Parenting: A new take on bringing up baby
Some parents are saying no to the strict rules and guidelines as espoused by child-rearing experts and are adopting a more instinctive style of parenting instead
Given the fact that a record number of babies (19,289 to be exact) were born in Ireland during the third quarter of 2009, and with bookies offering odds for recorded births to exceed 75,000 in 2010, you'd think that parents would know what they were doing when it comes to raising a child. Right? Not necessarily.
Since the early 1900s, experts have been offering advice on raising children. Strict Victorian regimes of avoiding cuddling and other attention to build the child's character seem ridiculous and controversial now, and yet we still rely heavily on the advice of experts when it comes to raising our children.
Popular books like 'The Contented Little Baby' and programmes like 'Supernanny' have introduced the principles of controlled crying and naughty steps into modern family life.
According to these we can potty train our toddlers in a matter of days, they advise against letting our children share our beds and encourage us to introduce routine from an early age.
Parenting 'by the book' has become so popular it has almost become a style in itself. How many times have we asked, bleary-eyed, at 3am, "I don't know what's wrong with him. What does the book say?" Whatever happened to trusting in old-fashioned maternal instinct?
It is precisely this question that has led to a growing number of parents choosing to ignore conventional wisdom on how they should be parenting, and seeking an alternative. They belong to a school of parenting thought known as Attachment Parenting (AP).
Simply put, this is based on techniques that encourage a more responsive approach, helping parents to trust their instincts.
Cork-based mum-of-three Catherine Verling follows the principles of AP now, although didn't for her first child.
"Our experience of Attachment Parenting happened after my second son was born. On my first child I followed most of the conventional techniques as this was how I was brought up and it was popular in the media.
"I'd heard of AP but it was contrary to almost everything I was doing. I learned about AP practices and the more I tried them, the more it made sense. Specifically, we co-sleep, baby-wear, use gentle discipline/respectful parenting and my last baby was a home birth."
For mum-of-two Tania Lawlor, also based in Co Cork, the fact that her preferred parenting methods actually had a label came as something of a surprise.
"I didn't know about AP. I just believed in co-sleeping, breastfeeding on demand, listening to his needs and refused to follow books or a strict routine. I followed my instinct as a mother and made decisions that felt right for me and my child."
After noticing the increasing desire of some parents to move towards a more gentle, instinctive way of parenting, Kate Byrne, a psychologist and mother of seven, established the Attachment Parenting (AP) Ireland support group in 2006.
"Modern parenting advice has created a very warped sense of what is normal and what constitutes a 'good' baby," she comments. "AP isn't about ticking boxes. There are no rules. It's about learning to trust your instincts and finding what works for you."
So what, then, is it that these parents are doing so differently?
Elimination Communication (EC)
This is a process based on the idea that babies are aware of their elimination needs from birth and can communicate this to parents. Nappies are removed from as young as four months old.
Again, conventional parents consider this very radical but there is actually nothing that new about EC. In developing countries, nappy-free babies are the norm. Even in our own culture, children were out of nappies at a much younger age 50 years ago compared to now.
Perhaps it's the convenience of disposables that has led to the nappy-happy culture of today. What is most extreme -- a four-year-old wearing a nappy, or a four-month-old not?
For many parents, co-sleeping with their child feels totally natural. Mothers who've had a traumatic birth, C-section or those who are breastfeeding have moved the baby into their bed for practicality.
Admittedly, most co-sleeping arrangements result in the father moving out of the bed with one AP father writing in the national press recently that he shared a bunk with his eldest child while mum and new baby occupied the marital bed.
For mothers like Catherine, co-sleeping is perfectly natural and makes for a harmonious household.
"When our second baby was a month old I pulled a muscle in my back and couldn't keep getting out of bed to feed him so I brought him into the bed and never looked back.
"We are now three in the bed, ourselves and the baby, while William (five) and Peter (three) sleep alongside us in another double bed. They can stay there as long as they wish."
As an alternative to a buggy, many AP parents choose to transport their child in a sling. Sometimes known as 'kangaroo' parenting, carrying your child follows the principle that holding a baby close is beneficial.
Despite concerns raised last year when Infantino's SlingBaby was withdrawn following the suffocation of three babies, baby-wearing continues to increase in popularity.
This is evident on website babywearingireland.com, established in 2008 and now with more than 500 regular users.
Although AP has attracted labels like 'alternative' and 'extreme', advocates emphasise the fact that it is actually a very traditional style of parenting.
They point out that it is formula, cots, disposable nappies and pushchairs that are the modern alternatives and, by no coincidence, the things that make money for the huge corporations behind the brands.
As Catherine Verling sees it: "AP practices such as breastfeeding and co-sleeping aren't attractive to big business as there's very little money to be made out of them so you don't tend to see AP practices advertised."
Of course, like so many aspects of parenting, AP is a lifestyle choice. For some, it will simply never appeal.
"Such a depressing idea," commented one mother when I spoke to her about the concept. "Take all modern conveniences that make having a small child bearable and chuck them away. Eh... no thanks."
Because of reactions like this, Kate Byrne explains that it's hard to know exactly how many parents are following AP.
"They are still in the closet about what they are doing, conscious that society in general, and perhaps even their own friends and family, will consider that what they are doing is wrong."
The ongoing debate about the choices we all make, whether we label them traditional, extreme or anything in between, is perhaps just a classic case of tomato, tomato -- different choices, but completely valid all the same.
As one AP mother puts it: "Attachment parenting is not extreme; it is merely one colour on the parenting spectrum."
Tania Lawlor sums up her feelings about her choices. "Parenting is not easy. I make mistakes like everybody else, but we should be encouraged to follow our instincts instead of always referring to books.
"Children are not machines or robots. They don't all work the same."
For Catherine Verling, AP has been a steep learning curve. "I found it difficult initially to go against my previous beliefs and the expectations of my parents and society.
"I had to become more patient, change my expectations of how children naturally behave, learn how to listen and be more empathetic myself."
The reality of what parents like Catherine, Tania and Kate are doing may not really be that extreme at all. Nevertheless, many parents remain unaware of AP, or sufficiently uncomfortable with it to remain fully committed to conventional parenting wisdom.
But here's a thought. We look back now at the Victorian regimes for raising children and consider them totally ludicrous. Could it possibly happen that our own children or grandchildren will look back on the 'Contented Little Baby/Supernanny' parenting regimes of the noughties as equally ludicrous?
It would be interesting to stick around and find out.