloth diaper, and we didn’t circumcise my son, I simply can’t get behind ill-informed, dangerous choices, faulty ‘science’ and the aggressiveness behind the people who refuse to vaccinate.”
She goes on to say, “I don’t understand why being anti-vax has gotten mixed up with the definition of attachment parenting. To me, part of being an attached, loving parent is taking care of your child and doing whatever is in your power to keep them healthy with up-to-date medical advice…I also dislike that it’s often termed ‘natural parenting’.  I feel that it’s unnatural not to protect your child from deadly diseases…I feel like the AP community has taken a dangerous turn. It’s a shame, because there are so many aspects of it that I do identify with, but I just can’t be a part of it anymore.”
Karen Ernst had a similar experience.   “I always thought AP was about parenting in a way that was instinctive. My instincts always told me to provide the best health care for my children. I had to turn my back on it once I realized that some cult-like forces had overtaken this natural form of parenting and turned it into some anti-establishment political statement. “
“I also am an AP mom who feels completely outcast by her friends,” added Daye Stewart Piotrowski.  “It’s really awful. I have lost dear friends over this and don’t feel welcome at many places. It’s quite sad….My two best friends are also on the other side of this issue.  I second guess my decision all the time.  Of course, I always come to the realization that my kids are more important than my friends but if you have never had to make that choice you have no idea how miserable it is.”
Nikki Nunn-Duff realized that she was not alone in her experience, adding “I am very AP with my kids, natural birth, extended nursing, babywearing, etc. but feel like I have been kicked out of the AP community for being pro-vax. I actually had a friend of mine, my best friend of 12 years to whom I introduced the idea of attachment style parenting, basically break up with me over this.  She told me she couldn’t continue to bite her tongue about my ‘mainstream’ parenting beliefs and that she wouldn’t stand by and watch me ‘murder’ my children.  She told me that when my children die, which they inevitably would, not to come crying to her.  It really hurt me like nothing else.  She even went as far as to bombard my Facebook page with videos of children who had apparently suffered vaccine injuries and added comments to the post with the names of my 18 month old twins.  It was horrible… I hate that I can’t find any other moms to associate with who share my AP views.  It is a lonely place for a new mom to be.”
Nikki even detailed a specific situation that occurred when she brought her vaccinated children to a group event.   She explains, “I was asked not to bring my infants back to an AP group for 3 months following their vaccinations because of ‘shedding’. I know there are other moms in the group whose kids are vaxed but they keep quiet about it and I don’t.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of and I won’t be.  I let all the moms know following their vaccinations so they could see that they hadn’t grown an extra head or anything.  They were fine and I wanted them to see that.  Big mistake.”  Niki goes on to explain that after the group leader “made such a big deal about this”, she decided never to go back.
Fortunately, there were others, like Sara June Thomspson who offered Nikki support by saying “It sure is helpful to have a community that supports your choices. How sad that they banned you because you obeyed the law, followed sound medical advice and vaccinated your babies.”
Kristine adds that “Unfortunately, as much as I identify with AP practices, the community itself can be awfully intolerant. Intolerance is bad, but doing things that are dangerous (not vaccinating) is scary.”

Reading these comments was a bit concerning.  Personally, my parenting style was very similar to theirs, including natural birth, baby wearing, extended nursing, and co-sleeping.  I recalled that when my children were young, I participated in several parent support groups and play groups.  I encountered a variety of parenting styles, without anyone ever being outwardly judgmental and certainly no one criticized me when I vaccinated my children.  It’s important that as new parents, we are supported in making individual decisions that work best for their family.
Unfortunately, what I was hearing from these ladies was judgment, criticism and an overall lack of understanding and consideration – especially regarding their immunization decisions.  I wondered – was this simply an issue of a few leaders impressing their own personal opinions on the group, or is this the doctrine of the group itself?
Oddly enough, the information located on the API website states the following: “API works with families who have made a variety of healthcare decisions. We celebrate diversities of opinion, and take pride in giving a forum for families to share the stories behind their individual choices. API does not recommend any particular healthcare choice, type of healthcare provider, or vaccination schedule, nor do we take a position on whether vaccinations might be the cause of developmental disabilities. We encourage parents to become educated and make informed decisions that fit their unique situations.”
However, in the exact same paragraph, the site references Dr. Sears and his warnings about vaccines.  Contrary to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Sears suggests parents use an alternate and delayed vaccination schedule. In one instance, this delay has been known to result in one of his patients contracting measles and then spreading it to others in his waiting room.  Several postings on the API blog and in their newsletters clearly promoted Dr. Sears’ The Vaccine Book, and recommended resources such as Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, A Medical Controversy, by David Kirby.    Despite medical science that disputes his claims, David Kirby’s book has been an attempt to suggest that mercury in vaccines causes autism – something that he later admits is not the “smoking gun” he once argued.
Clearly, as evidenced in the conflicting language on their own sites, API has been trying to walk a very fine line.  Outwardly, they want to support a variety of healthcare decisions.  However, that’s not what their faithful leaders are expressing to new parents on the local front, and not consistent with what is promoted through their own own suggested resources.
What concerned many of the parents we heard from is that “natural” is somehow transforming into anti-vaccine.  Not only does this attitude preclude them from feeling welcome in the attachment parenting community, but it discourages parents – who want to embrace “natural” parenting” – from also protecting their children from vaccine preventable disease.

As Lea Langsuyar warns, “My concern is that choosing not to vaccinate has gotten ‘trendy’ within a sub group of mothers.”
Amy McKay Cooper elaborates on that concern by stating, “I think not only is it trendy… but for some moms it is worn like some a badge of honor.”  She admits, “I’m attachment parenting all the way… but I’m not anti-science, and I am a passionate pro-vax advocate.”

What happened in the days following this Facebook conversation is a testament to the power of social media.  The discussion prompted several of these women to create a Facebook group called “Wear ‘Em, Nurse ‘Em, and Vax ‘Em too”.  It is intended to support mothers who wish to balance a more “natural” attachment parenting style with evidence-based medicine and parenting tools.

Amy McKay Cooper, one of the group administrators, explains “We have made an effort to create an inclusive space for a few dozen mothers who are tired of the ‘sanctimommy’ judgment from mothers who are inflexible in their parenting views. We value breastfeeding, but never hesitate to support a mother who finds she cannot…. we value natural approaches to birth, but discuss the risks involved with some of the extreme natural birthing trends… We strive to be more inclusive than groups we’ve had experience with in the past. So thanks to Vaccinate Your Baby, another community has arisen… and the one thing we ALL agree on… that vaccinating your baby on time is the right and responsible thing to do.”

This example continues to impress upon me the resilience of our pro-vax supporters and the wonderful examples of immunization advocacy that exist out there today.  While I am not surprised that API publicly tries to walk the line on immunizations, I do wonder when they will work to fulfill their mission and support these new moms in a way that also supports their immunization decisions.

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