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 important‘ and 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.’
- 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.
- 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.