A great deal has been written lately about a style of parenting called Attachment parenting (an offshoot of Natural parenting apparently). At the heart of it is a nursing relationship between baby and mother that is primarily baby centred. The mother responds to the baby’s demands as they arise and avoids anything that suggests fitting the baby into a schedule, either a sleep schedule or a feeding schedule. Practically this means long term breast-feeding on demand, holding the baby for as long as possible and co-sleeping. The idea is that this kind of parenting will help the mother bond more easily and securely with her baby. Mothers are urged to trust their instincts and avoid the interference of professionals.
At first glance its style of parenting that seems to have a lot going for it in the sense that we know secure early attachments form the blueprint for all future attachments in life. Focusing on getting to understand what your baby needs and attending to those needs gives the mother and baby the best opportunity to bond successfully with each other.
However it could be seen as idealistic and exclusive, some important caveats come to mind. What happens if a mother doesn’t trust her instincts? She may have had a difficult relationship with her own mother or had an adverse early experience? Do other styles of parenting necessarily mean that the baby is less attached and therefore less secure? Does this style imply that any mother unable or unwilling to manage such an intense and exhausting style is somehow depriving their baby of vital experiences? And what are the implications for same sex parents? Childcare theories almost inevitably arouse bucketloads of maternal guilt and this one is no different.
To my mind the strategy works better if we think of it as a blueprint for a nursing couple rather than a parenting strategy. As a parenting blueprint it lacks the all-important developmental perspective. Breast-feeding is a different mental experience for a 4 year old than it is for a 6 month old. The same is true of co sleeping. Is the 4 year olds wish to sleep with or be suckled by mother a wish for comfort or is it an attempt to monoplise mother’s body and mind to the exclusion of all others? The mediating of rivalries and jealousies in young children is a series of parenting groundhog days, as we all know. I am not sure they lessen as a result of on demand feeding or co-sleeping. Managing a young child’s frustrations at not getting what they want all the time is an important developmental process.
At some point weaning has to take place. Eventually the child has to manage their frustrations and disappointments without recourse to mother’s breast or bed. I presume supporters of this style would argue that the child should dictate when this takes place. But experience suggests that weaning is a difficult process because it involves the child dealing with intense feelings of loss. The child’s enthusiasm or unwillingness to engage with the weaning process depends on many complex factors. It’s too difficult and complex a process to be left to the child.
As many have pointed out this style of parenting also has implications for the parental couple, with the father being required to take a back seat for what might be years.
Parenting is a much more complex business than just being available 24/7. We all get our parenting wrong at some point between babyhood and adolescence despite our best intensions. In 1953, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the phrase ‘good enough mother’. Rather than persecuting ourselves with what we get wrong maybe ‘good enough’ is all that is required.
As a final thought it is worth fast forwarding to the turbulent world of adolescence. When your teenager is out way past his or her curfew, is not picking up their mobile phone and your mind starts to go into meltdown the fact that they were breast fed till they were 5 will be of no consolation whatsoever.