Why babies don’t “behave”

Have you ever had someone comment to you how “well-behaved” your baby is? If not, don’t worry, just read on.

This compliment reflects a pervasive Western misconception about how babies function. Have you ever met an under-one-year-old who understood what society expected of him and adjusted his behavior to accomodate those expectations? I haven’t.

I was among the lucky parents who was approached by strangers who commented on my baby’s “good behavior” (as opposed to those parents who received seething glares from fellow diners at a restaurant – although, believe me, we got those, too). But I deflected every compliment with a comment on my baby’s state of mind, like, “her tummy’s full and she’s satisfied” or “she’s well-rested.”

Every parent who’s been there knows that it’s impossible to control your baby’s behavior. The best effort we can make to ensure that our baby reflects the contentment and joy we associate with “good” behavior is to anticipate and meet his needs, as well as we can.

My baby was “well-behaved” because her needs were met. She had trouble sleeping alone, so I cuddled her to sleep. She often wanted to nurse, and I met her requests as quickly as possible. She preferred being held to sitting in a carseat, so we carried her in arms or in an ergo most of her first year and well into her second.

Was my baby responsible for regulating her internal state to please strangers in restaurants and supermarkets? No. Her parents were. And believe me, we weren’t thinking about those strangers when we were doing it.

We didn’t do a perfect job, if such a thing exists, but we did the best we could. And she let us know instantly how well we were doing. And so, I guess, did all those strangers.

Baby: from Other to Teacher

If you survey mainstream Western baby-care advice from the past two centuries, you’ll see a common theme: the perception that babies are wild beings who need to be tamed in order to be incorporated into family life.

The concept of “otherness” is familiar in the history of humankind – it’s a driving force behind the identification of the great family of people into distinct races, nationalities, religions, etc. While what makes us different is cause for learning and celebration, fear often prevails, and what’s different can be seen as a threat.

What happens when we see the baby as the “other”? Practices like seeking to tame the baby’s needs by delaying physical contact, feedings, and sleep. An effort to distance oneself from the child so as not to identify with him and be manipulated by him. Sadly, these practices, which begin at a time when the need for bonding (not just the baby’s, but equally important – the caretaker’s) is so crucial, can set up a family for a lifetime of “otherness” whether in subtle or more obvious ways.

On the flip side, what happens when we begin to view our babies as our teachers? After all, our babies are most in touch with their individual needs and temperaments, and know how best to meet their physical and emotional needs.

When we view our babies as our teachers, we allow ourselves to experience the world as students, whether having our first baby or our tenth. We can be fully in the moment, not judging our babies but flowing with them. We open our eyes and hearts to subtle cues we might otherwise miss. We lay a solid foundation for our relationship with our children, which allows for deeper levels of connection and intuition.

For me, attachment parenting was the path that allowed me to see my baby as my teacher, and not the other way around. Every day I gain greater insight about my own limitations, and use my reverence for my daughter to stretch myself, so that I can be the mother she deserves.

Motherhood: Is It Holding Mothers Back?

“The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women,” is the latest release of self-effacing mom lit, by prominent French intellectual Elisabeth Badinter. From her recent piece in the Huffington Post:

Today’s ideal of motherhood requires that we give birth in pain, without benefit of an epidural, since this robs us of our first act as a mother. We are enjoined to nurse for six months, a year, or longer, day and night, whenever our child wishes, regardless of the mother’s situation. We are advised to practice co-sleeping, at the risk of sending numerous fathers to the sofa. The good mother who wants the best for her child is urged to forswear processed baby food, which is eyed as a health hazard, and to avoid daycare as injurious to her child’s healthy development. With all of its demands, the naturalist ideal of the 21st century means that it takes a woman as much time and energy to raise two children as our grandmothers spent raising four.

We’ve heard these types of arguments before from Erica Jong and countless mothers before her. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Prescriptive parenting, whether pro- or anti-naturalism, is at the heart of the issue. As Badinter herself agrees, when we look to gurus, whose opinions change with the mood of the times, we lose our way. Believing that there is a right way to parent, especially when that way contradicts with your own instincts, is the real prison modern mamas are facing.

Badinter continues: “Daughters have reacted against the feminism of their mothers. Most of all, we have seen the return of a naturalist ideology not much different from that of Rousseau, which kept women at home for almost two centuries. Its message was simple: ‘Ladies, your duty and your great achievement is to make the adults of tomorrow. You need only look to the teachings of nature and devote your days and nights to the task.'”

I’m concerned by this idea that modern or attached motherhood is setting back the feminist movement. For me, and for many of my generation, the lasting gift of feminism is the right to choose what we do with our lives: the right to self-determination. Not the right to sit in a cubicle all day, then pick up our child from day care and call ourselves liberated. Not the right to hate your life as you wash cloth diapers and puree baby food because someone told you that’s what “good” mothers do. For me, feminism means choosing how we navigate motherhood, whether we dress Junior in cloth diapers, disposables or none at all. In other words, if it’s not for you, just skip it!

Now to the valid issue Badinter raises about mothers whose lives revolve entirely around mothering. “We …fail to remember that raising a child doesn’t last forever, that when children grow up we have thirty or forty years left to live. To make a child the alpha and omega of a woman’s life deals a terrible blow to women’s autonomy and to the equality of the sexes.”

I’ll start by pointing out that this issue – identifying so completely with a particular role, always has the potential to leave our worlds completely rocked. A close relative recently told me about the best job she had. She loved it – the work, the people, everything about it. And she was there for a long time. But then one day she was let go. And she swore to never again identify with a job so completely. Work is work, she said, and that’s all it is.

So maybe identifying so completely with one role, to the exclusion of others, isn’t just a pitfall of motherhood. It’s a danger of completely identifying ourselves with what we do, rather than who we are. The danger is identifying as anything but our true selves, whatever that means to each of us. As long as we stand in our own truth, we’ll make the best decisions possible – for ourselves, for our families and for our careers. And if the highlights of our lives change suddenly or over time, we’ll be equipped to ride it out.

Diaper Free in the Middle East

API appreciates encouragement and support of our parenting instincts, and enjoys when the support transcends geographic borders and language. Please note that Attachment Parenting helps parents reclaim their instincts through API’s Eight Principles of Parenting and grow in their parenting confidence, to make the choices they find best for their own families. Elimination communication, going diaper free, is a practice some parents employ as part of their family choices, however it is not a practice that API support groups and information resources take a position on in any way regarding fostering secure attachment. Please enjoy this post as a part of your enrichment, and not as a practice inherent to Attachment Parenting.

People in China are doing it. People in India, Africa, Russia, Germany and the U.S. are doing it. And a small yet determined cadre of new parents in Israel are taking the plunge.

Diaper Free is just as easy as it sounds. Take off the nappies! Either altogether or here and there for a pee break. But the implications of going diaper free in a society where it’s virtually unheard of are a bit more complex.

As a mentor with DiaperFreeBaby.org, I host meetings for parents of babies and toddlers in my hometown of Boston. But, as I geared up to spend a month in Israel, an unexpected and synchronistic connection from an EC-ing (EC stands for Elimination Communication, the gentle and connection-oriented practice of pottying your child in babyhood) Israeli mama was a lightbulb moment for me. ECing parents benefit from support, no matter where they are, because–unlike the Chinese–we live in societies where our practices are little-known. With few family members and friends to pass down the torch of initiation into this practice, finding our way alone can be challenging.

Before the first ever Tel Aviv meeting of DiaperFreeBaby commenced, Larissa and I discussed our goals. To cover some basic techniques, to provide an opportunity for like-minded parents to connect, but mostly to give parents an opportunity to tell their stories and air their challenges and questions. Six families attended, two of which included mom, dad and baby, one mom who’d left her baby at home, and three moms with their babies.

As the dads nervously expressed their relief to see another dad there, I recalled my first ever DFB meeting. My now-toddler was 2 weeks old, and my husband was the only dad present. That meeting was pivotal in our parenting journey, since it’s where we learned about co-sleeping and co-bathing, two practices that helped us to meet our daughter’s needs in a way that mainstream baby-case couldn’t.

We showed some basic pottying holds–since when you’re pottying an infant, you have to hold them over the designated spot–then briefly touched on the role of intuition in infant pottying. “I thought it was just me!” confessed a mom in joy and recognition when I discussed a phenomenon known as the “phantom pee”–when you feel as if you’ve just been peed on but you haven’t. It means your baby needs to use the bathroom. Two other moms had also experienced it without knowing what it was.

How amazing to have moms exploring this new world in a country where there are no books published in Hebrew on EC. They don’t even have appropriate words to describe the practice yet. Having read all the books I could find (and there are only four of them as of today’s count) on the matter, I was impressed by the courage of these parents, who’d scraped together all they could learn from the internet and a few like-minded friends.

Going Diaper Free was just the tip of the iceberg with these parents. One mom described how people thought she was crazy given that she gave birth in her home, something even more uncommon than in the U.S., where the practice is slowly gaining ground. All present babies were toted in carriers, a practice gaining ground in a similar fashion to the US–baby bjorns are frequently seen on the streets, and the occasional wrap. Most of them were cosleeping, a practice that made nighttime pottying easier, but also cultivates a deeper connection of trust and responsiveness between moms and babies, and makes nighttime nursing a breeze.

The language was different, but the types of comments were the same. Parenting against the grain takes dedication and resolve, yet it can get lonely. Finding like-minded parents can be a huge relief. Thankfully, Larissa has firmly taken the reins, and is hosting bi-weekly meetings all across the country. You can check out this amazing woman and her blog here (in Hebrew, but google translate can you sort through it).

Flirting with babies

As the parent of a young toddler, the idea of “flirting” has been on my mind for a while. Whenever we’re at a restaurant, my daughter – like many other young children – enjoys catching the eye of new people, and making them smile. Our society likes to call this “flirting.”

Our perceptions of babies tend to be skewed by the cultural beliefs we’ve inherited, and then reinforced by the language we’ve been taught to use, as well. This is why I’m calling out a seemingly innocent – yet omnipresent – word like “flirting.”

Google turned up the following definitions of the verb FLIRT:

1. Behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but without serious intentions: “it amused him to flirt with her”.
2. Experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.

I have several qualms with the “innocent” idea that babies are flirting.

First, flirting implies a romantic overture. Clearly, this is out of the realm of babies’ developmentally capabilities or interests.

Second, flirting is defined as creating a superficial interest or connection.

Adults know plenty about superficial connections. We’ve been taught to erect walls, and strategically vary the way we present ourselves to increase the likelihood of getting what we want. Some like to say babies are manipulative, but in fact, by the time we’ve reached adulthood, most adults are master manipulators.

Babies, on the other hand, are beautifully untainted. By learning from them, we can regain some of our innocence, some of our original beauty.

When babies create a connection with another person, it is intentional and inspirational. They open themselves entirely to the interaction, smiling widely to elicit joy and establish a connection with the other person. Any one of us can attest – when we’re engaged by a smiling baby, we’re flooded with appreciation and love.

Babies are our teachers. They can help us let go of the superficial layers we’ve collected in the long years of our lives. They can show us how to open up and show the love that lies at our very core. One of the ways they teach this vital lesson is by reaching out and grabbing our hearts with a dazzling smile.

I’d argue that what babies do in restaurants has nothing to do with flirting. It is an intentional act, and it reflects a sincere interest in connecting with the truest self of the person they’ve engaged.

I’d also like to propose that we rename this beautiful act that babies do. Ascribing a more accurate name is another step to reclaim babies’ value in public perception. Some of my thoughts: Connecting. Engaging. Shining. Dazzling.

Please share your thoughts and ideas!

Habiba and the Indictment of Attached Parenting

Loving parents around the world are mobilizing to support an everywoman named Habiba, a Moroccan mother living in Spain.
Habiba was down on her luck, living in a Madrid women’s shelter run by the Instituto Madrileño del Menor y la Familia (IMMF) with her 15 month old nursling, Alma.

The shelter disapproved of Habiba nursing Alma on demand, and enrolled Habiba in a “parenting class” to persuade her to wean, providing medication to end her milk production. Habiba refused.

The medical report used to indict Habiba’s mothering states, “The hours and type of food are chaotic” and “she uses breastfeeding as a pacifier and a toy, offering her breast any time the girl cries and letting her take it anywhere, no matter the time and context in which this happens (offices, corridors).” Further, “”We attempted to regularize and limit breastfeeding times, but it did not seem possible, so the possibility of stopping breastfeeding was raised ….” “… she continued to breastfeed. She was given pacifiers, but she didn’t use them either”.
On May 31, Habiba left her daughter at IMMF’s family day care center, as usual. Upon returning, she learned that Alma had been taken away and Habiba was now homeless, as the shelter housed mothers and she no longer had a child.

A Facebook page called Worldwide Mothers support Habiba! IMMF Give her baby back has been a hub for worldwide activists, organizing rallies at Spanish embassies, publishing news articles and facts on the case, and sharing contact information for IMMF and related government officials.

The English media has been slow to pick up this story, but AP friendly bloggers are taking up the cause, enraged over the IMMF’s condemnation of cosleeping and its actions to cause suffering in Alma and her mother.

The IMMF’s report addresses Habiba’s cosleeping as follows: “She (Alma) does not have proper sleep patterns. From the first moment Habiba didn’t want the girl to sleep in her cot and she lies with her in her own bed. She uses the cot to drop off things and toys and on very rare occasions to leave the girl … ”

After nine days of being apart, Habiba was allowed to visit Alma for an hour, under strict instructions not to nurse her daughter. Habiba expressed her concerns to Dr. Ibone Olza, a psychiatrist and birth activist who has taken on her case.

“My little girl is no longer the child I knew, at first she wouldn’t even look at me… she has lost half a kilo, she looks very thin, this is not proper childcare, she had circles under her eyes, she started crying as soon as I picked her up but then she would stop immediately as if she didn’t have the physical strength to cry any longer, she didn’t seem like my daughter, she looked like a dead child, a doll.”

Fundación Raíces, a humanitarian organization pursuing Habiba’s case learned that during night shifts, the shelter where Alma is staying has only two caregivers for 42 children under the age of six.

While activists continue to demand Alma’s release, recent news reports have indicated that Habiba will need a job and a house before her daughter is returned to her.

Three prominent doctors in Spain have concluded that, “the decision to separate Alma from Habiba is harmful for both of them. For Alma, because she was subjected to excessive stress, the stress of separation for which she is not yet ready, and is deprived of the best food and care she can receive, abruptly cutting off a secure attachment relationship with her mother.”

Questions remain for those parents who are informed about the importance of developing and maintaining a secure attachment. What further harm will be come to both Alma and Habiba as their separation endures? What will it take to educate the international community about the benefits of Attachment Parenting? And, while devastating to consider, if this could happen to Habiba and Alma, couldn’t this happen to me?

Now is the time to stand up and help our contemporaries around the world understand what we all once knew. A baby’s home is her attuned mother – beside her breasts, her bed, and her heart.

In the short term, concrete actions can be taken to help reunite Habiba and Alma, or at least to bring public attention to their cause. But in the long term, how can we raise awareness about the importance of establishing a healthy attachment, and the behaviors that facilitate one? How can we cast aside myths of spoiling our children in arms, at the breast, or in our beds?

We’ve all envisioned a world where each child felt truly loved and supported. Now is our opportunity to start building it, one conversation at a time, one blog post at a time, one status update at a time. Let’s unite to spread the light of awareness and cast aside the shadows that keep ignorance alive. What will your contribution be?

Note: Habiba and Alma have been reunited.

Image credit Louma Sader Bujana

Reflections on Our First Year

I entered parenthood with a crib and an epidural. I had never heard of attachment parenting, and was pretty sure the family bed was something that could wreck a marriage.

As my baby turns one, and my husband and I celebrate our eighth year of marriage, we happily (and a bit nervously) went out for our first time alone as a couple since her birth, and reflected on the highlights of our year.

In addition to watching each other blossom as parents, the way we parent was at the top of both of our lists.

I never could have guessed that our style of parenting could be equally important to us as the event of becoming parents.

While hard to explain – or even justify – to the uninitiated, the steps we’ve taken to build a deep and secure bond with our daughter have transformed us as just much as they’ve helped to ground her. Specifically, our top seven favorite steps we’ve taken as parents this year:

  1. Bringing Dalia into our bed. Not only does she fall asleep faster, and sleep longer and more soundly, but the precious time we have as a family, gazing adoringly at our beautiful baby as she sleeps, or laughing together in the morning, is priceless.
  2. Breastfeeding! While it wasn’t clear if I’d be able to at all, and then whether I’d need to supplement forever, at around the two month mark – thanks to cosleeping, in fact – we were finally able to nurse exclusively. From that point on, it’s been invaluable to nurture Dalia both nutritionally and emotionally in my arms.
  3. Letting Dalia take the lead on her feedings. Introducing solids has been fun and fulfilling for the whole family, as we let go of our expectations of how a baby should eat, put safe “adult” foods in front of her, and let her show us how and what she wants to eat.
  4. Taking our infant to the potty! Reading up on Elimination Communication before Dalia’s birth, I skipped over all the yada yada about building a deep bond through pottying. Who are they fooling, I thought! But boy, knowing when she has to go and keeping our baby dry and happy are way more intimate experiences than we could have guessed.
  5. Tossing the disposables! While at first we were afraid of the work – and stigma – of cloth diapering, it’s incredibly gratifying to know we’ve reduced our landfill contributions to about one diaper per day. I’d like to go all the way, and am actively looking for a leak-free overnight cloth diaper, so any recommendations would be appreciated!
  6. Babywearing! How wonderful to be able to strap her in snugly under my winter coat and hit the road! Especially with a baby who hates the car and squeals when we take out the stroller, our beloved collection of carriers has increased our closeness and mobility. Beyond the practical benefits, the joys of “spoiling” our baby with all the in arms time we can give has been unmeasurable.
  7. Meeting like-minded parents! Since joining a group for AP moms, Dalia and I have met some amazing moms and babies who have paved the way for larger family friendships. Having a like-minded community of friends has helped us to bask in the wonder of parenthood and lean on a haven of supporters when questions or issues arise.

While each of these experiences has cracked us wide open for more and more love and closeness in a way we had not anticipated, the sum of the effect of our practices is worth way more than the individual parts. As we close the door on babyhood and enter toddlerhood together, I am confident in my ability to navigate our future as a mom. More importantly, my baby has confidence that she is loved, that her world is stable and secure, and that she can come back to us when she needs to recharge.

While AP isn’t for everyone, for those of us who know and love its practices, it can magnify – and multiply – the rewards of the parenting experience. I am grateful we happened upon this path, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

On American Parenting and Independence

I’ve been reading Our Babies, Ourselves, recently, and it really drives home why Americans parent the way they do.

Land of the free, home of the brave. Our country was founded through a popular uprising against the British monarchy. Our credo can be found in the Declaration of Independence. And the economic system we embrace is capitalism, which generally equates to “every man for himself.”

Given that we’re born free and raised to be independent, it makes sense why we proudly pass this value onto our littlest ones – as part of their birthright.

There’s nothing wrong with independence, per se. It’s a value like any other, and like other values it has its pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, a child who learns to tie his own shoes, pour his own drink, and walk his dog is building life skills that create positive self-esteem and set him up for a productive adulthood, when his parents won’t be there to help him with everything.

It’s the minuses of expecting a baby to be independent that worry me.
A baby who is a few months, weeks or even days old, is expected to sleep alone, despite their developing digestive systems being set up for constant nursing.
A baby may be expected to nurse on schedule, and to use a bottle or pacifier whenever possible so as to free up his mother for her own right to independence.
A baby is expected to be able to self-soothe, and babies who demand too much from their moms are described as manipulative, tainting their parents’ view of them.

By assuming that babies are old enough to be independent, we place unrealistic expectations upon them, causing a build up of cortisol hormones that stress babies’ tiny systems when their *dependent* needs are not met.

As a result of our parenting, studies show, children whose needs aren’t met in early childhood become aggressive and, at worst, pathological.

How do we turn the tides on the shadow side of a culture of independence that is gaining popularity as industrialized societies race to become more westernized?

I’d love to hear your ideas on this topic. What other values might we embrace that are more gentle, loving and compassionate to our children?