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

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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'? 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'. The WHO analysis found that, '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 :

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, and 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.

A version of this article first appeared on The Mule.

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