When I had my first baby, thirty-five years ago, there were two questions that about-to-be mothers were asking themselves and each other. (Yes. I know that I said “mothers” and not “parents”. Thirty-five years ago any philosophical or practical decisions about baby-raising were solely a mother’s province.) One question was “Are you going to breast-feed?” and the other was “Are you going to demand feed?”

Breastfeeding was a considered and minority choice. If you announced, somewhere between the operating theatre in which you gave birth and the hospital ward that you and your baby were going to inhabit for ten days, that you were breastfeeding, the odds were high that you would be given a single room. In the thirty-two-bed ward where I was, I well remember that there were only two mothers “trying” to breastfeed.

We were also living in an era where babies in hospital wore cloth nappies provided by the hospital and little singlets with “Property of the Auckland Hospital Board” inked on them.

“Demand feeding” was considered a rather radical departure from a four-hour (a low-weight baby might be permitted a three-hour) feeding schedule. It was frowned upon by many. The term “demand” somehow implied that you were giving in to your baby’s demands, spoiling your baby, letting your baby rule your life.

If you decided that your baby was on a schedule, you were likely to look at your watch when your baby woke crying, to work out how long the baby would have to wait till it was time to feed her again.

Fast-forward to now, when the babies of thirty-five years are parents, and some prospective parents are asking each other a new question. “Are you going to do attachment parenting?”

If you look at the Attachment Parenting International website, you will see that their mission is “to promote parenting practices that create strong, healthy emotional bonds between children and their parents. These practices nurture and fulfil a child’s need for trust, empathy and affection, providing a lifelong foundation for healthy, enduring relationships.”

Some of the ideals of “Attachment Parenting” are emotional responsiveness, breastfeeding, baby carrying (using a soft carrier to keep your baby close), shared sleeping and the avoidance of frequent and prolonged separation. (They fully acknowledge that many mothers work outside the home and encourage them to practise the ideals when they are with their babies and to choose care that gets as close to the ideals as possible.)

This is the extract about Emotional Responsiveness:

Emotional Responsiveness – Understanding and responding sensitively to your infant’s emotional needs is the cornerstone of Attachment Parenting. Remember that crying is your infant’s way of telling you s/he is distressed. Building a strong attachment or connection with your baby is more than just caring for the baby’s physical needs, but also involves spending enjoyable time interacting with your baby or child on a daily basis.

• Don’t be afraid to fall in love with your baby.

• The common cues or reasons for crying include hunger, tiredness, discomfort, and loneliness.

Other reasons for crying:

1. Stress from too much stimulation

2. Picking up on mother’s stress

3. Needs to be held or laid down

4. Needs skin-to-skin contact to feel secure

5. Gas and/or colic

6. “High-need” is a term that is often used to describe the temperament of a baby who is often fussy. These infants may need a lot of close physical contact, movement or loving attention. They may also be sensitive to certain solid foods or foods ingested by the breast feeding mother.

While the fashions of how to raise a baby seems to be as changeable as most other fashions, I would like to think that we are getting further away from thinking about how we are going to schedule our baby or how we are going to deal with crying or how we are going to get our baby to sleep. Instead, I would like us to be thinking about recognizing and understanding our baby’s needs and responding to them.

I have no intention of telling you what to do or even recommending that you do what I did. I would, however, like to share with you how we cared for our third baby. At the time, I did what I thought was best for us all. Now, I realise that it was a combination of having a routine, responding to our baby’s needs, sleeping separately, and enjoying and delighting in the joy and privilege of having another go at parenthood.

Our third baby, Deb, was born twenty-two years ago and by then we had one child in Intermediate School and one in High School. My degree was in both Zoology and Psychology and I had been working for some years as a Counsellor and Family Therapist. The Zoology bit of me came to the fore. What was the most natural way of responding to her needs – mummy mammal to baby mammal?.

After the newborn settling in period, I decided that what wakes a young baby out of sleep is the need to feed. Often, when I heard her baby-muttering with eyes still shut, I would take her out of her bassinet and sit with her, in my arms ready to breastfeed, for the pure pleasure of her waking up in my arms. After her feed, a nappy change was in order.

Her hunger need being satisfied, I figured that her next need was a social need – the need for company and the need to see something more interesting that the inside of a bassinet or a mobile going round and round. (In any communal society, there is always plenty for a baby to watch. In our society, where mothers are often alone at home with one baby, it is much harder to provide people moving and talking.)

Deb and I would go from room to room doing the sort of household things we needed to do, mostly with her in my arms or lying near me so we could see each other and keep “chatting.” Life was a lot easier when we went out or had friends in, when there were so many more interesting things for a baby to observe and absorb.

After and while, Deb would become tired (get a bit twitchy and whimper) and it was time for her to sleep. Now that I look back on it, this was the one thing I got “very right.”

A lot of us are tempted to “top the baby up before she goes to sleep.” We do this is in the belief that a full baby will sleep for longer and that this is good for our baby. Actually, what we are doing is the opposite of responding to our baby’s needs. Our baby has shown us that s/he needs sleep and we are giving him/her food. When our baby indicates that s/he needs sleep, letting him/her sleep is a very good idea.

At this point, I departed from what today we might call “Attachment Parenting.” I wanted Deb to learn to sleep in her own little bassinet. Deb definitely did not think this was a good idea. She would protest very, very loudly. Her idea of the right place to sleep was in my arms.

I followed the “ten-minute rule.” Once I had put her down – well swaddled – I would look at my watch and depart for ten minutes. If, after that, she was still yelling, I knew there was some other need that I hadn’t fulfilled and would do my level best to meet it. It was amazing how often she would fall asleep at the nine minutes forty-five second mark.

And so, we had a reliable rhythm – sleep, wake for food, spend social, interesting (and eventually, I learned, not over-stimulating) time, get tired, sleep. Night times were solely for sleeping with feeds when she was hungry.

The question you may wish answered is what would I do differently if I had another baby now? (Apart from being stunned and being a medical mystery!) I would certainly be as responsive as I could to my baby’s cues for feeding company and sleep. I would certainly never, ever worry that responding to my baby’s needs would spoil the baby or create a demanding baby.

And what about sleeping separately or together? Purely selfishly, I would have a good shot at getting my baby to sleep separately. However, if I had a baby that was fretful and difficult to keep content and serene, I would review that decision.

If I had a colicky or reflux baby, I would carry her as much as humanly possible. Colic and reflux are not known in “native” babies (meaning babies raised much the same way in which they would have been raised fifteen thousand years ago)  i.e. babies who spend most of their time awake or asleep in their mother’s arms, carried on her hip or wrapped on her back or her front. Fifteen thousand years ago, no mother would have lain her baby down on a nice flat rock or even a fern nest, and walked away. The baby would have cried, the sabre-tooth tiger would have come and eaten her/him up and followed up with Mum for dessert.

My best guess is that the carrying of babies is good for their digestive system. They are upright and little abdomens are constantly being shifted against their mother’s body. Being carried is the most natural way for a not-yet-crawling baby to begin to understand the world around him/her and to feel secure next to his/her mother’s body – preferably with maximum skin contact.

Our aim is to raise independent, self-reliant, self disciplined young adults. The best way to start is with a securely attached baby.


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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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