Digitised children’s bodies

This is an excerpt from the pre-print version of a chapter I have written on the topic of ‘digital bodies’. The full pre-print can be accessed here.

The sociomaterialist perspective has been taken up by several scholars writing about children’s bodies, particularly within cultural geography, but also by some sociologists and anthropologists (Prout, 1996; Horton and Kraftl, 2006a, 2006b; Lee, 2008; Woodyer, 2008). Researchers using a sociomaterialist approach have conducted studies on, for example, children’s use of asthma medication (Prout, 1996), the surveillant technologies that have developed around controlling children’s body weight in schools (Rich et al., 2011), children’s sleep and the objects with which they interact (Lee, 2008), the interrelationship of objects with pedagogy and classroom management of students’ bodies (Mulcahy, 2012) and sociomaterial practices in classrooms that lead to the inclusion or exclusion of children with disabilities (Söderström, 2014). Outside sociomaterialist studies, young children’s interactions with digital technologies have attracted extensive attention from social researchers, particularly in relation to topics such as the potential for cyber-bullying, online paedophilia and for children to become unfit and overweight due to spending too much time in front of screens (Holloway et al., 2013). However few researchers thus far have directed their attention to the types of digital technologies that visually represent children’s bodies or render their body functions, activities and behaviours into digital data; or, in other words, how children’s bodies become digital data assemblages.

From the embryonic stage of development onwards, children’s bodies are now routinely monitored and portrayed using digital technologies. A plethora of websites provide images of every stage of embryonic and foetal development, from fertilisation to birth, using a combination of digital images taken from embryo and foetus specimens and digital imaging software  (Lupton, 2013). 3/4D ultrasounds have become commodified, used for ‘social’ or ‘bonding’ purposes. Many companies offering 3/D ultrasounds now come to people’s homes, allowing expectant parents to invite family and friends and turn a viewing of the foetus into a party event. This sometimes involves a ‘gender reveal’ moment, in which the sonographer demonstrates to all participants, including the parents, the sex of the foetus . Some companies offer the service of using 3D ultrasound scan files to create life-sized printed foetus replica models for parents.

The posting to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube of the foetus ultrasound image has become a rite of passage for many new parents and often a way of announcing the pregnancy. Using widgets such as ‘Baby Gaga’, expectant parents can upload regular status updates to their social media feeds automatically that provide news on the foetus’s development. While a woman is pregnant, she can use a range of digital devices to monitor her foetus. Hundreds of pregnancy apps are currently on the market, including not only those that provide information but others that invite users to upload personal information about their bodies and the development of their foetus. Some apps offer a personalised foetal development overview or provide the opportunity for the woman to record the size of her pregnant abdomen week by week, eventually creating a time-lapse video. Other apps involve women tracking foetal movements or heart beat. Bella Beat, for example, is a smartphone attachment and app that allows the pregnant women to hear and record the foetal heart beat whenever she likes and to upload the audio file to her social media accounts.

YouTube has become a predominant medium for the representation of the unborn entity in the form of ultrasound images and of the moment of birth. Almost 100,000 videos showing live childbirth, including both vaginal and Caesarean births, are available for viewing on that site, allowing the entry into the world of these infants to be viewed by thousands and, in the case of some popular videos, even millions of viewers. Some women even choose to live-stream the birth so that audiences can watch the delivery in real time. Following the birth, there are similar opportunities for proud parents to share images of their infant online on social media platforms. In addition to these are the growing number of devices on the market for parents to monitor the health, development and wellbeing of their infants and young children. Apps are available to monitor such aspects as infants’ feeding and sleeping patterns, their weight and height and their development and achievements towards milestones. Sensor-embedded baby clothing, wrist or ankle bands and toys can be purchased that monitor infants’ heart rate, body temperature and breathing, producing data that are transmitted to the parents’ devices. Smartphones can be turned into baby monitors with the use of apps that record the sound levels of the infant.

As children grow, their geolocation, educational progress and physical fitness can be tracked by their parents using apps, other software and wearable devices. As children themselves begin to use digital technologies for their own purposes, they start to configure their own digital assemblages that represent and track their bodies. With the advent of touchscreen mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, even very young children are now able to use social media sites and the thousands of apps that have been designed especially for their use (Holloway et al., 2013). Some such technologies encourage young children to learn about the anatomy of human bodies or about nutrition, exercise and physical fitness, calculate their body mass index, collect information about their bodies or represent their bodies in certain ways (such as manipulating photographic images of themselves). These technologies typically employ gamification strategies to provide interest and motivation for use. Some involve combining competition or games with self-tracking using wearable devices. One example is the Leapfrog Leapband, a digital wristband connected to an app which encourages children to be physically active in return for providing them with the opportunity to care for virtual pets. Another is the Sqord interactive online platform with associated digital wristband and app. Children who sign up can make an avatar of themselves and use the wristband to track their physical activity. Users compete with other users by gaining points for moving their bodies as often and as fast as possible.

In the formal educational system there are still more opportunities for children’s bodies to be monitored measured and evaluated and rendered into digitised assemblages. Programmable ‘smart schools’ are becoming viewed as part of the ‘smart city’, an urban environment in which sensors that can watch and collect digital data on citizens are ubiquitous (Williamson, 2014). The monitoring of children’s educational progress and outcomes using software is now routinely undertaken in many schools, as are their movements around the school. In countries such as the USA and the UK, the majority of schools have CCTV cameras that track students, and many use biometric tracking technologies such as RFID chips in badges or school uniforms and fingerprints to identify children and monitor their movements and their purchases at school canteens (Taylor, 2013; Selwyn, 2014). A growing number of schools are beginning to use wearable devices, apps and other software for health and physical education lessons, such as coaching apps that record children’s sporting performances and digital heart rate monitors that track their physical exertions (Lupton, 2015).

We can see in the use of digital technologies to monitor and represent the bodies of children a range of forms of embodiment. Digitised data assemblages of children’s bodies are generated from before birth via a combination of devices that seek to achieve medical- or health-related or social and affective objectives. These assemblages may move between different domains: when, for example, a digitised ultrasound image that was generated for medical purposes becomes repurposed by expectant parents as a social media artefact, a way of announcing the pregnancy, establishing their foetus as new person and establishing its social relationships. Parents’ digital devices, and later those of educational institutions and those of children themselves when they begin to use digital devices, potentially become personalised repositories for a vast amount of unique digital assemblages on the individual child, from images of them to descriptions of their growth, development, mental and physical health and wellbeing, movements in space, achievements and learning outcomes. These data assemblages, containing as they do granular details about children, offer unprecedented potential to configure knowledges about individual children and also large groups of children (as represented in aggregated big data sets).


Holloway D, Green L and Livingstone S. (2013) Zero to Eight: Young Children and Their Internet Use. London: LSE London, EU Kids Online.

Horton J and Kraftl P. (2006a) Not just growing up, but going on: Materials, spacings, bodies, situations. Children’s Geographies 4(3): 259-276.

Horton J and Kraftl P. (2006b) What else? some more ways of thinking and doing ‘Children’s Geographies’. Children’s Geographies 4(1): 69-95.

Lee N. (2008) Awake, asleep, adult, child: An a-humanist account of persons. Body & Society 14(4): 57-74.

Lupton D. (2013) The Social Worlds of the Unborn, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lupton D. (2015) Data assemblages, sentient schools and digitised health and physical education (response to Gard). Sport, Education and Society 20(1): 122-132.

Mulcahy D. (2012) Affective assemblages: body matters in the pedagogic practices of contemporary school classrooms. Pedagogy, culture and society 20(1): 9-27.

Prout A. (1996) Actor-network theory, technology and medical sociology: an illustrative analysis of the metered dose inhaler. Sociology of Health and Illness 18(2): 198-219.

Rich E, Evans J and De Pian L. (2011) Children’s bodies, surveillance and the obesity crisis. In: Rich E, Monaghan LF and Aphramor L (eds) Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 139-163.

Selwyn N. (2014) Data entry: towards the critical study of digital data and education. Learning, Media and Technology: 1-19.

Söderström S. (2014) Socio-material practices in classrooms that lead to the social participation or social isolation of disabled pupils. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research online first.

Taylor E. (2013) Surveillance Schools: Security, Discipline and Control in Contemporary Education, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Williamson B. (2014) Smart schools in sentient cities. dmlcentral.

Woodyer T. (2008) The body as research tool: embodied practice and children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies 6(4): 349-362.

Infant embodiment: how we think about and treat babies

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with hi...

The future King Louis XIV as an infant with his wet nurse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My article entitled ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’ has been published in the latest issue of the journal Childhood. In the article I argue that the ways in which we think about and conceptualise infants’ bodies have been little explored, despite what is now a huge literature on the sociology and anthropology of the human body. Much of this literature addresses adults’ bodies; some of it looks at the embodiment of adolescents; a smaller proportion has discussed young children’s bodies. But very few academic articles or books have devoted specific attention to the youngest humans of all: those aged under two.

One exception is the American writer Jean Liedloff’s book The Continuum Concept, first published in 1975. In the book she describes her observations of child rearing practices of the Yequana, an indigenous tribe living in a jungle region of South America, with whom she lived for two and a half years. Liedloff found that these native Americans engaged in constant physical contact with their infants – they slept with their babies, breastfed them on demand for several years, and carried them everywhere in their arms or a sling, never putting them down on the ground until the infant began to crawl.

Another book-length analysis of infant-care practices is The Myth of Motherhood (1981). French historian Elizabeth Badinter details her research in this book into a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France when aristocratic and middle-class women commonly farmed out their newborn infants to wet nurses. These wet nurses were paid to breastfeed and care for the baby, in most cases for several years. While infants of the aristocracy were usually cared for by the wet nurse at home, those of the more populous middle-class were simply sent to live with the wet nurse’s home. In both cases, the wet nurse became the ersatz mother and the actual mothers had little or no contact with their infants. Although many of these infants died due to extreme neglect on the part of their wet nurses, who usually had many infants to feed and care for, the practice continued to be extremely fashionable among members of French society who could afford it.

These two books, vastly different in terms of the human societies and the practices of infant care they describe, are similarly instructive: in detailing these diametrically opposed approaches to infants and infant care, they highlight the contingent and varying ways in which societies and cultures think about and treat their very youngest members. The one, focusing on a contemporary non-developed society that had had little contact with western ideas and practices, and the other, on a privileged social stratum in a western society some centuries ago, demonstrate that notions of appropriate infant care and ways to treat the infant body are constructed via social, cultural, historical and political processes. Infant bodies are gestated and born, but in conditions that are always subject to change in terms of how these bodies are conceptualised and treated by others, which has implications for how infants themselves experience their bodies.

In my article I discuss these aspects of infant embodiment. Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty (1962) on the phenomenology of embodiment, I make the point that infants’ bodies are always interembodied, or experienced in relation to others’ bodies. Indeed the care bestowed upon infants by their mothers extends the intersubjective and interembodied relationship that developed in the womb. I adopt the terminology used in a fascinating article by anthropologist Tahhan (2008) of ‘skinship’. This concept of ‘skinskip’ relates to the embodied closeness we feel to others’ bodies via acts of intimacy, physical proximity and caring that may involve blurring the boundaries between bodies and selfhoods. I think that it has great relevance to how caregivers relate to infants and goes some way to explaining the positive dimensions of concepts of infants’ bodies. Although she does not use the term, skinship is one aspect championed by Liedloff in The Continuum Concept in her describing of the benefits of constant physical contact with infants.

Via interembodiment, or skinship, carers’ and infants’ bodies interact, intermingle and are interdependent. This interdependence can be challenging and confronting in the context of contemporary western societies, where bodies are generally understood as ideally autonomous and separate from each other. While caring for an infant can be very pleasurable and sensual, it can also be extremely demanding and frustrating. It is socially unacceptable to admit this openly, but such a perspective finds expression in baby-care books such as those by Gina Ford, a British ex-nanny whose books on producing a ‘contented baby’ are bestsellers in the Anglophone world. Ford advises parents as to the importance of rigid scheduling of feeding, sleeping and even cuddling to ensure a ‘contented baby’ who does not wake its parents at night or encroach overly on their autonomy.

From this perspective the infant is positioned as an ‘uncivilised’, close to animalistic, being who requires much training to render its behaviour acceptable for entering human society. Establishing the autonomy and individuated embodiment of the infant is a priority, and the recommended bodily practices accord with this goal. The discourse of ‘training’ the infant, as if it were an animal, to conform to adults’ expectations and their ideals of autonomy and independence is common in these accounts.

As I contended in a previous post, there is often a blurring of categories between young children and animals. While companion animals such as dogs and cats have progressively become represented as child-substitutes and treated as if they are children, infants and young children in turn are often represented culturally as animalistic, not fit to occupy the ‘civilised’ spaces outside the domestic sphere such as the café, restaurant or aeroplane.

The relationship that we have with infants, therefore, can be paradoxical and ambivalent. At the same time as infants are viewed as increasingly precious, adorable and vulnerable, requiring and inspiring large amounts of caring and attention, they are also considered to be overly demanding, detracting from our own independence and right to autonomy.


Badinter, E. (1981) The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct. London: Souvenir Press.

Liedloff, J. (1975/1989) The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. London: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception (translated by C. Smith). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tahhan D (2008) Depth and space in sleep: intimacy, touch and the body in Japanese co-sleeping rituals. Body & Society, 14(4), 37—56.

Pathologising young children’s emotions

fearfull and crying child before dental treatment

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Australian government has announced a new screening program for three-year-old children to determine whether they have a mental health problem. All children of that age will be offered the Healthy Kids Check from next month, predominantly conducted by general practitioners. As part of this check, which also seeks to identify health problems such as allergies and developmental delays and checks hearing and eyesight, doctors will ask questions of the children’s parents in a bid to identify children who are showing signs of having or developing a mental illness or condition such as anxiety disorder, autism, bipolar disorder or attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those who are identified as demonstrating such behaviour will be referred to paediatric psychologists or paediatricians for further diagnosis and treatment. Doctors will be looking for such behaviours as shyness, aggression, difficulty with impulse control and the desire to sleep at night with a light left on.

This is a troubling move towards pathologising young children’s emotions as indicators of mental illness. It may be seen as a progressive medicalising of what previously have been understood as normal responses and behaviours. The singling out of such emotional responses as fear of the dark, difficulty in controlling impulses and aggression represents such emotional responses as abnormal and in need of treatment and control, despite the fact that the children involved in the screening are so young that they are barely out of nappies.

Over forty years ago, sociologists such as Freidson, Zola and Illich began to write about the tendency of medicine to exert its power and authority over an increasingly large domain of human behaviour and experience. More recently, Nikolas Rose and others have noted the rise of the ‘psy disciplines’ in particular — psychology, counselling, psychiatry — as well as developments in neurobiology as progressively gathering behaviours under their authority. Rose (2010) has commented on the emergence of the concept of the ‘risky brain’, or the brain considered most likely to potentially cause its owner to behave in irrational, criminal, risk-taking or other ways considered inappropriate. He notes that attempts to identify susceptible individuals is part of a culture of ‘precaution, pre-emption and prevention’, in which it is considered important to identify potential difficulties with the ways in which people conduct themselves, even if there is only a small possibility that these difficulties may occur.

In the Australian government’s new initiative to identify young children who may be susceptible to mental illness in later life, thousands of children and their parents will be incorporated into a web of surveillance in which what seem like very minor behaviours common to many children (such as fear of the dark) will position these children as potentially at risk. Such a program  is overtly prescriptive in assuming that young children should not feel fear or shyness or sometimes aggressive towards others, or fail to control their impulses. The notion that children should be able to control their emotions underpins these assumptions. This conforms to a general societal trend towards lack of tolerance of the inability of children to behave in a ‘civilised’ fashion and increasingly high expectations that they should demonstrate emotional control similar to that achieved by adults (see my previous post ‘Animals as children, children as animals’).

While it is important that young children with significant mental illness receive an early diagnosis and treatment, this mental health screening directed at all children in the target age bracket will inevitably result in many children being identified as potentially at risk. It will label them with a possible mental health problem and create great anxiety in their parents. Moral judgements and stigmatisation are inevitably involved in diagnoses of what is considered ‘abnormal’ behaviour in children. Being singled out as ‘at risk’ of mental illness and requiring further medical intervention may lead to the stigmatising of children, potentially for many years.

What is more, there is a continuing debate about how to treat such conditions in children as ADHD, and indeed whether the behaviours incorporated into these conditions should be considered abnormal and requiring treatment. Some critics have argued that ADHD is simply the expression of normal, albeit challenging, childish behaviour that is pathologised because it causes disruption in contexts such as classrooms in ways that adults find difficult to manage and therefore seek to control via medical intervention and treatment with drugs (Visser and Jehan, 2009). The same might be said of aggressive, fearful or anxious behaviour in very young children. Yet it is likely that diagnosis rates of such conditions — and associated therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments — will rise steeply in the wake of the Healthy Kids Check initiative.


Rose, N. (2010) ‘Screen and intervene’: governing risky brains. History of the Human Sciences, 23(1), 79–105.

Visser, J. and Jehan, Z. (2009) ADHD: a scientific fact or a factual opinion? A critique of the veracity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 14(2), 127–40.

Can a ‘good mother’ have a ‘fat child’?

Chrissie Swan with her sons

This week an Australian television and radio personality, Chrissie Swan, appeared in a cover story of a well-known national women’s magazine talking about her family. Swan has two sons, one a baby and other aged three. The story included photos of Swan and her sons, which demonstrated to readers that her elder boy, Leo, was rather chubby. Following publication of the story, social media forums erupted with a debate about whether Swan should have ‘allowed’ Leo to become fat and proffering advice about what she should be doing about it, including comments highly critical of Swan.

This criticism received much attention in other parts of the internet and on mainstream Australian news media. Swan was forced to appear on television and radio programs to defend herself. She noted that she herself had struggled with her weight throughout her life and had recently become aware that Leo was ‘a bit heavy’ and was working to do something about it. Swan also commented on the unkind nature of the comments and that she had been reduced to tears in response.

It is not surprising that this debate received so much attention. It brings together two extremely potent and value-laden cultural concepts: that of the ‘good mother’ and that of the ‘fat child’. Dominant concepts of the ‘good mother’ contend that mothers should closely monitor and regulate their children’s bodies, paying careful attention to their health and wellbeing and acting upon any problems that may arise. They should consult expert advice as part of their efforts to promote their children’s health.

The figure of the ‘fat child’ has received a high level of public health and mass media attention since the late 1990s. A moral panic has developed around the issue of ‘childhood obesity’ and it has been argued that children are now more overweight than at any other time in human history. Fatness in general is surrounded with moral meanings concerning lack of self-control, greed and laziness. When small children are considered to be overweight, these moral judgements are transferred to their mothers. As in the case of Swan, such women become positioned as ‘bad mothers’ who have neglected their children’s health.

What is also evident from the criticism of Swan is that mothers, particularly those in public life but also ordinary women, are constantly placed in a position in which their parenting and the way in which they care for their children are open to judgement from others. This begins when pregnant women in public spaces may be castigated by strangers for smoking or consuming alcohol. Judgement of mothers follows into early infancy, when women who do not breastfeed, or those who breastfeed in public, may be reprimanded and called to account by others. Throughout their children’s early years, problems or health conditions experienced by their children are frequently positioned as the result of a mother’s failings to heed expert or lay advice about how best to care for her children.

I have found in my own research with mothers about their beliefs and experiences of promoting their infants’ and young children’s health that they are highly aware of conforming to the ‘good mother’ ideal in taking responsibility for their children’s health, development and wellbeing. They are also aware of the judgements that other people made of their actions, including other mothers. Most mothers in my study were concerned about the ‘obesity problem’ and attempted to ensure that their children ate a healthy diet and exercised. They even tried to act as role models for their children in relation to these behaviours by disciplining and regulating their own bodies. But the women were also confronted with the fact that they do not have full control over their children’s health, development and wellbeing. Despite their mothers’ best efforts, children sometimes become ill or have an allergy, developmental or behavioural problem, or may refuse to eat the ‘right’ kinds of foods.

Concepts of health risks have become privatised to the sphere of the home and to the figure of the ‘good mother’. Notions of fate as causing ill-health or disease have given way to the idea that these conditions are the result of the individual failing to take up medical or public health advice to engage in health-promoting behaviour. As a result, women blame themselves for their children’s health problems, or are blamed by others. And the role of the fathers of these children in caring for them and protecting their health are barely mentioned.


Bell, K., McNaughton, D. and Salmon, A. (2009) Medicine, morality and mothering: public health discourses on foetal alcohol exposure, smoking around children and childhood overnutrition. Critical Public Health, 19(2), 155—70.

Lupton, D. (2011) ‘The best thing for the baby’: mothers’ concepts and experiences related to promoting their infants’ health and development. Health, Risk and Society, 13(7/8), 637—51.

Lupton, D. (2012) ‘I’m Always on the Lookout for What Could be Going Wrong’: Mothers’ Concepts and Experiences of Health and Illness in their Young Children. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 1. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/21238351.

Animals as children, children as animals

A cat and dog, the two most popular animals ke...

I read a newspaper article recently that discussed the vast sums of money people are now spending on their pets. When once pets were put down with barely a thought if they developed a serious medical condition, their lives are now often extended by the kind of expensive surgery that humans have. They can  have hip or knee replacement operations, surgery for cancer and even drugs to treat separation anxiety. Many thousands of dollars are spent on these kinds of treatments.

Dogs and cats are also now commonly given human names. Once their monikers related to their appearance (Spot, Fluffy, Blackie) or were specific to their species (Rover, Fido and so on). Now there are Jeremys, Poppys, Ruperts and Emilys galore among the companion animal population.

Companion animals have become thought of for many people as ersatz family members and are treated as such: given clothes, special accessories, beds, gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Puppies attend ‘puppy preschool’ to be trained in compliant behaviour.

When pets are anthropomorphised in such a way, they are portrayed as babies or young children rather than as adult humans. Young children, for their part, are often portrayed as animalistic. Debates often appear on the web or in the letters columns of newspapers concerning what kinds of public spaces babies and young children should be allowed to occupy.

To give one example, a discussion in the online version of a newspaper last year concerned the issue of crying babies in aeroplanes. The discussion was sparked by the findings of a survey of Australian travellers which found that the vast majority voted for infants and young children and their parents to be segregated on overseas flights. An opinion piece in response to the survey argued that travellers should be tolerant of infant behaviour on planes and have empathy for their long-suffering parents. Hundreds of responses from readers to this piece were posted, many of which complained of the behaviour of children and criticised their parents for choosing to even bring them on the flight.

Other debates have concerned whether young children should be banned for cafes, and alternatively arguing that dogs should be allowed to accompany their owners to more cafes.

Underlying these debates are assumptions concerning the civility of these small humans, their inability to regulate their bodies and emotions, their propensity to annoy other patrons because they fail to measure up to adult standards of behaviour. The notion of the infant and young child as requiring taming like a wild animal is frequently expressed in such forums, and also in some texts on child-rearing. Child-rearing strategies are sometimes directly equated to those used to train domestic animals such as dogs. A popular Australian childcare book was entitled Toddler Taming, its title implying that very young children, like wild or uncontrolled animals, require ‘taming’.

Both animals and children are viewed as being closer to nature and further from the civilised body of adults as a consequence. This positive association of nature with the young child’s body draws upon the valued meanings of purity, authenticity and lack of artifice. However an alternative discourse of nature represents it as ‘bad’: as uncivilised, uncontrolled, wild and requiring domestication. The uncivilised young infant child is deemed to require training in bodily deportment to render them more fully human: manners, toilet training, sleep training, eating habits and other personal bodily habits are all taught as part of the civilising process (as outlined by Norbert Elias), to induct children into adult society and take on the status of the civilised adult.

It has been argued by some sociologists that in developed countries children are now considered more precious, more valuable, than at any other time of human history. Yet they also continue to be considered as inferior to adults, lacking appropriate decorum, spoiling adult spaces. When behaving well, they are adored — when misbehaving, they are reviled. They offend adult sensibilities concerning behaviour in public places. These reactions suggest a deep ambivalence towards young children in developed societies.

In the meantime, dogs and cats are also considered more precious and childlike, moving in their symbolic status from simply animals to beloved member of the family. Strangely, in some instances they have become viewed as more civilised, as more deserving of occupying adult space than are children.

Further reading:

Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love. Cambridge: Polity.

Chris Jenks (1996) Childhood. London: Routledge.

John Knight (ed) (2005) Animals in Person: Cultural Perspectives of Human-Animal Intimacies. Berg.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Precious, pure, uncivilised, vulnerable: infant embodiment in the popular media. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8201.

Attachment parenting or extreme parenting?

Last week I wrote a piece for ‘The Conversation’ discussion website (http://theconversation.edu.au) about the US edition of Time magazine, 21 May 2012, that featured a cover image of young, attractive woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son (http://theconversation.edu.au/time-2-extreme-parenting-time-magazine-style-7055). I looked at the various responses to this cover image on the internet. Many of these were from mothers themselves or from professional female commentators and bloggers.

What I found was interesting.  Some people were horrified at the idea that a boy who could be old enough to remember suckling from his mother’s breast will still be doing so. There were many claims that he would be humiliated when he grew older at being featured in such a controversial and public image. The notion that a child as old as three was still breastfeeding seemed abhorrent to some. Breastfeeding here becomes sexualised and bestowed with incestuous meanings, simply because the child is old enough ‘to remember’ gaining comfort and pleasure from his mother’s breast. The fact that his mother was slim, attractive, young, dressed in a hip manner in tight black jeans, and blonde, simply added to the sexualisation of the image.

Other commentators were relatively accepting of the breastfeeding, but took offence at the headline of the cover, which read ‘Are you Mom enough?’. These are fighting words, suggesting that women who do not engage in practices such as breastfeeding for years are not ‘good enough’ mothers. The words ‘Mom enough’ imply that there are gradations of ‘Momness’ (to use a rather clumsy neologism) and that ‘real Moms’ are those who engage in ‘extreme parenting’ . ‘Extreme parenting’ was a term also used on the front cover and in the detailed article published within about attachment parenting and one of its most prominent advocates, American paediatrician Dr Bill Sears.

In contrast to the deliberate provocation of the cover imagery and wording, I found the article quite well-balanced, looking at both the pros and cons of engaging in attachment parenting, which involves baby-wearing in slings and co-sleeping as well as extended breastfeeding and breastfeeding on demand. Sears argues that these practices, based on age-old customs still found in non-western societies, contribute to infants’ physical and psychological wellbeing. According to the article, more and more mothers are taking up his advice and engaging in attachment parenting practices.

Nonetheless, as case studies used in the article attest, attachment parenting (also ‘extreme parenting’ according to Time) can be extremely hard work for the mothers who adopt it. In fact, it clashes with the contemporary notion that both women and men are autonomous individuals, freely making choices about their lives and engaging actively in the workforce without constraint. Attachment parenting directly challenges these assumptions, because it counters the notion of the mother and the infant or child as autonomous subjects. Instead, it rests upon the assumption that the mother-child dyad is interembodied, that the boundaries between the two are blurred rather than distinct, and that the mother, instead of actively seeking to foster autonomy and independence in her child, will follow its cues and submit to its neediness for her bodily presence.

For people in contemporary western societies, these are highly challenging and confronting concepts. This perhaps explains the controversy over the cover image and the use of the term ‘extreme’ to describe attachment parenting.

For sociological studies on women’s experiences of attachment parenting, see the work of Charlotte Faircloth: http://kent.academia.edu/CharlotteFaircloth. For my own work on concepts of infants’ bodies, see Deborah Lupton (in press) ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’, Childhood and Deborah Lupton (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group, available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.