Is attachment parenting too close for comfort?

Tamara Ecclestone believes attachment parenting is the best way to raise her young daughter. But the approach does not work for every parent or baby, writes Helen O’Callaghan
Is attachment parenting too close for comfort?

DURING the first three years of her daughter Sophia’s life, Tamara Ecclestone spent only six-and-a-half minutes apart from the child.

The recent media revelation by the model and TV personality probably seemed bizarre to most parents. Six-and-a-half minutes! In three years! Did Ecclestone — heiress daughter of former Formula 1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone — never in all that time yearn for some ‘me’ time, some solo time sans baby? A long luxurious hot shower, a 20-minute jog in the park, a meet-up for coffee with her girlfriends?

Apparently not — “My daughter isn’t just part of my life, she is my life. From the start it’s been 100%,” she told reporters.

Ecclestone’s parenting style loosely follows ‘attachment parenting’ — a term coined in 1985 by US paediatrician William Sears and his wife, registered nurse Martha. Sears developed the theory, building upon research by British child psychiatrist John Bowlby.

Bowlby saw early attachment especially promoted in hunter-gatherer-type societies — with infants typically breastfed on demand, almost always held in close physical proximity to parent, getting immediate response when they cried and sleeping close to parents.

The Sears believe strong mother-child attachment comes from mum being emotionally attuned, so she can read her baby’s cues. They advocate seven ‘Baby Bs’ that support mother’s baby-reading and increase mother-to-baby sensitivity. Included are extended breastfeeding (Ecclestone says she’ll breastfeed until her daughter’s four or five if that’s what Sophia wants), baby-wearing (carrying baby close in a sling), and bedding with baby (co-sleeping).

Attachment parenting is especially popular among educated, urban women in the West. It has a strong US base, with many women in Attachment Parenting International (API) support groups. The movement’s umbrella organisation, API numbers over 20,000 members — Martha Sears is a board member.

Psychologist Kate Boyle, a mum of seven boys, “fell into” attachment parenting. A former API director, she “read all the books and all the rules” with her first child. “By number two, you make your own rules. I followed my instincts — that’s the crux of attachment parenting. I just wanted to do what was easiest for me. I breastfed all my kids but no way was I going to be up all night and like a zombie next day. It was a matter of ‘yeah, I’m just going to put you in the bed next to me’.”

Boyle used a baby sling for simplicity. “Trying to keep a toddler in check and manage a cranky baby who won’t go to sleep and you’ve got dinner to make — it’s far more convenient. Baby would fall asleep and I’d forget he was there. If awake, he had a bird’s eye view of what was going on. Up there, he was in the thick of things, seeing and absorbing.”

She breastfed her children until they were three or four, finding it an instant calming tool. “Whatever freak-out was going on, it would almost immediate calm down.”

Author and psychotherapist Stella O’Malley — her book Bully-Proof Kids is out in August — says attachment parenting is a “gorgeous concept” in its huge emphasis on responsiveness to the child. “I really like the big strong idea with attachment parenting — give children enough security at the beginning and they’ll feel confident and able to go their own way when the need arises”.

But what of mothers who aren’t able or don’t feel drawn to being so highly physically available to their children all the time? What if they find it just a little too binding? O’Malley herself, a mum of two, wanted to be an earth mother but nearly went crazy in the effort.

“We were there! We had the chickens, the beautiful large garden, the gorgeous baby. Everything was set up, except me in the middle going ‘OMG! I’m not going to meet anyone! It’s just me and the baby and Dr Phil’.”

Deducing it isn’t best for baby if mammy goes unhinged, O’Malley realised a mother can put aside her own feelings for a while but it eventually creates negative energy that overrides the positive. If someone’s trying to push a round peg into a square hole — whether through attachment parenting or other parenting styles — it’s going to end up fake, says O’Malley. “And fake’s complicated — you’re missing the authentic connection with your child. You’re on a dysfunctional road if [the parenting style] doesn’t suit you. But if it suits you, away you go.”

Clinical psychologist Joanna Fortune says we mustn’t confuse attachment parenting with secure attachment. “They’re not the same — attachment parenting is a parenting style, just as helicopter parenting and tiger parenting are other styles. It’s mostly a well-intentioned response to earlier, harsher parenting styles that dominated our culture.”

She sees secure attachment meeting three ‘functions’ for the child: Giving sense of safety and security, regulating emotion, and offering child a secure base from which to explore.

But do children need wrap-around care to get this? “So much of parenting is innate and instinctual and calls upon us to emotionally attune to our children,” says Fortune, who says what really matters for forming secure attachment is the emotional attunement of caregiver towards baby. “While skin-to-skin contact should always be encouraged, you don’t need ‘constant contact’ to achieve this [to emotionally attune].”

Fortune believes attachment parenting could risk “massively over-simplifying” secure attachment formation. “Just because a mother breastfeeds her baby doesn’t predict secure attachment — she may be doing it in a robotic or distressed state. Whereas another mother might bottle-feed, but do so sensitively and playfully, fully engaged with her baby, which is better for baby and more likely to predict secure attachment.”

A physical connection doesn’t equal a secure attachment, says Fortune. “Sometimes a tight connection’s the result of an anxious parent. Children need to see their parents have a life outside of them. They need to see their parents leave and return so they can develop a sense of people permanence — a key part of developing secure attachment.”

Dr Phil Jennings is national lead with the Healthy Childhood Programme at the HSE Department of Public Health in the midlands. She says separation anxiety is a normal developmental experience for young children — and they need to have it. “If for brief periods that increase over time, the child learns ‘it’s OK for mammy to leave me — she’s going to return’, they learn to control the anxiety. It’s part of regulating emotions. They learn ‘I can manage on my own for a short while until mammy comes back’.”

Jennings says there’s no evidence that the attachment parenting style is the best way to parent. “The evidence isn’t there that all parents should choose this way. If they want to, of course that’s fine.”

But there is evidence that you need to bond early with your child. “Good attachment is about spending time with your baby, talking and singing with baby, having skin-to-skin contact, spending quality time where you sit with your child, cuddle, hold, and soothe it, engage and listen — just be in tune with your child.”

Near constant physical proximity of mother to child isn’t necessary for her emotional accessibility to the child, says Jennings. “You have to be physically close at some point to create that emotional accessibility — but it carries through during periods of parental absence,” she says.

Jennings also believes the attachment parenting philosophy overemphasises the mother. “It creates this bubble of mother and infant. But what helps infant mental health is strong attachment with both parents — dad has a huge role as well.”

Kate Boyle recalls returning to work, five days a week, when one of her babies was six weeks old. “I had a relative look after him. It doesn’t have to be close physical proximity to you [mother] all the time — it can when you’re around, but when you’re not it can be to a second attachment figure.”

Attachment parenting is about being responsive, says Boyle. “It’s not a check-box, a tick-list.”

Celbridge-based Annah Knight, a divorced mum of four, says attachment parenting “just flowed” for her. “There was never a question. I breastfed on demand. I wore out the baby slings — I carried each child till they were two-and-a-half or three years old.”

But Knight didn’t persist when something didn’t suit her. “I had Reuben and Aubrey [now 16 and 13] breastfeeding at one time. I didn’t really enjoy tandem feeding. I didn’t do it for long. It didn’t feel right — it just felt too much at the same time.”

Any parenting style risks becoming about parent performance rather than child development, says O’Malley. “Some children could thrive, being with mammy all the time. But children who are introverts need time alone — that’s how they get their energy and calm down.

Critics of the attachment parenting philosophy suggest mums risk sacrificing their own needs in trying to give kids non-stop care.

Tamara Ecclestone admitted Sophia’s sleeping between her and husband Jay Rutland has been a source of friction and says “he’s not the most important person in my life. Sophia is.” The couple haven’t had a date night since she was born.

If parents don’t balance their own needs with their child’s, they can become resentful, says Jennings. “Parents are human. They need to protect and mind themselves. You can’t be a good parent otherwise. Find time to do something you enjoy, eat well, try to create a happy home environment.”

Going out to work doesn’t make you a bad parent. “Quality time, even if brief, is what’s important,” says Jennings. “When you’re with your child, be with them for 10 minutes, 20, half an hour. Do things with them, enjoy time with them. If you do it in small bites, it takes the stress out of being there all the time. Quality time with children at all ages, truly engaging with them, is what builds a strong child into the future.”

Time was, says O’Malley, when mother knew best. “Nowadays, it’s the experts know best. ‘Good enough’ parenting was a highly endorsed concept. It’s been left behind by ultra-parenting, trying to be super-mom.”

Fortune says being good enough parents is all that matters. “Perfection, in fact, isn’t good enough. Children benefit from seeing parents make mistakes and make amends for those mistakes.”

O’Malley sees the fallout for many parents, who try — and fail — to be super- parents. “Many feel they’re failing at the parenting task. Yet, all they have to be is themselves.”

There are many different kinds of mother, she says. “You have to accept yourself — what you bring to the party.”

‘It feels like our instincts are questioned a lot’

Ciara Whelan with her partner Jon Slattery and children Edie and Bo in Naas, Co Kildare. Picture: Adrian Melia
Ciara Whelan with her partner Jon Slattery and children Edie and Bo in Naas, Co Kildare. Picture: Adrian Melia

Ciara Whelan and partner Jon Slattery are parents to Bo, three, and Edie, one. The couple co-presented TV3’s The Holiday Show and they recently presented segments on BBC’s The One Show.

Ciara, 37, says she probably does practise attachment parenting, though she never put that label on her mothering. “When I had Bo, the first night in the Coombe, I put her into the bedside cot and she felt so far away. She’d just come out of me. I thought ‘what’s she doing way over there? She should be with me, on me, beside me’. We slept skin-to-skin that night. There was no going back.

“The Moses basket was ready at home. She automatically slept in our bed. Early on, Jon moved to the spare room.

“Before I had Bo, I had no idea I’d breastfeed. But when she arrived, it was just instinct. It was all I was ever going to do. We baby wear a lot. We still travel a lot and there’s no better way to carry a baby — it’s so easy, hands-free and the child’s secure.

“If Bo wakes in the night, Jon sleeps with her and I sleep with Edie. Our house is like musical beds. Anyone could be in any bed at any given time but we’d always be together. Jon and I get plenty of [couple] time together.

“Bo was still breastfeeding when Edie was born. Before I had Bo, I’d never seen anyone breastfeed. Before I had Edie, I’d never seen a mother feed both. Soon after Edie was born, they both had a feed at the same time. Bo started rubbing Edie’s back – any doubt I had disappeared, I knew it was the right decision.

“The hardest thing is the outside advice — ‘oh, give that baby a bottle so you can get a good night’s sleep’. It’s mostly from the good of people’s hearts but it’s ‘I’ll take the baby’ instead of ‘I’ll make you a cup of tea’.

“If we learn to mind mums, babies will automatically be looked after.

“In this country, it feels like our instincts are questioned a lot. We push babies out of the bedroom really quickly. We ask them to grow up quicker than they need.”

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