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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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!