I scarcely felt I needed to read this book since I have seen so many quotes and reviews in all the attachment parenting literature that I have read. In fact I feel that it has become a bit of an attachment parenting cliche to justify any childcare practice by saying that the Yequana people of South America do it. But, nevertheless, rather than prejudging, I thought I should read the book and make up my own mind.
So, if you have not already heard of it, The Continuum Concept is one of the original attachment parenting texts: it is a parenting classic. It came out in 1975 after the author, Jean Liedloff, spent two and a half years living in the South American jungle with a tribe called the Yequana. She observed that they had a much greater sense of well-being than was customary in the West and, through her observations of their lifestyle, concluded that it was the way they raised their children that gave them this greater self esteem.
The idea of the "continuum concept" is basically to live the life that evolution prepared us for. She argues that evolution has honed humans to occupy a specific ecological niche and that in order to make the most of our bodies and minds, we need to live in the conditions that evolution has led us to expect. In particular, she says that if babies meet conditions that are not as they expected, they cannot fully develop and mature. The conditions that babies expect, she says, are constant carrying during the day and co-sleeping at night. The "in-arms" phase, as she calls it, lasts until the baby can crawl, from which point it should be allowed to explore its surroundings without restriction.
She goes on to describe how just about every human failing can be traced back to a break in an individual's continuum. Since virtually everyone in the West has a wonky continuum, due to an unfulfilled in-arms phase, we have totally lost sight of what "healthy" is. For us, "normal" is broken.
Actually I agree with her theory that in order to develop healthily, we should bring up our babies as our ancestors did. I think she is quite right that it must be damaging to live outside of the niche that we evolved to occupy. At the very least, it must make it very difficult for us to completely fulfill our potential. Humans are designed to be carried as babies and we are designed to co-sleep (why else would we synchronise our breathing with our parents?). Cots and prams are modern inventions which are totally baby-unfriendly, but to say so out loud in Britain is to be looked upon as some kind of weird extremist.
However, if I wanted to be cynical about this book then there is a lot to be cynical about. For a start, how does she know that the Yequana people are happy because of their childhoods? Could it not be because of the food they eat or the surroundings they live in? Everything about their lives is so very different to ours that our differences cannot be pinned down just to our childrearing techniques. Her arguments really hit the buffers when she admits that the neighbouring Sanema tribe, who also live by the continuum, have a habit of raiding their nearby villages, stealing their women and slaughtering their menfolk. I can see why she kept that one quiet until the end of the book. But I suspect that if I voiced my misgivings to Jean Liedloff she would say, "Ah, but you would say that because your continuum is broken so you don't understand." She really has the perfect argument - everyone in the West is damaged so none of us are qualified to disagree with her.
The book might be flawed but that doesn't really matter, because it has provided a great talking point for over 30 years, and I am sure that Jean Liedloff is quite satisfied with that. It might not be a cast iron theory, but she planted a seed that has grown into attachment parenting with its central tenets of babywearing, co-sleeping and breastfeeding. As a scientific argument, it didn't really work for me. But as a piece of history, as a hugely influential text, it was definitely worth reading. If you have seen the quotes and heard the theory then I would recommend giving the original book a go.