Are You an Attachment Mum Struggling with a Lack of Structure?Following a couple of revealing conversations with mothers who had abandoned on-demand feeding and baby-led mothering in favour of scheduled feeding and sleep training, I began to explore what information was ‘out there’ on attachment-style mothering and the idea of structure - two vaguely conflicting approaches to parenting.
Online I found many articles and stories from other mothers who, in sleepless despair, had also renounced AP and embraced schedules in a bid to regain some structure in their babies and, by extension, their own lives.
Amidst all the glowing accounts of attached mothers carrying their co-slept, demand-fed babies in a bubble of cohesive bliss were also the voices of tired overwrought mothers who were lacking in confidence with no perceived control over their own or their babies’ lives. To compound the situation they felt judged and criticized by their peers; most of whom were following some kind of routine.
With my fourth baby in hand and knowing how much time the needs of the other three would be taking up, I wondered how could mothers like me find the space to create gentle structure, where necessary, without compromising our belief in meeting our babies needs as they arise? And why do some mothers thrive in this way whilst others find themselves in the midst of chaos? What are they doing differently? Or how?
These were the questions we raised and explored at the most recent Magnetic Mothers Circle; a monthly support group for attachment mothers and their babies living in SW London. The meeting was attended by a variety of mothers, some of whom confessed to living quite structured lives, prior to having children, whilst others admitted to being pretty much ‘footloose and fancy-free’. However they all shared the belief that they wished to parent in a baby-led rather than routine-directed way.
In the world of AP, structure usually only becomes an issue when things are becoming challenging. Again what is challenging is entirely subjective. AP mothers often set very vague boundaries. It’s inherent in their AP parenting. (But not necessarily in their psychological make-up) which is often where the problem lies.
Mother S is still feeding her daughter (20 months) every two hours at night. She is tired and wanting to stop. She does not know how to begin implementing some structure to her daughters feeding schedule. Mother M admits that she, as someone, who herself liked structure as a child, is concerned that there is very little structure in their toddler/mother shared life. Mother H says her baby doesn’t sleep very well during the day. She is concerned she is missing the sleep cues. She only gets him to sleep by walking him. Mother R wanted to feed on demand but felt that they both struggled with what that meant. She wondered whether she was overfeeding her baby? “Neither she nor I knew when to feed and when not.”
Defining Structure AP Style
Even those who claimed to have no structure agreed that there were natural rhythms to their day. Natural times of alertness, natural down times and various stages in between. We agreed that these varied according to their age. A baby has different sleep-wake and feeding rhythms at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. Mother T describes how she identified her baby’s rhythms: “When both my babies were small, I could see in the morning, how 90 minutes after waking, they would get tired. They set their own structure.”
Mother E had a similar experience:
“I did not schedule anything in the first year of my son’s life - not even really with friends. I discovered just by watching him that he would wake for two hours and then sleep for two. Gradually his wake periods extended.”
There are also patterns; the first feed, the last feed, other key feeds or activities that define and shape a day. So even though, at first glance, it may look like the day is without form actually, upon closer inspection, there is a basic structure there that can form the template of the baby-led structure. Sometimes we just don’t notice it.
Thereafter how much additional structure emerging will depend on what you, your baby, your day-to-day timetable, the family needs, plus any other environmental influences require.
“Babies with older siblings are born into a structured existence which their day is dictated by” says Mother H: Mother R agrees: “Because my son is number two, he’s just slotting in. The family structure is being imposed on him.”
This is also true for me with baby number 4. He is up and dressed by 9 (at the latest) each morning as by then the family day is well underway. Although he has no bedtime, as such, he has synched himself with his siblings bedtime. The middle of the day is less structured and that suits us both fine.
Evaluate Your Own StructureA useful practice for those struggling with structure is to write down the times and actions during their day that are relatively fixed; i.e the first feed, the last feed, any other key feeds, repeated journeys and activities, wake times, natural nap times and the time that your baby sleeps best… you will almost certainly be reassured by what you see. Reflecting on and documenting your findings helps you to become more aware of them. How much structure is there or not is really not the issue. (In the end all our babies will have structure imposed on them as the demands of nursery and school life take hold.) The issue is whether the needs of mum, baby and the rest of the family are being met?
Because there is no clear path regarding structure, and because our needs are all so different, exploring possible pitfalls and solutions for Attachment Mums was the next natural step. One of the biggest pitfalls is the idea of ‘on-demand’ feeding.
Responsive Not On-Demand FeedingOne of the key ways in which AP parenting differs from routine-led parenting is in how we breastfeed; AP mums practice on demand feeding, routine-led mums stick to feeding timetables.
Some say the term ‘on demand’ feeding has been misunderstood. In fact there is a move in many breastfeeding support circles to replace the descriptive term ‘on demand’ with the term ‘responsive’ feeding. On demand suggests the baby is in the position of power. Responsive gives the responsibility back to the mother.
This is not to say that AP mums are not discerning... far from it. But when the on demand feeder is struggling; when she says things like; ‘my body is not my own’, or ‘our feeding is all over the place’, it may be that she is using the breast as a pacifier instead of engaging with the real needs of her babies. Babies cry for all manner of reasons from hunger, to discomfort, frustration to boredom. We don’t always know whats wrong; it is often a guessing game, especially in the early weeks when we are finding our way, but part of the AP drive is to know your baby, find their needs and meet them accordingly - not just breastfeed every time they cry.
Mother M recognizes this behaviour in her parenting of her first child: “ I feel like I may have fed my daughter every time she cried... especially in the beginning when I didn’t really know her feeding cues. My son is very different. Now I have a breastfeeding App which helps me to track feeds. I like having some kind of routine.”
Mother R agrees: “I wonder whether I was over-feeding my daughter. We often struggled around feeds. I never really understood what on demand meant.”
This is a subject bound to button press because we all know that the breast and breastfeeding offers so much more than food; it is comforting, soothing, nurturing emotionally,and promotes a deep mother/baby connection. it is meant to calm fractious toddlers as well as feed them.
“There is definitely a place for the breast as comforter, says mum T. At times I have been so glad that I am still breastfeeding so that I can calm down an overwrought toddler.”
This is certainly a gift the breast-feeding mother can give to the toddler - the ability to offer that rich and immediate comfort on tap.
So the shift from demand feeder to responsive feeder may be just semantics or it may be describing a key perceptual shift on the part of a mother. I prefer to think it is the latter.
I like the change in language. It gives the mother the power to say no. That can only be a good thing. After all we are parents for a reason.
Initiating Change Around FeedingIf you are considering restricting nursing, or cutting back feeds, there are many gentle loving things you can do to put boundaries in place without causing too much upset for your baby or toddler. These include offering snacks, drinks or water instead, distracting them with a game or some much-needed attention (especially useful for bored babies or older babies who may be simply stuck in a habit), supplanting feeds with lots of kisses and cuddles but perhaps in a different context and physical situation to where the feed normally took place. Habits can be with places as well as times. Sit in a different chair to the one you usually feed in, introduce a different bedtime routine.
But before you implement change take some time to explore where you set your boundaries. In my experience the success or failure of any change I have introduced has been wholly determined by my commitment to initiating that change. There is no single more powerful negative influence on a non-committed AP mother than a crying baby or toddler.
BoundariesThis can be a real issue for AP mums - both emotionally and ideologically. For some the mother’s job is to give up her boundaries for her child, in other words, to surrender her needs with love; for others it is to respect Self and therefore others. More likely, we do and need both. Often, until our buttons are pressed and we find ourselves either blubbering or boiling we don't know where are boundaries are. But our feelings are clear indicators of where our boundaries lie. If there is resentment and struggle, you can be sure boundaries are being flouted.
Mother M: You often hear, It’s not good to give your child too many choices. I do think there are times when its not up to him what we do. But there are also times when it very much is.”
Baby-led play like on demand feeding can also be taken to extremes as another mum discovered: “I said to my son one day: ‘Mummy’s going to make a cup of tea’ and he answered: ‘Thats not an option Mummy. Mummy’s not having a cup of tea.’
Another mother reflects: “Sometimes I gave my toddler choices that perhaps I shouldn't have but, in that moment, I didn’t know what to do.”
Boundaries can change and are often not fixed anyway being determined by such things as how much or little sleep we've had. Somebody used the word ‘dance’ to describe knowing when to lead and when to follow. When to listen to your needs and when to meet theirs.
If you are struggling through a challenging period, it is so important to care for yourself. This may mean asking for help. Some of us are blessed with present, attentive partners, others work long hours or, for whatever reason, are unable to give you the support you need. In which case your job is to find it elsewhere. In the end it is about living and mothering with love rather than resentment.
Introducing a mother-led structureSometimes it is necessary to impose a structure. When that time arises, a key question has to be what is the bigger picture? Is it to breastfeed long term? To night wean by 1 year? To keep breastfeeding but transfer your toddler to his or her own bed? Or is it simply to buy yourself some peace and quiet at a certain hour during the day as Mother T describes:
“When my boys were a bit bigger I continued to feed for food and comfort but at times around my structure. At 5pm every day we would have a chill out feed on the bed before I went off and started cooking. I put that in place to buy me the time to cook knowing they would then be content.”
Once we know what it is we are hoping for in the long term, we can adjust our short term actions towards meeting that goal. I knew I wanted to breast-feed my daughter beyond two years but I could no longer deal with the endless night feeding and nipple tweaking so, when she was 2 years, I made the decision that in order to preserve the breastfeeding relationship, I would stop night-feeding. After a few difficult nights during which I remained steadfast, she transitioned beautifully and we enjoyed sharing feeds until she was 3.5 years old
Mother M interfered with her toddlers bedtime to redeem an ailing relationship: “I had to claw it back from 9pm to get some much needed time with his father.” Again her motivation was very clear.
The Magnetic Mum meetings are usually open-ended. Subjects this big and subjective rarely have tidy conclusions. But as time drew to a close we brought our findings together:
There are many gentle ways to introduce structure where it is needed but first work out what your long term goals are, identify what your child’s current needs are (knowing full well they will change),work out where your boundaries are and, if necessary, seek help.
Just because you believe in baby-led parenting does not mean you have to relinquish the parenting bit. It is our job to gently lead where we, as parents, feel it is necessary to do so. AP parenting is definitely child-led but it also needs to be mother-led too. This was a conclusion that we all agreed was true.
La Leche League
Attachment Parenting UK
Magnetic Mothers Circle