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Explore Every Avenue

"I've decided to wean my baby / use a stroller / put my baby in a crib / put my toddler in his own bed / send my son to daycare / and it's working out fine."

Whenever I hear such statements, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel the need to support parents in making their own choices. There are always many factors present in every specific situation that I am not aware of. There may be legitimate reasons for these decisions; and in any case, in a free country parents have the right to make their own choices. In a world where personal freedoms are not always recognized or valued, this is a precious right indeed.

On the other hand, in an ideal world, babies' and children's rights would also be considered and taken seriously. The rights of those who have little voice because of their age and size can be too easily overlooked and dismissed. Yet their rights are equally important.

When a client tells me that she is considering, or has recently chosen, to make a change from an attachment-enhancing arrangement to one that puts attachment at risk, I feel conflicting obligations. To the parent, I need to be supportive of her feelings and understand and validate the needs that she is attempting to meet. To the children, I feel an obligation to be their voice, to help the parent see the situation from their child's point of view, and to offer other possible solutions for meeting everyone's needs. Because children cannot speak for themselves, we owe it to them to explore every possible alternative.

I have often helped new mothers through a period of frequent nursing, and instead of an early weaning, to continue to nurse until weaning was a mutual decision. I myself was helped in this way by a La Leche League leader when my son was 14 months old. I still feel deeply indebted to her for this help, as his frequent nursing, which felt so overwhelming at the time, subsided within days. I have also helped mothers facing surgery to find an alternative medication that would not require prior weaning. Similarly, the decision to move a child from a family bed, when fully explored, can become unnecessary when other solutions are found. Futons covering the bedroom floor can give everyone more room, and avoid the transfer of motion that spring mattresses can cause. Attention to food allergies, bedtime massage, and guided imagery can help a family member to sleep more soundly and avoid disturbing others.

I feel especially encouraged when I can help prevent a move from a family bed to a separate crib or bed, because cosleeping - the norm for hundreds of thousands of years - is so enhancing for the parent-child bond. Nighttime separation offers no benefits to a baby or child, and can be especially stressful when undertaken because of an impending birth. A child who is about to lose a good portion of his parents' time and attention to a new sibling needs more reassurance and connection, not less. Cosleeping provides the emotional reassurance and gentle touch so often difficult for busy parents to provide during the day.

Mothers who decide to move from babywearing to pushing a stroller may not be aware of slings designed for heavier babies. If a mother is physically unable to continue carrying her child, she can still encourage her partner and other friends and relatives to do so, as long as the child is comfortable with that person.

A parent considering preschool may not be aware of the numerous benefits of unschooling or of alternative working arrangements that can keep the mother and child together. More and more mothers working outside the home have been able to bring a baby to work or to find opportunities to work from home.

In all of these situations, I see my job as two-fold: to provide emotional support for the parent and at the same time to be a spokesperson for the child. In any specific situation, a decision to move away from an attachment-enhancing choice may appear to be the only choice available. The most important question then becomes, "Have all the possible solutions been considered?" This is the question the child would ask, if they only could. The fact that they cannot ask this question makes it imperative that the parent consider all avenues. When I explore this question in counseling, it often leads to a different and mutually beneficial solution that had simply not been considered previously. Alternative solutions can not only meet everyone's needs in a more fulfilling way, but can also help parents learn how to find such solutions in the future. It is my dream that all adults will one day be spokespersons for children and for all those unable to speak out. Only in that way can the most compassionate and effective solutions be found.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.