Thursday, 7 June 2012

Babies Don't Need 'Attachment Parenting', But They Do Need 'Responsive Parenting'

Everyone is suddenly talking about Attachment Parenting. As the world recovers from the shock of a mother breastfeeding her three year old on the cover of Time, the media spotlight is being shone on this parenting approach, and it seems like everyone, even Alanis Morissette, has got something to say. As someone who breastfeeds toddlers, has a good sling collection and shares her bed with a two year old, it's great to follow the debate, but it also makes me wonder - what do babies really need? In an ideal world, would all children be 'attachment parented'? Is this what we are aiming for, all babies snuggled into their Ergo's, a sort of 'mass conversion', a 'de-buggying'? Would this make the world a better place?

Parenting websites, Facebook pages and forums are consistently bogged down with people debating the right and wrong way to parent, and never more so than now, as we all wonder what we need to do to be 'mom enough'. People can get pretty evangelical about Attachment Parenting, and sometimes there's even a bit of smugness or nastiness, as AP parents take the moral high ground over bottle feeding cot users, who in turn accuse the AP'ers of being enslaved to their kids.

If we try to cut through all this, what really matters? If we look at what we as parents are actually trying to achieve - healthy, happy adults - we need to ask ourselves, does this have to mean sharing our beds with our children or letting them self-wean? I think not. Because what really matters, what is really absolutely crucial to healthy child development, is not 'Attachment Parenting', but 'Responsive Parenting.'

In 2006 the World Health Organisation published a bulletin, 'Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes', looking at ways in which an essentially 'free' commodity, maternal responsiveness, could have far reaching benefits for the emotional and physical well-being of children across the globe. The document contains a fantastic review of the available research on responsiveness - please refer to it for full references. The report states: 'While children need food, sanitation and access to health services to survive and develop optimally, a warm and affectionate relationship with an adult caregiver who is responsive to the child’s needs is equally importantand that responsiveness is 'parenting that is prompt, contingent on the child’s behaviour and appropriate to a child’s needs and developmental state.'

The WHO analysis found that, '...maternal responsiveness was most often associated with language, cognitive and psychosocial development. For example, responsiveness contributed uniquely to language acquisition, even after considering the mother’s expressiveness and other confounds. Maternal responsiveness in early childhood was associated with social competence and fewer behavioural problems at three years; increased intelligence quotient (IQ) and cognitive growth at four and a half years; school achievement at seven years; as well as higher IQ and self esteem, and fewer behavioural and emotional problems at age 12.'

It sounds like quite good stuff, this maternal responsiveness! But what does it actually mean in action? Here is my attempt to distill it - as always I welcome your views in the comments below:

Responsive Parents:
  • Observe their children, notice and interpret their cues, and take prompt action.
  • Respond to their child with love, consistency, empathy, kindness and humanity.
  • Question and seek to understand their own responses to their children and the familial and cultural background that informs them.
  • Help their children to learn more about their responses to their own emotions, and to other people.
  • Acknowledge that all children are individual unique human beings who need to be responded to in individual unique ways.

Any parent, regardless of their economic status, educational background, age or class can be a Responsive Parent. Any parent, regardless of whether they choose bottle and buggy, or boob and sling, can be a Responsive Parent. Likewise, even a parent who breastfeeds beyond six months or has a family bed, can be an Unresponsive Parent! I believe it's time for mothers to stop the in-fighting and the mummy wars, and realise that by focusing on the rights and wrongs of the many and various choices and approaches, they're missing what really matters: Responsiveness.

Parents who tune into their baby from the start, who listen to them, who treat them with respect, and consider their needs and wishes - are 'getting it right'. Parents who are tuned out are 'getting it wrong' and need support. The WHO research review found that time and again, those parents who were offered help and intervention were able to improve their responsiveness to the benefit of their children: 'All adults have the capacity to lovingly care for their children, but a number of reasons stop some from doing so: poverty, stress, illness, or just lack of awareness of the need for such care.'

Attachment parents such as myself are often very interested in making the world a better place, but if we really mean business, we could do a lot worse than remember the following:
  • Attachment Parenting is just a tiny sprout on a very big tree called Attachment Theory. The founder of Attachment Theory, John Bowlby, never made any mention of co-sleeping, babywearing etc, and was clear that it was the quality of care and the mother's attunement and responsiveness that made the difference, not the parenting techniques she applied.
  • Any parent who responds to their child consistently and lovingly is 'getting it right', regardless of the milk they choose to feed, where they lay their baby to sleep, or how they carry them.
  • Parents who are unable to meet their natural capacity to be consistently and lovingly responsive can be helped with the right support.


As always I welcome your thoughts.

.



49 comments:

  1. I agree that responsiveness trumps parenting labels. The one thing I would add to your list is a basic knowledge of child development. I think it would be easier for parents to be responsive if they understood that what their child was doing was developmentally appropriate.

    For example, I was observing the two-year-old class at the preschool where I work and my children attend through the one-way mirror window. Another mother was watching, too, and very distressed at what her son was doing.

    Basically, he was standing in front of the play oven door. He wasn't moving, and the child who wanted to open the door wasn't fussing. They were at a non-verbal impasse (both children are English Language Learners with different home languages). The mother kept saying "Oh, he's being so mean!". I tried to reassure her that he wasn't being mean, just testing his power. If the other child wanted in the play oven, she would find a way to make her desire known.

    Knowing what's common among children your own child's age or stage goes a long way toward helping the parent do some perspective-taking.

    It certainly helps me as I navigate life with two year old twins!

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    1. I think that is really true and in fact I spent about an hour last night umming and aaing about whether or not to include it as a 'core principle', and in the end, as you see, decided not to, but might change my mind yet!
      The reason I left it off is that I thought that perhaps we should be optimistic and assume that a person can be a Responsive Parent without having read any books or had any kind of academic background at all in fact. I felt that if a person was really tuned in and empathic towards their child, they might respond appropriately without actually 'knowing' about child development.
      But as I said, I might reconsider this! Thank you so much for your feedback it is so helpful! x

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    2. I agree that a better understanding of child development would help, but since that is probably asking too much of the general public, I wonder what else, then, can be done? My mother is always telling me to "Calm Down!" in regards to my children. "Let them be children! Stop expecting them to be adults. They are NOT adults." Perhaps that is the key. Western Civilization is notorious for expecting our children to act like "little adults" instead of letting them grow with parental guidance along the way.

      I wonder if there is any way to educate the general pulic in such a way that they could all just RELAX. Most adults and parents I know have a tendency to jump in and "fix" their child as if the child is broken. They don't understand that raising a child is a process--for both child and parent. Learning the best way to respond to a child is a constantly evolving process. I respond to my 3 children in 3 different ways. What works best for one child does absolutely nothing for the others. I have had to learn that as a parent and it took a lot of hanging back, watching carefully, and controlling my own instincts to jump into the middle of fray to "fix" whatever was wrong. I may not know what is considered "normal" for child development at certain ages, but I try to remind myself that they are only children, they are going to behave like children, and being a parent is helping them learn how to grow into being an adult.

      Does that make sense? I seem to be rambling a bit, but the point I was trying to make was that a person does not necessarily need an academic education in child development to be a Responsive Parent. I think, more than an education in child development, parents need to recognize that children will not and can not be expected to behave like "little adults" and a calm, relaxed yet responsive approach to parenting will serve their children best.

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    3. Can anyone recommend a good source of info on child development? I have no idea what's normal and when. Wish my instincts were more attuned :/

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    4. Hi CB
      I like this site
      http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/en-ca/home.html
      and this book is good for the first year
      http://www.thewonderweeks.com/
      but you are right, it is hard to pin down, personally i would like a chart that plots it all out for me, but have yet to come across this, will ask on my FB page!
      Love for now x

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  2. I would agree with the above comment about a basic knowledge of child development. I have met quite a few parents who make the toddler groups very difficult with their lack of understanding of a child's capacity for sharing, playing 'nicely' etc. I think it is a cultural thing though because we live in a childist society where the moral code has been shaped by an historical religious belief that children are born sinful and need to be 'trained.'

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    1. Thanks for your comment Fiona. I will keep umming and ahhing about whether or how to incorporate this, if I decide to take the ideas in this post forward.
      x

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  3. I like your point leading into how "Attachment Parenting" tends to now be associated contextually with all sorts of things that are not necessarily identified in the philosophy itself; and that perhaps it does the idea and ideals involved a disservice by creating division or something more confined than what it was intended to be. That I feel is a very important point to consider. Perhaps it is the Western way? In terms of needing to classify and compartmentalise everything? I think Mama Jo has a good point as well - however, I am not sure that a lack of knowledge of early childhood expectations are what is the core issue, as opposed to the attitude toward children and mothers about what is "normal" or "accepted" behaviour in a social context. I tend to think more from the perspective that the Western world are told false information about childhood development (by widespread social attitudes that infiltrate most of Western human history); as opposed to that they lack information.

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    1. Hi, Alex! I think that what our Western society thinks is "normal" or accepted in terms of children's behavior is often so far removed from what is developmentally appropriate as to be laughable... unless you're the child who's being made to wait for food in a restaurant then chastised when you fuss about it. Then it's not funny at all! I'm thinking more along the lines of brain development and what a child is mentally or physically able to do more so than what they would learn in a preschool setting.

      And I agree about getting fed false info... anyone can be a self-proclaimed expert and sell a book!

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    2. Thanks for your thoughts you two x

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  4. Fabulous post. I think you really hit the nail on the head. I think labels like 'attachment parenting' can be restricting, and as someone who is particularly interested in attachment parenting beyond infancy I have found it frustrating that the latest debates have been very much about 'the 3 Bs'. Also, that Sears keeps getting the credit instead of Bowlby!

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    1. There's a big confusion I think about Sears / Bowly, or AP / A theory. A lot of people don't realise that they are very different. I know I got into hot water myself once when I was talking on my personal FB page about the value of attachment (can't remember the context!) and a bunch of people got upset and said, this is just your way of parenting, we don't all have to agree with you or do what you do, etc! And I realised that they all thought I was trying to promote attachment parenting, as opposed to attachment, big confusion!
      And yes, I agree, I've not seen a lot of AP stuff past infancy... what to do then? Keep being Responsive I guess! x

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  5. Ahhhh... my thoughts exactly. Especially when working with at-risk children and families, you have to bring things down to this level. The specifics aren't as important.

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    1. Yes, I agree, I really hope the WHO message is getting through to policy makers, too. At risk families CAN be helped to do better. Change is possible! x

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  6. Seriously, this is a very insightful article, and very enlightening, the more I read your stuff the better I like you.

    Thanks so much
    Claire

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  7. This post made me feel so good! I am constantly battling the old skool parenting (showing love and being responsive is spoiling) well-meaning correctors who don't seem to understand the capacity (mainly emotional) of toddlers and how important it is to me to always show love, even in guiding moments. Obedience does not equal well-behaved. I want to nurture the independence of my child. I am not perfect, but I try so hard on a dialy basis! This was an affirmation!! I sent the WHO article to daddy and wish the correctors would read it, but since it is not on TV, it would fall on deaf "eyes." Thank you! I am always learning and evolving. Seeing it in print is a great reminder!

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    1. Thanks, I'm so glad to hear that. Yes, there is still a lot of misunderstanding. Good for you for trying to see things in a different way and I wish you the best with your parenting. x

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    2. Well written as ever milli. I think you would appreciate the work of dr Mia kalef in her book the secret life of babies , which is looking at babies lives pre birth . How we parent is a mixture of so many things and this helps us to understand our own origins . Eleanor

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    3. That does sound interesting, I haven't read it. I have tapped in a little bit to the mother infant relationship pre birth, but would love to read more. Thank you, I will look it out x

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  8. I like all this.

    I have a theory which ties in, though seems flip, but isn't I don't think. I think we have a problem with memory in even responsive parents whose time and media for memory recollection is so challenged (by FB and photos and videos of themselves as children). We all think we remember toddlerdom and childhood far better than we do, and expect children to behave in ways which are just impossible for them. We expect empathy, and understanding of complex instructions, we expect behaviours which are just completely impossible for very young children. So we create emotional battlefields with our kids.

    I say 'we' in a general generational way.

    PS TELL ME ALL THAT YOU THINK ABOUT WINNICCOT

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    1. Thanks L.
      That IS an interesting idea.
      I had already plugged into the unrealistic expectations thing (mostly because I notice myself doing it ALL the TIME!) but had assumed it was just to do with judging by my own standards, forgetting they were 'not like me' etc. But I like your theory, I guess it is part of the same thing, transporting ourselves back into our childhood memories as the adults we are now, rather than as the children we were then. All of this is also a key to good parenting I think - really trying to tap into what it's like to be a certain age, get under the skin of that age and see out of those 4 year old eyeballs! Not always easy!
      Winnicott...yikes...that might have to wait for another day!
      I've referred to him in two posts, this link should work:
      http://www.the-mule.com/search/label/Winnicott
      Let me know what I've missed! x

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    2. Hi, L! Your comment is really resonating with me... you are so right! Memories of being a teenager, or young adult, are so much more clear than memories of early childhood--much less infancy! But a large chunk of western society parents all children as if they had the mental capacity for understanding as teenagers. We need to parent our children where they are, not where we last remember being parented ourselves!

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  9. What a wonderful post, exactly what I have been thinking all these weeks, I want no more labels, focus on what matters, I breastfed and co-slept but had no idea for awhile I was having a mild depression which caused me to not be responsive enough, I can't go back in time but I am thankful I can understand so much more thanks to the support through therapy that I have received, all the things I have learned through counseling talk nothing about having to share bed or "wear" him, but being present and finding balance, taking care of my needs so that I can be responsive consistently.
    Thank you!

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    1. Thanks Vanessa, it sounds like you are doing brilliantly! Good luck and thanks for your comment x

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  10. I enjoyed reading this, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I think of myself as being 'present' with my child. As a newborn that meant being there for every breastfeed, every cuddle, every whimper. As an older baby it meant being there for every new situation, experience or encounter. As a toddler it means being present for trips and scrapes, watching her play and following her lead. When I think of what I need from my mum, I need her to be available for me. A phone call chat, a whole day or a significant event, I just need her presence sometimes. I also mean present without divided attention.

    I read a great quote about fairness recently. 'Fair isn't giving everyone the same thing. It's giving everyone what they need to be successful'.

    Kerry

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    1. Thanks Kerry that's a nice quote and I like your idea about being present. Being fully present, not just for children, but for all our experiences, is not always easy! But it is essential if we want to respond in a genuine heartfelt way. Thanks again for your thoughts x

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  11. While I concur that responsiveness is probably most important, I think given the settings we evolved in, it would be very unusual for a baby not to want to be worn, breastfed and cosleep (as examples) - I guess I'm saying I find it hard to believe there are many mothers who would not be doing these things yet be being truly responsive. And those things actually have biological effects (particularly in the case of breastfeeding, but also in terms of the synchronisation that occurs between Mum and Bub's bodies when cosleeping or babywearing) which can even impact on physical health, not just psychological, which has got to be important.

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    1. I agree with you Anon that if you really tune in to a baby it is likely to want to be held and kept close etc! Likewise a parent doing these things is likely to become more responsive. But I do disagree with you that we absolutely need to do these things to be truly responsive. I think that does a disservice to many mothers who are being very responsive and loving to their children, and undoubtedly raising well attached and mentally healthy adults, without co sleeping or baby wearing etc.
      Thanks for your thoughts! x

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  12. I think Anonymous has summed up my frustration with the people who extol the virtues of AP without understanding Attachment Theory.

    Being responsive to a child goes and helping them form positive attachments goes far beyond being fortunate enough to successfully breastfeed or being able to safely share a bed. It is sad that people become so wrapped up in their own superiority that they believe others are incapable of being consistently emotionally available to their children because of their bedroom set up.

    When you work with children who have poor and dysfunctional.attachment patterns you realise that whether you chose a sling or a pram is not what makes the difference!

    Cathie

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    1. Well perhaps that is where I am coming from too Cathie...having worked as a therapist with children post trauma and abuse, you start to gain a different perspective on these things...
      Another critic has said that this post is 'stating the obvious', and I think, I wish it WERE obvious! But still many parents do not realise the impact of their lack of responsiveness...I hope policy makers can do their utmost to change this.
      Thanks for your comment x

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  13. Sorry, I meant to add, I love the piece and am now off to explore your other writing
    Cathie

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  14. Thank you so much for this! Many AP advocates neglect to mention that AP is not the only way to develop secure attachment to children. There is not the distinction that Attachment Theory not Attachment Parenting. Attachment Theory was developed by Bowlby in the 1950's and subsequently researched by Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby was primarily concerned with examining healthy vs. unhealthy relationships between parent/child dyads. Whether Bowlby would agree with Attachment Parenting as laid out by Sears is unknown because Bowlby passed away in the 90s.

    "The child psychologist who thought she had all the answers to parenting until she became one herself." www.themommypsychologist.com

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I tried to touch on that distinction in my final para, I had tried to write more about it but I quickly realised it was a whole new post! I have got into confusions myself with people before when I have talked about 'the value of attachment', and people have thought I meant Attachment Parenting and got their backs up thinking I was saying my way was the only way etc! Oh dear!
      Hopefully this post will help with that clarification.
      Thanks for you comment, your blog looks v interesting!
      x

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  15. I love it. I think what many people forget is that AP came about simply because it can help lead to responsive parenting. There's research that babywearing actually increases responsiveness more generally (see Anisfeld et al., 1990 - Child Development) which is why it's promoted, but it's just a means to responsiveness. Just as breastfed babies bond easier because of hormones and skin-to-skin contact, but it's not the *only* way.

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    1. Yes!
      Which makes me think it would be interesting to explore what ELSE parents could do to improve their responsiveness, if they don't want to or can't BF, co-sleep etc.
      There might be another post in that one, or perhaps even a book!
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing the post x

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  16. Fan-bloody-tastic! Clear, concise and sheer common sensical advice and opinion, not shouted from some self congratulatory BF, coslept, baby wearing podium. You're brilliant! :) (though I do BF cosleep and cloth bum--- alas I don't baby wear - crucify me!! Fybromyalgia means I can't do it, nor would if I could, all of the time. Does that mean my child will be f@@ked up -I think not) Do as you know to be best for you and your bubs and don't interfere with anyone else unless they ask for the advice/ or search for it on the internet.
    This is such a brilliant article.. thankyou :) :) :)

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    1. Thanks Anon, glad you liked it! x

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  17. hi,
    i love this article - i have recently made a film on this subject and found myself consciously avoiding specifics, such as co-sleeping and babywearing, in light of the real truth of good brain development etc. If you get a chance to watch it i would love to know your thoughts! Its called babyhood and is available through my website - babyhood-film.com or here: http://widgets.distrify.com/widget.html#904

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    1. Thanks - I have watched your trailer and it looks wonderful! I will try and watch the whole film later when the kids are asleep! Thanks so much for letting me know about what you are up to and glad you liked the article. x

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  18. I loved this article. I am wondering your thoughts are on being responsive as a working mother. I feel that I have made the best child care decision that I can for my daughter and I make sure that I give her my undivided attention when I am home. But I get such limited time with her. Although I am confident that her childcare provider is responsive, it is not her Mommy. Also, I didn't hear any mention of Dads and how they fit into the picture. My husband and I stagger our work schedules so that our child's time in daycare is limited. In the average day, my daughter is cared for by several different people. I worry about the affect that this will have on her in the future.

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    1. Hi Stephanie
      Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure how old your daughter is and I think this makes a big difference since continuity and responsiveness are much more vital in the first 2 to 4 years of life when so much brain development is taking place and so much understanding of self and the world is being laid down - the foundations if you like.
      I have written about motherhood and staying at home versus working elsewhere on this blog and my personal feeling is very much that the presence of a mother (or consistent mother figure) for the first 2 to 4 years of life is optimum. I don't take issue with working mothers but I do take issue with a society that does not promote or support the choice to stay at home.
      http://www.the-mule.com/2012/04/reclaiming-motherhood-what-is-value-of.html
      http://www.the-mule.com/2012/03/reclaiming-motherhood-when-staying-at.html
      are a couple of the articles.
      There are some good links to research here:
      http://ftmuk.wordpress.com/childcare-research/
      http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/en-ca/child-care-early-childhood-education/how-important-is-it.html
      and I really liked Steve Biddulph's book Raising Babies, Why Your Love Is Best.
      It's great that your childcare provider is responsive. As I said, it depends on your daughter's age as to the impact that having several different carers provide, but the fact that you share work / childcare hours with your husband and limit the time she spends in daycare will also help. The general consensus of research seems to be - waiting until after 3 is best for daycare, but second best is not too much, too young.
      Best wishes to you in your choices, and thanks again for reading my blog. x

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  19. As Anon said above, whilst responsiveness trumps APing, I think we can agree that APing facilitates responsiveness more than non-APing.

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    1. That's an interesting suggestion and I am still thinking about all of this having had such a great response to the post. I think if we 'agree' to your statement, we are back in the land of saying that AP is better than non AP, which is precisely what I am calling for a move away from. I think there are ways and attitudes that facilitate responsiveness that don't have to involve AP methods, and plenty of parents manage to be excellent responsive caregivers without AP. So - I don't think I do agree with you, actually! Sorry! More on this soon in a new post hopefully x

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  20. Thank you for this post. I really like your pragmatic, well-researched, compassionate and sane contribution to this debate.

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    1. Thank you very much Anon for that great compliment x

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  21. I just lucked up and found your blog through FaceBook and have spent the good part of my morning reading many of your blog posts. I have fell in love with all that I have read! I live in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. I have never heard of the term "Responsive" Parenting before. Our only son is now 8. Without reading books, not having the many supportive pages on FB or connections to blogs, my hubby & I just ended up following our instincts and resonated with many of the AP traits. We co-slept (and still do sometimes), I choose to nurse exclusively (with very little support from others), we never did Cry It Out, we don't spank (this has been a huge issue with my husband's side of the family because they think we are crazy), and we unschool. As one mama mentioned above, is there any particular blogs or pages that you can suggest for support now that our son is no longer an infant or toddler? Thank you very much!

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    1. Hi Mandy, lovely to hear from you and thank you for reading my blog!
      I have just put out a shout on Facebook for suggestions for resources for you. A lot of people are mentioning Aha Parenting - Laura Markham, who writes an amazing blog and now had a book out. The Way of the Peaceful Parent is another nice Facebook group. Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen has also been suggested. Hope that helps? I will post a few more ideas over the next few days, Love Milli x

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