Saturday, 20 March 2010

Good For Babies - But is it Good For Mothers? Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting and Baby Wearing

Since I first began my blog I have had a vague intention to write a post on baby wearing and attachment parenting. But my views on the subject are so conflicting that although half formed ideas have been floating around in the darkest recesses of my brain for a while, any attempt to gather them together and organise them into a coherent post seemed a near impossible task.

I became pregnant with my first child when I was 22. I was idealistic and impressionable, and when I look back now my heart bleeds a tiny bit for the naive young woman that I was. She was so desperately excited to be having a baby. She had no earthly clue how horrendously hard it would all turn out to be.

During my pregnancy a friend lent me a copy of The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Liedloff had developed her continuum theory of baby care through her observations of Yequana indian women living in the South American jungle. She claimed that their babies almost never cried due to being carried constantly by their mothers as they went about their work and daily business, and that the whole community enjoyed a level of well-being and contentment unheard of in modern western societies due to having had their need for contact with their mothers consistently fulfilled as infants. Liedloff had come to the conclusion that western styles of baby care which involved separating babies from their mothers by putting them in cots and prams, and leaving them to cry, were responsible for the high levels of mental ill health in our society. I had what I thought was an epiphany reading that book, and vowed then and there that I would never ever put my baby down. Liedloff had mentioned very briefly that some house work, particularly bed making might be hard to do whilst carrying a baby, but had gone on to say that a resourceful mother would find a way. I was going to be a resourceful mother - I was going to find a way.

I am still of the belief that a baby needs as much physical contact with his/her caregivers as they can feasibly manage. I chose to breastfeed my children as and when they seemed interested, as opposed to trying to impose a feeding routine onto them. I also co-slept with my two younger children for the first six months or so, simply because it meant that I was actually able to get some sleep (a breastfeeding baby soon learns how to help herself during the night) and I also believe that if I had co-slept with my first child and therefore not had to endure night after night of broken sleep, I might have been spared the worst excesses of the post-natal illness that destroyed our early relationship. The basic principles of attachment parenting still make sense to me. And yet... so much writing on the subject, particularly the Continuum Concept itself, now makes uncomfortable reading for me.

Firstly, I would say that in my experience baby wearing doesn't 'work' in terms of its promises to create a happy baby that rarely cries. Both of my sons screamed as though they were having their fingernails pulled out with a pair of tweezers, almost continuously (or so it felt at the time) despite being held for the vast majority of their waking hours.

Secondly, I found that far from satisfying my own primal needs as a mother for contact with her new child, I didn't always enjoy it very much. I hated the lack of personal space that came from having a baby attached to me all the time, and found myself longing for someone to come and just take the baby away for a bit. By the time my babies were old enough to be carried in a back pack, it just plain did my back in. I struggled on regardless, still believing it was the 'right' thing to do.

Thirdly, I often found it more or less logistically impossible. I must have tried just about every sling on the (incredibly lucrative) market, but failed to find one that allowed me the freedom of movement I needed to go about my everyday tasks with ease, and which also felt secure enough that I could be confidently hands free. I became only too aware of just how miserably I was managing to fail Liedloffs resourcefulness test. The dirty dishes, dust and laundry kept creeping up ever higher around my ears.

By the time I got to baby number three my approach had, through necessity, morphed into a 'whatever works' type of pragmatism. The Youngest spent much of her time in one of those metal framed cloth chairs, watching her brothers play and the washing machine go round, and observing the general chaos that surrounded her with remarkable equanimity. Wouldn't you just know it, she was the happiest baby out of the three of them. I was so busy managing at home alone with three children that it was physically impossible for me to always pick her up at the first squawk, and the poor thing basically got offered a feed whenever I had a spare ten minutes to sit down in. But she took it all in her stride and I can certainly detect no ill effects so far.

So now as a more experienced mother, I can sometimes feel slightly uncomfortable listening to vehement advocates of attachment parenting and baby wearing. My discomfort comes I think from the idea that there is only one way to nurture a baby effectively, and the resulting pressure that attitude puts on women to do it the 'right' way. In order to be good enough mothers we must breastfeed on demand, preferably until our children self-wean. We must carry our babies in close contact with us at all times no matter how difficult or impractical this may be. We must sleep with our babies untill they leave our bed of their own volition, with no thought for our own personal space or how this may affect our enjoyment of our sexual relationship. But most of all we must always be there, and this has huge implications for women who need or want to work outside their home, or to have an identity apart from being a mother.

So with this post I am asking: Would a wide spread adoption of attachment parenting methods mean a huge step backwards for women in terms of their options and freedom of choice in how to live their lives? Does attachment parenting theory lean too heavily on the notion of endless maternal sacrifice being the true path to womanly fulfillment? Perhaps the reason that the Yequana women and other women all over the world practice baby wearing is because they have little choice in the matter. Has anybody ever actually asked them if they enjoy working all day with their babies tied to their backs? Perhaps given the option some of these women would give their eye teeth for a pram and a nanny and an office job. I don't know. I'm not trying to infer that our way of life is in any way superior, but equally I don't accept that it's necessarily inferior either. It's just different. I do however think that attempting to parent as if one lived in an interdependent and supportive community in the South American jungle - when one actually lives in a post-industrial western society in which most of us barely know our neighbours and have to parent alone for most of the day - can be strewn with difficulties. It certainly was for me. What do you think?


  1. I'm a bit more on the fence these days too.

    I ended up doing a lot of Attachment Parenting 'techniques' with Kai, but like you by the sounds of it, it was more by accident than forward planning. Kai as a baby cried A LOT, wanted to feed all the time and wouldn't be put down. So I ended up carrying him around in a sling to save my arms a bit, feeding him on demand because it was the only thing that guaranteed some peace for an hour or so, and co-slept because he woke frequently. But I can't say he became a blissfully contented baby because of it - he STILL cried all the time, woke frequently, wouldn't be put down! But I did like what we were doing, it felt like the right thing. And next time around I'll probably go for a similar approach.

    Saying that I've not been one of those all or nothing attachment parents - that just wasn't for me. Once Kai could move about we used the sling less and less and I moved him out of our bed and into his own room when he turned 1 - that was my limit for the time I wanted to share my bed. I'm still breastfeeding but am encouraging Kai to wean now as I'm ready to stop.

    For me, it's about what works and feels right rather than any idea of a universal ideal parenting technique.

    Interesting post Gappy, I like it.

  2. What a brilliant post. I too believe that there's nothing more comforting for a newborn to be close to its mother. I've got three children and found all three very different. My first son has never been very cuddly and as a tiny baby would fuss after an hour or so in the sling and want to be put down. Some number two loved cuddles but hated being in the sling. My daughter loves both cuddles and sling. But my back isn't so keen on the sling. All my babies have been big and I can only wear them in a sling for so long because my back can't cope. Plus when you have other children, you bend down a lot and get down on the floor a lot and it's hard to manage that with a sling on.

    As for co-sleeping, I was too nervous to try it with the first, I did it a bit with second and do it a lot with third. That said, my nights are still very broken because she seems to want to be wide awake between 2am and 4am.

    I agree with you, promoting attachment parenting isn't as strightforward as its proponents would claim. Each child and parent is different. All three of my children have cried a lot as babies, my second had severe colic. I don't believe this is due to Westernised parenting. as a first-time parent it's so easy to swept along by these views but you soon realise practicalities are different! Great post.

  3. Yes it was! Excellent work, Gappy - A+. Each to their own, I say - my son seemed to dislike physical contact, but then my sister* has always inferred that he's borderline Asperger's. That may be the case. He's still not a cuddly kid, and I can't imagine he'd have wanted to be on my back 24/7.
    (* I'd like to say, 'What does she know, eh?' But unfortunately she's a speech therapist who specialises in children with ASD. Damn.)

  4. I agree with what you say, I believe every child has different needs and not everything works in the same way.
    Having had three boys and two girls I would say the boys were much harder....they wanted to feed constantly and be held all the time. When I had the first two I felt I had to conform to settling them in their pram/cot...was a nightmare. Girls both settled on their own, happy whatever/where-ever. Third boy who was number five cried for first twelve weeks and I held him for those first 3 months, a lot of time in a sling- he wouldn't have stopped crying otherwise. Also noticed that 3/5 thumb suckers were much better at sleeping and comforting themselves. As you say, what would the women who have to wear their babies do? No one ever looks at that when writing these books do they. :0S

  5. I found myself nodding along to your post, I've often thought the same things. Like you, I practised 'attachment parenting' with my first out of necessity and instinct and not because I'd made a conscious decision to hold and breastfeed and sleep with my baby as the 'right' thing to do. I've always found it a bit disconcerting that AP has such liberal, feminist followers at one end of the spectrum and fundamentalist, Christian patriarchy followers at the other, all supporting the same practices but usually for entirely different reasons.

    Brilliant post.

  6. Yes, I agree too! I definitely followed some AP principles with my daughter and I actually did this consciously. I don't have full respect for my 'parenting instincts' - I guess having no real mothering role model - so I tend to read books and then make up my mind based on what seems right and what seems to work for us. But there were some aspects that weren't for us (co-sleeping - initially my husband wasn't keen on it, and then my baby proved to be utterly not keen on it, and still isn't).

    I think that there is a real disconnect between AP principles and modern post-industrial life and that, as usual, the people who get stuck in the middle and have to muddle through with a compromise (and risk censure for this) are women. It feels like from some quarters women are chastised for not being 'AP enough' when the reality is, as you say, that our society is not well suited to this type of parenting. It's not individual mothers who should bear the burden here.

  7. Great post I was nodding along with you.

    I became a mum for the first time at 23 and now 3 kids and 12 years down the line I'm all for doing what works for each family and with each child. They are all so different but I think this knowledge only, sadly, comes with a lot of time and a lot of experience.

    Even those who are open to a "whatever works" style of parenting from the off don't realise what set ideas they have until they come crashing down around their feet.

    On a lighter note, there is a tag for you over at mine lovely. Regale us with your 10 things which make you happy.

    MD xx

  8. I think the whatever-works-school is the one we all end up in. I did the baby-wearing thing for quite a long time (still kind of wearing the three-year-old - not such a great accessory now).

    It worked for his personality and mine so that's why I did it. Got lots of flak for it from those around us though (parents etc) so that probably made me more determined to stick with it.

    There's just no getting it right is there?

  9. Great post. I was a 'semi' AP parent, adopting the principles as and when it suited me. Like you, I was totally sold on TCC - until it came to putting it into practise. Carrying my baby all the time was HARD and not always as blissful as Jean Liefloff suggested. I kept reminding myself that JL didn't ACTUALLY have any children of her own and all she got to carry around her NYC apartment was her non-vocal pet monkey. Babies aren't monkeys. Funny that the child care guru on the other end of the spectrum, Gina Ford, is also childless.

    For me, after semi-AP-ing three kids, I realised that we do what we do as best in can in response to our own families and our own instincts, and Not What the Gurus Say.

  10. Gappy,
    I think you're really onto something here. I do feel that attachment parenting is sort of a step backward for women, but of course, it depends on the woman. I was reading a book by Dr. Sears (I really dislike his philosophy and methods, by the way) about breastfeeding when I had my son. I was so frantic for information on how to do it right that I gulped down those pages as though they were medicine. But over time, I realized how sort of crazy it was. A woman needs a break once in a while. She needs to feel like herself again. She needs to feel ownership over her body after nine months of sharing it. Carrying the baby in a sling, feeding on demand, sleeping with your baby, if you're not into it, can make you feel like crap. You need to take care of yourself to be a good mother, to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then your family. Otherwise you'll bring the whole house down. So I think we need our space. There is a lot written about how great breastfeeding is. I think the message is out there. But sometimes it doesn't work for women, and they shouldn't be made to feel guilty. They may even feel more of a bond or love their children more when they have some personhood back.

    Great discussion!

  11. Thank you so much for such engaging comments everyone.

    Perhaps in the end, surviving the journey of parenthood necessitates the adoption of a 'whatever works' type policy eventually. It certainly seems to be where most of us end up!

    And I bet all of our children turn out just fine too.

  12. Oh, just a big "hear, hear".

    Has anyone ever wondered whether the lack of mental illness in the Yequana community might be the result of many factors, not just baby-wearing? Just a thought. We'd all be Roger Bannister if it came in a canister (by which I mean that if life was really that simple, we'd all have got it sussed by now - but can you name that tune, by the way?)

    I've always been a firm believer in the muddling along school of thought. Babies tend to make their wishes known, one way or another, and then parents respond as best they can. So baby-wearing works for some babies, and some parents, in some situations. Or not.

    Just as well I'm not a health visitor really. I'd be hopeless at giving proper advice.

  13. Finally I've come across someone who questions Attachment Parenting. My sister has been a big supporter of this way of parenting and quite honestly her constant harping on about it has been driving me mad! From breastfeeding, through co-sleeping, to babywearing, I'm sick to the back teeth of being told how to do it (and, I might add, by someone who's had to read it in a book!).

    For the record, I've breastfed both of mine (and at 12 months, my son is showing no sign of giving up just yet), and I've co-slept with them. As for putting them in a sling 'so that I could get on with my daily tasks', well...lets just say that my back couldn't take it (and I think I've tried every sling going).

    I'm a firm believer that children need their own space (and as their mothers we need space too), and I wonder whether AP is just another way of hanging onto your kids? I don't want to make a sweeping generalisation at all, but in my experience my sister is using it as a way of defining herself, or even of justifying staying at home. Her son is due to start school in September and she's now talking about home educating. But, I have to ask myself the reasoning behind this...who is this for?

    Oh, and every book I've ever had thrust upon me concerning Attachment Parenting seems to reference the work of John Bowlby - someone I studied at length at university, and who's theories I have great difficulty agreeing with.

    I like the concept of good enough parenting...and it's definitely something I can go along with! I don't need anyone to tell me what's best for my family...but if I need help I do know when to ask.

    So, great post Gappy, and very thought provoking.