Attachment parenting: the best way to raise a child – or maternal masochism?

In a family home in picture-pretty Oxfordshire, four women and seven toddlers are, respectively, drinking tea and causing chaos. The children, aged between 13 months and four years, are doing what children of those ages do: quarrelling over toys and bellowing for their mothers. The women are discussing the kinds of things modern mothers discuss: the evils of sleep training, the joys of hypnobirthing. Rebecca, whose house we are in, sets cake down for her friends just as her 19-month-old son toddles up to demand some milk.

“You’re hungry again? OK,” she says, shifting in a large armchair as she lifts her boy across her body and unbuttons her top. “You don’t wake up and think, I’m going to breastfeed a toddler,” she tells me. “You just keep feeding your newborn. Sometimes I’ll go somewhere and other people will look at me strangely. They’ll make comments about him always hanging off me, but then they say what a happy boy he is,” she adds, as her son drinks contentedly, pausing only to switch sides. Fifteen minutes later, he is back for more.

These women, who meet every week, refer to themselves as a tea-and-cake group, but they are also an attachment parents’ group. An offshoot of “natural parenting”, also known as gentle or off-grid parenting, or intensive mothering, this is the approach of the moment, just as Gina Ford’s more scheduled method (strict bedtimes, an unbreakable routine) was a decade ago; to a certain degree, it is the reaction of a new generation of parents against Ford and her ilk.

Attachment parenting harks back to the baby-focused 1970s, only with a more 21st-century, anti-authority bent. Mothers are urged to trust their instincts over the advice of professionals, and to shun developments such as sleep training (in which babies are left to cry to encourage them to sleep for longer) and, occasionally, vaccinations. Whereas parents were once encouraged to fit the baby into their schedule, an attached mother is led by her baby, responding to their demands immediately, or “respectfully”. The approach combines an attitude of enlightenment (“We don’t do things the old way”) with veneration of the distant past (vague anthropological references to the practices of ancient tribespeople, never mind the improved mother and infant mortality rates). If you are a woman aged between 25 and 45, you will almost certainly have seen people lauding this approach on social media; Facebook will soon have as many groups devoted to attachment parenting as it has gifs of cats.

Like the trend for “wellness” and clean eating, attachment parenting posits that the modern world has corrupted what was once pure, through scientific intervention. Rejecting modernity has become the ultimate aspirational signifier, from fetishising cycling over driving to praising farmers’ markets over supermarkets; after all, in order to reject something, you not only need access to it, you have to have so many options, you don’t even need it. It also has about it a touch of anti-intellectualism, an increasingly popular stance in everything from politics to nutrition.

Attachment parenting was developed in the 1980s by the American paediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha, a registered nurse, now in their 70s, and starts from the inarguable position that loving parental interaction is beneficial to a child. The Sears’ underlying contention is that, through a combination of modern life, misguided experts and selfishness, we have become emotionally detached from our children; parents need consciously to rebuild that attachment. “Babies who are deprived of secure attachment do not grow well,” the Sears write in The Attachment Parenting Book, first published in 2001. “They seem sad. It’s as if they’ve lost their joy of living.” Children raised the attachment way, by contrast, are “caring and empathetic”. Attachment is “a special bond… the mother feels complete only when she is with her baby”. (Despite its seemingly inclusive name, attachment parenting literature is always directed at the mother.)

Followers stress that attachment parenting isn’t about rules, but about creating a special relationship – though it’s a relationship that’s built by following specific tenets, including baby-wearing (carrying your baby in a sling or holding them as much as possible); long-term breastfeeding; co-sleeping (sharing the parental bed with your baby); always responding to your baby’s cry, no matter how tired you are. You don’t have to follow all the rules, but the Sears warn that you will then have to work harder.

I first encountered attachment parenting when a handful of friends started following it a few years ago. Not yet having children myself, I nodded vaguely when they talked passionately about breastfeeding and co-sleeping. To be honest, I thought the whole thing sounded unhinged. But when I had twins last year, I understood the appeal more.

Parents have never before been subjected to so much advice from so many unqualified quarters, thanks largely to – of course – the internet. When all around you is hormonal fog and existential fear, attachment parenting offers clarity and promise: follow these steps and you will bond more quickly with your baby, and they will be happier. It puts its thumb right on the maternal pressure point, by asking how much of yourself you are willing to give up for your child, mixing things most mothers already know (babies need human interaction) with their worst fears (anything less than constant devotion will cause your baby emotional harm).

I wondered whether attachment parenting had actually helped anyone – and whether this was really about parenting, or something else. So I detached from my own babies and spent two months meeting women and advocates around the country, in an effort to find out.

 

Since the 1980s, attachment parenting has evolved into a fully fledged school of thought, with official organisations spreading its word: Attachment Parenting International (API) in the US, established in 1994 by Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson, with the blessing of the Sears; and Attachment Parenting UK (APUK) in Britain, established in 2012 by Michelle McHale, a mother of two. And while it is still sufficiently niche in the UK to consider itself, a little proudly, offbeat (followers refer to other methods as “mainstream parenting”), the approach is fast gaining traction. There are now 70 groups like Rebecca’s across the country, with an average of 15 mothers attending each. Lest anyone think this is largely a metropolitan trend, the biggest group is in Wantage, also in Oxfordshire. Derby has a thriving group, too, while those in London are relatively small. Most people who follow attachment parenting do not attend groups; they just know they don’t want to do things the Gina Ford way.

It is easy to see why attachment parenting is being embraced in Britain. It takes adages familiar from NHS leaflets and gives them extra oomph: breast is best – for years and years; share your bedroom with your baby for six months – share your bed for as long as your baby wants. Two years ago, APUK won a grant of £9,988 from the national lottery to “improve the wellbeing of families who access its services”. British companies such as sling or reusable nappy manufacturers, and publishers of approved books – all of which have benefited from the trend – provide APUK with sponsorship; further money comes from the groups, which pay a one-off fee of £200 for affiliation. When I speak to McHale on the phone, she tells me she plans to apply for another lottery grant, and to use the money to set up free workshops around the country, teaching parents “to connect with their innate wisdom”.

McHale, a full-time mother, discovered attachment parenting in 2007, when her first daughter was born. “She wouldn’t go down [to sleep] and I researched baby-wearing and found it soothed her.” She later learned her daughter had two heart defects that eventually required medical intervention, but believes the baby-wearing helped. “It really worked. My second daughter didn’t exhibit those behaviours, so I might not have come to it if I hadn’t had my first daughter.”

So why did she take the same approach with her second daughter? “Because it was just so easy,” she says. “It felt right and natural.” Since she established APUK, which now offers courses for parents wanting to apply the principles with older children, McHale says she has been regularly consulted by local social services about problem children. I ask if she has a background in this area. No, she says, but she has done an online course with the US attachment parenting branch to qualify as a peer support group leader.

McHale is keen to stress that AP is not “this extreme thing”. How would she describe it? “It encourages practices like breastfeeding and co-sleeping,” she says, “but I’d never say you have to do something. It’s not dogmatic. It’s about the quality of the relationship.”

But isn’t the underlying argument that the parents who don’t do this, don’t have good relationships with their children? “I think a lot of mothers have become disconnected from their instincts,” McHale says. “AP supports women in what they instinctively want. They want to carry their baby and wake up to them and feed them from the breast. So let’s support them, and let’s support women who aren’t doing it, but aren’t happy with what they are doing.” Like all parenting theories, this one generalises about what people want, but with an added essentialist kicker: it assumes a woman’s instincts are to be attached.

A few weeks after our phone conversation, I go to Exeter to meet McHale in a hotel restaurant, with four other mothers and their children. The five of us talk over tea while the toddlers breastfeed and play in the sunshine.

I ask McHale if she doesn’t think some women just want to put their baby in the cot at the end of the day while they have a glass of wine, instead of holding them for hours until they fall asleep. She looks puzzled: “Well, I’ve met mums who were told by their friends not to pick up their crying babies, even though their instinct was shouting at them to do it. But they doubted themselves, and later felt the sadness of not responding the way they wanted to.” (The Sears have gone much further than this, suggesting in their books that the only reason a woman might struggle with attachment parenting is because “your marriage was shaky going into pregnancy, or if you and your husband were not really ready”. They also suggest that “women with a history of sexual abuse may find it difficult”.)

There is no doubt that babies thrive when they are loved. But attachment parenting also suggests that children who aren’t loved in their prescribed way may develop serious problems. Barbara Nicholson, founder of API, tells me on the phone that she and Lysa Parker were inspired to co-found the organisation when “we realised that kids with so-called learning disabilities actually suffered from neglect, even from parents who deeply cared but were following the wrong advice. And when they got to school, they were given labels like ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder].”

Does she think their ADHD was caused by not having an attachment? “I think the diagnosis stemmed from that. So we started giving parents simple advice, like, sit down with your children after dinner and read to them. They need the connection with you.”

Later, by email, Nicholson suggests I write about how attachment parenting can help with the “prevention of violence”, referring specifically to Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people in Orlando last month. “It’s so disheartening to hear reports like this and not go more in depth about what happens to kids who are marginalised and bullied and perhaps not receiving the support and love they need in the home.”

At times such as these, AP mutates into a form of parent-blaming – the downside of a theory that promises parents total control, and full responsibility, over how their child turns out.

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