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.

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.

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!