Four years ago, heavily pregnant with my first daughter, I read a book about childrearing. The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff, tells of the author’s excursions to live with a remote tribe (the Yequana) in the South American jungle. From these
“We won’t be needing a cot!” I warned my husband, Paul. Jean’s prescription for a baby breast fed on demand, whose “in arms phase” is fulfilled with the help of a sling, suited our ideals for a contented child.
The “results” were tremendous. We never lost a night’s sleep with our new baby, and I became ever more adept at carrying her around with me during the day. She, in return, was pretty easy to live with. I tried not to feel bad when I put Frances down sometimes, though the ghost of Liedloff often hovered beside me. At first Frances was a little colicky in the evenings, and I felt it must be my fault, for not carrying her enough, and for not living in the jungle.
Many people criticized our practice of sleeping with our baby, so I set out to write a book on the subject. The first thing I did was to call Jean Liedloff. We made a date for tea.
The encounter was nerve wracking for me. Frances was not allowed to touch any of the potted plants and artefacts ranged at her level around Jean’s room. At one point, Frances fell over and cried. “Don’t go to her,” said Jean. “Count to ten if you must and let her always come to you. Unless, of course, she’s broken her leg.”
Jean punctuated her talk to me by telling me how to hold Frances, when she needed sitting up and so on. We both assumed that Jean had the answers, and that I did not.
“Nowhere near the Yequana thing,” she’d said about Frances. And didn’t I know it. According to the Concept, she should be happy in all new situations, rarely interrupting her parents as they continued with their lives. It wasn’t quite like that.
For one thing, she clung to my legs as I moved from room to room. She could be cautious to the point of shyness, and often whined (there’s no other word for it) around the house. I had no idea how to respond and found it hard to tolerate non Continuum behaviour. Instead of accepting her the way she was, I felt her demands to be some kind of rebuke for my imperfect parenting.
Months later, I arrived at the annual La Leche League (GB) conference with my new baby, Alice, in my arms. Alice was born at home, and I did not put her down for more than a minute for the first three months of her life.
I met a therapist who had trained with Jean. “What about putting the baby down briefly?” I wondered.
Her reply, delivered in whispered tones, left me speechless: “Well, the Yequana sometimes put their babies down.”
At first, it seemed to me as though Jean had omitted details from her book which would have changed the complexion of her theory. But then I realized it didn’t matter what the Yequana did or didn’t do. The point of my anger was that I had allowed myself to be spellbound by one person’s set of ideas for so long.
I now believe that ideals should carry a health warning: it is dangerous to follow a concept instead of your nose. The key to good parenting is trusting in oneself, and in the child, who is programmed to give out all the necessary signals.
When I started to listen to my daughter’s whining, the whining stopped. As parents, we found we became less authoritarian because we had ceased to follow an authority. These things were a direct result of my newfound belief that as the mother of my children I could do whatever needed to be done.
Deborah Jackson, author of Three in a Bed (Bloomsbury) is thinking of changing its subtitle: Why You Should Sleep with Your Baby.