‘I rejected picking a parenting technique tribe – the middle way is much more pleasant’

a person holding a baby
‘I rejected picking a parenting technique tribe’Hearst Owned

It was a spring day in 2022 when, pregnant with my first child, I was asked by a well-meaning family member over WhatsApp if I was planning on using attachment parenting to raise my incoming bundle of joy.

Completely unprepared for this question and embarrassed that I had no idea what she was on about, I gingerly typed “attachment parenting what?” into my phone.

A torrent of results hit the screen. First came an explanation of what the phrase actually means from the National Childbirth Trust (NCT): ‘in a nutshell [...] constant physical closeness and being very responsive to the baby’.

‘Sounds good,’ I thought, before tapping out a ‘yes’ to my relative’s question.

Pretty polarised

Awaiting my praise, assuming that this was the correct answer, I scrolled through a few more articles. These spoke about this parenting style in glowing terms, noting that its core techniques – keeping your baby close by wearing them, exclusively breastfeeding them, sleeping with them and responding quickly to their every need – develops a strong emotional connection between a baby and their primary carers.

This, the pieces said, has a hugely positive impact on a child’s self-esteem as they grow into adulthood. As someone who has enjoyed a lifelong struggle with confidence, doing all I can to make sure my kid feels good about themselves felt like a no-brainer.

My confidence in this dazzling idea, though, was short lived. As with any topic that’s found an impassioned community of advocates online, so a group who argued passionately against attachment parenting exists. Soon I found articles claiming that the technique ruined children by making them selfish and lacking in independence.

Pick a side

Both sides claimed to have strong ‘evidence’ supporting their position. As I slid into the discourse quicksand, I grew less and less confident about what the ‘right’ way to parent is. What if I chose wrong and ruined my kid? Could I change my mind later? Why did I have to pick now?

It turned out that the question itself was based on a flawed concept. Namely, that I’d have complete control over two key variables of newborn life — how he fed; how he slept.

I had high hopes we’d be able to breastfeed exclusively, but that wasn’t possible and we were forced to rely on supplemental bottles of formula and expressed breastmilk. Not only did this come as a huge shock to someone who had naively anticipated breastfeeding to come easily, but I was plagued by anxiety that my failure to exclusively breastfeed him would mess up our attachment forever, causing him irreparable damage.

When it came to sleep, he refused to nap anywhere other than directly on one of us in the day, and refused to sleep on — or even in close proximity to — either of us at night. To be honest, we were happy not co-sleeping after all of the scary literature we’d been fed during pregnancy, but not doing so did, of course, compound my fears about the future of our attachment and his emotional security well into adulthood.

The problem, of course, was in the lack of nuance on the matter promoted by the majority of online content that was either staunchly in favour or against attachment parenting. There was no middle ground. Pick one way or the other.

This culture of black-and-white thinking is not one, as I’ve since observed, that is rare in the arena of parenting advice. For Heidi Skudder, parent coach and director of Positively Parenthood, parenting chat has become more divisive since the rise of social media.

‘I believe that becoming a parent is more overwhelming than it ever has been,’ she tells me. ‘When I talk to grandparents of clients (and my own) on the topic they are quick to point out that in their day, parenting was just done however they felt best.’

Fast forward to now, she says, and new parents are bombarded with information that is also often conflicting. ‘We know that content that picks apart someone or something else does better on social media. So, as with all other industries, the parenting industry has become divisive,’ she says.

This is certainly something I’ve found to be true. Anytime we’ve had to make a parenting decision, it’s seemed that we have to choose from two stark opposites. You either live and die by the baby-led weaning doctrine, or you’re mashing everything into lumpy liquids. You’re either breastfeeding entirely, or only using bottles.

You’re either a gentle parent who validates your kid’s feelings and never shouts – or an authoritarian fury monster who doles out a steady stream of punishments.

You either co-sleep with your child until they’re 11 or you ‘callously’ leave them to cry it out in another bedroom, otherwise known as ‘sleep training’. Both options are simultaneously the best and worst thing you can do for your child. You can take your pick but you absolutely cannot mix and match.

The thing is though, that you can – and… most people do. Skudder says this polarisation gives an unhelpful and unrealistic impression to new parents about the realities and potential impacts of their choices.

‘When it comes to sleep, many of our clients feel that they have to choose one specific way to do things, or for example they are made to believe that they either have to put up with broken sleep and co-sleep, or leave their baby to cry,’ she explains.

‘Because these two extremes are shouted about so much and gain the most traction, it leaves many parents feeling like there is no other way, whereas in fact 100% of the work we do for example, sits right in the middle.’

The middle way

In our case, this mashup looked like this, at least in the beginning: combi feeding, a bit of sleep training and having him nap on us a lot, until he was around nine months.

We tried baby-led weaning, gave him purées when that didn't work, and then went back to baby-led when he began eating more foods. Sometimes, we’d leave him to cry at night, going in if it seemed he really needed us.

Now that he’s a toddler, if he misbehaves, we set firm boundaries with some things (if he hurts one of us physically, for example). We lead with compassion, though, listening to him and offering reassurance.

And I’m pleased to report that despite my inability to closely follow the attachment parenting doctrine, my son and I have an incredibly strong connection – something which is often observed by those around me. All that initial fear, then? Whipped up by algorithm-grabbing sensationalism.

This approach, it seems, has Skudder’s seal of approval. ‘For me it comes down to doing what feels right for you and your family,’ she says. ‘Lifestyle is a big factor,’ she explains.

‘With multiple children or a job that means you have to return to work early, sleep deprivation and broken nights are often not a viable option – but yet parents are still judged for choosing to improve sleep.’

In her view, making the decision based on your own gut feeling and what you and your family need is the most important thing, rather than what you think someone else is doing, or what they’re professing to be doing, online.

As we prepare to welcome our second, we’re holding something important in mind. Namely, that the decisions we make with this new person with a whole new set of tendencies may look different to the ones we made for our first – and that’s okay. Trusting ourselves to apply logic rather than following dogma is one of the strongest skills we’ve armed ourselves with in our first two years of parenting.

And for those worrying about irrevocably messing up their children forever by making the ‘wrong’ decisions, first of all, remembering that we are parenting them for a future we don’t know much about is a good place to start when it comes to self-forgiveness.

And, despite your best efforts, there is no such thing as perfect parenting. But loving your child, listening to them and being fluid when the situation requires it is a pretty good place to start, in my opinion.

For everything else, there’s therapy.

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