Thursday, April 19, 2012

Attachment parenting without judgment... a celebrity interview at BFWOBS!

Breastfeeding Without BS's first ever celebrity interview! This week, I shared a cup of coffee and a (vegan) chocolate biscuit with Hollywood actress and mom-of-two Laurel Reznikov, who has also acquired a PhD in neuroscience while somehow finding the time to write a book on attachment parenting. She's here to tell us about works for her as a mother. Welcome to the blog, Laurel!

Laurel: Thank you, Emilie. It's a pleasure to be here.

BFWOBS: So, this book of yours is all about attachment parenting--your favored parenting style. Tell me a bit about that.

Laurel: Well, I don't really regard attachment parenting as a parenting style, Emilie--it's about following the biological norm for human societies and primates... the way people have parented for 99% of our species' existance. There are a thousand "baby books" out there telling parents what to do. That isn't what my book is about, because what I believe is that fundamentally, attachment parenting is about following your instincts as a parent. Specifically, things which are popular with attachment parents include extended breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping and elimination communication.

BFWOBS: Sounds good, Laurel. I'm really happy to think that more parents will learn about how using a sling, for example, can make their lives easier, and it's nice to see someone challenging widely myths about things like extended nursing and early potty training. Although, for me personally, co-sleeping is something I could never have done; I don't sleep well with people touching me, so I suspect me and my baby would have been waking each other up all night long...

Laurel: Well, Emilie.. some of us (mentioning no names!) have made the decision to give up a good night's sleep because they know--deep down inside--that this is what's best for their child. So you've not convinced me yet that you can't co-sleep!

BFWOBS: Okay, Laurel, I'll try harder in future. But attachment parenting, as we all know, is not just about the baby years; so called "positive discipline," as you call it, can be done with children of any age. Could you talk a little about that?

Laurel: Well, positive discipline is not about permissive parenting or letting children run the show--it's a philosophy that is based on seeing children as partners in the family relationship and helping them to understand why they should do certain things and not others--and of course, no physical violence.

BFWOBS: You know, that all sounds very sensible, Laurel.

Laurel: But positive discipline goes deeper than that, Emilie--it's about choosing to see children's behavior as being fundamentally good. Even when they scream and whine and create havoc in the supermarket, we choose to see that not as misbehavior, but as a way of expressing a true need--a need that the parent has failed to meet.

BFWOBS: Okay, I see.

Laurel: Of course, I would like to emphasize that this isn't about making parents feel guilty; it's about educating them to understand that when your child appears to misbehave, it's basically your fault.

BFWOBF: So, coming to specifics, what are the things about positive discipline that look different?

Laurel: Well, for a start, we avoid using the word "No" to our children.

BFWOBS: Wow, so you never say "No" at all?

Laurel: Well, almost never. We try to save the "Nos" for really important things, like when one of our kids is being offered a slice of non-vegan birthday cake at a party. Don't worry though, we always bring a wholewheat organic bran muffin to the party for him to have instead!

BFWOBS: (laughs) Oh, wait--I see you're being serious. Okay, well, so what are some other rules?

Laurel: Well, we don't reward or punish, or require children to share things if they don't want to. We don't say "Mine" or "Yours" either; we say "Mommy's" or "Johnny's" instead. We say things like "Listening is important so that we can communicate well and stay safe at the park" or "The prickly words you are using are for grownups" (if they swear)...

BFWOBS: I have to say I'd feel a bit forced and artificial, having to remember all these rules every time I interact with my child...

Laurel: Well, it's true that positive discipline is all about cerebral, conscious parenting, and it's pretty difficult for everyone to master--even me! It's been a slow, painful learning process. Whole books have been written on this subject. That's why I advise people to study a few of these books, and take a parenting class to improve their skills. By taking classes, studying your parenting books carefully, applying all the rules they describe and painstaking analyzing each word you say to your child based on complex psychological theories, you can learn how to follow your intuitive instincts and parent the way that comes naturally.

BFWOBS: So... it's essentially about just following our intuition?

Laurel: Exactly! You've basically summed up the true meaning of attachment parenting--it really is just about following your instincts! Well... unless of course your instincts tell you to punish your child when they misbehave or something like that, in which case you should obviously suppress your instincts as hard as you can.

BFWOBS: Thanks, Laurel, it's all much clearer now. Now, I understand that you and your husband don't use any kind of childcare other than each other--not even a babysitter?

Laurel: We have chosen to look after our children ourselves with no help from babysitters, daycare or even extended family--nothing remarkable, simply taking care of our own children exclusively within the  nuclear family, just as human societies have done for millennia. My husband is currently the primary parent while I do my acting.

Of course, I don't mean that leaving your children with babysitters or daycare is bad. It's just that being a full-time parent lets you experience all the true joys of parenting, like getting to hold them when they cry and see their joy when they build something awesome with LEGO--things which part-time parents who use babysitters or daycare never get to experience. Nothing can make watching a video of your child's first steps match the experience of watching it actually happen.

BFWOBS: It's sad but true, Laurel; Baby Seal spends a few hours a day with a local daycare nursery or my mother-in-law, and to be honest, I can't remember the last time I saw her playing with a toy. But couldn't your children just as easily build a LEGO wotsit or take their first steps when they are with your husband as they could if they were left with a babysitter?

Laurel: Sorry, Emilie? Didn't quite catch that.

BFWOBS: Ah, nothing. Go on.

Laurel: We're not better than other people (well, except that we obviously are, but...).  I'm certainly not telling other people how to balance work and family, because that's a very individual decision. I'm not in the business of telling people how to parent; I'm just quietly doing what works for my family--this is something I've emphasized again and again, at every book signing and media interview that I've done for my attachment parenting book so far. I didn't write this book because I wanted to make other people start parenting the way I do...

BFWOBS: ...I think there's no danger of that, Laurel...

Laurel: ... and in my book you'll see several examples of different families making things work for them, through ways and means that are extremely different and varied--apart from the fact that in all three cases, they make it work without making use of daycare, nannies, babysitters or extended family. No wonder I like them so much!

BFWOBS: So... you're not against families using daycare?

Laurel: Well, Emilie, the way I see it, it's not about different parenting styles being right or wrong. It's about different families placing priorities on differnt things and making different choices--which is absolutely great! And here's how it works: some families make choices that are about devoting our... sorry, their lives right now to being the best parents they can be. Other people make choices that prioritize materialism and stuff and expensive clothes and expensive cars and a house with a hefty mortgage and traveling a lot without their children, which is why they both work and use daycare or nannies. And I'm totally fine with that.

The fact that I am a Hollywood actress is neither here nor there--I have committed, heart and soul, to being there for them, and this is a decision I would follow through no matter how much or little money I made; a decision I would honor even if it meant that I had to live in a studio apartment, or stop shopping in specialty markets...

BFWOBS: You would actually consider living in a studio apartment..?? Stop it, Laurel, you're scaring me! Okay, so let's talk medical matters. I know you've talked about trying home remedies for minor problems, and how important it is to avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics, which I'm sure nobody could disagree with. How about vaccines, though? Are your children vaccinated?

Laurel: We are a non-vaccinating family, Emilie. However, I would like to make one thing quite clear; I am in no way anti-vaccine, and I make no claims regarding other individuals' decisions. My stance on vaccines is simply this: that parents need to educate themselves on this topic so that they can come to an informed choice that feels right for them.

BFWOBS: Thanks for clarifying, Laurel! And could you share your favorite go-to resources on the subject?

Laurel: Well, the Holistic Moms Network (HMN)--of which I am celebrity spokesmama, by the way--is a great place to start. I believe some of the members of its advisory board, like Dr. Sherri Tenpenny and Dr. Lauren Feder, may have had a thing or two to say about vaccines in the past.

But honestly, Emilie--this whole vaccine issue is about parents making the right decision for their families. Now, let me explain what I mean. For my family, the right decision is not to vaccinate. For many, many other families, the right decision is for the kids to get their shots on schedule--especially if these kids, let's say, sit next to my kids on the bus or share the drinking fountain with them at the park. And I really hope that this kind of healthy diversity of choices will continue, in line with individual families' lifestyles and comfort levels. Because Emilie, I really and truly mean it when I say that I wouldn't want to live in a community where everyone made the same decisions on vaccination as I have! (laughs)

BFWOBS: Oh, I'm sure you do mean that, Laurel. By the way, I would like to reassure anyone reading this that Laurel's point about the drinking fountain was of course purely hypothetical.

Laurel: That's right, Emilie. As I said, we don't require sharing in our family either.

BFWOBS: Of course, non-vaccination isn't the only unusual medical choice that you're a fan of; I understand that you and the Holistic Moms Network are also very keen on acupuncture, herbalism, infant chiro and homeopathy?

Laurel: Well, they work for us, Emilie. I think you have only to look at the results; I had a cold last winter, and once I took the Boiron capsules it couldn't have been more than three days before my symptoms started to subside.

BFWOBS: Fascinating. I wish all people with science PhDs were this open-minded--my own doctor has been terribly dismissive of my attempts to heal my various ailments with leeches and mercury salts, in spite of all I've told him about those infallible instincts of mine, and about how these things were used for hundreds of years. I'm just a bit curious, Laurel, but have any of your ex-colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) or your sponsor organization Texas Instruments had anything to say about your unusual medical ideas?

Laurel: (laughs) Well, to be honest, Emilie, what I've found is that in the world of 21st century mass media, really you can get away with saying pretty much what you like, as long as you always add on the friendly bit about how "It works for my family" or "It's a choice that feels right to me" or "Trust your instincts" or "Some people believe..."! The media nowadays is very enlightened in that respect, I find.

BFWOBS: That's really heartening to hear, Laurel. Now, any closing words about parenting in general?

Laurel: I think there are so many misunderstandings about attachment parenting, Emilie--that it's about doing things a certain way, about breastfeeding, about co-sleeping, about slings. But attachment parenting is not about checklists. It's about making choices that work for your family. Now, what works for my family and others like us are choices that are biologically natural, which are the best for our children and which are about being the best parents we can be, and which lead to stable, loving families who cherish the earth they live on. What works for other families may be choices which are about prioritizing stuff and materialism, which deny our true nature as primates, which take the easy way out and which leave children alone with their feelings and fail to meet their needs. And I'm so not judging that.

I'm not saying these are inferior choices. I'm just saying that they're not the right choices for me and other attachment parenting families... because, well, obviously we know better than to make choices like that. I'm not judging these other parents. I'm just explaining that their parenting sucks.

BFWOBS: Thanks for sharing that with us, Laurel. It's refreshing to talk about attachment parenting with someone who not only is completely non-judgmental, but actually takes the time to tell us that she isn't judging us, in spite of our substandard parenting! Thanks for coming along today.

Laurel: Any time, Emilie.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

True, woo or just plain EEWWWW....?

It's certainly been a good month for Alternative Mothering In The News. First we had Mayim Bialik (more on her in my next post) with her elimination communication and alternative medicine. Then we had Mad Men's January Jones eating her own placenta. And now we have Alicia Silverstone premasticating her 11-month-old baby's food and spitting it into his mouth. The media, of course, has had fun with this, producing headlines about "Gross Moms" among others. Here is Breastfeeding Without BS's official "True, woo, or just plain EEWWWW....?" rundown. The "gross" sections represent my subjective opinion; take it or leave it.

1. Elimination communication

Mayim Bialik's mothering style has raised a few eyebrows, but none more so than her use of elimination communication (infant pottying). Bialik's form of EC was pretty full-on, but some form of EC (getting baby used to the potty early etc.) is commoner than many people realize; in fact, the The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems and Diaper Free Before Three, both very mainstream books, recommend incorporating the potty into the routine from 6-12 months onwards. Contrary to the rather sensational media coverage, no ECed infant in a developed country setting is actually diaper-free (including Bialik's); however, babies tend to be free from diapers part of the time, soil fewer, and get out of diapers for good at an earlier age.

Is it gross (in my opinion)?
No, I don't think EC is gross. Some messes are inevitable, but if you have wipe-clean flooring, clearing up the odd mess is no big deal. Looked at another way, diapers (sitting in your own waste products) are pretty unpleasant too, though a necessary evil in developed countries.

Honestly, using diapers less and getting out of them earlier can only really be a good thing, in terms of health and environmental impact.

Pottying a newborn full-time day and night as Bialik did could possibly be hazardous to your sanity, but otherwise I know of no harm that comes from EC. I totally agree with ECers that the notion that sitting on a potty is an act somehow fraught with psychological danger is bullshit; I've been in some parts of the world where diapers are never used and babies are "held out" from the newborn stage, and people in these societies are not having Freudian catastrophes all over the place.

2. Afterbirth for afters

Placentophagy, the practice of consuming your own--or rather, your baby's--afterbirth, has been growing in popularity recently; in fact, a whole cottage industry has sprung up whereby "placenta encapsulators" will dry your afterbirth out and turn it into little pills for you to swallow, with the aim of warding off postpartum depression (PPD), stopping hemorrhaging or boosting milk supply. You can also do it at home, as demonstrated here. Or you can just puree it in a blender. Placentophagy is commonplace (though not universal) among mammals, but is extremely rare in human beings; it has only really been seen since the 1960s as one of the more extreme manifestations of the alternative/natural birth and parenting movement.

This kind of progressive shifting of the boundaries of "natural," as previously alternative practices become mainstream and people have to invent ever more outrageous things to do instead, is quite common in the whole "natural parenting" movement... although Dr. Amy's example in the link actually concerns lotus birth, an even more bizarre practice in which the baby is left attached to its own placenta until it rots off. The idea apparently is that this represents the ultimate non-violent birth, based on the idea that the placenta is part of the baby's body and experience; as such, it of course goes against the idea at the core of placentophagy, which is that the placenta is part of the mother's body. has a few countless unintentionally hilarious threads which feature worried mums-to-be trying to decide between the delights of placentaphagy and lotus birth. How to choose when both options are so tempting? Or could you possibly do both--eat part of the placenta and leave the rest attached? I was tempted to suggest that they could combine both practices by curing the placenta into jerky to be consumed later, but refrained from posting because it occurred to me that the other posters might actually think I was being serious. But enough of that.

Is it gross (in my opinion)?
In my personal opinion, yes, consuming a (smelly) human body organ that mostly contains your child's DNA, while not immoral, is kind of gross. As someone on Science Based Medicine points out here, "If a child was born with a useless extra digit and you had it removed, would you eat that?" Placentas, never the nicest things to begin with, are pretty rank by the end of a term pregnancy; indeed, that's a key reason why OBs start talking induction if you go well beyond your due date, because it's not very healthy for the baby to be stuck in there with an increasingly manky aging placenta. From Science Based Medicine: "At term, the placenta is at the end of its normal lifetime and is becoming senescent [i.e. aged]. The rate of senescence increases with stress, and in the case of a high stress pregnancy, such as one characterized by preeclampsia, the placenta could get filled up with stress proteins, like prions and amyloid."

Human beings in general seem to be pretty grossed out by placentas, hence the extreme cross-cultural rarity of placentophagy. And frankly, it looks like most practitioners of placentophagy have a "yuck" reaction as well, hence the need to turn the placenta into pill form before most of them can bring themselves to eat it. Just a comment from the sidelines here, but... given that the natural parent-y people claim to be so into the whole idea of  "TRUST YOUR GUT INSTINCTS! FOLLOW YOUR INTUITION!" ... isn't it a bit odd that these are the same people forcing themselves to choke down something which they and human beings down the ages have intuitively felt disgusted by--to the point where they can only eat it when it is presented in an unrecognizable form, like capsules or blenderized puree? (Anyway, I thought we were all agreed that purees were unnatural because Cavemama didn't have blenders. Shouldn't these mums be eating steamed chunks of placenta on a tray so that they can experience and enjoy its flavor and texture as they eat...? Okay, okay, I'm being facetious now).

I'm basically just pointing out the inconsistency of the argument here, not arguing that we should follow our instincts where placenta-eating or anything else is concerned. If there were good scientific evidence that placentophagy did have benefits, presumably we should consider doing it even if we do instinctively find it repulsive. But is there any such evidence? Which brings me to...

There is no proper scientific evidence suggesting that placentophagy benefits PPD, hemorrhaging, milk supply or anything else. None whatsoever. The evidence stacked up in favor of placentophagy seems to consist of one endlessly linked page on a website called Placenta Benefits... basically, a bunch of poor quality bibliography salad which Science Based Medicine shreds as quickly as a blender turning your afterbirth into an interesting-smelling breakfast drink. There is anecdata aplenty from mothers who insist that they were saved from PPD by daily placenta capsules, but then, back in the days of heroic medicine, there was also plenty of anecdata attesting to the efficacy of bloodletting, leeches and toxic purges. I've gone through all this before.

I have come across no evidence suggesting that placentophagy is actually harmful in any way. I do think that there is harm in the whole notion of pursuing non-evidence-based treatments based on internet hearsay, because once that is accepted as a principle it opens the door for more dangerous forms of woo like anti-vaccination. There is also the problem which inevitably accompanies all non-evidence-based medicine: namely, that it may distract the patient from pursuing evidence-based treatment. Post-partum hemmorrhage kills; what's more, so does post-partum depression. 

3. Eating like a bird

Since Silverstone's video (originally posted on her blog) went viral, reactions have been predictable: a collective "ugh!" followed by a few vague claims that by doing this, Silverstone was making it impossible for her child to learn how to chew. These last comments, by the way, came not just from a couple of mainstream pediatritians but also from a few sniffy baby led weaners... although my personal feeling is that some of them were basically sulking about the fact that they had just been out-crunched (see above bit on progressive shifting of the boundaries of the natural). Feeding your baby pieces of steamed sweet potato chunks on a highchair tray, you might have thought you were pretty Hip And With It compared with all those other mothers doing Gerber Graduates and rice cereal... but really, how can you possibly compete with someone who sits on the floor and offers her offspring chewed-up food mouth to mouth like a momma bird, while he crawls over to her and attacks her mouth, no less? I suppose the question is... what comes next? How do you out-do that? Raw-food-only diets for babies? Tearing off chunks of bloody meat from the living animal and feeding it to the baby with blood running down your chin? Something involving hemp? I dread to think.

Is it gross (in my opinion)?
My first reaction to the video was that yes, it looked icky. But (at the risk of going all post-modernist-cultural-relativist for a moment), I suppose my feelings are tempered by the fact that premastication is common in many traditional cultures, and that it seems a bit unfair to go all "Ewww!!" about a practice which, in food-poor environments, may be a necessary way of making sure that infants at least get some iron-rich foods inside them (see this paper here which suggests that the abandonment of premastication in some communities put infants at risk of nutritional deficiencies).

In cultures where blenders are available, I know of no benefits to prechewing, although around the 'net there were a few people trying out the "it contains saliva and is therefore beneficial for digestion" idea out for size. I suppose prechewing could be convenient.

Yes. Now, in spite of the doomsayers, I don't think Silverstone has anything to worry about where her child's chewing skills are concerned; as I blogged about here, premastication is common in traditional cultures, and children there learn how to chew just fine. I'm pretty sure that's not how her child is eating all of his food, in any case; it's a rare 11-month-old who isn't trying to grab pieces of food off your plate to self-feed. However, prechewing may be a dodgy idea for other reasons.

There is good evidence that prechewing is associated with dental caries (see here for just one example). Apparently, the bacteria which cause caries are not ones we are born with; they colonize the mouth at some point after birth. All children will get it eventually, simply because babies and toddlers are grabby and eventually they are going to get a spoon or cup of yours in their mouth no matter how hard you try to stop them--but the later they are exposed to the bacteria the better, and pre-chewing definitely seems to speed up the process. I have a confession to make (hangs head): on two separate occasions I broke up a bit of meat on my front teeth and fed it to Baby Seal... oh, admit it, BFWOBS, you prechewed food for her, dammit. And it was gross, and it turns out that it was a bad idea. When I heard about the dental caries thing, I was sorry I prechewed and I wished I had never done it. :( Perhaps the take-home lesson here is that even when a practice is justifiable in "traditional culture" settings,  it may not be justified in an industrialized culture (i.e., we have blenders) because the benefits disappear while the risks remain. I think this is true of quite a number of "traditional culture" childrearing practices.

I'll be returning to Mayim Bialik in my next post. In the meantime, while pottying baby in some form or another looks innocuous, I'll be putting placentophagy and prechewing firmly into the "Don't Try This At Home" category.