The Growth of Competitive Parenting (or ‘When You’re Not AP enough to be an Attachment Parent’).

I spend my life as a ‘parenting expert’ (yes – I hate that terminology too) in a strange dichotomy.

On the one hand I am far “too crunchy” for many. They send me emails almost daily stating that I live in “la la land”, that I can’t possibly have any actual parenting experience, or if I do I must have easy children with no medical problems or behaviour issues (for the record I have both). They say I can’t have more than one child for if I did I would know that my “nice in theory, hippy, advice doesn’t work” (I have four kids). They tell me that I must only have young children, that I can’t possibly have teenagers, as what I suggest clearly only works for young children (I’m already there!). My suggestions of understanding, empathy, connection and having respect for children are scoffed at regularly, especially when I give advice in a mainstream parenting publication, Facebook page, or God forbid: The Daily Mail.

On the other hand there are the ‘die hard APers’. They are often far more acerbic in their analysis of my advice and support. Surprisingly so for those who practice peaceful parenting. I am regularly questioned for my suggestions that don’t fit into what they presume to be ‘attachment parenting’ (which tends to not fit my definition). If I so much as support a parent who is formula feeding, using a cot in a separate bedroom, swaddling, or doesn’t want to babywear you can bet your life I’ll get an email from someone telling me I’m “letting the side down” or that I’m “selling out“.


Here’s the thing. Well actually three things, though:


1. Attachment parenting is based on attachment theory. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth at no point said that all babies and toddlers should bedshare, be carried, baby led wean, breastfeed, wear cloth nappies, be born at home and never, ever cry. These ‘tools’ have nothing to do with attachment theory (which is what I support, rather than attachment parenting). They are modern-day additions that have formed an idealistic label. They are not necessary, certainly not in order to foster a secure attachment with a child. They may make *our* job easier (and I’m a fan of them all), but they are not a pre-requisite.

Contrary to public (AP) opinion it is perfectly possible to be a great, respectful and empathic parent if your child sleeps in a cot in their own room, is formula fed and you use a buggy. Attachment theory is about providing a ‘secure base’ for the child. Allowing them to attach when they need to and detach when they need to. It’s about being ‘good enough’ as a mother (or father) to allow the child small, well-timed, doses of separation so that they emerge as an independent, confident child and adult as they grow. It isn’t about “the stuff”. I have met several ‘attachment parents’ who religiously use these tools, yet fall quite short of the mark when it comes to fully respecting and empathising with their child. This ‘stuff’ doesn’t make you a better parent than somebody who doesn’t use them, but responds fully to their child. Sadly though this ‘stuff’ sometimes leads those who religiously use them to feel and act in a superior manner to those who don’t use ‘the stuff’.



ap2. Parenting is bloody hard. We ALL make mistakes. At some point we ALL will not quite meet our child’s needs. At some point we will ALL do something ‘wrong’. We’ll ALL feel guilty.

If you haven’t yet, it’s because you’re not quite far down your parenting path enough. I promise you, that day WILL come. Don’t make your fall harder than it will already be. Seriously though, that’s just what being a parent is all about. We’re human, we all make mistakes. The real key is in recognising that mistake, accepting it, forgiving yourself, rectifying the situation and moving on.

We don’t have a supportive tribe around us. We tend to not be given much encouragement from others about our parenting skills. The last thing we need is other mothers criticising us. Especially when they don’t know us. We need to support each other. There are ways and means of gently leading a mother to the information that she (perhaps doesn’t yet know) that she needs. When she gets there though it’s important that she is given the time and space to digest that information herself. If the information is forced upon her, or disseminated in such as way that it is too painful for her to consider, she will never be open to it. It’s easy to live in a parenting ivory tower, but it’s an awful long way to fall when your inevitable mistake happens, especially if you’ve alienated the people who might catch you when you fall while climbing up. We really do need to extend more empathy to other parents if we ever want to make a change for the better.



3. People know me as ‘a gentle parenting advocate’, which is true (see this piece for what I believe gentle parenting encompasses). I am however far more of an advocate of the ‘do the least harm’ parenting philosophy.

Everyone is fighting their own battles and has their own demons. Usually well hidden. When it comes to the internet in particular we have no idea what they are. We don’t know if the reason that they ‘can’t breastfeed’ is actually due to the sexual abuse that they experienced as a child. We don’t know if the reason that they ‘can’t bedshare’ is because they are taking strong antidepressants that nobody else knows they take. We don’t know if the reason that they ‘need to sleep train’ is because they are teetering on the edge of severe PND and/or a marital breakup.

If we don’t know why somebody has made the choices that they have, then we are in absolutely no position to judge (and certainly not in a position to tell them what they SHOULD be doing). This should be a great time to use our ‘gentle’ skills. It’s time to use the empathy that we speak so much about and give other mothers a break.

I’m not advocating that all mainstream, common parenting is OK, or that “whatever goes” is fine. It isn’t (and there are certain things that I could never, ever support). Doing the least harm however is often as good as it gets in a lot of cases though. I have taught parents to sleep train using methods that I would never normally condone because I recognised that the alternative would have been far more damaging to the child. I have supported parents through birthing procedures that I would never support usually because for them or their baby (all things physical and emotional considered) it was the route of least harm. I have suggested swaddling and dummies to many parents who formula feed and *need* sleep and I have also suggested the use of rewards for children if the circumstances meant they were necessary (and sometimes they are)……and I will carry on suggesting these too. Just as I will suggest ‘AP tools’ where I feel appropriate too.

Unless we have walked a mile in somebody’s shoes who are we to judge them or tell them what is best for their child?


I get that people are passionate about parenting and supporting the rights of a child. I am both. This is why discussions get so heated. The intentions are all good. The responses they elicit less so.

What time has taught me though is that my ‘ideals’ and the information that parents really need (at a particular moment in time) are far apart. Time has also taught me that when I have a strong reaction to something parenting related it is often because it has triggered unresolved feelings in my own life. These are my feelings that I need to deal with, not project onto somebody else.

To make a difference to the world, or perhaps just a few children, we need to leave our ideals on the back bench for a bit and listen. Often that means coming from a place of ‘do the least harm’ and that’s OK. In fact it’s more than OK. Imagine if all parents ‘did the least harm’ for their children, how different the world would be then!

Imagine if all parents treated each other with the very tenets of GentleParenting that I have just mentioned: undertanding, empathy and respect. What a world that would be, imagine how much we could change things for children if we all supported, rather than attacked each other!



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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Babies, Mothering, Preschoolers, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Growth of Competitive Parenting (or ‘When You’re Not AP enough to be an Attachment Parent’).

  1. frogotter says:

    I like this a lot!
    Parenting can get very tough at times and I think ‘do the least harm’ is a handy phrase to remember when you’re stuck in a problem with no ‘right’ answer.
    I do think that supporting and encouraging parents in their individual situations is incredibly valuable. Great post!

  2. True Growth Parenting says:

    Sarah, thank you for this! I absolutely agree, parenting is never as simple as ‘do this and do that’ solutions would have us believe. When we give up clinging to the ‘how-to’ instructions as if our children’s lives depended on it and rather focus on the relationship we are building each and every day with the children we love so very deeply, we find our way through with them.

    I believe that when it comes to parenting, there is no step-by-step approach that will ‘work’ with your child simply because when we apply the directions of another we are taking general solutions and applying them to our unique children. We have to consider context above all else and no one is better equipped to do that than a parent who knows and loves their own child.

    Parenting is not a science to be learned or a competition to win. We are all working towards the same fundamental outcome…we hope to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted whole human beings, but that looks a little different for everyone. If we keep this in mind we can come together and support each other along the journey…which when you are on it, is a bumpy but very rewarding experience.

    Thank you for all that you are doing to share what you have learnt with those who come searching for it. I hope they find what they are looking for. ❤

  3. Kerry Bone says:

    Why on Earth would you infer that a mother’s decision to have her baby sleep in a separate room, or to not breastfeed or to never co-sleep are most likely decisions borne from some kind of emotional or sexual abuse? What a horrible and deeply patronising suggestion. I do not co-sleep and my baby has sleep in her own room, in her own cot since she was seven weeks old. She sleeps like a dream and is very attached to her cot and bedtime toys. I specifically used routine from an early age because my AP cohorts were having such a dreadful first few months of motherhood – largely because women like yourself insist on peddling the myth that multiple night wakings are ‘normal’ and that babies are biologically programmed to feed perpetually through the night.

    My daughter and I have shared the most sublime seven months of solid sleep and that, in my opinion, is the cornerstone of a child’s contentment. The most sleep deprived of mothers I know practice AP and their babies enjoy the least sleep. They will never say they have created rods for their own backs, or that their babies would clearly benefit from longer stretches of quality sleep…but we all know this to be true.

    • Our Osteo says:

      @Kerry – And what if you happened to have been gifted with a child who screamed blue murder the moment you placed them down in their lovely cot? What would you have done then? Would it have been respectful to make your child cry til they gave up in order to prove your AP friends wrong?
      I see so many parents assuming that their decisions ‘made’ their children a good sleeper. I also see plenty who have made the same decisions for multiple children and shock horror, some have been fantastic sleepers and some horrendous. “Normal” is a very wide range, and if you genuinely believe putting every baby into a cot would create solid sleepers without any debate from the babies involved you’re sadly delusional.

    • Zoe says:

      Kerry you need to re-read the article if you think that Sarah is patronising you by suggesting that ONE reason that ONE person might not be able to breastfeed is due to abuse, or the other examples. That important quality of empathy and not judging others is the point that you seem to have missed. Your choices are yours and well done for owning them and doing what works for you. The only thing that Sarah is suggesting is that you (that we all) let other mothers do the same.

  4. AP Mum says:

    Dear Kerry, you have no clue! You seem to be missing the point if this post and pretty much what the first 7 months should be about. All the best to you, maybe google common sense nhs recommendations when you have some non solid sleeping time to spend

  5. Georgina Perry says:

    I love the message that we should all be more empathic and supportive and respectful of each other’s parenting. Mums seem to give other mums such a hard time. I still have to remind myself I am not a failure because my son doesn’t sleep through the night, but also to remind myself that neither does my commitment to breastfeeding and cosleeping in the face of this make me better than anyone who hasn’t found this to be the easier way to parent their child. If my son had slept deeply in his cot, to be honest I probably would have left him there! I have had so much joy from breastfeeding, cosleeping and babywearing, I am actually glad that my instincts and my son wouldn’t allow me to do anything else. That’s why I parent this way, not out of some kind of competitiveness.
    In answer to Kerry, firstly, I do think the speculations about why people might not breastfeed etc did come across badly, but I’m pretty sure that was not the intention. Secondly, I am one of those parents who get less uninterrupted sleep, possibly, than someone who sleep trains. But waking for short periods of time in the night, as my son stirs next to me without crying, simply signalling he needs me, so that my son can get the benefits of breastmilk and the reassurance of my presence is something I will never regret. I and he are not sleep deprived, because I cosleep. But when others hear me say he doesn’t sleep through I think they probably hear what they assume -that this is a problem, a sign of failure, and that I am some kind of warning about how not to do it. The truth is, we’re incredibly happy and it is not a problem. Just as you’ve found your daughter and you are perfectly happy, so are we. Congratulations to the both of us!

  6. Karen Shlegeris says:

    Well done Sarah. We can never be everything to everyone, although we’d like to be. You do an amazing job and if you can help someone even in just a small way, then you’re ahead of the pack. People often react when their beliefs are challenged, and we all have different beliefs and styles when it comes to parenting. Hang in there and keep up your great work.

  7. Rebecca says:

    Beautiful! Thankyou :)…

  8. Michelle Mattesini says:

    This shows the importance of collective compassion in our efforts to raise our children consciously and lovingly, often in a different way to the way we were parented ourselves. Can we encourage, educate and respect ourselves and each other as we model loving behaviour for our children?

    I’m commenting too because I feel passionate about AP being accessible to everyone, as being undogmatic and supportive – the community on the APUK Facebook page is a beautiful example of varying approaches, styles and empathetic support. I was recently quoted in an article and it feels relevant to post here as a way of sharing the ethos at APUK about nurturing attachment…

    “Some people are not able, for practical, physical or circumstantial reasons, to follow all of the Bs and many of these can be considered as tools rather than rules,” says Michelle.

    “The key factor in all of this is the parent’s desire to engage with their child and build a strong attachment and this is possible without bed sharing and without baby wearing and without breastfeeding.”

    We are all in this together and I’m grateful for Sarah’s work at Babycalm and for all the wisdom mothers and fathers share with each other. For those who feel prescriptive or zealous, let’s have compassion too for the reasons which inspire that – we are all seeking the same thing and experiencing the same fears. Bring love and consciousness x

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