Type “parenting books” into Amazon and you get almost 84,000 hits. At least one of those books, I would have thought, would match our situation. By which I mean our children and our preferred style of parenting. But I haven’t found it yet.
With our first child we tried, at least broadly, to follow attachment parenting* principles. I breast-fed, exclusively, on demand, and until she was happy to stop. Since she fed often during the night we co-slept, often, and at two-and-a-half she’s still frequently in our bed by morning. We carried her in a sling and weaned her onto finger-foods at her own pace, not a puree or a spoon in sight (except for yogurt. Yogurt without a spoon is a step too far). I looked forward to something similar second-time round.
But how are we supposed to translate this to a special needs baby? On day one, we struggled with breastfeeding. By day two, we were syringe-feeding, finger-feeding and, yes, formula-feeding. Not on demand but on a punishing schedule instigated by the threat that unless we could get 30 mls of milk – any milk – into him every three hours he would have to be fed through a tube. That would mean taking him into the neonatal unit, which had no beds free for me to stay with him. So, to maintain any level of attachment at this stage we were already compromising.
We finally succeeded with breast-feeding, although it was – is – hard to shake the habit of forcing a nipple into his mouth every three hours, hard to trust that he can show – that he can even tell – when he’s hungry. Especially since for the first few months he seemed happy to go all day without food and then indulge in a marathon six-hour banquet every evening, just when there was a dinner to cook and a toddler to bath and put to bed. Later, as you know, we did move back, partially, onto formula, which has reduced those evening sessions down to a couple of hours. And yes, much as I complained about them, I now miss them!
Baby-led weaning, in the strict sense, is out of the question. He does not grasp anything with intent and rarely brings his hands anywhere near his mouth, so that wasn’t going to work. It’ll be old-fashioned spoon-fed purees all the way. But we do try to let him lead and, remarkably, he does communicate what he wants. Place a spoon to his lips and if he’s hungry they will open. He eats until he’s full and at the next spoonful his lips remain firmly closed. He also communicates his likes and dislikes: chicken, cauliflower or peach, mouth open; potato or plum, mouth firmly closed. (Although like most children, at the first mouthful of anything he acts suspicious and makes a face like you’ve just fed him a wasp). I’ll be happy to spend several years pureeing peaches if he maintains some control, some choice, even some enjoyment out of his food.
Co-sleeping we have managed. In fact sometimes when he was unable to maintain his own temperature (being born in late November in Scotland didn’t help) it was the only way we could be sure to keep him warm. And the warmth and humidity of our bed seemed to help ease his breathing during the frequent respiratory infections too. But he’s also perfectly happy in his own cot now, and if he’s happy, that’s just fine.
As I’ve said before, we’ve been lucky. I don’t know how you feed on demand if you are feeding through a naso-gastric tube. I don’t know how you get enough skin-to-skin contact if your baby is in an incubator in intensive care. What’s clear to me is that attachment parenting is much more about a mind-set than a set of rules. As Margot Sunderland describes in What Every Parent Needs to Know, it’s the attitude of love, nurture and playfulness that can do amazing things for a child’s – any child’s – development.
What’s proving hardest is learning how to listen. He doesn’t “root” at the breast. He doesn’t open his mouth for the spoon immediately it’s placed to his lips. He rarely cries when he’s hungry, hot, or dirty – instead his muscles tense in reaction so that he appears to arch away from the breast or bottle at the very time he needs food and comfort the most. But we’re learning to read these signals now. It’s a new language, but it’s worth learning. At the heart of attachment is a relationship based on communication, and at the heart of every relationship are individuals. And that’s why there can be no manual, we are all writing our own as we go along.
*Or gentle parenting, evolutionary parenting, etc. I will stick to what is perhaps the best-known term, not least thanks to Peaches Geldof, RIP.