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.