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Friday, 27 July 2012

Attachment Parenting: When Love Hurts

Thanks to Australian media, attachment parenting and it's barrage of common misconceptions are back on the lips of parents.

Earlier this week, 60 Minutes aired a piece entitled 'On Demand'. Headlines leading up to the show included: "WRONG or RIGHT: Already at school and still breastfeeding?" and "What baby wants... baby gets - Could Attachment Parenting be the answer?" Given these ostensibly provocative headlines, I initially didn't watch the piece, assuming it would be typical media sensationalism.

But after it aired, I began to hear a few friends admit their pleasant surprise. They said the piece had been uncritical, with some well-qualified experts interviewed, and the overall tone was positive.

I thought: how refreshing! Maybe we might begin to see an end to this media-fuelled mother bashing?

But then, people started sending me some responses from the 60 Minutes Australia Facebook page.

This is a mere snippet of the 600+ responses on the page in the hours after the segment was aired.
Oh. Maybe not.

"Child abuse"? "Incest"? "FFS .. need a shrink"? Child abuse again? What were people so angry about?

So I watched it.

The piece opened with the image of Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her 3-year-old from the recent controversial Time Magazine cover. The reporter then began with the following statement:
"What you are about to see challenges all conventional notions about parenting. It may offend, perhaps even anger, many of you. It's called "attachment parenting" — a back-to-basics approach to child raising that's becoming more and more popular with mums here and around the world.
 The idea is that mothers agree to every demand a child makes — any time — day or night. They ask their permission to change a nappy, let them sleep in the grown-ups' bed and even breastfeed them through preschool and beyond.
But don't just dismiss all of this as new age extremism. There is some compelling science behind it."
After this rousing (and, of course, misleading) opener, I awaited what followed with a sense of trepidation ... but was met with a pleasant anti-climax. The piece included interviews with well-qualified experts Dr James McKenna and Dr William Sears, along with many quotes from mothers simply sharing their experiences and thoughts on parenting this way. The overall tone presented attachment parenting in a relatively positive light.

So why the furore? Why were literally hundreds of people responding with the wrath and vitriol reserved perhaps for the most heinous of serial child molesters?

Why does a mother demonstrating nothing but unconditional love and respect for her child receive such scathing, raw, emotion-fuelled attack?

In order to answer that, allow me to quickly touch on what attachment parenting is. According to Attachment Parenting Australia:
"Attachment parenting (also called “natural parenting” or “instinctive parenting”) is an approach to parenting that has been practised widely for thousands of years... Attachment parenting is based on the principle of understanding a child’s emotional and physical needs and responding sensitively to these needs. The focus of attachment parenting is on building a strong relationship between parents and child."
That last sentence is the key: building a strong relationship between parents and child.

That's it. Nothing about leaving a child in a nappy if they don't want it changed, nothing about sacrificing your marriage for the children in the bed, and nothing about breastfeeding a 14-year-old.

The word 'attachment' in the 'attachment parenting' label stems from psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory, describing attachment as a:
"lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194).
The three most common types of attachment are: secure, avoidant and ambivalent, with a fourth more recently recognised as disorganised.
The reason that attachment parenting philosophies are met by full-term breastfeeding, co-sleeping and babywearing are because all of these help foster a healthy, secure emotional attachment between mother and child. Unfortunately, many commonly accepted baby-care practices can potentially compromise a secure attachment: sleep training programs, enforced feeding routines, denial of a baby's need to be held or prolonged or repeated separation of mother and infant.

Contrary to popular belief, attachment parenting isn't about saying "yes" to all a child's demands, it isn't about breastfeeding a teenager or sleeping with your children until they move out of home. It isn't about martyring yourself into a lifeless husk, bled dry by insatiable children. In fact, it is entirely possible to practice the philosophies of attachment parenting and bottle-feed, sleep separately and use a pram for everything – it's just a little harder. The truth is, instinctive mothering is easy, once one sheds the cultural handcuffs.
According to Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor, authors of Helping Your Baby to Sleep, only about 60% of babies have a secure attachment: meaning that almost half of babies and young children have an insecure attachment to a caregiver.
"Human beings are born in an immature state and need to keep a parent close by. This means they are born with an instinctive urge to form an attachment to a parent. To a baby, having consistent affection, touch and care is actually as important as food. The continual care of a parent also enables a baby to mature into a feeling, thinking human being – our brains and emotions can only develop properly under the close guidance of another person." (1)
If babies are so instinctively driven to form secure attachments, why are so many children insecurely attached? And what happens if the security of a child's attachment is compromised?
"Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behavior in later childhood and throughout the life. While attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, research indicates that early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. For example, those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships and the ability to self-disclose to others. As adults, they tend to have healthy, happy and lasting relationships." (Source) 
When Dr Sears first began advocating this return to instinctive parenting and labelled it "attachment parenting," based on attachment theory, it probably sounded like a radical alternative to what was still overwhelmingly the norm in western baby-raising practices. Holding a baby almost constantly, breastfeeding around the clock on demand and keeping your baby within arms reach – even in the same bed as the parents, is a stark contrast to what remained of the early 1900's model of parenting carried over by Dr Truby King's advocation of rigid, 4-hourly feeding and sleeping schedules, no contact overnight, and strict advice to build a child's character by avoiding cuddling or extra attention.

Although Dr Truby King's methods are now mostly discredited, plenty of other take-offs of this kind of behaviourist advice have succeeded him in the likes of baby care 'experts' popular the world over today, such as: Gary Ezzo, Tizzie Hall, Gina Ford, and many more... Although today's baby-care regimes are painted in a much 'nicer' sounding language, they are essentially the same thing. For example:
  • In the early 1900's, Truby King recommended that babies should be trained from birth to feed at four-hourly intervals, and should be expected to sleep from 10pm to 6am. He wrote: 'Don't form in the baby at the dawn of life any avoidable habit which would be injurious afterwards.' (2)
  • Today, Tizzie Hall recommends that a baby aged 1-2 weeks of age be fed three-hourly, with only 1 feed between 10pm and 7am. (3) She writes: 'Let baby know that no matter how much shouting [crying] takes place you will not be coming in until he's asleep... You must be strong and determined if you want to win this argument.' (4)
Following this, we now have a generation of adults; grandparents or new parents, raised within some form of these guidelines of emotional abandonment and lack of maternal contact. So what we have is not only a generation of adults suffering insecure attachment, but a generation of parents currently – unwittingly, perhaps – continuing this insecure attachment and its potential problems by subjecting their own children to these compromising regimes: because they are told and believe it is the right thing to do.

Former president of the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health, psychiatrist Isla Lonie says:
When we look back in time, we can find that methods of controlling the chaos which babies bring have always been popular... Because of this, there have been a great many adults in our society, by now in their fifties or older, who have had this early experience. Numbers of them have ended up having psychotherapy, so we are in a good position to see what long-term effects this system has had... Many of these patients suffer from low self-esteem...they do not believe they are valuable or worthwhile people... We do know that those who believe that they are worthless people often end up with even worse problems, such as drug or alcohol problems, or abusive relationships. (5)
In Australia, around one in five people will experience mental illness at some stage in their life. Depression is currently the highest medical cause of disability worldwide and predicted to be the second highest medical cause of death and disability worldwide by 2020. (source)Between 1992 and 2001, more than 31,000 deaths were attributed to risky or high-risk alcohol consumption. (source). We have an adult generation of substance abuse and addictions. We are addicted almost everything – from alcohol and gambling to shopping.

Are we really as 'fine' as those who oppose attachment parenting would like us to believe? You'll often hear older people talking about how they were smacked as a child and they're 'fine', or parents in one breath proudly proclaiming their son was the fastest runner or highest scorer in his class but in the next breath lament that he sits in his room all day ignoring them, or even parents with toddlers or pre-schoolers struggling with a child "not listening." 

So, are we really fine? Humans are intelligent, progressive and abundantly curious. Are we really living to the best of our ability?

As an infant, I was left to cry myself to sleep. As a child, I was often shut away in my own room alone when I was angry or crying. However, for the most part, my parents were attentive, loving and very respectful. I had what is outwardly considered a very good childhood. A crying infant or raging toddler can be incredibly triggering for me; bringing up feelings of intense sorrow, helplessness and even anger. When my first child was born, a typically 'colicky' infant; I was met with feelings of utter despair: everyone told me to leave her to cry or to "put her on a routine" – but my body screamed with angst at this idea.

Which brings me to what I believe is the root of the issue: we have a generation of adults nursing unhealed childhood wounds – and they can lash out in anger when triggered.

Australian psychologist and author Robin Grille says:
"It is our own personal childhood history, with its unique blend of oft-forgotten joys and sorrows, which holds the key to our parenting... At various times during parenting, we all must confront and heal our own childhood wounds that confound our ability to see our children for who they are." (6)
Why does the idea of a mother breastfeeding her 4-year-old fill many adults with such rage? If their rage is based on an apparent concern for the child's welfare – it seems a bizarre contradiction to me that such a loving act as breastfeeding could trigger such concern. Are they angry because they feel that children should be shown less love? If so, what level of love is acceptable?

Robin Grille continues:
"If we felt rejected or abandoned as infants, it is possible that we may find ourselves feeling resentful, even hostile toward our children. If our own childhood emotional needs weren't met, we might find our children's dependency intolerable. It is hard to give what has not been given to us." (7)
Does this outrage to attachment parenting principles, this expression of disgust and hurt, come from our own deep, long-held childhood grief? Does it come from having our own attachment-seeking instincts denied and ignored?

Does seeing a child nurtured, respected and loved so unashamedly swell within us a repressed rage and jealousy from our own hurting inner child? 

Are we envious of these children whose parents demonstrate such simple biological nurturance?

Fears of 'spoiling' when it comes to attachment parenting are completely misguided. How can a child be 'spoiled' with love and respect? A child can be 'spoiled' in the cultural sense with material possessions and a lack of boundaries. Attachment parenting is actually about modelling a healthy respect of boundaries: modelling to the growing child that their needs matter, their autonomy matters, and treating them with empathy: even if they have a tantrum when you say 'no', you can still be kind to them. It's not about dropping everything and saying yes to your child no matter what.

Most people understand that respect is earned, not entitled. Children learn by imitation: if we model respect to them, they're far more likely to understand it, and demonstrate it to others. Should we demand obedience? Or model healthy respect and boundaries?

What kind of adults are do we seek for the future of humanity? Adults who unquestioningly obey what they are told to do, adults brought up with no self-worth or a tendency toward aggression and violence? Or who are secure and self-confident, respectful and compassionate?
" was recently estimated that it would cost as little as US$10 billion to bring education to the 180 million children in the world who don't have access to schools. This is 40 times less than what the world spends on cigarettes, 300 times less that what the world spends on military and 16 times less than what the world spends on beer... we can be assured that any society that invests in its families, and in its children's emotional development, will see a huge proportion of it's costly social problems dissolve." (8)
So if you are struggling with a fear of attachment parenting philosophies, I'd suggest asking yourself: why? What grief or hurt is causing that fear – and how can you heal from it?

Attachment parenting isn't a new, radical or extreme set of self-sacrificing parenting check-boxes. It is simply a life philosophy: that babies are human, that humans deserve respect, and that raising compassionate and respectful children can nurture a more peaceful future generation.

(1, 2) Gethin, Anni & Macgregor, Beth. 2007. Helping Your Baby to Sleep, p. 22 & 43 Finch Publishing, Sydney, Australia.
(3) Hall, Tizzie. 2008. Routine Breastfed Baby Aged 1 to 2 Weeks. (self-published article from

(4, 5) Gethin, Anni & Macgregor, Beth. 2007. Helping Your Baby to Sleep, p. 77 & 43. Finch Publishing, Sydney, Australia.
(6, 7, 8) Grille, Robin. 2005. Parenting For a Peaceful World, p.363, 364 & 388. Longueville Media, Sydney, Australia.

Friday, 6 July 2012

United we stand in breastfeeding grief – putting an end to 'breast vs. bottle'

Image source
It is our culture that makes breastfeeding difficult – not women or their bodies. It is our society that pits mothers against each other and rallies within us an insatiable need to defend ourselves.

What would happen if instead, women united – and refused to let the patriarchy pull us apart?

Where it begins

Announcing my first pregnancy – an unplanned surprise – a friend asked, "Will you breast or bottle feed?" My mouth gaped open.  All of a sudden, words were whizzing through my head that had never before entered my vocabulary: lactation, and breastmilk and nipple

Rarely – if ever – had I seen anyone breastfeeding, other than a fleeting glimpse here or there. The only people close to me who had breastfed had done so for token amounts of time, and usually tucked away in another room.

In hospital where my baby was born, I was required to keep a log of her breastfeeds: I was to note the start and end times of a breastfeed, and to rate the baby's 'quality of suck' on a scale from 1 to 6.

In an exhausted post-birth haze, how on earth was I supposed to ascertain the quality of her suck? Based on what – a vacuum cleaner? And what, exactly, would be my frame of reference as a first time mother? 

There began my very difficult journey into breastfeeding – and motherhood.

In those challenging early months, everywhere I turned, the answer to every concern seemed to be a single answer: wean.

Despite learning there was nothing wrong with my milk supply, despite knowing that weaning would exacerbate my mastitis rather than fix it, despite my obviously thriving breastfed baby, despite stating repeatedly that I wanted to breastfeed, the answer to my pleas for help always seemed to be one thing: put her on the bottle.

If you've read a few of my other posts, you'll know it's pretty clear that now, five years on, I'm a  fairly vocal breastfeeding advocate. A passionate breastfeeding mother. I believe that physiologically, there is little need for commercially available infant formula – because for the most part, breastfeeding works just fine, and there are enough lactating women in the world to supply an abundance of breastmilk to those mothers in genuine need. 

I believe that almost all women want to breastfeed. But, I believe that the reasons that so many don't are due to overwhelming cultural roadblocks.

So when I read this post from the Alpha Parent, I was saddened. Taking on a perspective bound to inflame, the author has asserted that sometimes despite the best of breastfeeding advice, some women simply make "excuses" to wean because they "can't be bothered."
"This leads me to the  logical conclusion that they already made up their mind to stop breastfeeding  because they can't be bothered. And the reasons they give are mere excuses used to mask their laziness."
Blaming mothers? For a society that lets them down? So unfair, and so inaccurate. All this does is add fuel to the 'breast versus bottle debate' – a social paradigm that I'm sure mothers all over the world wish desperately to end.

Breastfeeding hurdles are culturally based

recent survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has shown that the most commonly cited reasons for not breastfeeding are:
  1. 'Previously unsuccessful experience'
  2. 'So partner could share feeding'
  3. 'The belief that formula is as good as breastmilk'
None of these, to me, sound like excuses. They sound like valid responses based on a culture that persuasively and subliminally promotes bottle-feeding. As Amy Gates says in her article Booby Traps Set Breastfeeding Moms Up For Failure:
"Yet while a lot of people give lip service to the importance of breastfeeding, there isn’t a lot of support for women once they make the decision to breastfeed. In fact, our society offers very little support to breastfeeding moms and often sabotages breastfeeding altogether."
Whether or not a woman's problems are breastfeeding based, the cultural answer is usually this: wean. Mastitis? Wean. Crying baby? Wean. Sleep deprivation? Wean. Exhaustion? Wean. Going back to work? Wean. This list goes on.

Doctors, child health nurses, midwives, obstetricians and paediatricians often know very little factual information about breastfeeding; their advice is often antiquated, ill-informed or just plain biased toward formula.

Additionally, if a mother chooses to continue breastfeeding contrary to this advice to bottle-feed, she often faces a kind of well-you-made-your-bed-so-now-you-can-lie-in-it mentality.

Lets look at those above three reasons in a little more detail:
  • 'Previously unsuccessful experience'
A little ambiguous but essentially, breastfeeding didn't work out before, so the mother believes it either won't work this time, and just wants to avoid the pain of previous experiences by not repeating them. I can understand this – I think we all could! Once bitten twice shy, right?

But has she been given adequate support to work through her past trauma? Has she debriefed her birth? Has she had her grief or pain or regret validated? Has she been helped to understand how her milk supply is maintained? Has she been given the correct answers to her past queries? Has she had the right information given to her so she may find breastfeeding easier this time around?

Or has she been placated with: "don't worry, you can't tell the difference between adults who were breast or bottle fed."
  • 'So partner could share feeding'
Many new parents believe that if the father doesn't get to share feeding the infant, he is somehow missing out on opportunity to bond with the baby. This is a well-meaning but misguided premise. 

There are plenty of other ways for a father to bond with the baby: skin-to-skin contact, bathing, wearing baby in a sling, holding baby after breastfeeds or rocking the baby to sleep. Sleeping alongside the baby who is nestled protectively into the curl of mama's body, falling asleep to the sweet scent of a milky-breathed baby is a sublime way for a family to bond together.

Additionally, many mothers are told that they need the father to share feeding so she may get some rest. This sounds like a wonderful idea in theory - but in practice, a baby needs to be frequently at his mothers breast; to stimulate her milk supply, for his emotional comfort and security. There are countless other ways for a mother to get the rest she needs in those early weeks: co-sleeping, having others take care of the housework and cooking, having her partner bathe the baby whilst she takes a relaxing shower...

But what's important to remember is this: it is perfectly natural for the baby to bond to her mother only in the early weeks and months. Actually, it's essential for survival. The infant is instinctively driven to form a secure attachment with her mother in order to be kept safe from predators. 

Fathers should be reassured that their attachment with the baby will come a little later, and in their own unique and rewarding way.
  • 'The belief that formula is "as good as" breastmilk'
Despite global 'breast is best' campaigns, there is still a pervasive belief that formula is equivalent to, or 'almost as good as' breastmilk.

When this is so very incorrect, how is this still happening?

The answer is simple: because what isn't promoted so openly is that breast isn't best - it's normal – but formula feeding is a health risk.

Breastfeeding isn't anything extra-special or gold-plated – it is simply the biological standard, the infant feeding 'method' that allows the child the best chance to grow and develop in the way his genes and environment dictate. Breastfeeding won't guarantee a child with an IQ of 180 and an immune system to rival Superman.

Formula feeding, however, carries risks to a developing human's immunological, physical and intellectual health. 

But that isn't the overwhelming campaign header – because it could potentially upset millions of people.

Additionally, formula companies are very skilled in their marketing techniques. Infant formula companies stand to loose billions of dollars worldwide if women actually took back breastfeeding.

All of the above are real cultural breastfeeding roadblocks that mothers face every single day.

Breastfeeding is instinctively driven

On a basic biological level, not breastfeeding is completely maladaptive. To deny our young our milk is to sentence our offspring to certain death. Rarely would another healthy mammal simply choose not to nurse their young.

There is some evidence to suggest that lack of breastfeeding evokes within the mother an unconscious state of mourning; in other words, by not lactating or lactating only for a short time following the pregnancy, her body thinks her baby has died. In an article by the Scientific American, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup is quoted:
"Opting not to breastfeed precludes and/or brings all of the processes involved in lactation to a halt. For most of human evolution the absence or early cessation of breastfeeding would have been occasioned by miscarriage, loss, or death of a child. We contend, therefore, that at the level of her basic biology a mother’s decision to bottle feed unknowingly simulates child loss."
At birth, 96% of mothers initiate breastfeeding. But by 3 months of age, only 39% of infants are still exclusively breastfed. (Source)

If almost every single mother initiates breastfeeding – why does that figure drop so dramatically within weeks?

On these points alone, I would argue that all women inherently want to breastfeed.

Where culture lets women down

So if breastfeeding is so normal and instinctive for both baby and mother – why are our breastfeeding rates so suboptimal? Why are women often falsely blaming their bodies or their babies?

The answer is unlikely to be spoken in a mother's group setting – but is the root of the problem nonetheless: Because our society devalues women – and therefore, everything that women can inherently do. 

Sex is held in higher esteem than nurturance: breasts are sex objects before their actual primary function. Women's innate abilities are overwhelmingly doubted and our instincts overridden – pretty much everything we're told about our reproductive abilities goes against how we feel on a biological level:
  • We are to submit our pregnancies and births to medical science or fear public ridicule
  • We are to deny all of our instinctive desires to hold, nurture and keep our baby close lest we raise a demanding, unruly child who will never sleep independently. 
  • Women are still criticised for breastfeeding in public. 
  • Maternity leave is pitiful, making continued breastfeeding more difficult for working mothers. 
  • 'Sleeping through the night' is the benchmark of a good parent – despite the fact that infant night waking (and frequent breastfeeding) is normal – and actually desirable – in healthy human young. 
  • Women are often alone in a house for hours with their infants; expected to 'cope' and tend house despite having only just given birth.
  • Baby care is commonly represented – everywhere – by an image of a bottle or dummy (pacifier), both of these things designed specifically as substitutes for a mother's breast. 
  • The most popular baby care books enable bottle feeding in one way or another.
This was the first hit when I did a Google image search for 'baby icons' – image source
The pressure to bottle feed is immense – and as herd animals, we're driven to fit with the crowd.

A woman's choice

Many women report that how she feeds her infant is her choice, (which it is) and additionally, it is her right not to discuss (also true.)

But – this is almost impossible. Mothers discuss their baby's feeding habits everywhere; because as humans, we're social animals. In mothers groups, playgroups, doctors offices, visits with family. In the first few weeks and months, infant feeding and sleep are the most discussed topics because it is pretty much all an infant does.

Given the defense-inducing mainstream 'breast versus bottle' mentality, perhaps a mother protects herself with something socially acceptable –  ie. "I didn't have enough milk."

In one sense, women have a right to autonomy. In another, women deserve the truth in a culture absolutely brimming with myth.

However – women's choices aren't made in a vacuum: if she isn't breastfeeding, it is likely because of some very personal emotional upheaval. Whether or not she wants to work through that is her choice to make – but, she must be careful to not blame herself, make flippant excuses, or perpetuate myth – or take it out on those trying to help.

This is a point within the Alpha Parent's post with which I agree:
"The omnipresent abundance of excuses leads to ... a culture of 'failure acceptance'. Numerous studies have shown that "low expectancies of success are a liability in performing difficult tasks" (Brown. J et al). So with regard to breastfeeding, would-be mothers hear the excuses and consequently they view successful breastfeeding as near impossible. When they get pregnant they use the discourse of 'try' - they say they will 'try' to breastfeed, they'll 'give it a go'; they anticipate failure before they've even started breastfeeding because that's all they've heard from other women."
Perpetuating excuses does no one any favours – it just continues to paint breastfeeding as fraught with difficulty and peril, and maintains the status quo of low breastfeeding confidence. Mothers owe it to each other to be honest.

I acknowledge that breastfeeding advocates can suffer exhaustion; sometimes it feels like we are swimming against the tide. Breastfeeding advocates (and mothers) are often lone voices amongst uninformed health professionals, baby-care books, social media and mother-in-laws.

No matter what today's mother does, she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Mothers do the best they can with the information they have at the time – but the undeniable truth is that most easily accessible 'information' in the mainstream about breastfeeding is either misleading or just downright wrong. And this is letting mothers down.

For the sake of the majority of women who want to breastfeed but have been incorrectly told they 'can't' or 'shouldn't', breastfeeding advocates are trying to undo that – but we face a difficult task that that often includes criticism and accusations of 'making people feel guilty.'

If breastfeeding myths were dissolved, and breastfeeding was respected as normal – as in cultures where breastfeeding problems are basically non-existent – I imagine many women would find it much easier, and breastfeeding rates would naturally increase. Although there may still be women who choose not to – for whatever reason – at least those choices will be more adequately informed; as is their right.

Let us value ourselves as women – because that is what will ultimately make a positive change.

Peace and love to you. xo