Alternative Parenting Styles

Before you roll your eyes at the term “alternative parenting,” and assume it encompasses some new wave, holistic theory, consider the fact that concepts known to strengthen parenting skills have been around for years, some since the days of antiquity. These include theories on nurturing children, natural infant hygiene and extended breastfeeding.

Extended Breastfeeding
The term “extended breastfeeding” refers to the act of nursing a child past the age of one year. Breastfeeding should be an infant’s sole source of nutrition for the first six months of the baby’s life, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). After that, as long as the mother and the baby feel comfortable breastfeeding, no matter what age the child, they should continue to do so. Breastfeeding beyond a baby’s first year provides the best nutrition a baby can receive, states the AAP, and as long as it is mutually desired by mother and child, extended breastfeeding is perfectly acceptable.

There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychological or developmental harm from continuing into the third year of life or longer. And health benefits to the child may include protection against childhood lymphoma and leukemia, while the mother may benefit from a reduced risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer if she breastfeeds all of her children during her lifetime.

In many of today’s societies around the world extended breastfeeding is customary. In West Africa, for example, the average weaning age is 22.6 months, and in India it is 3 to 4 years old. Ancient writings from the Greeks, Hebrews and Muslims require breastfeeding up until the child is at least 2 to 3 years old. In biblical days, weaning at age 3 was often the practice.

Unfortunately, today’s Western society does not readily condone toddler breastfeeding so many mothers find the practice somewhat embarrassing. The AAP recommends that mothers develop a “code word” for the toddler when he or she wants to nurse so that the matter remains private. Though controversy has surrounded this issue for years, laws still support mothers and breastfeeding. In North Carolina, the law explicitly states that a woman is allowed to breastfeed in any public or private location, and she is not in violation of indecent exposure laws.

Support for new mothers is available through many local resources, but the most recognizable organization is La Leche League International ( a non-profit organization that offers women breastfeeding information and encouragement. A recent survey of 134 La Leche League mothers showed the average age of weaning was 36 months.

According to Catherine Atwood, a leader for the Charlotte Ballantyne La Leche group, the health benefits and nurturing associated with breastfeeding are what keep many mothers breastfeeding beyond one year. “The goal for many mothers is to reach one year because of the recommendation of the AAP; beyond that many factors come into play. For example, research has shown that extended breastfeeding continues to strengthen the immune system, helps with oral development (speech) and cognitive development. It all depends on the goals of the mother and her child.”

To find a Charlotte area group, access

La Leche notes extended benefits include the fact that if a toddler hurts himself, there is no better way to soothe the child than through nursing; traveling is easier with a nursing toddler; and it’s easier to help an overtired or fussy child calm down through nursing.

Although the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) is writing its protocol on breastfeeding, it does say this: “[we] encourage mothers to . . . continue breastfeeding with complementary foods until at least 24 months and thereafter as long as mutually desired.” Both the World Health Organization and UNICEF support breastfeeding until age 2.

Natural Infant Hygiene and Elimination Communication
Despite the policy of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that states, “In general, starting before age 2 [for toilet training] is not recommended,” some mothers believe toilet training begins at birth and practice natural infant hygiene, also called “elimination communication (EC).” These mothers learn to read their infant’s signals for eliminating — grunting and bearing down or straining facial expression — and begin infant potty training soon after birth.

In New York in 2004, Melinda Rothstein and Rachel Milgroom, co-authors of the book “The Diaper Free Baby,” created a group of the same name, promoting a natural approach to babies’ elimination needs. Now, with more than 35 groups that meet regularly across the U.S. and another 3,200 online members worldwide, the trend is growing. The organization’s local chapters exist to provide in-person support. “There are books and Web sites dedicated to the topic, but receiving information in-person and really being able to see how EC works has been invaluable to many families. The learning curve is much shorter. Another purpose is to spread the word about EC on the local level,” says Elizabeth Parise, Communications Manager and Boston-area Diaper Free Baby mentor. And their ideas have already been adopted by other cultures throughout the world, especially those without access to conveniences such as disposable diapers.

But don’t throw away your diapers just yet. “Many families use diapers as [a] backup,” explains Parise. “The difference is that with conventional diapering the idea of being able to ‘catch’ a baby’s [elimination] into a toilet or potty isn’t even considered. These families have no choice other than to change the baby after the fact. With EC, families are offered another tool to observe their baby’s signals in advance of elimination and hold her over or set her on an appropriate place. If they ‘miss’ this communication, then they can still change the baby’s diaper, underwear or waterproof pad.”

Interested in starting a Charlotte chapter? Parise encourages mothers who are interested to inquire. “We are hoping to have someone apply to be a Mentor in Charlotte. Local groups only start when there is a Mentor in that area.” More information is available at

Attachment Parenting
The phrase attachment parenting was coined by renowned pediatrician William Sears, and is based on the attachment theory by developmental psychologist John Bowlby. Although years ago medical texts existed detailing the concepts behind “attachment” theory, or establishing strong, primal bonds between parents and children, layman’s information for parents was scarce. So, in 1994 Lysa Parker, M.S., and Barbara Nicholson, M.Ed., created a non-profit organization called Attachment Parenting International (API). According to API, attachment parenting helps prevent everything from mental illnesses and learning difficulties to aggressive behavior, including child abuse and crime. API’s goal is to increase awareness of the need for secure attachment, and teach parents how to nurture and care for children to stop these behaviors.

Attachment parenting is frequently associated with baby-wearing using a sling device, infant co-sleeping and extended breastfeeding, but there is much more to this parenting philosophy than these outwardly visible practices. The 8 Principles of Attachment Parenting, developed by API, outline the parenting practices they believe create strong, healthy emotional bonds between children and their parents.
1. Preparation for childbirth
2. Emotional responsiveness
3. Breastfeeding
4. Babywearing
5. Co-sleeping safely
6. Avoiding frequent and prolonged separations between parents and a baby
7. Positive discipline
8. Maintaining balance in family life

The group offers members many resources, including support groups, publications, education, advocacy and research — all along the “attachment parenting” philosophy. Says Parker, “The key to [attachment parenting] is being consciously aware of your child’s needs and responding sensitively in ways that are developmentally appropriate.” Although these principles are aimed at children from birth through 5 years of age, “[They’re] intended to carry on as the child grows,” says Parker.

Are there additional specific actions parents can take? Parker responds, “We never recommend a ‘formula’ for raising children because every child is unique. Attachment is, according to researchers, a reciprocal process requiring give-and-take by both parent and baby — each signaling to the other.”

API’s support groups give informal parent-to-parent guidance and thus enable members to feel more competent. Donna Gilbert, Raleigh’s API support group leader, has been involved since 2003. “[We] believe the main issue in parenting is maintaining the attachment or connection with your child as she grows . . . maintaining this attachment allows our children to trust us to help them navigate through their world. We want them to be able to rely on us instead of on their peers for guidance. This gives our children a secure base from which to view the world.”

Charlotte Mommies hosts an attachment parenting forum for parents in the Charlotte area. “There are about 400 mothers who subscribe to the Attachment Parenting/Natural Living forum, and 30 of those members are really active and come to events. Members come to get support for their belief in attachment parenting and natural living, and to learn more about these two subjects,” says Tracy Gentile, the forum moderator, “I have been a believer in attachment parenting since my first child was born two years ago, and I have gotten a lot more information and support for it from the group.”