Attachment Parenting is responsive not box ticking

I missed the attachment parenting segment on BBC Breakfast, incidentally, because I was in bed with my baby. Anyway, with all the interest about it on Twitter, I thought I better catch it the second time around. I braced myself, expecting talk of these AP hippy weirdos who are making life harder for themselves, ruining their children and judging everyone else.

Actually, I was surprised. I didn’t hate it. It could have been better but it could have been a heck of a lot worse. I don’t think it drew out anything particularly new or interesting about the topic. Maybe it’s not as “controversial” as the presenters claimed it is?

Well, from the vox pops it started with, they covered the standard negativity toward attachment parenting. One man called that level of physical closeness fine at a year but not at three. One woman with a very young baby said she wouldn’t be able to handle it because she needed to go back to work. Another laughed at the idea of breastfeeding for three years because, personally, she felt you should stop when they have teeth. The last woman agreed that parents should give their children more time but not necessarily physically.

So, how’s that for balance? If this is indeed a reflection of what the public thinks of attachment parenting then all it really shows is that it’s shrouded in misconceptions. Children don’t suddenly become independent at a year but the way attachment parenting manifests itself over time naturally changes. Many AP mothers do go back to work, although admittedly Dr William Sears (a major advocate of this parenting style) isn’t that encouraging of it. If you’ve only breastfed for two to three months then it’s unsurprising that three years sounds too long. You struggle to imagine it. Physical closeness is important (very important) but it’s not everything.

The segment had been introduced earlier in the programme with the question: “How easy is it to cut out bottles, cots and buggies?” I smiled. How did the human race survive before them? The question also makes it sound as though they’re bad habits, which they aren’t necessarily. Breastfeeding is the natural, normal way to feed mammalian babies but some times things go wrong, especially in a society like ours which is chronically unsupportive of mothers, and bottles may have a place. Can you be an attachment parent and bottle feed? Of course. But it may change the way you bottle feed. You’re more likely to hold your baby close while feeding, for instance.

The psychologist on BBC Breakfast, David Holmes, was surprisingly positive about attachment parenting, admitting that he saw the benefits even if there wasn’t much research to back it up (ahem, there is research but, of course, parenting – not just AP – is a hazy area).

He worried though that although the goal of AP is to introduce children to the world in a way that leads to confidence and independence that some attachment parents use it to keep their children needing them. These self-indulgent parents he’s talking about though? I mean, I’ve not done a study or anything. But I’ve yet to meet one.

The mum on the show (ed. I found out later it was Della Hyde) explained that breastfeeding to two years and beyond is a recognised guideline of the WHO and the NHS. Well, I think the NHS says a year and beyond but she’s right about the WHO.

In fact, I’m a little uncomfortable about putting breastfeeding with discussions of attachment parenting at all. Although I believe that a lot of AP principles are important, I worry putting breastfeeding on a list makes it seem as if it’s only for people who parent in a certain way instead of the way that the human race is designed to feed its young, regardless of parenting style.

This point raised concerns about how breastfeeding might affect a father’s ability to bond with his children. The mum pointed out that this was offensive to bottle feeding mothers as it suggests that without breastfeeding you can’t develop a strong bond with your child. I’d just add that breastfeeding can significantly help the process due to hormonal exchange, prolonged physical contact and the fact that it makes you stop for a bit to chill with your child. However, it certainly doesn’t mean you won’t bond if you don’t breastfeed.

The only ones obsessed with a list seemed to be the show’s producers and presenters. They’d come up with their catchy “3 B’s” – “breastfeeding, bed sharing and baby carrying”. They were surprised when the mum admitted that she’s not bed sharing with any of her children right now because she’s pregnant and they’re too wriggly. What? You mean you can have boundaries, that you can be flexible?

I thought she came across really well, showing that there was a balance to her lifestyle and that attachment parenting isn’t about ticking boxes, it’s about being responsive to your children’s needs while finding solutions that fit the whole family.

I also loved that they recognised that her son Will is an independent child. This is something that surprises people about Talitha, actually. She is confident and happy when we’re out and about (unless unwell or tired). Yet people often expect her to be clingy because we are so attached.

This segment reaffirmed to me why I prefer the term “natural parenting” to “attachment parenting” (though I have issues with any parenting label). A label lends itself too easily to a set of rules and parenting, like any relationship, doesn’t thrive that way. But the idea of pursuing “natural” parenting, to me, is about being responsive, gentle, instinctive and not doing anything that feels wrong. (See The Mule’s post Babies don’t need ‘Attachment Parenting’ but they do need ‘Responsive Parenting’)

I could go a step further and say that my natural parenting framework as a Christian is to think about the way that God parents me. He is slow to anger, never abandons me and loves me unconditionally. The details of how that translates into life with Talitha is something I’ve got to work out day by day.

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    • Oh I’m glad you liked it. You did such a great job up there and your son is lovely. I’m blushing a bit that you’ve seen this! x

  • Great post! I too think that people are surprised that Andrew is so independent and confident, given how close we are and that AP seems to be our overall parenting ‘style’ (I also don’t think labels are particularly helpful at categorising). Breastfeeding comes into it, but like you say, I’m cautious to link the two all the time. For me it’s part of how I parent, but doesn’t mean to say everyone has to be the same.
    Ruth recently posted..Anyone else tired and weary?

    • It just makes sense though, doesn’t it? If you give them the attention then why wouldn’t they be confident?

  • Great post

    What bugs me is that a lot of people reject AP because they don’t understand what it really is

    Yes I went back to work at 3 months with both of mine but I still consider myself AP, why? Because we found a nanny that was also child-focused rather than rule led and we continued to breastfeed, co-sleep, babywear and be led by their cues rather than our view of how to minimise the impact of children on our life

    I understand wanting to minimise the impact but I also feel that we have lost the instinctive response to a child’s needs and AP starts to let us trust our instincts to not let them cry alone, for example, and do what feels right
    Muddling Along recently posted..What is this ‘all’ and do I really want to have it?

    • Exactly, it’s about trusting your instincts. If it feels wrong, it probably is. All the rest just comes down to is details.

  • Great post – I love the ideas of attachment parenting although I wouldn’t call myself one. We have done what fits for us – D was bf until nearly 9 months, we co-slept for 6 weeks and I love babywearing but also use the pushchair a lot. We have a semi-routine but it is structured around what he wants , when he feels like getting up or napping etc.

    I didn’t watch the program but might have a little look now!

    Bex @ The Mummy Adventure recently posted..Becoming a ‘Grown-Up’ – SP

    • I don’t think many people who actually are practising AP would call themselves that. And I don’t think a label matters at all. For me, it’s just been useful to know that there are other people who parent like I do and I’m not crazy for choosing to do the things I do. Although, should I even need that outside validation about something as personal as parenting? I’m not sure.

  • A really good read and a thorough piece. I don’t know what type of parenting I do, I just do my best. However I’ve hardly been away from my son in his 20 months of life. Its challenging at times and more circumstance that choice at first however, he combo feed untill he was 8 months. Now he has roughly one, two bottles max per day. I cuddle him to sleep, before dawn he comes to our bed and while it has its challenges, I like awaking to his cuddles. He may be around my ankle when we are at home but when we go out, he’ll happily abandon to do this thing. I read a book when he was much younger it was given to me by a friend Baby Watching/by Desmond Morris, and it says the more time you spend with your child and the closer you are to your child the more confident they will be (my summary, of course)If anything I took my que from this book and i’m happy that I did :0)
    MsXpat recently posted..How much is too much? Striking the balance…

    • No that a label matters, at all (!) but you are SO AP, MsXpat!!! That book sounds lovely. I’ll have to get my hands on it.

  • Fab piece Adele. I agree with you that parenting labels are not useful and tend to stigmatise parenting styles to create media sensation. I BF Curly Girl until she was 16 months, carried her in a sling and an Ergo and tried to understand her cues. She never slept with us though. Does this make me an AP parent? I don’t really care. What matters to me is that we raise a confident, caring child in the best way for us.
    Bod for tea recently posted..The two women who want to Organise-Us

  • […] Queen has followed the Attachment Parenting conversation this week with interest, and provides an enlightening and interesting take on the current […]

  • Hi, I baby wore Aaron in a Moby Wrap for well over a year and breastfed him for 13 months.
    It definitely had the result of making him really independent – when we go to Ireland they really notice it as do the nursery staff.
    It is simply because he is emotionally secure (and therefore NOT clingy, NOT insecure) – he has never been left crying in a cot for 40 minutes wondering where Mum has gone.
    This is a superb post darling and the photo of you baby wearing put a lump in my throat – you are both stunning.
    Liska x
    Liska recently posted..ME on the RADIO – LBC 97.3 tonight! Topic of Conversation: The Olympics

    • And yet if I had a penny for each time someone told me my parenting choices would make her clingy! 🙂

  • I missed this, too, but it sounds like it was a good piece. As you know I’m a play-it-by-ear, do-what-feels-right parent. Lots of it fits into AP, lots of it doesn’t. And I like it that way! I don’t like the labels.

    We did extended breastfeeding (just over two years), some bed sharing (when we needed/wanted to), baby-wearing (second time round), BLW (does that count as AP?) and lots of talking, singing and attention (whether from me, Chris, or the girls’ Granny).
    Tasha Goddard recently posted..Quinoa burgers

  • I think the TV execs were hoping for some wacky hippy who had 5 kids and they shared one big bed. It really frustrates me how we need to put a label on everything. We’re parents, we try to raise our children in the best possible way that we see fit.
    I’d hate to think of people being put off baby wearing for example just because they don’t co sleep etc and so aren’t in the AP ‘club’.
    Having said that I have met some mothers who react with horror if you mention you are considering buying a Baby Bjorn 🙂
    The Fool recently posted..Reasons to be cheerful – the H edition

    • So much truth in this comment. I was actually put off bed sharing at first because it seemed part of a parent-type I was certain that I didn’t want to fit into. I only succumbed to it out of desperation. And now it’s so right for us, I’d happily do it with a second baby.

      I feel I must admit though that I am one of the mothers who react with horror at mention of Baby Bjorn carriers! I try not to be so stupid but they *are* (in my opinion) awful quality with powerful marketing behind them. That said, anyone who says that a particular brand decides what kind of parent you are seriously needs to go get their head looked at.

  • Oh I missed all this (too busy spending time with my baby I guess!!)

    I often feel the term “Attachment Parenting” does attract a certain image that shuts me out of the loop. For instance, I breastfed for 12 weeks, but 6 of those weeks were blighted by constant, golf-ball-sized blocked ducts, agonizing pain and a terrible feeding relationship between baby and me. I tried everything but nothing helped and I switched to formula because it was making both baby and me miserable. It was the best thing I ever did. I was sad we couldn’t do it longer, but we had a much closer feeding connection after the loss of pain (for me) and full satisfaction without choking on a fast letdown (for baby).

    I also had a 9lb 6oz baby who grew very fast and is now in the 98th percentile for everything. He’s also a wriggler. I could not use a sling with him, despite trying. So again, I fall down on the typical “attachment” side, but we have a truly close bond. At 10 months he spends most of his day playing happily between coming over for cuddles and kisses and smiles for hours at a time. He is content to be with others, but at night time he wants nothing more than to fall asleep between mummy and daddy, in our bed.

    I’d say we are attachment parenting with all the core values, but we certainly don’t fit the “stereotype”. And I’m sure this is true for so many others. I’m half sad and half glad I missed this on the tv. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

    • I’m sorry you had such a rough ride with breastfeeding. It’s a shame that you didn’t have better support with it because that really sounds like it was uncomfortable for you both!

      Who can blame babies for wanting to be in our beds, huh? I know I’d rather not sleep alone most of the time!

  • I love that way you recognise the limitations of labels around parenting. For me, labels bring up connotations of “clubs” of parents, ganging up together like a crew of football fans, when in real life it just isn’t like that. Also, the idea of having a tick sheet of things that you have to do to be in a certain “club”… I find it all a bit contrived, as if parenting is some sort of project or hobby to be approached with a set of rigid rules to “do it right”.

    Personally, I breastfed my daughter for over a year, but she slept in a cot in her own room at 10 weeks old. If she wakes in the night now – or sometimes if we’re away or she’s just struggling to sleep – she sleeps in the bed with me. I tried a wrap but got on better with a buggy and a baby carrier. I never at any point thought “this is the type of parent I am” and I don’t now. I just do it. I do what feels right for me and her. I remember thinking when I was pregnant that she’d be in the room with us for at least 6 months but her dad’s snoring disturbed her sleep and so she went next door. It was a decision made as we went along, as many of our decisions have been!

    I’ll never forget something my dad said to me when F was newborn. He said there are all sorts of different approaches to being a parent, but you have to go with whatever feels right for you and your personality, otherwise it won’t be “genuine”. He said it’s all about instinct and pointed out that different people will have different instincts. He’s a wise man.
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    • I definitely do use labels as a sort of shorthand sometimes – especially for work – but in real life it’s generally more harmful than helpful. I can see why they exist but I’d rather we all just do what you do – follow your instincts and know yourself and your child.

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