Last night Tim was out late so I had two little people on my hands at bed time- this is pretty rare for us. I hunkered down with them both, one on each side, breastfeeding to sleep, their guzzling and gulping the only sound in the treacly silence of a countryside evening.
Their eyes began closing as if on command, and they held hands across my belly. “What a perfect picture of attachment parenting!” I thought, ever so slightly wryly.
Truth is, this is rarely what mothering looks like for me. I find tandem breastfeeding uncomfortable and over the last year I’ve encouraged Ramona, who is three, down from a billion breastfeeds a day to just this one breastfeed at bed time.
Even last night, a second after I had that thought, baby Juno decided sleep is for suckers and instead burrowed under the duvet, popped back up with a fork (you know) and climbed atop my tummy, yodelling and waving her weapon about. (It is testament to the power of the boob that Ramona carried on drifting off to sleep regardless.) This peaceful, tandem breastfeeding and tandem babywearing thing just doesn’t seem to fit us with grace and ease!
Ramona rarely rides about in a sling these days – she prefers to run, scoot or sit upon her dad’s shoulders – clinging to his head and stealing his specs. We do cosleep – but her with her daddy in one double and Juno and I in another.
It’s funny, because when our children are babies attachment parenting seems to mainly be about those three behaviours.
Of course, babywearing, breastfeeding, and cosleeping is how attachment parenting often LOOKS but no official AP sergeant has ever demanded these things in order to make it on the AP team. Because attachment- based on a quite unwooly psychological / mental well being- theory- really mostly comes down to nurturing connection and responding quickly to a child’s needs, with respect.
But when the baby has been weaned, when they want to sleep in their own bed, when they opt for the scooter over the sling, what does attachment parenting look like? As they grow, and these things become a little less a part of their lives, many parents feel a bit lost.
There are five main ways that our attachment parenting philosophy has influenced our parenting an older child:
I reckon this is the Big One, the crucial part of our communication with toddlers. If attachment parenting is about connection, trust and responsiveness then our toddler need to feel understood and they need to feel that their emotions are valid, loved through their big feelings. We need to knock on the head “You’re okay, honey!” and ” Don’t worry!” – replacing them with an acknowledgment of how they are feeling; “You lost your toy? And I can see you are really upset” and “You are frustrated about that!”
Get into the habit of repeating back to them what you hear. Don’t add to their emotion “OOH, YOU ARE SUPER, SWEARINGLY FURIOUS!” (hehehe) but do give them words if they can’t find them- “upset” is a nice word that covers lots of emotions.
Start with your baby. Even when they cry as a tiny one, instead of “Shhhh” as them “Were you worried that I had walked away?” (Or whatever) – of course, while offering your boob because that IS what they want, a lot of the time.
This validation is a communication habit for a lifetime, for children, for friends, and colleagues.
Strangely, it feels as if so at a loss are attachment parents when their kids hit the toddler years that they become “helicopter parents” – hovering over their child’s every move, as if worried of severing the attachment.
This isn’t the way, dudes.
Attachment parenting is about responding to a child’s needs and as they grow one of a child’s most demanding needs is that of autonomy. They need to know they are in charge of some stuff, they need to know they have a say on the things that impact their lives. (They also – importantly- have a right to this.)
Has your child, through tantrums, been asking for more space to exercise their will and their choices? What areas will you let go control of? Their clothes? Their food? Their play?
The attachment parents is the one that stands back when their child strikes out for independence, knowing that sometimes meeting the need of an older child can sometimes look like the EXACT OPPOSITE of meeting the needs of a baby.
And yet. Children still need touch. A parent’s hug can still fill the cup of an older child who has emptied themselves emotionally. A cuddle can change direction of an afternoon of play between kids that has become quite wrestle-based! Sometimes I wonder if a toddler’s physical (by physical I mean a lot of pushing) play is a plea for more touch.
Touch activates important chemicals in our bodies, and sometimes toddlers, and parents, can be so busy that we don’t activate them enough. It may be a cuddle, joining in with the wrestle, or even a massage that can restore a connection lost in mayhem.
The other day Ramona was struggling a bit and we kind of invented a game. She lies on her back and I just do the motions for different things over her body. So I say “spiders creeping up” and tap my fingers all over her from feet to head and “sun shining down” and whoosh my fingers back down from her head to her toes- like the whooshing sun, you know?!? I did different animals and weathers for about five minutes and it was almost like a meditation. There have a been a couple of times since when she has been really sad that she has asked me for the creepy spider game again.
It reminded me how substantial good healthy physical contact is with our busy toddlers and how it can meet needs that are hidden amongst rambunctiousness.
The most helpful tool I have found in my parenting kit (what, you didn’t get a nice bumbag filled with gadgets? It comes out just before the placenta) has been an ability to empathise. And I don’t really know where it came from. I struggled for about a year feeling overwhelmed by the strength of a two year old’s feelings, almost annoyed and frustrated – primarily I imagine because I couldn’t FIX it. I felt almost redundant.
I wish I could remember what triggered the change. (It was quite possibly finding out about play urges– a child’s instinct to play/throw/climb/burrow is as strong for them as BREATHING!) But somehow I just began seeing things from our daughter’s perspective- and I got a bit of a glimpse into how annoying and frustrating HER day must get! Being so curious, but not being given the space to follow up discoveries. Being so excited but finding that shouts of glee aren’t welcome. Being so opinionated but not being heard.
I’m no parenting saint AT ALL and I do feel infuriated sometimes but stepping back from my feelings and attempting to see things through her eyes REALLY helps.
Play is a form of communication for children, so if we want to nurture a strong connection with them we need to play hard too! Play has also rescued many a moment for us that was spiralling into disconnection.
If Ramona is doing something that breaks our one rule (No harming people or people’s stuff) then I will often use play as a way of recovering any shaken connection. So a couple of days ago Ramona was enjoying pulling apart a friend’s house plant. I explained to her why house plants need to not have their leaves ripped, but she continued. I was picking up that Ramona was running on empty a bit so I firmly said “I’m not going to let you pull apart that plant” and then I began to cry big, ridiculous sobs and pretended to be the plant “Noooooo, don’t pull meeeeeeeee!!!” And we had a silly old game of plant chasing kid and kid pulling plant. (A classic.) Later on, when Ramona was full up and connected again, we had a conversation about keeping people’s stuff safe.
Attachment parenting is not about avoiding all tension and healthy boundaries/ guidelines, but IS about creating a good, receptive environment in which to discuss these things in a respectful way. Play is often a bridge between inappropriate behaviour and necessary discussion for us.
One of the best books I have read on the whole of childhood based on attachment theory is “Letting Go As Children Grow” by author of cosleeping bible, Three In A Bed, Deborah Jackson.
“The letting go process does not have to wait until the rebellious teenager explodes with anger and frustration. It does not even have to wait for a two yea old to become ‘terrible’. We can let our children go from the moment they are born by trusting in the process of nature and responding to their needs as they become apparent.”
How does attachment look in your family these days? I’d love to hear from families with different ages.