Attachment parenting: Why being embedded with baby could be the key to a happy childhood
FOUR-year-old Izzy and Nevie, two, are happy, chatty children who love the occasional chocolate treat and trips to the seaside. Unusually, however, the sisters are still breastfed – and will be until they choose not to. Neither child has ever been pushed around in a pram or buggy, and both will sleep with their parents in a huge bed in their specially designed "family room" until they decide they want a room of their own.
Izzy and Nevie’s mother, Michelle Mattesini, is a practitioner of “attachment parenting” (AP), a controversial child-rearing movement that is gathering momentum across Britain.
Although the theories that underpin it date back to the 1960s, the profile of the method – that stipulates children are kept physically close to their mother at all times, so their needs are met immediately – has never been higher. The recent Time magazine cover that featured a three-year-old boy standing on a chair, latched to his mother’s breast, might have been shocking to many but it led to a huge surge in the sales of AP guides by parents desperate to apply some kind of method to the madness that characterises babydom.
Now, a new US reality TV series, Extreme Parenting, will feed our endless fascination with how other people are raising their children – and our growing obsession with how to bring up our own.
More than 30 attachment parenting groups have sprung up around Britain, while the AP Facebook site has gathered 1,500 followers in its first few months. The interest, perhaps, is a reaction to the over-promotion of regimes such as Gina Ford’s, where every minute of the baby’s day is regimented, and Supernanny Jo Frost’s naughty step.
For Mattesini, a stay-at-home mother from Totnes in Devon, the answer was the “three Bs” of AP: breastfeeding, baby-wearing and bed-sharing.
“For the first five weeks of my daughter’s life we struggled,” she says. “We had no idea what we were doing. Izzy was crying and she wouldn’t sleep. I’d brought a wrap [sling] when I was pregnant and my husband said, 'Why don’t we put her in it, so she can sleep and we’ll just carry her around and continue with our evening?’
“All my social conditioning was shouting, no, she has to be in her cot at 7pm and I’m supposed to sit downstairs and do adult things. But then I thought, let’s do what works and what makes us happy, and it has gone on from there.”
Michelle was influenced in her thinking by reading The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. After studying tribes in the jungles of South America, the American anthropologist concluded that babies have an innate set of expectations, that they remain physically close to their parents and that their needs are met immediately.
Western society, with its cots, bottle-feeding and controlled crying, leave these expectations unanswered, she argued, creating children with psychological problems. So, to create sociable, cooperative adults, infants must be constantly carried, usually by the mother, co-sleep with its parents and be breastfed “on cue”.
Also at the core of AP is “attachment theory”, developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby. Its premise is that the best way to ensure the “secure attachment” necessary to create emotionally healthy children is for infants until the age of three to be looked after by one constant care-giver, preferably the mother, who is in close proximity and responsive to its needs.
At the more extreme end of AP are parents who have gone a step further than attempting to replicate tribeswomen and take their cue from the animal world. Actress Mayim Bialik’s children went nappy-free as babies. Bialik, star of the hit TV series Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, and author of Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, practised something called “elimination communication” that involved trying to read a baby’s signals, and following them around with a potty. Fellow Hollywood actress and AP devotee Alicia Silverstone, of Clueless fame, posted a video of herself on YouTube feeding her 13-month-old son, Bear Blu, by chewing food and spitting it into his mouth.
Mattesini, who runs Attachment Parenting UK, stresses that there is much more flexibility in AP than such examples appear to suggest. In her group in Totnes, there are mothers who work – aided by the advent of AP childminders (currently formalising their own association) who will happily carry your child around in a sling for you – mothers who bottle-feed, and a mother who, for health reasons, does not share a bed with her baby.
Attachment parenting is even being attempted by the parents of twins. Hannah Thorogood, 34, who lives in Lincolnshire with her husband Daniel, 32, breast-fed Elisabeth and expressed milk for Martha for a year. She used slings, with the two babies sometimes tied to one parent, and the whole family slept in the same bed for three years.
“We often carried one on the front and one on the back – it was so much easier to use public transport like that, as we rarely used buggies,” she says. “We deliberately live off a very small income and forgo other things – voluntary simplicity, I suppose – so we can spend time with the children and do things like both cycle to the local village school with them.
“The girls are now coming up to their fifth birthday and are thriving. People often remark how confident and friendly they are.”
While the extent to which modern life allows them to follow AP may vary, what all practitioners believe is that children who are left to cry – as an attempt to sleep-train by exhausted parents – are being “neurologically damaged”.
“Crying is an expression of need and usually it is a late-stage expression of need,” says Mattesini. “So if we can respond swiftly, then that does not have to happen. It’s about really knowing your child.”
For any parent who has tried and failed to soothe a baby who is inconsolable, such comments seem to paint a picture of a different world – a perfect family life that someone else is living.
Mattesini is quick to clarify: “I don’t think there is any parent who would wisely be looking for perfection. It would be entirely futile. There will be times when babies are crying and all you can do is be present and loving. It is about striving to meet ends.”
But is there a risk that this constant striving leads to huge pressure and guilt, when things, inevitably, don’t go to plan? Are women who have to work, who can’t breastfeed, don’t have the stamina to deal with organic cloth nappies, or find it difficult to sleep next to a two-year-old who snores louder than its dad, being set up to fail?
Sharon Hays thinks so. The respected American sociologist argues that the “ideology of intensive mothering” imposes unrealistic obligations and perpetuates a “double shift” life for working women who have to be “supermums”, juggling perfect parenting with successful careers.
Frank Furedi, a sociologist at Kent University, and author of Paranoid Parenting, goes further.
“AP is based upon the idea that, unless you reorganise your life and subordinate yourself to your child, you are, in effect, an irresponsible or even bad parent,” he says. “Even those parents who kick against it feel guilty because they have internalised its message about what it is to be a good parent.”
The professor says, far from something that might be good in theory but unattainable in practice, AP could actually be bad for children. “It creates a situation where mothers and fathers live their lives through their children and cease to have regard for the boundaries. Parents and children are so closely entwined that the independence of the children can be compromised.”
Years after the publication of her influential book, Jean Liedloff wrote an article called “Who’s in control?”, warning of the child-centred approach to child-rearing. She pointed out that, while Amazonian tribeswomen might have carried their children around, they were going about their own business and generally paying little attention to the babies slung across them.
And while Bowlby’s attachment theory has become received wisdom, backed by research that shows the constant care of a loving parent for the first few years benefits the child in the long term, it does not mention the three Bs of breastfeeding, baby-wearing or bed-sharing.
For the majority of parents, of course, keeping their children close is as instinctive as muddling through the highs and lows is the norm.
“Methods like AP complicate parenting,” says Furedi. “Ordinary people with the normal range of intellectual powers, doing ordinary things, can make excellent mothers and fathers. It’s not rocket science.”