A recent Time magazine cover photo of a mother breast-feeding her three-year-old son has stoked the debate over attachment parenting. We investigate the controversial style of child-rearing.
Attachment parenting: an unbreakable bond
At supermarkets, airports, and offices across the US, not to mention spreading like wildfire across the rest of the world via Facebook and Twitter, this month's eye-popping Time magazine cover has made it impossible to ignore those who preach the joys and benefits of attachment parenting (AP). Under the headline "Are You Mom Enough?" a young woman is standing as she breastfeeds her three-year-old son. It's a debate that was long simmering before the 26-year-old Los Angeles mother Jamie Lynne Grument (who also still breastfeeds her other son, who is five) helped Time bring it to a boil.
Though attachment parenting is largely about the mother's responsibilities, the person behind the theory is a man.
Dr William Sears, 72, is an American paediatrician and the author of dozens of parenting books. He is described by Time as the "guru" for those who practise AP. The idea caught on from Sears's 1993 bestseller The Baby Book, which he co-authored with his wife. They followed it up with The Attachment Parenting Book in 2001. Sears says parents and babies mutually benefit from the constant physical connection. "It's the oldest parenting style in the world," he writes on his advice website, Ask Dr Sears.
The seven "Bs" of AP
Attachment mums and dads adhere to guidelines set out by Sears that emphasise a natural, nurturing relationship with positive discipline. There are seven "Bs": birth bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedding close to baby, belief in baby's cries, beware of baby trainers, and balance. Exactly how AP is carried out varies. But attachment mothers often choose natural childbirth, even delivering at home. The baby is breastfed, and kept close at all times, in a sling. During the day, the baby stays at home with mum or dad, and then sleeps with them at night. Once the child is of school-going age, AP followers often opt for homeschooling.
Those who like it, like it a lot...
Two months before the Time cover, the actress Alicia Silverstone stoked her own minor AP controversy by posting a video of her pre-chewing food for her young son Bear and feeding it to him like a baby bird. In an accompanying blogpost, she gushed how much he loves it: "He literally crawls across the room to attack my mouth if I'm eating." Faced with criticism that the practice is unhygienic – not to mention a bit weird – Silverstone retorted: "People have been feeding their kids that way for thousands of years ... it's a weaning process." Celebrity mums aren't the only ones jumping on the AP bandwagon, but they are its most visible spokespeople. Last week the Canadian singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette said in a radio interview that she is still breastfeeding her 18-month-old son Ever and will do so until he weans himself. "We are skin connected as much as possible... His safety and his well-being and that attachment in his development is... pivotal."
...but when it comes to critics of AP, they are diverse and outraged
Who can possibly take on the all-consuming lifestyle of attachment parenting? That's the reaction from many exasperated mums across the country, who say it's for a very small and privileged segment of society alone. In a column in The Wall Street Journal, Erica Jong likens AP to a prison for modern women, and says that as a single working mum, it would have been financially impossible for her. (Sears replies: "It's just the opposite. Women are the greatest multitaskers in the world.")
Sears wasn't a big fan of the Time cover – but he's undeterred by the controversy.
"The cover was risky but a brilliant hook by Time magazine to attract readers, and they achieved their goal," Sears says in a post on his website. "While the cover photo is not what I or even cover-mom Jamie would have chosen, it accomplished the magazine's purpose." He adds that he's used to being misunderstood and misquoted, but takes issue with a few points in the Time article. Most importantly, he thought more attention should have been paid to how well AP babies turn out, in his experience.
"That's where this style of parenting really shines," he says. "AP kids generally are more: empathetic and compassionate, relate better to people, are easier to discipline, and are just nicer to be around."