Attachment parenting, Parenting, Uncategorized

Attachment Parenting A Toddler: Beyond Breastfeeding and Babywearing

4 March, 2014

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.20140304-134021.jpg

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.

I for one began burying my head into books again, searching for ideas about child development, communication and nurturing connection with this wild and wonderful toddler in my life. 20140304-133829.jpg

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.

Standing back
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.

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  • Sonya Cisco 4 March, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    For me the point of attachment parenting is to give them a base, we are their base, and the older they get, the bigger the circles they revolve around that base in get, if that makes sense. In theory we have given them the security and confidence to be able to move away from us (hopefully only physically!) as they grow. Although, as my baby girl is almost 18, I can say it is not always easy to let go! she prefers her cuddles from her toddler brother rather than me these days, but she still needs them. And the inability to be able to fix things for them is a hard one to cope with, I miss the times where a kiss or a pretty plaster made everything better, but she does know I am there.

  • Laura 5 March, 2014 at 1:46 am

    This is a great post. It really sums up for me the style of parent I am trying to be. My twins are not yet two, so still only just emerging from being babies and becoming toddlers, but these are all things I try to practise in our day to day lives.

  • Eumaeus 5 March, 2014 at 4:02 am

    This is good stuff, a lot like Dr. Laura Markham’s advice. Good to hear it from another voice. Thanks,

  • Eline 5 March, 2014 at 10:29 am

    I’ve enjoyed reading an approach to AP that doesn’t just mention the Big Three for the early years. I only breastfed for 6 months, and we only co-sleep when M wants to (which isn’t often). I do still wear him in a sling, but now that he has started to walk I don’t think he’ll agree to that much longer.
    And yet, I do think of myself as an Attachment Parent because I practise the kind of things you’ve mentioned. The independence thing is proving to be especially important. At 13 months M is becoming increasingly keen on copying us and doing things by himself, and giving him the freedom to do so visibly strengthens the bond between us. I think toddlers/children in general want to be trusted as much as understood.

  • ThaliaKR 5 March, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Yes yes yes yes and YES!

    Thank you for this brilliant, clear, thoughtful and linktoable post!

    PS THAT explains why the third phase of labour can be so hurty – a whole kit to come out?!

  • Circus Queen 5 March, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Great post! We’re in a similar place now. Talitha is heading towards three and her needs look different. She doesn’t need to be carried as much, I need to not feed her as much (it’s really early days of tandem feeding but I’m needing to encourage her down too) and she prefers her own bed though she sometimes gets in the spare with her dad. But she needs lots of the things you mentioned. Lots of reassurance, lots of play to work things out.

    Our recent struggle has been a nightmare she had weeks ago which has left her scared of going up and down our stairs (no one else’s) alone. I went through a range of responses til I found the one that felt right. It wasn’t helping to say: “there’s nothing to be scared of.” It just wasn’t acknowledging her feelings. Instead I’ve said: “You seem scared but you are safe.” Bit by bit we’re getting past it.

  • Fresh Finds Friday // 8 | Mel Wiggins 7 March, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    […] foundation on how we respond to sometimes challenging situations feels natural and honest for us. ¬†Lucy wrote a really great post about how attachment/gentle parenting of a toddler looks different to doing that with a baby. […]

  • Kat Carr 8 March, 2014 at 3:32 am

    Most of this sounds quite reasonable except I would handle the situation with the plant a little differently:
    I’d have said something like “If you break that plant, you will have to pay for a new one out of your pocket money.”
    Whilst I would also commiserate about the toy, I would also put it in the context of losing important things like a phone in case of emergency, or house keys, or my card so I can’t buy food for example which would cause problems that are a lot more serious.

    • Lucy 8 March, 2014 at 7:05 am

      Yep, explaining our reasoning is crucial. Ramona is only three though… I do think suggesting they help replace things is reasonable although I wouldn’t phrase it like a threat as it would heighten emotion and close any doors to a happy exit!

      • Kat Carr 8 March, 2014 at 8:26 am

        You’re absolutely right: it is a better conflict-resolution strategy to avoid turning things into a power-struggle, particularly with toddlers and teenagers, therefore I’d like to learn more about this aspect of AP, if you can offer me any further guidance? BTW thanks for the tip!
        In summary, I just wanted to convey the notion that discipline (even though I’m not a big fan of having lots of rules unless absolutely necessary anyway) should involve consequences when bad behaviour persists.

        • Kat Carr 8 March, 2014 at 8:40 am

          I need to learn to communicate better with children. As I’m an only child myself, I lack experience in this area. So any more tips on this would be great.
          Ta x

          • Lucy 8 March, 2014 at 6:13 pm

            I tend to think “How would i like to be spoken to in this situation?” Just think respect, gentleness and kindness! Assume the best of them. Ask yourself “is this a power struggle, am I thinking straight?” so often we let things become a big deal because we are dealing with control issues are selves and we need to have the freedom to let got!
            I do agree that children should be allowed somewhat to experience the conswquence of their actions, and I think children can be loved through any emotion this brings up!
            Love to you! x

  • Cathy 13 March, 2014 at 3:55 am

    Love this post Lucy as I have been thinking a lot about some of the issues you’ve been over here.

    I did not start out as an attachment parent – quite the contrary, I considered it not for me at all, no doubt in part due to a rather authoritarian childhood myself. I think I also made the understandable and common mistake of not really understanding the theory behind the practice and, like many, assumed it would make my children ‘clingy’ and ‘needy’ whereas in fact attachment parenting promotes the exact opposite.

    I don’t tick all the boxes but have definitely gravitated towards an attachment/gentle approach and I have you to thank as one of my many inspirations.

    It has become blindingly clear to me that my adorable toddler is a calmer, happier and more peaceful child because of my change in approach, which has been sparked by the arrival of her deeply tactile and contented baby sister.

    So just wanted to say thank you and keep up the great work. x

  • Exsugarbabe 13 March, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Attachment parenting is a good idea in the first year or so, they’re a baby, they have no power so wouldn’t you want to be fed and cuddled as much as possible? The problem comes when they get too heavy to carry in a sling and kick you out of bed, then nature is telling you to let them go a bit, they and common sense will probably tell you enough is enough. I did attachment parenting by accident, it came more naturally than anything in the books, so maybe we should take Gina Ford with a pinch of salt and do what makes our babies happy and gets us enough sleep to enjoy being a mum.

    As for playing up, kids are a mix of not knowing what they’re doing and manipulation, I found the odd time out helped or a run around in the park, it’s harder to be “naughty” in a field, there’s no silly ornaments to break, then when you get them home they’re too tired to play up and sleep through the night, brilliant. As for tantrums, understand but never buy the sweet/toy etc and remember kids moods change like the wind, they wont remember a tantrum but give in and they will remember a wobley works, imagine a 21 year old behaving like a toddler because it makes you pay the rent, not good.

  • Megan Heimer 19 March, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    I really enjoyed this article. A lot of articles address AP and the baby but there far less information out there regarding attachment parenting and the toddler. You gave great ideas and summed things up nicely and I couldn’t agree more!