Personal Column: Attachment Parenting

Sharing a bed with her toddler, suckling her school-age daughter, educating their children at home. Liz Cole and her husband Gary say they are just following human instinct
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The Independent Online

About three years ago, I came across "Attachment Parenting" on the internet. It was a set of beliefs about bringing up children, and I realised it was all about the things I was doing with my children - homebirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and home-educating. I thought: "Ah, so that's what we've been doing. It has a name."

My two youngest daughters, Catharine and Eleanor, are two-and-a-half and nearly five now. I'm still breastfeeding them both, and my husband Gary and I are sleeping with Catharine. I know some people find it strange and even disturbing but, to me, it's all perfectly natural.

I was only 17 when I had my oldest daughter, Beth, who's now 24. The father was not on the scene. I really wanted a homebirth, but I just didn't have the confidence to insist. I'd read about how helpful it can be to let a baby breastfeed in the first hour of life, but they whisked me off to stitch me up. By the time I was finally given my baby to feed, the midwives had already given her a bottle. Some babies are particularly susceptible to "nipple confusion" and Beth was one of them, so this effectively ruined our chances of learning to breastfeed easily together. I can still hear her cries of hunger as she struggled to get the milk from my breasts. It still distresses me.

I met Gary when Beth was 18 months old. When I had my second baby, Patrick, seven years ago, everything was different. After Patrick was born, I settled down in bed cuddling him and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to leave him there. We didn't plan to co-sleep, it just happened. After you've had a baby inside you for nine months, it doesn't seem right to put him anywhere else but in your arms. I feel in my gut that this has to be the best emotional start for a baby. After all, most babies in the world sleep with their mothers and have done for generations. I know we're warned about the dangers of co-sleeping these days, but we put up a guard and followed all the safety guidelines from Unicef - he had his own covers, and no pillow.

As for sex, people make a lot of fuss about whether you do it in front of a baby, but what do they think happened in the past when whole families were living in one room? When they're tiny you can sometimes do it quietly while they're asleep - really, it's just the same as having them in a cot in the same room. What do other people do, put a curtain around the child? As they get older you just have to be creative and find other places and times. Patrick graduated to his own bed when he was about three, before Eleanor was born, and Eleanor moved on before Catharine came along.

Patrick was breastfed from birth and weaned himself at about 16 months. Eleanor did stop breastfeeding when I was five months' pregnant, but when Catharine was born she showed a lot of jealousy. She clung to me and poked the baby. I wasn't sure what to do, and a friend suggested going back to feeding Eleanor. So I asked her: "Would you like boobie?" She looked at me with all the dignity a two-year-old can muster and said "Mummy! I'm not a baby!" I thought that was that, but a few days later, I noticed she was staring at my breasts when I was getting dressed. So I cuddled her, and said it's OK, and that's how we started again. Her jealousy melted away.

Now Catharine feeds whenever she wants to, Eleanor mainly just in the morning and at bedtime. Neither Gary or I think there's anything weird about that. In most cultures, it's accepted that babies are weaned anywhere between two-and-a-half years and seven years - why force weaning on a child who seems to be comfortable doing something that is good for them?

I don't breastfeed my children in public now they're older, because I know people find it disturbing, but that's only social conditioning. I can see a lot of people would think: "Don't you want your body back now?", but I don't feel that way. It's no trouble giving my children something that's so good for them, and it reduces my chances of breast and ovarian cancer.

We always go to our children if they're upset in the night and have never done controlled crying. I think leaving them to cry can be damaging - there's certainly research to show it can affect their stress levels. Luckily, mine never cried much at night - that's the joy of doing it this way. It annoys me when people talk about crying babies as manipulative - babies only have needs, and if those needs are met they are easy.

We always wanted our babies close, so we carried them everywhere, in slings and then a backpack. It seemed natural and I think they liked the security. At home, I got used to doing things one handed and as they got older, I got a tie-around sling so I could have my hands free for cooking.

I was fascinated to discover there's a whole theory of attachment parenting, but almost none of what we've done is subscribing to any theory; it's just purely instinctive and has snowballed as the children grew. Home-educating seemed like a natural progression.

If I'd known more about home education sooner I'd have done it with Beth, but as a teacher, I'd bought into the education system. But Beth didn't thrive at school. She got her GCSEs, but wasn't happy. Ultimately, what decided us was the way the whole education system is so micromanaged, and targeted on exam results.

We read a book called Teach Your Own, and joined a group called Education Otherwise, who have helped with the practicalities. It helped I was a teacher and Gary an educator.

I started while Gary was still at work, but when we came into a small inheritance, we decided to spend it on having more time together as a family, so Gary left work and joined me in teaching the children. We find it fulfilling, the children are happy and academically on-target. I think they'll be well-prepared for life. They have friends and go out like other kids.

Parenting this way has never come between me and Gary as a couple. What we do with the children feeds into our love for each other. We're a family, not just a couple.

Sometimes in our society it seems there's a pressure to have the baby and shove it away from you: put a bottle in its mouth instead of a breast, put it in a cot instead of cuddling it at night, put it in a pram instead of carrying it. That's what Gary and I kicked back against. We just wanted to be closer to them.

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