Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bonding or bondage?

Proponents believe 'attachment parenting' leads to secure kids, while others believe it leads to insecure mothers

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Amy Frank has a two-year-old son. "I parent around the clock," she says.

Most moms of toddlers would probably identify with that statement, but the 29-year-old Winnipegger is referring to a specific style of childrearing called "attachment" or "responsive" parenting.

Frank doesn't just carry her son, she "wears" him in a sling. She sleeps with him -- if not in the same bed, then at least in the same room.

And she breastfeeds, and will continue to do so until such time that her child opts to swap breast for sippy cup. Or maybe just a regular drinking glass.

The three-year-old boy standing on a chair and suckling his mother's breast on the recent controversial Time magazine cover "frankly looks old enough to cut up his own piece of steak," a Jezebel.com editor writes in a column titled Attachment Parenting: Freakish or Feminist?

It's an understatement to say that the Time photo -- never mind the confrontational Are You Mom Enough? headline -- has stirred up some debate over how to raise physically and emotionally healthy children.

Your parents may have pushed you around in a stroller and let you cry it out in your crib after putting you down with a formula-filled bottle, but that wouldn't happen in the child-centred environment advocated by Dr. William Sears, the California pediatrician who coined the term attachment parenting in the 1980s. (His 1992 The Baby Book, which has sold 1.5 million copies, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.)

Proponents of the philosophy basically believe that although the umbilical cord is cut at birth, an invisible one needs to take its place for children to thrive both physically and emotionally, and to develop into secure adults.

That means learning to read your child's needs and responding in ways that strengthen the parental bond and instill trust.

"I don't make policies with my kid. I look to him to see what he needs and then I attempt to give it to him one way or the other," says Beth Martens, 43.

For the first five months of his life, Martens' son needed to nurse every 75 minutes to two hours. Then one day, shortly before his fourth birthday, he weaned himself.

"Neither of us really even noticed it was over until one time he hurt himself and I asked him if he wanted to nurse, since that was a common way to soothe him, and he just looked up at me and said, 'No, mama,' and that was it."

In western society, breastfeeding has always been a controversial subject that raises polarizing questions like whether to do it, for how long, and are you a bad mom if you can't or don't want to.

Advocates of attachment parenting have criticized the Time cover image, which has gone viral, as sensationalizing the method to sell magazines, but many are also glad that the story, which largely focuses on Sears' life and career, is putting their movement back in the spotlight.

"Time challenged 'Are you mom enough?' However, I'd like to challenge, are any of us HUMAN enough? Are we human enough to accept that nature already had it perfectly right and that if we align ourselves with nature, our philosophies might die, but our children and our species will thrive?" one member of Winnipeg Attachment Minded Families (WAMF) writes on its Facebook page. The parenting group, started by Frank 18 months ago, currently has 126 members.

Judy Arnall, president of Attachment Parenting Canada, says if there's anything offensive about the Time photo, it's not that model-mom Jamie Lynne Grumet is nursing an almost-four-year-old, but how.

"There's no nurturing," Arnall says over the phone from Calgary. "She's not carrying her son, she's not cuddling him. It's purely transfer of breast milk and I think it misses the nurturing, comfort and empathy of attachment parenting."

 

The parent educator and mother of five, whose youngest child is 14, breastfed for 16 years in total. Her family also practised co-sleeping, and while one child opted out at 18 months because he got too hot, another stayed in the family bed until age eight.

Chad Cornell, a Winnipeg dad of a two-year-old son says co-sleeping just feels like the most natural thing to do.

"We don't want that separation. We feel that the bonding at this young age is really, really crucial and we just want to keep him close to us."

Cornell, 40, adds that while he loves the closeness, he can see the potential downside: lack of parental intimacy.

Where there's a will there's a way, Arnall reassures. "We have a guest room. We have a living room. We have a car. You have to get creative."

Critics of attachment parenting say that it incites maternal anxiety and guilt by setting the good-mother bar impossibly high. In her new bestseller, The Conflict, French feminist Elisabeth Badinter says the irony of this "natural" form of motherhood is that it makes the baby the new "master in the home."

But Arnall says the whole thing is being blown out of proportion.

"It's about being available to your children when they need you, and most kids stop needing you," she says, "and I think that's the point most people don't get.

"They say, 'Oh, you're fostering bad habits' or 'you're creating this dependency' and that's so not true. Kids want to become independent, but they need support and comfort along the way. And attachment parenting is offering that."

Pamela Whyte agrees -- mostly.

The Winnipeg parenting consultant and mother of three wore her babies and did co-sleeping and extended breastfeeding. But that's not what made her an attachment parent, she says. And putting all the focus on the practices, as the attachment parenting community (and the media) tends to do, paints an "extremely limiting picture."

"Attachment is about relationship," Whyte says, "and, yes, it's important to build a bond with your child, but relationship is so much more than physical closeness."

In her private consulting practice, Whyte says she sees parent after parent who has put his or her child in charge of the relationship.

"You end up with unbelievably demanding four- and five-year-olds who boss their parents around," she says. "These are children coming from beautiful, loving parents who have been told they should follow their child's lead rather than meet the child's need."

People think they're doing attachment parenting, she says, but in effect they're giving their child the burden of determining when physical contact and closeness will occur, and even when they get to eat.

"Essentially, there's no sense that mommy is going to take care of you," Whyte says. "It's all about 'You tell mommy what you need and mommy is going to try to please you.'

"This makes a very insecure child because they feel that they are the one who has to decide what's best for them."

Whyte, an educator and consultant who works with parents, professionals and organizations, was trained in an attachment-based development model created by Vancouver-based developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld.

The Neufeld Institute, where Whyte is a program director, is "committed to putting parents back into the driver's seat," according to its website.

Which doesn't mean parents should throw out the attached baby with the bathwater, Whyte says. (The Neufeld method is described as an "integrated" approach that is still "saturated in attachment theory.")

"First of all, parents need to stop following experts around," she says. "They need to really understand that this is ultimately about the relationship you have with your child and not about the label you put on that."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Latched on

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends: "Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond."

Actress Mayim Bialik (Blossom, The Big Bang Theory), who has a PhD in neuroscience, is an attachment parenting advocate and has written a book on the subject titled Beyond the Sling.

Given the range of female body sizes around the world, from the !Kung-San of South Africa to the Arctic Inuit, "humans should have an average weaning age of between 2.8 and 3.7 years old," according to the May 15 Scientific American blog, Primate Diaries.

Half the world's population continues breastfeeding until at least age two, according to data compiled by UNICEF.

A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that only 13.6 per cent of babies in the United States are exclusively breastfed through the first six months of life. (Canadians are slightly higher with an average of about 25 per cent.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2012 D1

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