Reflections on motherhood #6: introducing solid foods

This post is the sixth in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

When I was six months pregnant, my husband and I met up with one of his childhood friends, along with her husband and son, in a cafe a couple of  days before Christmas. Her son was 13 months old, and we watched him polish off an entire slice of cake. Conversation turned to his eating and I mentioned that I had no idea how one went about introducing a baby to solid food. His mother agreed and said she had felt so in the dark that she had gone on a weaning course. Wow, I thought to myself, weaning must be really complicated, and promptly decided to ‘park’ that issue of parenting until I felt able to cope with the more pressing ones.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I wish I had known then that, in almost all cases, for every milestone a child has to reach in her development, you don’t actually have to do anything, it will just happen on its own, of its own accord, in its own time. This is true of rolling over, sitting, walking, talking, sleeping and, yes, eating.When I stopped to think about this, I sort of knew it in theory, but theory doesn’t help when you’re sleep-deprived and suffering from child-related anxiety. I wish I had surrounded myself more with voices who reminded me of this fact, because I would have avoided a lot of stress over the last year and a half. Unfortunately, most of the voices that surround us (sometimes our family, our peers, and some health professionals, but mostly profit making companies with aggressive advertising campaigns, and as a result our own feelings of guilt as mothers) insist that we need to intervene and get our baby to the next stage, usually (and not so coincidentally) by having to purchase expensive and unnecessary equipment. I reckon that, after the multi-billion pound industry of getting your child to sleep through the night, the complementary food industry is the next biggest troll eroding our instinctive mothering knowledge.

But I didn’t know any of this before my daughter was born, nor in the first few months of her life. At various baby groups I had come across different approaches to weaning, and I knew there were two buzz-words that were bandied about. One was purees and the other baby-led weaning. I followed a thread on a friend’s Facebook profile about the latter, and sadly witnessed the very worst of the so-called ‘Mommy Wars’ where debate about the relative merits of the different approaches got, shall we say, somewhat heated. To me, the name baby-led weaning sounded like a trendy new fad, just like co-sleeping did. Looking into it a bit more, I discovered that it was entirely messy (not something I welcomed), and for all its benefits of sensory-motor development, I reckoned I’d turned out ok, and I hadn’t created Picasso-like artwork with my spag bol when I was one.

But as the time to introduce solid food neared, I was motivated simply by what was least effort. And to my mind, pureeing up food, freezing it in an ice cube tray, defrosting it and heating it up again sounded like way too much effort when I could just offer her whatever was on my plate. I decided I had better do a bit more research to help me decide which approach I was going to go for.

The first thing I learnt was that, unlike when we were babies, research has shown that no solid foods should be introduced until the baby is about six months old. This recommendation is endorsed by, among others, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatrics, The UK Department of Health, and the NHS, and with good reason. You can read a short summary of the research on this page. Research shows, for example, that a baby’s gut is not mature enough for foods other than breastmilk or infant formula. Quoting from the link above, we read that babies under 6 months or so have an ‘open gut’, meaning that

“… the spaces between the cells of the small intestines will readily allow intact macromolecules, including whole proteins and pathogens, to pass directly into the bloodstream. This is great for your breastfed baby as it allows beneficial antibodies in breastmilk to pass more directly into baby’s bloodstream, but it also means that large proteins from other foods (which may predispose baby to allergies) and disease-causing pathogens can pass right through, too. During baby’s first 4-6 months, while the gut is still “open,” antibodies (sIgA) from breastmilk coat baby’s digestive tract and provide passive immunity, reducing the likelihood of illness and allergic reactions before gut closure occurs. Baby starts producing these antibodies on his own at around 6 months, and gut closure should have occurred by this time also.

In addition, this study found that the “majority of normal full term infants are not developmentally ready for the transition from suckling to sucking or for managing semi-solids and solid foods in addition to liquids until between six and eight months of age”, suggesting that babies are not ready for solid foods until they are developmentally ready for them. What does that mean? There are several signs of readiness for solid foods, and a baby needs to exhibit all of them to be developmentally ready, according to the research quoted above. This list is taken from Kellymom.com:

  • Baby can sit up well without support.
  • Baby has lost the tongue-thrust reflex and does not automatically push solids out of his mouth with his tongue.
  • Baby is ready and willing to chew.
  • Baby is developing a “pincer” grasp, where he picks up food or other objects between thumb and forefinger. Using the fingers and scraping the food into the palm of the hand (palmar grasp) does not substitute for pincer grasp development.
  • Baby is eager to participate in mealtime and may try to grab food and put it in his mouth.

The discerning reader will notice that the above list basically boils down to – if your baby can feed himself, he’s ready for solid food. This means that pureeing food (or buying canned baby food) is, at the very least, unnecessary. Marvelous, I thought to myself, I’ll just offer whatever I eat and she’ll clearly just pick it all up, literally and figuratively.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I noticed how, at about 5 months, my baby was grabbing everything and putting it to her mouth. Signs of readiness for solids, I thought! We duly bought a high chair. This coincided with a GP appointment about her reflux, because I’d finally got to the stage of being completely end of tether about it. I had to hold her upright all day, she sicked up after every feed, she arched her back and cried in pain a great deal, and let’s not even talk about sleep. I knew in my heart that frequent nursing helped her a lot and so had put off the idea of medicating it, knowing how silent reflux is often over-diagnosed. But I took her to the GP nonetheless. Quite apart from the fact he expressed surprise that she ‘still’ woke up at least three times a night (and this is a man who has three of his own children…), he said that, in addition to Infant Gaviscon, I could try treating solid foods as ‘medicine’ and giving her some a bit early, because the idea is that if one’s stomach contents are thicker, they won’t reverse up the oesophagus as much.

I duly returned home, cut up and boiled a carrot, sat her in her high chair, and placed them in front of her. People, this was her face:

 

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Let’s just say that that little experiment didn’t work. A few days later, having offered many different types of boiled vegetable, I bought a jar of Hipp Organic baby food in desperation. I didn’t care about principles when all I wanted was my daughter to not be in pain any more and for me to be able to not have to hold her upright all day. Since we had had absolutely no luck in administering any kind of medicine for her reflux (either Gaviscon or Ranitidine), I wasn’t holding out much hope that she’d take any puree off a spoon. I got that one right. I realized that there was not a chance I was going to be able to spoon feed this baby. Baby-led weaning it was to be. She made that decision for me!

Looking back, I’m glad she refused solids at that age. I know now that she wasn’t ready. For one thing, she couldn’t sit up independently (only managing this at nearly 9 months), and when, a couple of weeks later, she did start experimenting with putting food to her mouth, she gagged horrendously. Oh my goodness, the gagging! It was so awful, it looked like she was dying! I knew then that I needed to do my homework properly. Other mum friends said that they were scared of their babies choking and that was why they chose to feed them purees. I needed to know a bit more about weaning in general. So I bought this book by Gill Rapley, a former health visitor, which had come highly recommended by many friends who wanted to let their babies feed themselves.

It was an eye opener. I discovered that far from BLW being a new fad, it was (by and large) how most people had fed their babies for millennia before the infant feeding industry got on the bandwagon and realized they could make money out of mums (think of all the paraphernalia you need even if you make your own purees … containers and blenders and microwaves and fridges and special spoons and bowls and bibs etc etc). Now I’ll be honest, I don’t think there’s much evidence-based research to advocate one method over another when it comes to weaning, but, philosophically, letting your child feed themselves when they’re ready made intuitive sense to me. So much of eating is really about social convention, such as how many ‘meals’ a day one should have and whether one should finish one’s plate etc – I knew that cultures differ with regard to these things. I hated the idea of making a ‘thing’ about eating, or playing games to trick her into eating food she didn’t want. It didn’t sit right with me. My baby already knew how much milk she needed, and knew when she was full, so why would she be any different with food? I had already learnt to trust the baby, they come programmed to survive, so it seemed logical for me to trust her with this too.

Proponents of BLW also suggest that, developmentally, babies want to learn to chew before they learn to swallow, and spoon feeding can confuse this. That’s because the baby has to suck the puree off a spoon. If they haven’t had a chance to explore texture before they learn to swallow, they often encounter problems when parents introduce ‘mushy’ foods or finger foods, as their gag reflex is triggered. The theory goes that if you allow your child to manipulate texture and play with food first, they discover all by themselves how to get lumpy bits out that they can’t manage, using that very same gag reflex, before they learn how to swallow what they have chewed themselves (and contrary to what I have been told by countless members of my parents’ generation, you don’t need teeth to chew).

My daughter’s gagging was initially of epic proportions. Looking back, I wished I’d just stopped offering her food for a month and tried again when she was actually showing all the signs of readiness. But I didn’t trust her. Without realizing, I trusted the health professionals and advertising that kept telling me that she needed complementary foods because my milk wasn’t enough for her. I mean honestly, did I really think it was like some kind of switch that got flicked when she hit 6 months, and before my milk was enough and suddenly after it wasn’t any more? Looking back it looks so obvious. It didn’t seem that way at the time when everyone else’s babies seemed to eat everything off a spoon that their parents waved in front of them. I hastily learnt the difference between gagging and choking and attended a first aid course put on at my local Children’s Centre. That did help to calm my nerves, but still my daughter didn’t actually eat anything. She picked it up with glee, put it to her mouth, and made the face you saw above.

When she got to about 8 months and was still eating nothing, I was starting to break out into a sweat at meal times. Here I was, nobly offering stuff off my plate (chopped up into stick like chunks so she could easily pick them up), tirelessly cleaning her ridiculously complicated high chair that I wish we never bought (folks, buy the fifteen quid one from IKEA. All the others are a waste of money. Every mother I know comes to the same conclusion, and we all own the same white plastic cheapy one now. Genuinely.) along with five metres of floor space underneath it. I was ready to abandon my BLW principles at any stage just to get her to eat, but she resolutely refused me putting anything near her mouth. What was making me so stressed? Other people.

‘Is she eating anything yet?’

‘It’s strange how she nurses so much still, my children all loved food.’

‘You’ll need to stop breastfeeding her so much, that’s why she doesn’t eat.’

‘You need to give her what she wants! Try ice cream or biscuits!’

‘You should try playing the aeroplane game and distract her and then shove a spoon in.’

‘You just need to heat up [insert brand name] baby puddings, that worked for us.’

Fortunately, my health visitor was wonderfully reassuring. ‘Just keep offering,’ she told me for the Xth time at a baby session at our Children’s Centre. ‘She’ll get there in the end.’

Occasionally, she would eat a little of something, and enjoy it! I would dance for joy, and videoed a few of these triumphant moments with glee. Only, then the next day she would refuse everything again, and I would feel deflated. Slowly I began to worry about her not getting the nutrients she needed. When she reached ten months, and I could count the number of mouthfuls she had eaten since she was six months old on two hands. I had a candid chat with a GP mum friend, who had a child a few months older who also ate next to nothing. I discovered the only thing that she possibly wasn’t getting enough of from my milk was iron, but that this had more to do with the iron stores laid down in pregnancy and the nature of her delivery (in particular, delayed cord-clamping) than it did with anything else (this article from Kellymom is helpful, showing that a baby’s iron stores tend to deplete at some point during the second half of the first year, but see also this article critiquing some of the finer points). I felt myself relax a little. Here was a health professional who understood why I couldn’t just ‘breastfeed less’ (if nothing else, breastfeeding was the only thing that helped my daughter’s reflux), and she helped me to be confident in the choice I had made. I kept offering iron rich food in the hope that she would take what she needed.

The months rolled on. Still she did not eat consistently, or really at all. It got harder to drown out the usually surprised but often negative voices, especially as my daughter still wanted to nurse around the clock. But cutting back on nursing wasn’t an option, I knew that. And I was satisfied that she was thriving and healthy. And do you know what, folks? She didn’t start consistently eating until she was 14 months old. Even then, it was totally hit and miss, but it was then that she discovered that she could actually enjoy food. We started to notice that when my husband took her away from me all day (not something she could cope with before that age, she’s always been very needy of me), she would eat more. She started to ‘like’ certain foods, and became more predictable in what she would eat. But still, I could count the number of malted wheaties each breakfast (7 was a good day), and she often refused a meal altogether.

I then read this majorly reassuring book by a Spanish paediatrician and recommended at LLL, which made me grow in confidence and shut out the critical voices much better. There were three things I took away from the book. The first was that unless your child lost more than 1kg in a week, they were doing fine, however little they ate (my daughter had barely put on any weight in a year, so I was a bit concerned by weight gain). The second was that how much a child eats depends more on rate of growth than on age. So, for example, a 9 month old might well eat more than an 18 month old because his rate of growth is greater. The third is that it is really, really bad to force feed your child. I knew I was doing the right thing in trusting her.

And sure enough, at 26 months, she now eats. I say ‘sure enough’, but I know a lot of similar aged toddlers who barely eat anything. But I did get to the bottom of why my daughter showed little interest in solid foods for so long, and I suppose some of the nay-sayers were right in a way: she loved her milk too much. It’s only when my supply dwindled at the beginning of my second pregnancy that she started to eat more, because my milk was no longer filling her up. Suddenly she started to eat 5 bowls of cereal in one go, mountains of potatoes, and many many beef sandwiches (her favourite). ‘Should’ I have denied her milk earlier to ‘get’ her to eat more solid food? It would never have worked even if I’d tried, because milk was so important to her back then. And I know now that breast milk adapts to your child’s age, and it’s still the perfect food for her. It doesn’t magically lose nutritional quality when they get older.

breastmilk in the second year

Do I think my choice of weaning method contributed to how much food she ate? Not really. I was a pragmatist, not a purist, and clearly your kid can turn out just fine whether you follow a traditional weaning route or a BLW one. But I am so glad, on reflection, that I trusted her, and let her feed herself. I could see how her fine motor skills improved in just a few short months. She was delighted with the sensory play that food provided her with. I relish the fact that I always let her determine when she’d had enough or when she wanted more. I also know that it is not normal in our society for babies to be nursed past 2 years old, but this is not true of other cultures. Perhaps, if more babies reached the WHO recommended milestone, it would be more normal for toddlers to prefer milk over solids. Anecdotally, it is certainly normal among my ‘extended nursing’ mum friends.

Oh, and we haven’t (yet!) had any kind of choking incident, and the gagging died down after a few weeks. I remember the first time I saw how she manipulated a chunk of food she couldn’t manage by gagging. It was amazing to watch. She’d learnt all by herself how to deal with something too big for her to swallow. We relaxed a lot, because we knew that when she took a bite she would just spit out what she couldn’t manage. BLW was easier to cope with after the initial few months, during which I could feel everyone (mainly grandparents) holding their breath around the table. It was messy, but a lot of fun, and the messy stage actually passed quite quickly. It was wonderful to include her in the family mealtime, even if she didn’t seem bothered by actually eating. It meant I could also eat my own meal and she was occupied. Although she still often likes to sit on my knee and help herself from my plate (which let’s be honest is sensible from an evolutionary point of view!) she mostly has her own plate and cutlery and eats in her high chair with little need for parental help.

We now go for an approach where we as parents determine what and when, and she determines if and how much. This works well, but like any toddler she can be very picky about what she does and doesn’t want to eat. I try not to stress about the fact that she has only ever eaten one type of vegetable in her entire life (courgette, and she’s been refusing that for the last year, too!) I figure that, if I eat vegetables and a healthy diet generally, so will she once she’s out of the toddler years. We have found some foodstuffs that she likes that we are happy for her to eat unlimited amounts of, in addition to restricting certain things. We are now all very relaxed at meal times, and enjoy each other’s company immensely. My daughter knows it’s a time to reconnect as a family, and I love that. And the best thing – nine times out of ten, she just eats what we eat (carefully picking out all the vegetables, obviously!) She’s one of us, as she should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on motherhood #5: busting some myths about bed-sharing

This post is the fifth in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

Looking back, I don’t think I gave the question of where my baby would sleep much thought before she was born. Like most modern Britons, I assumed that all babies slept in cots, maybe starting off in a moses basket for the first few months (I had seen some very cute photos of friends’ babies in moses baskets). I’d read some guidance about having them in your room for the first six months, but didn’t read up much more than that. I assumed it would all sort itself out when she arrived. I’d heard that some people did something called co-sleeping (which I thought sounded like a terribly trendy hip new term, and that in itself put me off), and I promptly decided I would never do that. I was terrified it wasn’t safe (after all, you hear about bed-sharing baby deaths every so often in the news), a paediatric nurse friend had told me she had seen accidents involving bed-sharing, and shortly after my daughter was born, a health visitor told me in no uncertain terms that I must not bed-share with my baby, as it was unsafe. But even if I’d been convinced it was safe, I’d ruled it out anyway: I recalled babysitting a three year old while I was at university, and back then I was shocked that, in order to get him to sleep, I had been told I had to lie down next to him in his parents’ bed (and given that one of his parents was my German tutor, that felt somewhat awkward…) until he dropped off. His parents would move him when they got back. It reminded me of my own dear mother’s tales of having to lie down with my brother to get him to sleep until he was four. I decided then and there I was never going to let my children make demands of me like that. I reckoned that if you nip it in the bud early enough and are consistent enough, you can avoid that kind of thing.

I gave it my best shot, and looking back, I am amazed I held out for so long, because my daughter’s demands were truly crippling. I had assumed newborn babies fed every few hours or so. I learnt later that this belief stems from the fact that most babies are formula fed, and their pattern of feeding is quite different from breastfed babies. There are, of course, some breastfed newborns who only nurse for a few minutes every few hours, but mine wasn’t one of those. Most aren’t. Mine screamed mercilessly unless she was on the breast. All the time. I couldn’t take her screaming. It tore my soul in two just to hear it. Nothing else would soothe her, so I put her on the breast. For hours. I have previously noted that her record was twelve hours’ straight nursing, with the odd nappy change here or there. She never repeated that, but she would regularly nurse for six hours or so in the evening in the first few months. And then again after another couple of hours, and again an hour later, oh, and then it was morning already.

Once we’d got the hang of nursing comfortably and without pain, I mostly just sat on the bed and looked up articles on my smartphone in the other hand while she nursed on and on. She would nurse to sleep after an hour or so, and then I’d put her upright onto me. She had really bad reflux, you see, and so I was hoping that holding her upright would mean she wouldn’t cry out in pain when I put her down. So I would sit there for twenty minutes, then attempt a moses basket transfer. I would carefully – so carefully – slide out of bed, gently lay her down on the mattress and – waaaaa! She woke up, thrashing her limbs around, screaming her little lungs out such that the only thing I could do was put her back on the breast just to stop the noise. And so it would begin again. Forty five minutes’ more nursing, holding upright for twenty minutes after she’d nursed to sleep, gently – gently – lowering her down into her moses basket … ha! She stayed asleep! Creep over to bed, get in, switch the light out, start dozing – WAAAAAAA! Five minutes later and she had woken up again. Back on the breast again. The whole cycle would happen five or six times. When I saw midnight I would cry without fail, every night, praying that the next time she would actually stay asleep. Just when the thoughts got truly dark, when I genuinely thought I could no longer cope, I would miraculously wake an hour or two later, and it’s amazing when you’re that sleep deprived how even an hour or two can make you feel totally refreshed.

You might be asking, where was your dear husband in all of this? Why wasn’t he sharing the load? Well, I can’t speak for most people’s other halves, but mine just couldn’t cope with the nights. He went a pale shade of yellow when he had to get up to do anything in the night. It took him five minutes to come round (and I could not take five minutes of screaming), he knocked into everything and fell over frequently, and was generally unable to do much. We realised that we had been given different gifts. Somehow, biology had enabled me to cope better than him at night. We arranged it so that I mostly covered the night duties and he did lots more supporting me during the day (my daughter mostly wanted to nurse all day, too). Of course, sometimes he had no choice, and after hours and hours of nursing he had to take her because I could cope no longer as I was so sleep-deprived. He used to take her downstairs, switch on some David Attenborough series to help him stay awake, and rock her to sleep if he could. If he couldn’t, he’d bring her back up, but on many occasions he could, and she liked sleeping upright on him, as it helped her reflux and well, he is her dad, and it’s nice to have snuggles. She must have felt warm and safe.

On one such occasion I remember ordering my husband to look up on his wonderphone what people did to get more sleep when their baby wanted to nurse non-stop all day and night. And after a brief search of various baby forums he came back with ‘they co-sleep’. I refused. I was still never doing that. I was so tired, how could it be safe?

Of course, the months rolled on and my daughter’s nursing and sleeping patterns changed. She gradually phased out the six hour long cluster feeding sessions, and by about three months old, she would usually be asleep by about 10pm and slept till maybe 3am, then woke again a couple of hours later, and then for good around 9am. Wonderful! Five hour stretches felt like a dream, except… a lot of the time I couldn’t sleep. I wrote about my insomnia and sleep deprivation in this post, and it was at its worst around this time. Even though my daughter was mostly ‘only’ waking twice a night at this stage, the getting up to nurse her and put her back down was getting increasingly draining as the months went by, even  though she went down more easily than in the early weeks. It hadn’t helped that she had outgrown her moses basket by about 12 weeks old, and so we had moved her to her cot, but that didn’t fit in our bedroom in its configuration at that time so she was in a separate room from us (contravening those guidelines I mentioned above). The traipsing to the spare room twice or three times a night, sitting upright in a chair for twenty minutes getting chilly while my husband slept on, unaware, then lack of ability to fall back to sleep on my part after my daughter had happily gone back in her cot caused a lot of resentment to build up. I questioned everything about having children. How did people cope? Why did no one ever tell you it was this hard? How is it that millions of women down the generations have gone and done this multiple times with absolutely zero recognition at all for how desperately awful the sleep deprivation is?

Now I know the answers to those questions. They bed-shared and breastfed their babies through infancy and toddlerhood. It took several more months for me even to consider that for us, though. I battled on through illnesses, infections and even an emergency hospital stay because of a tooth abscess, resolute in my decision that bed-sharing wasn’t for us and sceptical that it could really make a difference to my sleep deprivation anyway. Oh, and we had tried all of the other things. Tilting the moses basket mattress to help with reflux, warming the mattress with a hot water bottle, offering a dummy (ha! Like my daughter would take one of those!), swaddling, more layers, fewer layers, holding upright for less time, holding upright for more time, trying to burp her, not burping her, infacol (she wouldn’t take it). The thing that worked every time was nursing. What didn’t work was everything else. Looking back it seems so ludicrous that we had tried so many different artificial things that mimic the comfort and closeness of the nursing relationship when the one thing that provided all of the above was … well, me.

Then a few things happened that caused me to question my previous stance. The first was that I went back to university and realized I couldn’t do a PhD full time without organized childcare as I was suffering from a lot of stress and anxiety, and in any case any academic enterprise off so little sleep was completely impossible. So I switched to part time, which allowed me a lot more time and head space to get involved with various parenting groups in Oxford that I had previously not had any involvement in. I had also started using my sling a lot more at the expense of the pram, and found getting about on the bus so much easier than previously. I had wanted to get to a Baby Cafe, because I was part of its local Facebook group and it had provided me with a lot of reassurance, support and knowledge about breastfeeding and sleep. I knew that the advice given on that group made me think that these were the people I wanted to listen to among the throng of voices telling me how to parent. What I knew I was not prepared to do was any kind of extinction type ‘sleep training’ (I outlined my reasons for this in my last post, but this is a good summary of why the association between Cry It Out/Controlled Crying sleep training and the rise in cortisol levels matters).

I recall my first trip to a Baby Cafe, and I told the facilitator all about how my seven month old woke frequently and I was drained and tired of it. ‘You’ve worked out how to nurse lying down, I take it?’ She asked me in an offhand kind of way. ‘Um, no, I’m coping without doing that,’ I mumbled. In truth, I knew how to nurse lying down, because as soon as my daughter was born the midwives showed me how to do it. Indeed, when I went back to the MLU where my daughter was born for breastfeeding help in the first week of her life, the first thing they did was put me on a spare bed with my daughter and let us have a sleep together. I reflected on this as I got to know more breastfeeding and bed-sharing mothers. If even the midwives had done it, it couldn’t be that bad, right?

The last nail in the coffin, as it were, was when I was chatting to a mum of a baby who was about six months older than my daughter. She looked fresh-faced and well-rested, and I assumed she had One of Those Babies who sleep well. When I asked her about his night time pattern she said ‘oh he wakes several times, but it’s ok. We co-sleep,’ expecting me to understand that co-sleeping somehow made his night wakings ok. That was it. I had to give it a shot. Too many people, from other mum friends to Rosie at our local organic shop had confessed how bed-sharing had saved them from the depths of insanity. I bought this 2014 book by Diane Wiessinger et al., recommended at Baby Cafe, and researched intensively online. I was amazed at what I found, and so cross with myself for not having busted the myth earlier. The truth is that bed-sharing is unsafe for certain groups of people and in certain circumstances. But it is perfectly possible to bed-share safely. Here are just a handful of the the complexities in the bed-sharing/cot death literature. There is much more to be said, but it goes beyond the scope of this blog post to do so. The following points just give you a flavour. I encourage you to do some of your own research if you want to know more, or if you are unconvinced.

  • The SIDS/bed-sharing literature is confused with regards to terminology

Broadly, the problem here is that in the literature co-sleeping is sometimes taken to mean bed-sharing, sometimes sharing the same room, sometimes sharing any (including unsafe) sleep surfaces. All the instances get lumped together, and the results look like there are higher risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when co-sleeping (Wiessinger et al. 2014:360). A further problem is the confusion between SIDS deaths and Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUIDs) which include suffocation, poisonings and infanticide. Studies often refer to SIDS but are actually talking about SUIDs, such as in the following 2012 study that I quote below. Despite the fact that SIDS has nothing to do with suffocation or strangulation, the authors write that

“Bed-sharing has been suggested in the literature to increase the infant risk for SIDS due to the risks of overlaying or entrapment, wedging, falling or strangulation.” (Krause et al., 2012 quoted in Wiessinger et al. 2014:360).

  • Data collection is inconsistent

What this means is that researchers don’t include known risk-factors in their data collection, such as whether a baby is formula fed or not (artificial feeding carries much higher risks of SIDS, see here), which position the baby was in, whether there were other children in the bed, whether the mother had smoked in pregnancy, that kind of thing. An apparently often-cited article (Tappin, Ecob & Brooke, 2009) explained that they didn’t collect data on alcohol consumption because it was difficult to obtain accurate information with regards to this, despite the fact that it is a known risk-factor both for SIDS and suffocation. Their conclusions are therefore surely questionable.

  • There is much indiscriminate generalization

This basically boils down to policy makers creating a simple message targeting certain at-risk groups and then applying it blanketly to all groups, regardless of risk factor. This is what that Health Visitor was doing when she told me I should never bed-share. It’s a bit like saying you should never drive because people have car accidents. When you look at the details, it emerges that the risks of having a car accident are minuscule when you follow certain safe procedures, like wearing a seat-belt, not driving in adverse weather conditions, driving more slowly, not having any alcohol in your system, that kind of thing. So it is with bed-sharing. It is entirely safe for most people. Unfortunately, it seems that so many are convinced that it is not safe that they end up bed-sharing when they have not prepared for it, by falling asleep on possibly unsafe sleep surfaces such as sofas or sitting up in bed nursing where there are lots of pillows. I have been that person that has dozed off mid-feed in such a situation. It isn’t safe. It is so important to prepare the bed-sharing space before you reach rock bottom in terms of sleep deprivation.

There are many more problems, such as much of the research funding coming from profit making companies (such as tobacco companies), missing variables, researcher bias, lack of prospective studies (i.e. you can’t really ethically set up an experiment to test this kind of thing), the list goes on. I am no stranger to academia, and I was genuinely amazed just how blurred the picture is and how no one could feasibly argue that bed-sharing was unsafe for all mothers everywhere.

Armed with this knowledge, I was determined to give it a go. There are many different approaches to bed-sharing, and no ‘right’ answer, it’s just what works for you. Some have a side-car cot, some put the baby between mum and dad, some get rid of the bed altogether and put mattresses on the floor, some take one side off a cot and put it directly next to the bed… Some people’s partners stay in the bed, some go to another room, sometimes mum sleeps with the baby in a single bed, anything goes! What we did was move our king size bed against the wall, plug the gaps with rolled up towels, move the duvet and get blankets out. She would go next to the wall, then me, then my husband. Some mothers just take their babies to bed with them when they go to sleep, but I knew that I ideally wanted my daughter to start the night in her cot, so that I could have a bit of time away from her, which is essential for my sanity. (By and large, she does this willingly, except when she’s ill.) I was prepared for being kicked in the face (she was 8 months old by this point and very mobile), sleeping really lightly and knew that I had to give it a few weeks to possibly see any difference in my sleep deprivation. I was prepared for another upheaval. Only … it didn’t happen like that. Three nights into bed-sharing and I was cursing myself for not doing this sooner. My daughter didn’t wake any more or less, but nursing her lying down meant that I stayed dozy and our sleep cycles synced so I was rarely woken from a deep sleep. Having her right next to me cured my insomnia, more or less, and clearly I needed her near me to be able to sleep myself. I couldn’t recall how many times she woke up. I stopped looking at the clock. I suddenly started to feel refreshed in the morning. And my husband slept better! I got to her so soon after she woke that he never noticed her waking up, and because she was in the bed he seemed to instinctively have better sleeping habits, and woke me up less with his tossing and turning!

Some people ask me whether I am worried about rolling onto her, or about my husband doing likewise. This seems to be a reason why some mothers choose not to co-sleep. I was a bit nervous at first, but the Wiessinger et al. book told me that it is almost impossible to roll onto a baby if they are in a nursing position, because your knees are bent up by the baby’s feet, preventing you from being able to roll over. I had also read that breastfeeding mothers sleep less deeply and are aware of what their baby’s movements are (which is presumably why formula feeding mothers are advised not to bed-share in the early months). I also got less concerned about this after one night of co-sleeping, and on realising that I never habitually fell out of bed, as I subconsciously knew the edge of the bed was there. Why would I be any different with a baby? My husband was more nervous than me, but as she got bigger, and as he got more confident, he ceased to be concerned. She now mostly sleeps between us.

If you’re wondering about whether you might like to try bed-sharing, then there are plenty of places online to look for advice on how to do it safely. Here is La Leche League’s Safe Sleep Seven, which is a good place to start. Essentially, the ‘safe criteria’ are: you lay your baby on his back to sleep, you are a breastfeeding mother, the baby is on a safe sleep surface, you have had no alcohol, you are not a smoker and didn’t smoke in pregnancy, your baby wasn’t premature, and you don’t swaddle your child. If you need more convincing or want to read up further, then see the following links. Of course, some of you won’t fulfil all those criteria. Some of the following links have good suggestions if you don’t, and see this article if you are a formula feeding mother.

  • Dr James McKenna at the University of Notre Dame has been studying infant sleep for decades, and is a well-known advocate of bed-sharing when practised safely. His website is here.
  • Kellymom.com is my go-to evidence-based site for anything related to breastfeeding. It has a section on bed-sharing here.
  • La Leche League have a lot of useful pages on this topic. Here is one about bed-sharing and the risk of SIDS, and here is one about how policy makers and the media have the wrong understanding about ‘normal’ infant sleep.
  • Dr Helen Ball’s research project on infant sleep at the University of Durham has some useful information for parents about where babies should sleep here.
  • Dr William Sears, founder of Attachment Parenting, has some useful pages on co-sleeping here.

Ok, ok, you say, I’ve convinced you that it’s safe when you take the necessary precautions, but what about the practical side of it? I don’t want a child in my bed! Or at least, while I quite like having a child in my bed some of the time, I don’t want them to stay there forever! Won’t they ‘get used’ to it and never leave? What about being intimate with my husband/partner? These are valid questions, and I’m not trying to cajole anyone into bed-sharing who doesn’t want to. After all, I didn’t want to. I understand why people don’t.

It is worth dwelling on the fact that most of the rest of the world, outside of the West, bed-shares with their babies and are much more socially accepting of it than we are, and it seems to be peculiar to our culture to view it negatively (alongside viewing it as unsafe), despite the fact that most Western mothers report bed-sharing at some point during their child’s life (and this rises to 80% of American breastfeeding mothers), according to some of the links I referenced above. I have been challenged on this personally, and come to see that bed-sharing is actually the biological norm, even though it’s not our cultural norm. If you think about it, we seem to be the only mammal that expects our young to sleep separately from us. And it would have been near impossible not to co-sleep before the invention of centrally heated houses – sleeping in close proximity was a way of keeping warm, to say nothing of protecting one’s young when they are at their most vulnerable. It seems we are biologically wired to expect to co-sleep, so we can hardly blame our children for wanting to sleep near us. James McKenna, one of the academics listed above, goes even further and believes babies should not sleep alone, and he writes about this here. Not only this, but keeping my eyes and ears open around parents of older children has made me realize that night time fears come back on and off as children get bigger. If I have the expectation that she can come into my bed whenever she likes, then I get less bothered by thoughts of how long she might want to do it for. I also know that, yes, four or five year olds can crave a parent’s closeness at night time. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t remember being a bit scared of the dark as a kid? I want my children to feel safe, and if that means curling up with me when they’re older, than I’m fine with that. I’m pretty sure my daughter wouldn’t want to be caught dead in my bed when she’s 14. They all outgrow it in the end. There is also no evidence to suggest that co-sleeping makes children less independent now or later, nor any evidence (see same link) to suggest parents can’t be intimate. Were this the case, one wonders how the world was peopled in the first place… And while we’re at it, let’s bust another myth too – it’s not ‘bad’ to nurse a baby/child to sleep. It isn’t a rod for your own back, or a bad habit, and it doesn’t mean that a baby will not be able to get to sleep any other way. My baby falls asleep happily for other people (and indeed for me) in the car, in the sling, or in the pushchair, and always has done. I have never not nursed her to sleep when she’s wanted to. It strikes me as odd that some mothers think it makes more sense to spend half an hour bobbing a child up and down when you might as well just nurse them to sleep in ten minutes. If you don’t believe me, see here.

This piece isn’t designed to make everyone feel like bed-sharing is mandatory. It’s about finding what works for your family. If your baby or toddler is happy sleeping on their own and everyone is getting enough sleep – great! I also know that some little ones wake less when they’re on their own, and some parents report sleeping much better without a small person in the bed next to them. Nothing wrong with that. The point of this piece is rather to bust the two myths that co-sleeping is dangerous and that it is somehow ‘bad’. If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, don’t be like me and not do it because you swallowed what some not so well-informed family members/friends/health professionals said without thinking. Do your own homework and make your own informed decision.

I’ll never know if the eight months of abject sleep deprivation would have been mollified by bed-sharing. Perhaps because of her reflux I’d have had to hold her upright anyway. But I suspect that as she nursed for hours, I would have dozed off safely. I’m not pretending co-sleeping is the answer to everything and that I am never tired any more (and that is clearly not the case, as my last blog post revealed). But I have felt ten thousand times more well-rested since we made the change. Whenever the sleep deprivation gets really bad, I remind myself of this. I now only very rarely have thoughts about throwing my baby out of the window, or poking out my husband’s eyes with a nappy nipper. It even sometimes enables me to think ‘oh, the disrupted nights aren’t so bad, really,’ and then I wonder about perhaps having another baby …

———

References

Krause, A., Craig, J., Watson, U., et al. 2012. Bed-sharing influences, attitudes, and practices: implications for promoting safe infant sleep. Journal of Child Health Care 16, No. 3: 274-283.

Tappin, D., Ecob, R., Brooke, H. 2009. Bedsharing, roomsharing, and sudden infant death syndrome in Scotland: a case-control study. Journal of Pediatrics 147, no. 1.: 32.

Wiessinger, D., West, D., Smith, L. J., Pitman, T. 2014. Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family. London: Pinter & Martin.

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Reflections on motherhood #4: the horrors of sleep deprivation

This post is the fourth in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

It has taken me a long time to get round to writing this post. Why? Because this one is the hardest to write about. Because sleep deprivation feels like the lens through which I view the rest of parenting and indeed life. I was waiting because I was hoping I could write the post from the position of being in a better place sleep-wise, but I now realize this is one area where I am going to have to accept the way things are and adjust my expectations once more. And I want other people to know they are not alone. People often expect a baby under one to sleep poorly, or if they don’t expect it, they know that it is true of some babies. Yes, it was sometimes tiresome to explain to people when they asked back then that I was chronically sleep deprived, and it was hard work to deflect their often well-meaning but unhelpful parenting advice, but now, well into my daughter’s second year, no one asks about sleep any more. Everyone assumes you’ve got it sussed. Well I haven’t, and this is me ‘fessing up.

Shortly after my daughter was born, we bought this book called ‘The Wonder Weeks’, which usefully explains the developmental leaps that babies go through at key stages of their development (and provides parents with an explanation for why their baby is going through a particularly difficult phase). I remember being stunned by how many times I came across a little box in which something along the lines of ‘Remember: never shake your baby!’ was written followed by a description of how much damage shaking a baby can do to them. My husband and I wondered who on earth would ever want to shake their baby and why this advice was included so frequently throughout the book. Well, I can now understand why people feel so desperate that they might feel they want to shake their baby. Because sleep deprivation can be that bad.

My daughter’s sleep seems to have got progressively worse as she has got older, but I think, on reflection, it’s always been this hard, it’s just that it has been such a long old slog now, and I am weary of it. On a ‘normal’ night, she wakes 4-6 times over a 12 hour period. By ‘normal’, I mean there is no other external factor bothering her, like teething, a cold, a developmental leap, bad reflux, a food she’s disagreed with, or hot weather. It might sound crazy, but I can usually totally deal with 4-6 wakings and get enough sleep, because we bed-share, and once she wakes up, she nurses for about 10 minutes and then goes back to sleep (on a ‘normal’ night, of course). Often our sleep cycles are in sync, and so I’m not woken from a deep sleep. I don’t have to move. I wake up, but stay dozy. Once she’s dozed back off, so do I. On a ‘normal’ night.

The problem is, it feels like there are so few ‘normal’ nights. There always seems to be something that makes her more needy of me than normal, but the truth is (and this is the especially hard truth), she is only half the problem. The other problem is … me. Since being pregnant I have had bouts of terrible insomnia, partly to do with anxiety, and partly (I have discovered) because I sleep less well when I am fighting off an infection. I know how horrendous it is when your child is awake in the middle of the night and you are also awake attending to their needs. But believe me, it is far, far worse, when your child is sleeping peacefully and you are lying awake next to them unable to sleep. It generally comes in bouts, and improved a lot when we started bed-sharing (it seems I unconsciously needed to know she was ok and have her right next to me), but I still have really bad patches, and when one of them coincides with a toddler needy patch, the result is awful.

My insomnia and the build up of the year and a half of being needed 24/7 means that I spend most of my days feeling like a wreck. It’s true, sometimes there are a couple of weeks here and there where we have predominantly ‘normal’ nights, I don’t lie awake for whatever reason, and I feel like a new woman. But most of the time, I feel like I am limping from one day to the next. I never had any antibiotics before I had my daughter. Since then, it has felt like I have been on and off them constantly as my immune system is so low because I’m so run down. It got so bad before we started bed-sharing that I ended up in hospital having emergency surgery under general anaesthetic for a tooth infection that no dentist had managed to identify. Lack of sleep and illness lead me to feelings of depression and anxiety, which lead to insomnia … and so the cycle goes round and round.

It is not all doom and gloom. The bad patches are so terribly hard when you’re in the thick of it, but they do pass. It hasn’t ever got a lot better, but it always eases. You get a string of maybe five ‘normal’ nights on the trot. It’s a weekend, so you can have a lie in. Your parents are coming to visit that day. A church friend offers to take your toddler away for a couple of hours. All these things allow you some respite, and I am so grateful for them.

To help to cope with it all, I hang out with other sleep deprived mothers at various gentle-parenting groups. My daughter, who is now very nearly 18 months, is normal. Knowing this helps a lot. If you don’t believe me, have a look here, an evidence-based infant sleep resource run by the University of Durham, and you’ll see what is ‘normal’ for infant sleep. Sure, there are babies and toddlers who are less needy at night by her age, but that doesn’t mean she has a sleep problem. Fine, you say, but you’re chronically sleep deprived, so why don’t you try to ‘do’ something about it?

My answer to that is: I do. I bed-share and breastfeed. What else allows you to simultaneously comfort, entertain and provide nutrition for your infant while lying down? Some find that night-weaning and/or stopping bed-sharing reduces the amount of night wakings of their nursling. I have toyed with this idea for a while, but have decided against it for now, for a few reasons. Firstly, getting my daughter to sleep ‘better’ does not necessarily mean I will sleep better, and I know that my insomnia was much worse when we weren’t bed-sharing. Secondly, I know that I find it hard to get back to sleep if I know I will need to physically get up to attend to a child, and even if her night wakings reduce to once or twice I will still have to get up. Thirdly, nursing her releases sleepy hormones in me, too, and that often helps me go back to sleep (it’s designed that way, you see, clever, huh?) And fourthly (most importantly?), it’s what she needs. She will rarely settle for her Dad. Most of the time, she needs milk. Why? This is also something I have wondered often. Why does my daughter wake up so often? And why does she still need milk?

There are so many possible reasons babies and toddlers wake at night, and I can’t speak for others’ experiences, but I know I am an expert on my own child and I have managed to narrow down the reasons for her night-waking a little. I know from the way she wakes up (crying, as if in pain, thrashing around), that she does not want to wake up. I know that she is not craving proximity to me or her father because she wakes just as many times when sleeping in bed with us as she does when sleeping in her own cot. I know it is often reflux-related, because I can hear her gulping and swallowing and see her arching her back (she used to have terrible reflux until 12 months or so. It is a lot better in the day now, but about the same at night). I suspect she also has some teething pain. I can anticipate your next question. It is so kind and well-meaning when people suggest things that they think we might not have thought of because they want to help. But the truth is, we have thought of it all. Have we tried medicating it? Gaviscon? Teething gel? Ranitidine? Paracetamol? Giving lots of solid food? No fruit before bed time? All these and more we have considered, tried, and found more taxing and stressful than just dealing with the night-wakings and breastfeeding back to sleep. Milk seems to sort her reflux out in the short term and comfort her from the distress. It works for us, and I’m not keen to lose that. Meanwhile, we are wondering whether there are food intolerances that could be contributing to her reflux and/or night waking. It’s just another idea, so we’re going through a list of food groups to avoid. We’re currently cutting out dairy, though we keep having set backs when we forget (or when well-meaning people give her a biscuit, like happened the other day at church *rage*). I’m not holding out for a miracle, but I think it would be wise to rule something like this out. By the time we’ve sussed it out, she’ll have probably grown out of whatever it was anyway.

The hardest suggestion to respond to is the most pervasive one once your child reaches the 12 month mark, and it comes in various guises:

‘You’ll have to leave her to cry, she’ll never learn otherwise.’

‘You need to put your needs first, and you desperately need sleep, so try some sleep-training.’

‘You’ll be a better parent if you had a decent break from her, just leave her in her cot at bed time, it only takes a few days, she’ll get the hang of it.’

‘She’ll be in your bed till she’s 6 years old if you’re not careful!’

‘She doesn’t need milk at night, she’s just using you because it’s there.’

‘Sleep training’ appears to me to be a massive euphemism for what is essentially leaving your child to cry themselves to sleep. Every Christian fibre in my body recoils at the idea and no matter how it is dressed up or down, I find it abhorrent. As Christians we are called to stand up for the weak and vulnerable, and deliberately leaving a distressed child to teach them a lesson is exactly the opposite of that to my mind, regardless of the circumstance (indeed it is a great source of sadness to me that many Christians seem to advocate leaving your child to cry as a viable ‘parenting choice’). In the psychological literature it is covered by the term extinction techniques, but it goes by various names in common parlance, such as Cry it out or the milder form Controlled Crying, Self-Soothing, and so on. But just because it is given a fancy name and books have been written about it by impressive sounding people, indeed just because it seems like everybody does it, doesn’t mean it is a good thing, especially when there are gentle alternatives to coping with disruptive nights. It strikes me as odd that if a child were left in a room by themselves in a daycare setting and left to cry to teach them a lesson, we would call it neglect, and yet it is apparently not neglectful (in fact many ‘sleep experts’ would tell you it is necessary) to do this at night time at home in order to teach a child to sleep. The sad thing is, it doesn’t teach a child to sleep, it just breaks the bond between carer and infant and teaches them that their cries for comfort are not answered. Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone that a child reaches when she is ready (or indeed, not at all. After all, I have never slept through the whole night without waking. Have you?) If you don’t believe me, see here and here. Several experts of different scientific backgrounds came together in this article to encourage parents not to engage in extinction technique type sleep training. We do not live in a perfect world, however, and we are all learning and make decisions we regret. This is a useful article for moving on from extinction technique sleep training if you have done it and regret it.

No, I am unwilling to leave my child to cry alone in order to get an undisturbed night’s rest, yes, even if it ‘only’ takes fifteen minutes, and it’s not because I’m a super-mummy or a martyr or whatever. Believe me, I can see why it seems like a potential option at times, and it is particularly hard if close family members are putting pressure on you to do it (fortunately mine do not). Something of course has to give when you reach rock bottom, but while I of course can never know everyone’s individual circumstances, I find it unlikely that ‘sleep training’ is ever the only option left. But it is a lonely old world out there when your child is over one and you won’t entertain the idea of sleep training, because sadly most people seem to have done some version of it. People (usually people who are no longer parenting young children) often make off-hand comments like the above (which can shatter confidence when your mental health is fragile anyway) and then basically act like it’s your own doing that you are sleep-deprived. Not going to lie, it’s tough. I just don’t tell many people day-to-day how I really am, unless they genuinely seem to care.

The last few nights have been bad ones, and I’m writing this in a tough patch. I know things will seem less bleak when I’ve had a few nights’ ‘normal’ sleep, but I wanted to write this in a bad patch because I want other mothers who wish to be responsive to their child(ren) to know they are not alone, and that the dark thoughts can be terribly overpowering. When I lie awake unable to get to sleep, usually after my daughter has woken me up and long since dozed off again, the same old thoughts go swirling round my mind: It’s just a bad night. Perhaps tomorrow will be better. But I could take a bad night like this one if I hadn’t had a string of bad nights recently. And I could take a string of bad nights if I hadn’t had a month of Phoebe having a cold and me fighting off various infections. And I could probably take a bad month of illnesses if I hadn’t had 18 months of broken sleep and being needed 24/7. At some point I usually try to calculate how many hours’ sleep I’ve had – always a danger, because it often just makes me feel worse. And I know deep down that quality of sleep is so much more important than quantity. But I look at the clock nonetheless. Maybe other mothers are superhuman, I wonder? I only have *one* child, some people have five! Or maybe I am just rubbish at dealing with life. How do I get through the day? Should I try to go back to sleep now, or will I just waste life and drive myself crazy by lying awake and running over all my anxieties? How will I get my brain in gear to be able to attempt some PhD work today? Do I go to church/toddler group/town tomorrow, or can I not face telling people how I really am because I will collapse in tears at their reaction? Because I know that this lack of sleep and the intense neediness of having a child has pushed me to my limits and that I spend at least a third of my existence hovering perilously close to the edge of a massive pit that I risk falling into if I’m not careful.

I know there are many mums who feel the same: I can see it in their eyes at toddler groups. It helps to know I’m not alone. And I am painfully aware that there are many mothers going through what I am going through but who are also fleeing violence, or war, or famine, or battling illness, and I am overwhelmed with gratefulness that my child has shelter and is safe and healthy. Sometimes it is hard to find God in it all, I stare at the ceiling and ask him whether he really cares about my sleep deprivation and the fact that I feel I have almost nothing left of myself to give to my daughter, let alone my husband, family or friends, whether he cares that it is often a battle just to fill the day until my husband comes home from work. And yet I know he does. When I feel I have nothing left and want to give up, I remember that my father in Heaven did not abandon me to the grave, but sent me a Saviour. And recalling his sacrifice, I somehow find a scrap of energy to attend to whatever my daughter needs. When I feel like Phoebe’s demands are too much and too frequent of me, I remember that I am never forsaken. And so I will never abandon my child. When I feel that I have no life of my own, I recall that he lay down his life so that I might live. So I must lay down my life for another. Having my daughter has taught me much about unconditional love, but having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ has taught me more.

A few nights ago I was reading Psalm 32, and I stumbled at verse 7. I am so tired that reading is hard work at the moment, and the summation of my Bible reading is a verse here and a verse there. And this one stuck with me, and I turned it over again and again in my mind.

You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

This image of being hidden by God and surrounded with songs of deliverance resonates so deeply with me and keeps me going. My yoke is easy and my burden is light… Surely I am with you, until the very end of the age… The old order of things will pass away… And the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings …

And he surrounds me with songs of a different nature too: The older lady who noticed I wasn’t in church yesterday and telephoned to see if I was ok. The local mum acquaintance who shared with me that she, too, ‘still’ nursed and bed-shared with her 18 month old. La Leche League leaders who lend a listening ear and an open heart. Committed family members who never stop caring. A dear friend who suffers from awful depression but prays for me every day and with whom I laugh, share and cry about the wonderful and dreadful world we live in. A husband who calls at lunch time just to make sure I’m coping. A darling daughter who I love so very much and who plants a kiss on my lips first thing in the morning when she wakes up.

Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who housed Jews during the Second World War, called her most famous book The Hiding Place. It is a book full of suffering and loss, yet underpinned by the joy and hope of trusting in God for deliverance. An extract from the book is written in the front of my diary, and it goes like this:

“Today I know that memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”

Somehow, God will use these horrendous few years of sleep deprivation for good. I know not how. But I trust that he will. He doesn’t promise that life won’t be hard. But he does promise that he will be with us, and that it will pass. And I know that this, too, shall pass.

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Reflections on motherhood #3: the joys of babywearing

This post is the third in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

No, a few months ago I didn’t know that ‘babywearing’ was a thing (or even a word) either. It’s only when I stopped to think about it that I realised that most of the world’s mothers don’t have (and historically didn’t have) access to what we know and love as prams and pushchairs. I also remembered something I’d read somewhere during the hazy chaos of the early newborn days – that some babies in some cultures don’t cry. Which kind of cultures? Those cultures where babies have unlimited access to the breast and are carried all day. But those newborn weeks were so manic that I didn’t have a chance to think anything more of it.

Happily, a friend of a friend had been in touch asking for some advice about teaching A level German. She’d had a baby boy a year or so before and offered me her carrier to try out. I wasn’t one for passing up a good offer like that and readily accepted it. The type she leant me, an older style BabyBjorn, seems to be very popular with new mums. I’d seen a few others about and it looked properly sturdy and not something my daughter could fall out of (that was my main concern at this point). It was great for popping out and back to do the odd errand when I didn’t fancy lugging our pram around. But, after a while, it began to hurt my back to carry my daughter in it, so I gradually started to use it less and less. I also read on some websites that, as a narrow based carrier, it doesn’t support a baby’s back as well as other soft structured carriers or slings. But I figured it was so uncomfy for more than about ten minutes at a time that my baby wasn’t going to get any major hip problems from being in it. Then the unthinkable happened … my daughter, who was gaining weight at a rate of knots, actually grew too fat for it. I’m not joking! I could no longer fasten the clips around her and I had to finally admit total defeat and realise that if I wanted to carry her, it would have to be in a different sling or carrier. So I started to look into what was on offer.

And it was totally overwhelming! So many different kinds of slings! Ones with rings, ones with buckles, ones with straps, ones with nothing at all, ones on your front, ones on your hip, ones on your back, ones that do all of the above, ones that are ridiculously expensive, ones that are very cheap … so I decided to ask a good friend of mine who had been happily wearing her baby on her dog walks since she was born. She had two slings that she had told me about, and told me where to find out more. God bless the digital age! Because I got 99% of my knowledge from the internet. I found this website to be particularly useful at giving an introduction to the different kinds of ergonomic carrier. The folks over at Sheffield Sling Surgery also have some good introductory pages.

What’s an ergonomic carrier? Well, as I discovered, there are many types of carrier that are definitely not ergonomic, and the BabyBjorn I’d borrowed was one of them, as it had a narrow base (the most supportive kinds of carrier support the baby from one knee to the other). For a sling or carrier to be safest for you and for your baby, it needs to correspond to certain guidelines: tight, in view at all times, close enough to kiss, keep chin off chest, and supported straight back. This is known in short form as TICKS, and can be viewed in more detail in the picture below:

TICKSold

(There are also some guidelines about babies facing outwards and bag style carriers that can be viewed on the NCT sling safety page here.)

By the time I was learning about all this, my daughter was nearly 4 months old. We had largely bypassed the slings that are often recommended for newborns. I read that there are basically four types of sling:

– Wraps – These are single pieces of material that vary in weave, length and fabric. There are two basic types, stretchy wraps and woven wraps. The former are recommended for small babies up to about six months, after which they cease to be supportive enough. They can be pre-tied before putting your baby in, which is helpful when they are tiny! There are many brands but you can get a decent one for as little as £15, especially if you go second hand. There are also hybrid stretchies like the Close Caboo which are very popular. Some brands are Moby, Victoria Sling Lady (great name ;-)), Hana, Liberty and Boba. Woven wraps have a diagonal weave and come in many different blends, but most have some cotton in them. They are much more than just a bedsheet! They are woven specially for babywearing and as such are weight tested and dyed safely in case a child sucks on them (which happens frequently in my experience). They are the most versatile kind of sling. You can wear babies in many different carries on your front, hip or back. The original wrap make is Didymos, a German firm, but there are many good budget brands on the market now such as Little Frog, Lenny Lamb and Yaro Slings. Beginners are best starting with wraps that are 100% cotton, and most people begin with a size 6. You can buy a decent new size 6 for about £45. It’s worth saying that the second hand market is often better than buying new. That’s because new woven wraps take a bit of use to ‘break in’, i.e. to become soft and supple. So wraps tend to retain their retail value (or gain a little if they are especially sought after) once they have been used a lot.

– Ring slings – These are a length of fabric with two rings sewn at each end. You thread the fabric through the rings, and the weight sits on one shoulder. You put the child in and tighten the rings. They can be worn on your tummy or on your hip, or (for the adventurous) on your back. There’s a bit of a knack to it (one that I am still learning!) but once you get it these are great as it’s so quick and they last from newborn through to toddlerhood. There are variations on the type of shoulder (gathered or pleated), and whether the rails are padded or not. Most brands that manufacture woven wraps also make ring slings, so see above for some suggestions.

Soft structured carriers (SSCs) – These are carriers that fasten with straps and buckles and often have a padded waist. The Ergo carrier is perhaps the most commonly known of these types of carrier. I’ve found that some people just feel inherently more comfortable with buckle carriers, and if this is you, then the good news is there is a lot of choice these days! They can be worn for front and back carries, and are better with babies that aren’t newborns (though some come with newborn inserts). They are easy to put on, but there is a disadvantage – if someone else also uses the carrier, they will have to readjust the strap length (rather like a rucksack) to suit them, which can slow things down. Many brands also do different sizes (baby, toddler and pre-schooler). Some popular makes are Tula, Connecta, Manduca, Ergo and Beco Soleil. *IMPORTANT* Be aware that Ergo fakes are really convincing these days. Only ever buy what you think is an Ergo carrier from either a genuine Ergo stockist (like John Lewis) or if you have proof of purchase (i.e. a receipt) that it was bought from a genuine stockist (look on Ergo’s website for a list of approved retailers). The many ‘Ergo-style’ carriers that look too good to be true on eBay and from Amazon sellers are just that: too good to be true. They haven’t been safety tested and there are many anecdotal reports from within the babywearing world of straps breaking and buckles snapping.

– Mei tais – The last main type of carrier is an Asian style one that seems to me to be a cross between an SSC and a wrap. There is a panel of material with straps sewn onto it, but no buckles, and you fasten the carrier by tying a couple of knots with the straps. These are great for bigger babies as they spread the weight evenly, and can be worn for front and back carries. Again, there are many brands, and if you look on eBay you can get a Palm and Pond mei tai for about twenty five quid. But, as with many things, you get what you pay for, and although some people swear by their P&P, you can get much better quality for just a little more money. Babyhawk, Lenny Lamb and Catbird are some great brands of mei tai.

There are also hybrid carriers, like a mei tai with wrap straps, or half buckle carriers, and so on, but you can get lost in the many varieties so I’ll leave it there for now!

Now, I am no babywearing guru, and when I first started looking into all this, I really knew nothing. What I *should* have done, with the benefit of hindsight (isn’t it a wonderful thing?) is go to my local sling library and try out a few different types of sling. The Oxford Sling Library meets fortnightly and is a great resource. You pay a small fee (like a fiver!) to borrow a sling and be taught how to tie it. If you’re not local you can find your local sling library here. What I actually did was read up a lot, find a sling I liked the look of, buy it, and hope for the best.

I struck lucky. I went for a mei tai, because I figured that it was something both my husband and I could use without having to adjust strap length, and it didn’t look as fiddly (or as scary!) as wrapping. I bought a Catbird baby mei tai second hand from eBay for about £30. I used it every day from when Phoebe was 4 months to 9 months old! Suddenly I discovered how easy and comfortable it was to wear my daughter! I wish I had known about comfortable, safe and inexpensive carriers long before. As I started to use the mei tai more, I started to realise that Phoebe loved it there. And I realised that, actually, babies are born expecting to be held all day. And here was a method of holding her that was easy, cheap and so so lovely! It’s like having a really lovely long snuggly hug!

My husband also really got on with the mei tai. We started to realise that life could basically go on as before, if we just wore her in the sling. I could do all those things that the push chair had prevented me from doing for those 4 months – sit upstairs on the bus into Oxford, go on long walks round the countryside, pop to the shops without taking what felt like the kitchen sink with me. I could also do some housework (something that is difficult to do when you have a needy baby!), do the cooking (as long as I was careful), and no longer had to clean the buggy’s wheels every time we took it out (our house is carpeted). Suddenly medieval town-planned streets were open to me, and Phoebe and I no longer needed to walk a million miles to use lifts in shops. It was like becoming a person again, not just a mum!

I also figured out how to nurse her in the sling, and, given that she was such a refluxy baby, this was a life saver. She went through a prolonged stage of refusing to nurse unless we were moving and I could not have got through this stage without my trusty mei tai. And I began to see that, really, I could have made my life a lot easier if I’d just used a sling from the beginning. Baby refuses to be put down to nap? No problem, she can doze on me in the sling and life goes on. Baby wants to nurse for 6 hours straight (which is normal, by the way, in the early weeks!) No problem, she can nurse in the sling while I catch up on my correspondence or read a book. Baby refusing to go in the pram? No problem, you don’t really need one anyway. Because the truth is, babies often need to be kept physically close to you. You can’t spoil them by cuddling them too much. But life has to go on. And a sling enables my life to go on and for my daughter’s needs to be met all at the same time. Ideal. (Other benefits of babywearing can be found here.)

We went on a driving holiday to Germany in September last year, and took our pram with us. It took up half our available boot space, and we only used it once (on the ferry on the way out there, and that was when we realised we really didn’t need it). How much more German and Belgian beer we could have brought back if we had just left the pram at home! When we arrived back in the UK a week and a bit later, we retired the pram. Most people who have a sling also use buggies, but we realised that we didn’t need it and it was taking up a lot of space in our small house! So we put it in the loft. We haven’t missed it.

‘But doesn’t it hurt your back?’ I get this question a lot. The answer is, well, no, unless you have pre-existing back problems. Not if you use your sling properly and it is an appropriate one to your baby’s age and weight. I *did* find the mei tai started to get a bit diggy with me as Phoebe neared the 9 month mark. But I think that’s because I was wearing her too low down, and not tying it off evenly. It’s just I had been able to get away with it when she was smaller. My husband still happily wears her in the mei tai for hours at a time.

I, on the other hand, decided to have a go at wrapping, and bought myself a Little Frog size 5 from this online retailer who came highly recommended. It is a daunting wrapping world out there, I’ll tell you, complete with much unknown terminology that can put people off. Wraps come in different blends, sizes, brands, colour ways and patterns. There is a thriving Facebook community of buyers and sellers of woven wraps, and they all use abbreviations that can be somewhat perplexing. It took me a while to learn how to ‘speak sling’. ‘DISO Erna 3’, for example, means that the poster is desperately in search of a Kokadi (that’s the brand) Erna im Wunderland (that’s the pattern) in a size 3 (about 3.2m). ‘DH with a CCCB’ means that the poster has wrapped a Double Hammock (a kind of carry) with a candy cane chestbelt (a sort of belt across your chest that is made by twisting the strands of your wrap). Wrapping also looks terribly tricky at first, and it does take practice. But I have found it to be totally worth it. Why? Because it’s the only type of sling that moulds perfectly to you and your baby’s size. It’s also the most versatile because you can do about a hundred different carries (that is, there are about a hundred different ways of wrapping the material around you), so if you find one of them pulls on certain bits of your body, you can just switch to another one. Now, I certainly cannot do a hundred different types of carries. I can do about four. But that’s all I need at the moment and I’m trying to perfect the ones I can do before I look at learning others.

I have had some amusing comments when wrapping my baby in public. My favourite (from a dear mum friend) was ‘you’re like an earth mother, Victoria!’ Another good one was ‘did you learn that from Africans?!?’ Um, no, from YouTube actually. And it’s true, you can totally teach yourself to wrap from watching YouTube videos. I have found the best to be by www.wrapyouinlove.com (though she makes it look so easy!), though if you join some of the Facebook groups such as this one you’ll pick up a lot of other good video tutorials.

Like so many babies, my daughter is currently going through a period of extreme separation anxiety and often wants to be with me all the time at the moment, to the extent that I often have to take her to the loo with me too because otherwise she gets really distressed! Since I figured it’s easier to change my life to fit her needs rather than her needs to fit my life (and since I know that periods of separation anxiety are totally normal), I realised it was time to learn how to back carry her so I could get on with doing the cooking and preparing the table for breakfast etc. She was now too big to be on my front as I couldn’t see past her when preparing things in front of me, so it was time to learn how to get her on my back. To help me, I watched a million videos, practised over a bed (but only for 5 minutes at a time as Phoebe got bored) and I also had a sling consultation with Emily Edwards from wearthemwithlove. Emily is an accredited babywearing consultant and volunteers at the Oxford Sling Library. I had a 2 hour consultation on ruck technique and felt much more confident about getting Phoebe on my back safely and effectively. We’re now progressing to other back carries that are multilayer and more supportive than a simple ruck. It is a learning curve, but I love learning new skills, and I am now confident enough to back wrap in public and Phoebe enjoys being up there when we’re out and about.

Finally, another comment I often get is ‘she’ll soon be too heavy for you to do that’. Actually, you can carry your child until he or she outgrows the need (i.e. till pre-school age), so long as you have an appropriately supportive carrier that you know how to use. And as I always tell people, I find it *much* easier and less tiring to carry Phoebe now, even though she weighs 9kg, than I did when I was pregnant with her. I have so much more energy, and her weight is distributed evenly. I honestly wouldn’t do it if it was uncomfortable or tiring! I have so enjoyed learning about this noble tradition that stretches back millennia, and I know that I have much more to learn in the coming months and years. If you’re in doubt – give it a try! Pop to a sling library and borrow a sling for a fiver. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. On the contrary, I think you’ll get the bug like me!

I’ll leave you with a video tutorial of the best woven wrap carry to start off with: a front wrap cross carry (FWCC). Enjoy!

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Reflections on motherhood #2: What I wish I’d known about breastfeeding

This post is the second in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Before I had my daughter, I was totally grossed out by the idea of breastfeeding. I was quite apprehensive about it, too, because I found the whole idea of sustaining a person from my actual physical body totally and utterly weird. I realise now, looking back, that, like most people in the West, I had grown up in a culture where breasts are for sex, at least primarily. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a reference to breasts, and what was the context? We live in a bizarre world where topless women on Page 3 are OK but women who breastfeed in public are openly shamed. If you feel even a little bit awkward reading this post, then you’ve succumbed to the prevailing culture too. We have lost touch with what breasts are primarily for: feeding infants.

In the days of yore, and still today in many more traditional societies around the world, people grew up seeing babies and young children being breastfed all the time. If it wasn’t several of your own siblings you saw being breastfed, it was your cousins, or your next door neighbours, sitting on the street corner, in the house, being carried out and about. Breastfeeding, or nursing, which better describes the act, was totally normalized. It was understood as an intrinsic part of mothering. When you started to have children of your own, you were surrounded by women who had done it before you, and who could share their experiences with you and help you overcome any difficulties. Of course it wasn’t utopia, and I am grateful that I have access to twenty first century medical and scientific knowledge. But what we have lost is the fact that nursing was a normal part of everyday life. Almost all mothers did it for years on end as they had child after child. The only exception was the wealthy, most of whom paid someone else to nurse their babies.

As a pregnant mum-to-be, I thought breastfeeding, as opposed to formula feeding, was another choice you made alongside other parenting choices like what kind of birth you want, where the baby should sleep, what kind of car seat you should get, that kind of thing. This was a choice about how you feed your baby. It was a no-brainer that I would breastfeed. I wish I could say it was because I wanted my baby to have the best start in life nutritionally, but it wasn’t. I was aware of the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding to both mum and baby, thanks to the NHS and other web pages on the topic, and obviously I did want the best for my baby when she arrived. But what motivated me was because I honestly thought breastfeeding sounded like much less faff than formula feeding, along with the fact that it is free. No bottle-washing and sterilizing and mixing and warming and cooling and heaven only knows what else, no worrying about how many ounces to give when and of which type of formula and so on. Plus I’d spied in my local Co-op that a tub of formula will set you back an impressive ten quid these days. No, I would breastfeed, so I could polish my halo of how I was providing the best for my baby even though secretly I was just doing it because it was easier.

I did a bit of homework, but not a lot. I had found out about the Kellymom website because it had been recommended in an online pregnancy forum, and done a bit of reading. I learnt that very little was known about breastfeeding before about 1990. I learnt that the first milk you produce is called colostrum, which is very concentrated and high in antibodies. Your milk then ‘comes in’ a few days later. I also learnt a bit about the mechanics of breastfeeding, how it works on a supply and demand basis. Essentially, the more often and effectively milk is removed from the breast, the more milk is made. I learnt that the first couple of weeks is crucial in establishing the supply needed to feed your baby. That was as far as my reading took me.

What surprised me was that the same online pregnancy forum mentioned above also taught me that many women struggle to achieve their breastfeeding goals, and this made it seem like breastfeeding was really hard. When my midwife asked me if I’d thought about how I would want to feed my baby, I voiced my concern. She looked at me sadly and said it could be tough at the beginning, but got a lot easier. It shocked me to discover that despite the recommendation by the Department of Health and the World Health Organization that a baby should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, only 1% of British mothers achieved this in 2010. But the number of women in the UK that initiated breastfeeding was 81%. What goes wrong?

There are many, many things I wish I’d known about breastfeeding before I had a baby. I wish I’d known that engorgement is really, really painful, but only lasts a few days. I wish I’d known that newborns frequently nurse for hours on end and that this is normal (my daughter’s personal best was 12 hours straight with only the odd break here and there for nappy changes). I wish I’d known that babies feed to sleep and that far from this being a ‘bad habit’ it is one of the most useful mothering tools at one’s disposal. I wish I’d known that the anthropologically normal age to wean from breastfeeding is between 2 and a half and seven years of age. I wish I’d known that the type of birth you have statistically affects the likelihood of successful breastfeeding. I wish I’d known that breast milk has amazing medicinal properties – baby got nappy rash? Put some breast milk on it. Baby got a blocked nose? Squirt some breast milk up it to clear it (no, really!)

But there are two things I really wish I’d known before having a baby about breastfeeding. The first is that it is about so much more than keeping your baby fed and hydrated. It’s not even about bonding, though that is also one of the main benefits of nursing. No, it’s that breastfeeding is a kind of mothering. An infant’s needs basically boil down to being kept warm, having their tummies full, and feeling safe. Breastfeeding satisfies all of these needs, all in one go. When my baby cries, the first thing I have always done is offer her the breast. 99% of the time she takes it. Most of the time I still don’t really know what the source of her discomfort is when she’s upset, but I know the cure. That is of great solace to me!

And it’s not all about her. When I nurse her, I calm down. My ten month old explorer baby doesn’t really ‘do’ down time. She doesn’t believe in napping for more than 25 minutes a day. Every day, numerous times, I really *really* need a break from her pulling herself up on anything, crawling frantically everywhere, pulling the books off the bookshelves, throwing her food around the room, and so on. And so we go upstairs, I get comfy on the bed, and we nurse, sometimes for half an hour or more. It is a wonderful thing.

This quote from the seventh edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (now in its eighth edition) beautifully sums up the joy of the nursing relationship which so often gets overlooked in the ‘choice’ mothers are given about how they feed their babies:

The natural power of breastfeeding is one of the greatest wonders of the world. It is about real love. It is about caring and celebrating the wondrous joy of nurturing a new life. It is about enjoying being a woman. In a world too often dominated by materialism and greed, every act of the natural power of breastfeeding reminds us that there is another way, the natural way, the breastfeeding way. Breastfeeding is about the power of peace, the power of goodness, and the power of responsibility. (Source)

It makes me so sad knowing that so many women fail to experience this joy of breastfeeding their baby for as long as they had wanted to. But perhaps many of them, like me, didn’t know that there is so much help available, especially here in Oxfordshire. This brings me on to the second thing I wish I’d known about breastfeeding: getting help antenatally is really smart. The truth is that many women fail to reach their breastfeeding goals because for whatever reason they did not have access to adequate skilled support. There are very few women who are unable to breastfeed. But there are many, many women who need skilled help when they come up against common breastfeeding problems, especially in the early weeks. By ‘help’ I mean much more help than just your midwife or Health Visitor observing another feed. Some midwives and HVs are really knowledgeable, others less so. Most of them have only had a few days’ training when it comes to breastfeeding, at best.

In Oxfordshire, we are blessed with (among other groups) a local La Leche League branch, breastfeeding clinics in the JR, and numerous Baby Cafes all around town. LLL is a group that exists to promote breastfeeding and enable women to do it. There are no ‘experts’ at LLL, the emphasis is very much on mother-to-mother sharing, and I’ve found the local branch to be tremendously supportive so far in my breastfeeding journey. The breastfeeding clinics and Baby Cafes are usually run by someone with the qualification IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant), which means they have undergone intensive training and are highly specialist practitioners when it comes to breastfeeding. All of this support is free. Both LLL and Baby Cafe Oxford have (closed) Facebook groups in which women can post questions. These online forums have been of tremendous help to me. In fact, it was rather by accident that I found out about Baby Cafes in the first place. A friend of mine had recently had a baby and I was looking through the parenting groups she was a member of on Facebook. I noticed one of them, Baby Cafe, and was intrigued, as I had never heard of it before (at this stage I didn’t know it was a breastfeeding support group). I clicked on what I thought was the group but accidentally clicked ‘join’, and, when an admin had approved it, I found myself in the group by mistake. I am so glad of this mistake! Just reading other people’s posts and comments taught me pretty much everything I needed to know about breastfeeding. Though it has to be said, face to face breastfeeding support is even better! We are blessed to have such incredible professional and free support available: in former times, it was not so. I have recently become involved with ministry to the elderly through my church and a few months ago I was at a bible study group made up of six ladies in their 80s and 90s. We got chatting about motherhood and one asked whether I was feeding her myself. I said yes and she said ‘you’re so lucky. I never managed to feed any of my five children.’ It transpired that not one of them had managed to breastfeed any of their children past the first couple of weeks. They told me how official advice was very different then (I guess it was the height of formula feeding), and there was no breastfeeding support like we have today. But what I took away from it was that, despite official advice, ALL of them wanted to feed their babies, ALL of them felt like it was the natural and right thing to do, and ALL of them still felt strongly about it 60-70 years later! They were all so encouraged to hear about things like breastfeeding clinics, Baby Cafés, LLL, and children’s centres and I suddenly realised how very blessed we are having all this wonderful support. A lot of older people seem to bemoan how things are changing for the worse in ‘modern society’ but here were six old ladies all agreeing that things are so much better now with regards to infant feeding.

I was lucky – after my wonderful birth experience, I was given good advice by the midwives that attended me and, despite a few hiccoughs in the first three weeks, I made it through the tough patch. Next time, I know where to find the support, and I’ll be accessing it well before I ‘need’ it. I’ll leave you with a lovely story about a friend’s experience of Baby Cafe. She has allowed me to share it here.

It was about this time last year, on a Friday, that my OH and I walked down to the Florence Park baby cafe. I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my first baby and I fully intended to breastfeed. But I had not actually seen anyone breastfeed in the flesh for over 30 years. All of my friends had failed in their breastfeeding attempts, which made it seem like an elusive and difficult skill. I had no idea how to acquire this skill, as I had no mum friends or sisters to ask. I’d bought a book and read a few articles on the net, but I was still very confused about the whole thing, partly because I’d read very contradictory information. I was having a planned caesarean, which I had been told would make breastfeeding more difficult. I felt that I needed face-to-face information, and I thought that I should do my fact-finding BEFORE the birth and not whilst I was tired, emotional, recovering from surgery and on strong pain killers. When we turned up, my OH was the only man there that day, all the other women already had babies and were busy feeding. I had never seen so many babies in one room together in my life. It was terribly daunting. But Lisa [the Baby Cafe facilitator] was there and once she’d helped the other mums, she talked to us. In the next 30 minutes I learned more or less everything I needed to know to breastfeed successfully. I cannot overstate the difference which this one ante-natal face-to-face encounter made to me. It is, without a doubt, the reason why I am still feeding my baby girl, almost a year later, and the reason why she has never had any formula. Lisa clarified things I was confused about (is it normal for it to hurt, or are you doing it wrong if it hurts?), and she dismissed misinformation, for example by being utterly adamant that a caesarean is no obstacle to BFing. Being given the pretend-baby doll to pretend-feed it was really helpful. Previously, I had had no real sense of how heavy a newborn was, and it hadn’t occurred to me that their little hands and arms might get in the way. Lisa showed me how to position the baby, and handle the arms. She showed me a number of ways to hold the baby, including caesarean-friendly ones. The practical advice she gave me is very simple really, but I repeated it to myself like a mantra in hospital every time I tried to get the baby to latch. Tummy to tummy, nose to nipple, head tilted back, and baby’s back and head in a straight line (rather than the head twisted to the side, which is how I’d somehow imagined it). She explained about supply and demand, and although I’d read about it before, she boiled it down to one simple notion: Trust the baby. Baby knows. Follow the baby’s cues, and it’ll all be fine. She mentioned babies crawling to find the nipple, which I’d never heard of, so I was able to read up on it later. Instead of seeing babies as helpless little lumps, I came away from that visit with a real sense of admiration for how clever and well adapted babies are. She also explained the actual procedure in hospital, and how to get help if you needed it (I had no idea there was an infant feeding specialist in the hospital, or that you could ask for them!) When I left the Baby Cafe that day, I knew everything I needed to. I had the practical knowledge for how to feed my baby. I knew how to access support. I was given almost total certainty that my body would be able to do what it needed to do, and that my baby would know what to do, too. I knew how to identify bad advice so I could dismiss it. She also told me how to identify and deal with the most common problems people have, and told OH how he could be supportive. Lisa’s number was saved in my phone when I went into hospital, but I never had to call her in the end. When I was in theatre, holding my baby girl, she bobbed her head up and down. Despite having no clue about babies I actually knew what this meant, as Lisa had shown me how babies ‘peck’ like a chicken to try and find the nipple. I noticed the baby doing it before the midwife did, so I was able to ask for her help. My daughter latched on in theatre, only a few minutes after being born, whilst I was still being stitched up, and she has successfully fed ever since. We have had no engorgement, mastitis, or thrush. Whatever problems we encountered (bleeding nipple, blisters on nipple) we knew how to overcome them, too. I truly believe that it was the information and support that I received on that day that empowered us to feed successfully from day one. And ‘trust the baby’ has become the corner stone of my parenting in all matters.

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Reflections on motherhood #1: a transcendental birth experience

A very fat and pregnant me in March

A very fat and pregnant me in March

In my previous blog post I briefly listed ten things that I wish I had known before having a baby, and said I would expand on them one by one. This is the first in that series.

I was so terrified about what the reality of having a baby would be like that I rarely allowed myself to even think about labour and birth for the first two thirds of my pregnancy. I would happily read all about the growing baby inside me, about what was normal for pregnancy and what was not, and so on, but I could never bring myself to even click on the ‘labour and birth’ tab on the NHS choices website. Partly, it’s because there was a bit of a taboo around it when I was growing up. It’s something of a joke in our family now, but every so often conversation would swing round to childbirth at some stage during family meals, and my father (who’s somewhat squeamish) would retort with ‘not at the table!’ This usually meant whichever story that was being recounted got curtailed, so giving birth seemed to be shrouded in mystery to me.

At the apparently tender age of 27, I was the first among my cohort of friends to have a baby. I have no sister or cousins who have gone before me, and the last person I am close to who’s had a baby recently was my step-aunt back in 2005. You get the picture: I had no clue. My knowledge of labour was limited to having read Call the midwife a few years ago, what others tell me of One born every minute (never could bring myself to watch it) and my mother’s half-finished tales of panic (brother born prematurely with a (thankfully minor) heart condition that involved father arriving at the hospital in a helicopter; self (breech) born by emergency caesarian in the middle of the night after 2 hour labour following ten weeks of bed rest for my poor mother because of a strange condition that had almost resulted in me being born at 26 weeks).

When my midwife asked me at one of my appointments whether I had thought about where I might want to have my baby, my immediate thought was hospital (and I told her so), because in my limited experience everything always seemed to go wrong and you definitely wanted to be in the safest place possible with the most highly trained specialists on hand. Paul (my husband) was on side because he wanted whatever I wanted. I had decided I would just let labour happen, not think about it until the moment arrived, and then work out what to do (head in the sand approach, so beloved of my family).

As it happens, two friends of mine (who don’t know each other) were a couple of months ahead of me in their pregnancies. (Curiously, they share the same name, are of similar ages and both had beautiful baby girls within two days of each other.) I got chatting to one of them soon after the birth of her daughter as she had very kindly offered to give me and Paul a crash course in how to change a nappy, hold a newborn, bath a baby, that kind of thing. She told me that she had given birth in a stand alone midwife led unit (MLU) in South Oxfordshire with no pain relief. My jaw nearly dropped to the floor. No pain relief? HOW did she manage that? She must be superwoman! ‘Well, it didn’t really hurt.’ Come again?

Said friend had been on a Hypnobirthing course (say what? I hear you say), something I had heard of but dismissed out of hand as total poppycock and a nasty attempt to swindle money out of scared, vulnerable pregnant women. Obviously I had not remotely looked into it when I made that judgment. Said friend very kindly leant me the book she had on it and I have to say, it proved to be a very interesting read. I can’t say I bought into the whole philosophy of it, but I learnt an important skill: reading up on and trying things that work for you, and leaving the rest. I did learn that Hypnobirthing is not nearly as scary or new-age as its name sounds. And a lot of what I read made sense – about how mammals in the wild and indeed many women in non-Western contexts just get on and give birth with little bother, about how labour pain is only felt when one is tense, about how relaxation can help you to take control of your birth. I learnt a couple of the breathing exercises and practised them often at night while I lay awake with restless legs (a frustrating side effect of pregnancy). I began to actually look forward to labour, as a challenge, as something exciting, as something transcendental.

But mostly what struck me about the book was the opening chapter: the history of childbirth in the West. I realised on reading it that childbirth had become ‘medicalized’ during the twentieth century, that the majority of women for many decades had been out cold and not witnessed the birth, their babies whisked away from them immediately after, that most women gave birth lying on their back going against gravity, and importantly that women labour better when they are able to be mobile in a calm environment where they are allowed to take as much time as they like and when there is as little medical intervention as possible. It really resonated with me that giving birth isn’t an illness, so why does it need to happen in a medical environment? I could also see how one thing could easily lead to another: mum is not in a calm environment and feels out of control, so mum feels stressed, consequently mum feels more pain, mum feels rushed and cannot cope with pain, mum opts for epidural which is available 24 hours a day, mum cannot feel to push so needs an assisted delivery, which results in an episiotomy (if you don’t know what that is and are of a strong disposition, have a Google) … of course this wouldn’t be true for everyone, and there is definitely a place for an epidural in some circumstances, but I decided to invest everything I had in avoiding one if at all possible.

Armed with this new knowledge, I promptly decided the best place for me to give birth was at a midwife led unit in the same building as the delivery suite at the John Radcliffe. That way I’d have all the benefits of an MLU (calm environment, midwife led, option of using a birthing pool etc) but I could easily be transferred if something ‘went wrong’ (I still had my mother’s experience in the back of my mind). The Oxford Spires (as it is called) don’t allow tours, so my midwife booked my 36 week appointment there so we could have a nosy round. The same week, I attended a (free) NHS antenatal class organised by the community midwives. We got talking to other couples about where they wanted to have their babies and one couple told me they had been to look round the MLU at Chipping Norton and they were definitely going there. There was something about the way they said it that made me know I had to check out Chippy before ruling it out. The lady said that having looked round, she would never opt to have a baby anywhere else. This had to be seen. We phoned up and booked a tour for the following Saturday (unlike Spires, the Cotswold Maternity Unit do weekly tours). In the mean time I read every document I could lay my hands on about the hospital transfer rates, breastfeeding statistics and reviews of the various different places I could have our baby. Despite many of my medic friends thinking I was crazy, I became convinced that for me (with my low-risk pregnancy), going to an MLU was just as safe as going to hospital. Not only that, I realised that should something ‘go wrong’ and I needed specialist medical help, it would take me as long to be put in an ambulance and get to the nearest hospital as it probably would for a consultant to get around to seeing me in hospital anyway, as normal hospital births are all midwife led. Midwives, not consultants, are the specialists when it comes to normal births.

On arriving for our tour at the MLU in Chippy I knew why that lady had seemed so serene in her decision – it is in a community hospital and the rest of the complex is shut at the weekend. Talk about calm with a capital C. It took us 25 minutes to drive there. There is no risk of bad traffic (unlike down the A40 to the JR!) There is free parking. They gave us tea. They have two birthing rooms, and only once have they both been used at the same time. Both rooms have a pool, and are ensuite. You have access to a simple kitchen (microwave and kettle) throughout your stay there. Your partner can stay in with you. There is unlimited breastfeeding support afterwards. They seemed to share the philosophy of as natural a birth as possible. We’d made our minds up before we had even seen the whole premises.

The Oxford Spires did a great job at our 36 week appointment. But it wasn’t quite the oasis of calm I’d been hoping for. We asked the midwives about how busy they were and sometimes they did have to turn people away. They have three rooms and only one of them has a pool (and I had decided that I really wanted to use one by this point). There were people coming and going and the midwives seemed a bit stretched. They didn’t appear to have an altogether brilliant relationship with the delivery suite people downstairs. As we fought our way out of the car park I was practically already on the phone to my midwife to tell her I’d changed my mind. Chippy it was to be.

When the great day arrived and we thought I was in the early stages of labour, I was mainly concerned that the midwives would think I was making it up and I’d be wasting their time. I was reassured twice on the phone by Becky, the community midwife on duty, that I wasn’t a time waster. We decided the moment had come to make the beautiful drive through West Oxfordshire to the MLU. It was a warm, spring day. When we arrived, I was examined by one of the midwives there called Claire. She was full of good cheer and told us all about how she had had six children and breastfed the last one till he was at school. It was a Saturday so there was only her and one other staff member on site. I mumbled something about being worried that I was wasting her time. She told me in no uncertain terms that I would be having our baby that night. ‘I can’t be sure whether it’ll be this side or the other side of midnight, but it’ll be tonight.’ This encouraged me. Claire said I was still in the early stages of labour. I assumed therefore that I would have to go back home and come back in later. She explained that this was up to us. There was no policy at Chippy to send women away. I could stay, go home, or go for a walk, but in her view I needed to stay active to get things moving. She made me understand that she wouldn’t ever offer me pain relief, it would be up to me to ask for it, as every woman knows their own body and deals differently with pain.

Fear not, I’m not going to go through my ‘birth story’ blow by blow. That’s not the point of this piece. But I do want to reflect on that day. I’m not sure I could put my finger on exactly what it was about the experience that was so positive. Perhaps it was the fact I was totally in control of it all, deciding where and how I wanted to labour at all stages. The midwives took it in turns to care for me, and they were happy to stay in the room or go, depending on how I felt. I never felt abandoned. I always felt safe. Perhaps it was the realization that my husband and I had never been through anything so powerful together before, and it bound us together even more tightly. Perhaps it was the quiet sense of calm that pervaded the building (the box set of Marie-Claire Alain playing J.S. Bach’s organ works that we’d brought with us lay unopened). Perhaps it was the fact that we were doing something so ordinary, and yet so remarkable, something that united us with all people everywhere throughout history and into the future. The name of those helping me -midwife – caused me to reflect on this. The name of their profession is from an old Anglo-Saxon word, meaning ‘with-woman’, akin to modern German words like ‘Mitmenschen’ (‘with-people’, or fellow humans). We were doing something as old as time itself. Perhaps it was the feel of the warm water surrounding all the pain. Because it was painful, in the end. I did pretty well for the first four hours or so with my breathing exercises as per the Hypnobirthing book. But as it all got more intense, and as I tried to remember to relax, all I could do was tense up in agony every time I felt a contraction. It was the only way I could deal with it – it was more effort to try to relax. And I learnt that the best pain relief does not come in the form of drugs: no, the best pain relief was the team work of the midwives and my husband in helping me to get through it, along with good old fashioned back rubs and warm water to sit in. By far the worst bit of it all was having the regular examinations to check how things were progressing – right as I was in my stride, I would be interrupted, and I found that more painful than ever (HOW do so many women labour on their backs? I was in agony for the three minutes I was on my back for the examinations). There was a dark time when I thought I wasn’t making any progress, and I remember whispering to Paul that I didn’t think I could take much more. The baby had been ‘back to back’ (notoriously more painful!) and we had had to spend a while turning her, meaning all sorts of weird and wacky (and painful!) positions. And yet isn’t it always the hardest things in life that are the most rewarding? Because I found labour and birth to be one of those moments that C.S. Lewis describes as ‘signposts’, pointing to another place. In those moments, time seems to stand still and you get lost in it all. Before I commited my life to Christ, I used to live for those transcendental, ‘zonal’ moments, and didn’t pay much attention to where they were pointing. But here, in all the mess and pain, the theological parallels were not lost on me. Through toil and sweat and blood and pain comes new life, hope, a new beginning, a miracle.

When little Phoebe emerged into this world at 11.15pm that night (Claire had been bang on with her prediction), covered in more bodily fluids than I care to remember, life changed forever. My memory of it is such a blur: the release from the pain as soon as she was born, the look of jubilation on Paul’s face, Becky (the community midwife) stifling back tears when I told her I couldn’t have done it without her, embracing my daughter for the first time, who I’d known for so many months from her kicks and wriggles and yet not known, feeding her for the first time while I lay down resting …

Without us noticing, Becky and Claire had left us to it for a couple of hours to get to know our daughter together, alone. They had gone well beyond the call of duty. Becky had been at work since 9am, and she didn’t leave till 2am. Because we had wanted to stay in over night and no other member of staff was available, Claire said she would stay on. Neither of us could sleep. For the first and last time since she was born, Phoebe slept six hours straight. We stayed awake staring at her. We did it. She’s here. A new beginning. A miracle.

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Ten things I wish I’d known before having a baby

In the run up to my daughter’s first birthday, I thought I’d get blogging again. In a departure from previous topics, the next few posts I intend to write will sum up my reflections on motherhood so far. I thought I’d kick off with several things I wish I’d known when I was pregnant, in the hope that some of these might be useful to anyone who is yet to have their baby. It will also give my friends who aren’t parents an insight into my life over the last year.

I found pregnancy really tough mentally. Physically, I had a pretty textbook pregnancy, but I found sharing my body with another person incredibly odd, and I was extremely apprehensive about what we had let ourselves in for. As a result, I couldn’t even bring myself to think about my newborn baby, because it made me feel even worse. This made me feel guilty: it was a rotten time. Looking back, I put most of it down to the enormous hormonal upheaval that you go through during pregnancy, and I have been in a much happier place since my daughter’s arrival. It meant, though, that I was terrified about reading up on or talking about babies with anyone until suddenly she was here. Then I realised I knew nothing. I think I’d have found it helpful if I’d read something like this blog article, had it been written by someone I knew I could trust. I hope, then, that this will be of use, either because you are expecting a baby yourself, or because you want to know a bit about what having one is like!

Because I am somewhat verbose (and because becoming a mother really is a time of inordinate change and there’s lots to dwell on), the following reflections are only brief. One by one, I hope to ‘flesh them out’ in subsequent blog posts. Some of them might take you out of your comfort zone. If so, just don’t read them! Some you might disagree with. If so, do comment, or alternatively ignore them! The wonderful thing about mothering/parenting is that every family is different, and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. This list is by no means intended as the ‘right’ way to mother. They are simply things I wish I’d known before my dear daughter made her entry into this wonderful world we call home. So – here goes!

I wish I’d known…

  1. That giving birth can be an incredibly positive and (dare I say it) even enjoyable experience, and that my body would do all of the things the midwives said it would do in growing, giving birth to and nourishing a baby. Human biology is amazing!
  1. That breastfeeding is about much more than just food: it is a way of mothering, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be to mother without this tool. To that end, I wish I’d known that there is a huge amount of (professional and free) breastfeeding support to help women at all stages on their breastfeeding journeys, especially here in Oxfordshire. I wish I’d accessed it antenatally so I’d known what to expect.
  1. That a good sling/baby carrier would be so amazingly useful in almost all situations. I started off by borrowing a high street narrow-based one which a friend of a friend leant me, but I found it hurt my back after a few weeks’ use, and it didn’t look very comfy for my baby. Finding an ergonomical sling that fit both me and my husband was truly a godsend. Carrying a baby doesn’t have to hurt your back – you just need a good sling that suits you, and you can carry your little one until they’re pre-school age. Plus there are many many benefits for the baby, and mine loves being in it! ‘Babywearing’ has become somewhat of a hobby since, and we’ve retired the pram/buggy because it’s so much more faff.
  1. That sleep deprivation can make you want to kill someone. I wish I was joking. It is truly horrific, and there’s a reason why it is used as a form of torture in many places around the world.
  1. That sharing a bed with our baby (which I only began to do at 8 months) would not only save my sanity but also be something that my husband and I enjoy, and that pretty much all of the scare-mongering about the dangers of it do not apply to exclusively breastfeeding non-smokers who aren’t drunk and whose babies are put down to sleep on their backs (and I’ve read the research to prove it). We also all sleep better, too, because I can stay horizontal to feed her so there’s less disruption to everyone’s sleep.
  1. That you totally don’t have to give babies purees when they start weaning. Once they’re ready to eat they can just eat what you’re eating. Simple as. Why did no one ever tell me this? The trendy term for this is baby-led weaning, but it’s not a new concept. It is, however, loads of fun (and sometimes deeply deeply frustrating).
  1. That Dads are essential (babies’ dads, rather than my dad. Though my dad is wonderful, obviously). I could not have done one day of this mothering business without the unwavering support of my wonderful husband. I have so much respect for those who have to mother alone, whatever their circumstances. It’s hard enough with a partner in crime.
  1. That going to mum and baby groups is essential for your sanity, not least because it gets you out of the house. I was so sceptical of these groups when I was pregnant. I mean, what are they for? What do you do there? Happily, I have made some great friends locally and the cup of tea and biscuit made FOR us by the organisers each session is monumentally important to my week!
  1. That babies come programmed to survive, and that the easiest thing to do is to trust your baby. The range of ‘normal’ for babies is huge. Every one of them is different. But that it can also be very hard to trust your baby and not try to wade in and ‘teach’ them something (like sleeping through the night/eating solid foods/going longer between feeds etc etc) before they are ready, especially because it seems (from Facebook) like everyone else’s babies are already doing all of those things brilliantly. ‘Nudging’ them gently in the general direction of what you would like sometimes works for certain babies at certain stages, before they quickly forget it again as soon as the next tooth/developmental leap/cold is on the horizon. It’s really just easiest to not sweat the small stuff and go with the flow.
  1. That it’s the biological norm for babies to wake frequently in the night throughout the first year and beyond, that it’s the biological norm for babies to want to nurse all the time when they are newborns, that it is the biological norm for babies to want to be held constantly at times, especially in the early weeks, that it is the biological norm for babies to sleep next to their mothers on the same sleep surface, that it is the biological norm for babies to start eating solids when they’re ready and can reach out and grab food. So much of what we think (or at least so much of what I thought) about how babies should behave is based on our own cultural norms (such as solitary sleep, eating pureed foods, sleeping through the night, and so on). And yet I was finding myself frustrated with my daughter when she was behaving ‘biologically normally’. Altering my expectations has helped me deal with the hard times much more easily.

So, those are the things I wish I’d known, and now I hope I (eventually) get round to expanding on each one!

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