Attachment parenting: what’s the problem?

Posted on 22 May 2012


Long-term breastfeeding and co-sleeping are parental practices that provoke strong reactions. Why?

Sarah Hughes, Monday 21 May 2012

Mother nature … Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go. Photograph: Allstar/Focus Features/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

It is commonly seen as extreme, anti-feminist and only properly practised by stay-at-home mums. So it was no surprise that the recent Time magazine cover with its provocative headline “Are you mom enough?” – featuring a picture of a mother breastfeeding a child standing on a chair – proved controversial.

But what is the truth behind the controversy? Although attachment parenting was popularised by American pediatrician Dr William Sears, it is increasingly making inroads into the UK with a website ( launched in January of this year, which has been visited by 6,500 people since its launch, 30 support groups throughout England and Wales and a growing Facebook community (the APUK Facebook page has been live since November and has had 540 likes since then).

Having met several zealous attachment parents while living in the US for five years, I was in some ways prepared for the worst. Yet the British mothers I talked to about their methods and beliefs – co-sleeping, long-term breastfeeding, holding your baby close to you at all times, following their cues – were nothing like their US counterparts. In contrast to some I had met who were adamant that their way was the only “right” way to parent, they were, dare I say it, highly reasonable and considerably more laid-back.

“I think there’s a lack of understanding about what attachment parenting really means,” says Michelle Mattesini, a 36-year-old mother of two who set up the Attachment Parenting UK website (after discovering that there was little information on the method in the UK) and who also runs an AP support group in Devon which averages 20 people per meeting.

“You see pictures like the Time cover and the assumption is that this child is constantly sucking on its mother’s breast. It’s aiming for shock value. Some attachment parents do breastfeed their children at older ages – I’m still breastfeeding both my girls who are four and two – but it’s usually at night, sometimes only once a week.

“As for co-sleeping, that’s often seen as something that can endanger your child but there are clear guidelines on how to do it safely. Those guidelines were the first things I read.”

Proponents of Dr Sears’ method include actor Alicia Silverstone and Moldy Peaches’ singer Kimya Dawson. Yet not everyone is convinced. In a column in the Wall Sreet Journal, feminist writer Erica Jong suggested that Dr Sears and his wife could appear to be “condescending colonialists in love with noble savagery” while Katha Pollitt argued on this paper’s website that “not only is [attachment parenting] bad for women; I don’t think it’s necessarily good for children either”.

“People certainly do see it as extreme but you can take what you want from it,” says Mattesini. “For example I disagree that it’s something you can only do as a stay-at-home mum. Out of our core group of 20, 11 of the mothers work in some form either part time or self-employed or in an office. Among them are a nutritionist, a web designer, a herbalist, a maths teacher and an admin clerk.

“We have single and married mothers. Our youngest member is 21 and we have women in their 40s. There are people who are unable to breastfeed or find co-sleeping doesn’t work for them.”

Indeed, the website has a section that offers tips on how to bottle feed. Kate Hoskin, a 35-year-old mother of one who runs a website ( selling baby accessories, says: “I had problems with breastfeeding [and] when I first came across Michelle’s support group I was worried during the first meeting because I was the only one bottle feeding. But once I realised that no one was judging me, I relaxed.”

Her daughter, Irah, is now a year old and, for Hoskins the importance of attachment parenting is not the method so much as what you take from its practices. “It really allowed my husband to form a close bond with Irah,” she says. “He was very supportive, he practised baby wearing [carrying the child in a sling] from the word go and supported the co-sleeping because it meant they spent time in close contact together. He has a fantastic relationship with my daughter and I do think it’s because we went with our gut instinct to parent this way.”

One of the biggest problems mentioned by these parents is convincing people that they’re not cranks, an idea largely propagated by movies and magazine articles. In the film Away We Go, for example, Maggie Gyllenhaal played an attachment parent given to statements like: “They gave me a stroller … I love my babies, why would I want to push them away from me?”

Mattesini finds such depictions hysterical. “To me, attachment parenting is child-led but not child-dictated,” she says. “One of the issues people have is the talk of it being “natural”, as though other parenting is somehow unnatural. That’s wrong. It’s not about being a martyr to your child or striving to achieve a gold standard of perfection. I just do what feels right for us and try to achieve a balance.”

Alex Whates, a 44-year-old former teacher who raised her three daughters, now 13, 11 and 9, using attachment principles, agrees. “I’d never heard of attachment parenting when I first started co-sleeping, it was just what felt good for my family,” Whates says. “There’s a sense that people who practise it are a fringe group and that can be off-putting but I feel that as a mother you should follow your instincts.”As for the question asked of all co-sleepers – what about the sex life? Vikki Drew, a 34-year-old mother of one, laughs. “My mum did ask that,” she admits. “I said, do you think that sex only happens in bed in a bedroom?”