Monday, March 30, 2009
After watching Cave Baby sitting up, I found myself wondering if her development is affected by anything we as parents do. If she had not spent many happy hours sitting in her Bumbo, would she have taken longer to sit unsupported? If she had been carried less and left to play on the floor, would she have sat up more quickly? If a baby was always carried in a sling would it learn to sit up at the same time as it would have done if it spent more time supporting its own body? The acquisition of new skills is due to a combination of muscle development and brain development but my question really is: is this development innate (so the muscles and brain would develop in the same way regardless of the experiences of the child) or is it learnt (so development would be dependent on practice)? Or, as is more likely, is it a combination of the two? The answer to this question has implications for standard advice given to mothers, such as to let baby have plenty of kicking time on its back, and later to have tummy time to allow baby develop its muscles for crawling. I have always had an inkling that these pieces of advice are based on nothing more than popular wisdom but I am willing to be proven otherwise.
On the one hand, many animals' young are born with the ability to walk. The muscular and brain development necessary for this clearly takes place in the womb and was hard coded into the animal's DNA. So it may be the case that humans are also hard-coded to walk and that in time, every child will walk irrespective of the input of its parents. Or, on the other hand, are we different? Since our ability to learn is so much more advanced than that of cows, deer and sheep, have we abandoned this hard-coding in favour of gaining skills through learning? In an effort to investigate these questions I carried out a brief bit of research on the development of infants of our closest genetic relatives - chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Assuming that their childcare methods are primarily based on instinct, rather than societal norms as human methods currently are, how do their young "learn" to sit up and walk?
Though I probably could not answer my original nature/nurture question without running highly unethical trials with pairs of identical twins, I did find some fascinating things out about our ape cousins. To begin with gestation - we all share very similar periods of gestation (gorilla - 8.5 months; orangutan - 8.5 months; chimpanzee - 7.5 months). It has been suggested that human babies are born at a relatively immature stage compared to other large mammals due to the difficulty of birthing our large heads through our twisted birthing canals; however great ape babies are also born fairly helpless. Newborn orangutans cannot even raise their own heads and certainly neither chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans can sit or stand up. However all have a strong grasping reflex (like human babies) and have the innate ability to hang on to their mothers' bodies, though all require additional support from the mother at first. Chimpanzees are then carried almost continuously for 5 months, gorillas for 6 months and orangutans for longer. The carrying period lasts until walking begins (at least for gorillas and chimpanzees - orangutans move primarily using their arms and hands). Chimpanzees walk at around 6 months and gorillas at around 8 months. During this carrying period, great ape babies develop much more quickly than human babies. The actual development depends to some extent on the characteristics of the species, but for example the infant orangutan learns to sit up at around 2 weeks, and the infant gorilla crawls at 9 weeks.
It is no surprise that all apes sleep with their infants for security and convenience. For orangutans, nest sharing goes on for at least 3 years - around the same time period that infants nurse for. Chimpanzees remain in contact with their mothers both night and day and nurse until around 4 years. Gorillas also nest share for the nursing period which lasts around 3 years. A silverback, the dominant male in a group, has even been documented sharing his nest with an orphaned infant. Although nursing lasts a long time, consumption of solid food does begin early for all these animals. Orangutans eat soft fruits at around 3 months (which their mothers apparently chew for them first) and gorillas begin to eat vegetation at 2.5 months.
I hope that any readers of this are already beginning to draw their own conclusions about what natural, instinctive human childcare would really be like if we were not so strongly influenced by so much ill-founded advice. Click here for the second part of this post.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
A day of firsts - first time Cave Baby has sat up unaided and managed to entertain herself for an extended period (about half an hour) and her first back carry in our new Beco Baby carrier. Prompted by this discussion on mothering.com we saddled up Cave Father and took a trip to the shops with baby clinging to his back like a little monkey. His verdict? Very comfortable, much more comfortable than carrying a 7.5 kg rucksack, once an issue with the front chest strap hitting his collarbone had been sorted. Cave Baby's verdict? Well she fell asleep in it after half an hour and woke up on the doorstep, so I think that is a baby's equivalent of a thumbs up. And nobody looked at us strangely even in the Post Office queue! So a resounding success. nb The picture is not me (I wish it was).
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Although I now use a ring sling and a mei-tai type carrier, I have carried Cave Baby for most of her life in a bog standard Mothercare front loading baby carrier and I have had absolutely no problems with it. It has rather a lot of buckles (seven to do up for each carry!) but the shoulder straps cross at the back, spreading the weight nicely across your back, whilst the waist belt takes the rest of the load. Cave Baby has never complained about being carried in it and has gone to sleep easily - in fact in her early colicky days it was virtually the only way to calm her. The Mothercare carrier can, in theory, be used as a back carrier as well, but it is not as good in this configuration and hence we decided to invest in a soft structured carrier that will last until baby is well into her toddling years.
Anybody who genuinely loves babywearing and wants to encourage others to do it must surely accept that most people will not venture beyond their high street to find baby carriers, and it is surely better for a baby to be carried in a Baby Bjorn than to be deposited in a pram. So please, if you see a passer-by with their baby in a mainstream high street carrier then give them a big smile, show off your own babywearing equipment but above all make them feel confident about the parenting choice they have made.
Picture courtesy of Mothercare website.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Every pregnant woman has to choose whether to have her foetus screened for Down's Syndrome. For me, the worry that would have been caused by a high-probability-of-Down's result outweighed the benefits of the test. My personal decision was that I would not abort a foetus which had a high probability of being affected by Down's and I would not even take the increased miscarriage risk caused by amniocentesis. Even if I had refuse an amnio I am certain that my risk of miscarriage would have been increased by the worry caused by a "high probability" result. I do not underestimate the difficulty of raising a child with Down's but I take responsibility for my own decisions and I, personally, would rather have a Down's baby than risk aborting a healthy foetus. So I did not take the screening blood test. Though it concerns a different disorder, Dawn Lewis's case highlights the importance of questioning what you are told by doctors and making your own decisions about what action to take following screening. And if you would be prepared to love and care for a baby no matter what abnormalities it was born with then you really should ask yourself the question of whether it is better to refuse the screening in the first place.
Monday, March 23, 2009
But anyway, Mothering Sunday got me thinking about the past. This time last year Cave Baby was just making herself felt with tiny bubble kicks that I didn't even know at the time were kicks, though I was fully aware of her presence. Last year, Mother's Day made me nervous - I was carrying a four month old foetus but I was terrified of the tragedies that may befall it between then and its birth. The year before that we had not even thought of making a baby and parenthood was just one of those fuzzy ideas that may or may not have happened in the future. As the saying goes, what a difference a year makes.
Friday, March 20, 2009
2. A tiny hand rhythmically squeezing my thumb as if she was pumping milk out.
3. The arm of a sleepy baby rising into the air as the milk begins to flow when she starts suckling.
4. A gummy smile as baby looks up at my face - then quickly dives back into my breast as if she is worried that it might disappear if she unlatches for a moment.
5. The "Mmmmm mmmmm mmmmm" noises made by the suckling baby in a noisy mood.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
After a brief routine of sleepsuit, sleeping bag and songs or story, Cave Baby is inserted into the sling and breastfed to sleep. The sling shields her from stuff going on around her, so I can watch TV without distracting her. It is so comfy for her, like a cocoon, that she drops off to sleep really easily despite the fact that she never normally sleeps when fed in the living room. If necessary I can stand up and walk around with her, still feeding, to give her that extra tip over the edge into oblivion. I have even done this with in-laws around because it hides your breast so well, they never even know it is out! Fantastic. Finally, I can ease the baby down into her car-seat (her sleeping location of choice - a cot is just too flat) and remove myself from the sling without disturbing her. It's not a miracle worker - she still has nights when she wakes every 30 minutes - but she will usually settle simply by being lifted up, still in the sling, and jiggled about a bit.
It has been a fabulous buy because I use it around the house in hip-seat position as well. Cave Baby loves seeing what I am up to and I can get on with jobs with both hands without the baby positioned cumbersomely in front of me as she would be in a front-carrying sling.
Like co-sleeping, I would never have anticipated before Cave Baby's birth that I would be walking about the house with baby slung around my neck. But it feels so natural and right and my baby adores it.
Monday, March 16, 2009
At first, I needed to spend about as much time in bed as baby did. That worked great - I went to bed at around 9pm and got up 12 or 13 hours later. Going to bed at the same time as baby was fine to begin with but as our sleep improved, we began to long for some mummy and daddy time in the evening. So how do you get a baby to go to bed before its mum (without pushing it round the block in a pram or walking it in a sling, both of which are impractical in sub-zero winter of 2009 temperatures)?
We started a mini bedtime routine - sleepsuit, a song or a book (if baby's disposition allowed) and then a feed. In every book or website I could find, it would then simply be a matter of nursing baby to sleep in bed and creeping away. Oh dear. Cave Baby's not falling for that! Over a period of weeks, here is what we tried to get her to go to sleep and stay asleep: nursing to sleep and laying her down in a bedside cot (yeah, right); nursing to sleep and laying her in her car-seat (no chance mate); nursing to sleep in bed then creeping away (5 minutes sleep if you are lucky); nursing to sleep in bed then sticking a dummy in her mouth (pointless); rocking/bouncing to sleep then laying down (20 minutes peace if she didn't wake up on the put-down, but a sore aching back too). Needless to say, we did not consider controlled crying to be an option.
Cave Baby has seriously tested our ingenuity and patience on this one, and for anyone recognising their own little darling in this post, and perhaps still stuck in the horrible trying anything (and nothing working) phase, we have emerged victorious (most nights). But Cave Baby is rioting now, so... solution tomorrow.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
1. I'm going to assume that you are breastfeeding. So you want to nurse the baby to sleep, and if it is like the Cave Baby, avoid moving it once it is asleep. So you are going to have to try to breastfeed lying down. This takes practice and I believe some people find it easier than others (something to do with breast size?). The two main problems are (a) where to position baby and (b) how to latch baby on properly. My answer to (a) is as follows. Lie on your side with the breast that you want to feed from closest to the bed. Stretch out the arm closest to the bed at right angles from your body. Lie baby on its side with head about 1cm below your arm. Hopefully baby's mouth is just about level with your nipple without you having to hold your breast (if not, adjust as required). For (b), I have never figured out a way of latching on that works as well as my daytime sitting-up latching on technique. You just can't see the baby's mouth well enough. I wait for baby to open its mouth (tickling lips with nipple as necessary) then just shove the breast in. In the early days I endured some shoddy latches, but my nipples got through it without any cracking or serious pain. Nowadays baby is good at latching on and my nipples are completely pain free.
2. The big question for me - does baby go under or over the duvet? Cave Baby is over the duvet in a sleeping bag. I know she is warm, it is easy to move her, and there is no danger of her getting caught up in our duvet. However lots of people have their baby under the duvet, and if you prefer that then go ahead. If baby is under the duvet they need minimal clothing - go roughly on what you are wearing. Whether baby is under or over the covers, you must consider the risk of suffocation and take appropriate measures. I think most people just sleep with the covers pushed down (I wear a man's shirt, unbuttoned, to keep my arms and shoulders warm but leave breast access open).
3. Where in the bed do you and baby lie? I stick to my own side of our bed, and the Cave Baby lies very close to me, so daddy has just about enough room on his side. I have no worries about lying the baby between myself and Cave Father - he has never even come close to rolling on her and I am sure that you and your partner's instincts kick in when you have a baby in the bed, preventing either of you from harming the precious bundle.
4. What about swapping sides to feed? In the early days I swapped the side baby was lying on about 4 or 5 times a night. Six months on, it is down to 2 times a night plus a swap in the morning for breakfast. She used to wake up a lot, perhaps every hour, but I would try and swap sides only once every 2 hours so that my breasts would empty properly. To swap sides I simply hold baby and roll her over the top of my body. This has to be done more carefully with a young baby but gets much easier once the baby has good head control. I believe that some people prefer to move their own bodies to the other side of their baby, so do whatever you prefer.
5. What kind of bed? You are not supposed to co-sleep in a water bed (not sure why) but a normal, firm mattress is fine. Personally I have found that a really firm mattress helps. With a softer mattress, the baby tends to roll towards the mother and risks falling on its front. It also makes positioning more difficult for breastfeeding. A firm mattress also means that baby is less disturbed when adults move around in the bed. My nights have become much more settled since we invested in a firm, kingsize mattress. The final consideration is how to stop baby falling out. You could push an open-sided cot against the side of the bed (providing a further optional location for baby to sleep). Or you could push the bed up against the wall. Or you can purchase a bedrail. I am shortly going to do the latter, and will report on my findings.
6. Other considerations? As you will hopefully have read in the World Health Organisation leaflet, do not smoke, drink or take drugs if you co-sleep. Do not co-sleep if you are obese or are over-tired or ill. Any condition that is likely to make you sleep more deeply than usual and risk rolling on baby makes co-sleeping a no-no. To be honest, I drink a little but no more than a unit or so of an evening.
I hope these guidelines help someone somewhere to get a better night's sleep with a challenging baby. Sweet dreams!
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
A baby naturally wants to be carried a lot. This makes a lot of sense - being so helpless on its own, it is the safest place to be. It also gets to stay snuggly and warm and, if carried by its mother, close to a source of food. There is an odd pressure in society to put babies down as much as possible to help them learn independence. However, without going deeply into the subject here, it has been shown time and time again that babies whose needs are met do grow up into independent adults - it is the babies made to feel insecure who grow up with problems.
I would not be without my Mothercare front carrier (yep, Mothercare) or my ring sling now and anyone whose baby is a bit colicky or just hates being put down would be well advised to try strapping one of these on and seeing the effect on baby. It's just another way that behaving as nature intended makes life so much easier.
Monday, March 9, 2009
"A baby who is allowed to suckle in the bed takes consistently the same amount of milk every night for twelve months."
This is backed up by research at a proper peer-reviewed conference. The view extolled by many health visitors, that night feeders over 6 months are just "looking for comfort" (as if there was anything wrong with that!), is clearly on shaky ground - a baby may be physically able to go through the night without feeding, but it is obviously not natural for it to do so. So if your baby continues to wake you for night feeds when it "should" be sleeping through, please don't worry. It is just doing what it is genetically programmed to do.
PS I wonder if I'll be so fed up of night feeds in a year that I'll be posting about how to night wean!
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Friday, March 6, 2009
Apparently, in the UK, 76% of mothers start breastfeeding their newborn infants. By six weeks this has dropped to less than 50%, and by six months it is as low as 25% (NHS press release). This suggests that women are aware before the birth that breastfeeding is important, but they give it up in the early weeks of their babies' lives. So why is this? As well as logistical issues like going back to work, there are the well known and well publicised problems such as cracked nipples. There is also a widely held belief that some women do not make enough milk to feed their babies.
In my own experience, the difficulties of breastfeeding are very much overstated by the government, the NHS and charities such as the National Childbirth Trust. It seems that the government, in its haste to improve the breastfeeding statistics, has bombarded us with so much well-meant advice that we have become convinced that breastfeeding is nigh on impossible. In your average pregnancy book there will be a couple of lines on how pleasant nursing is whilst pages and pages will be devoted to solving common problems. The result is that we assume these problems will arise and become anxious about breastfeeding. Even the celebrity quotes on the Department of Health's website emphasise the supposed difficulties:
"Because Freya is my first child I was extra cautious to give her the best start in life. Breastfeeding was a great way to help her avoid allergies and infections. I am so pleased I made the decision to breastfeed. It has proved tough at times, but is also very rewarding for both myself and Freya." (Donna Air)
"Breastfeeding isn't always easy. Both times I've nearly given up at six weeks but with some encouragement and reassurance I've persevered and I'm glad I did. It's a wonderful experience and I always feel sad about stopping." (Davina McCall)
Anxiety is much more likely to cause problems with breastfeeding than physical conditions are: stress may delay or prevent the let-down reflex and a baby is likely to pick up on a mother's lack of confidence. I bet that this lack of confidence is responsible for more people giving up breastfeeding than all the sore breasts, cracked nipples and fussing babies combined. So I wish the government and the NHS would spend more time telling women that they CAN breastfeed, that their bodies are made to do it and their babies are made to drink it, that it is instinctive, that problems are unlikely when we offer the breast on demand.
So admittedly it is a bit sore at first and you have to perfect the latching-on technique, but it's hardly rocket science and I reckon we would all figure it out in the end without any help from midwives or books. Six months into breastfeeding, the £10 tube of Lansinoh cream that I bought when pregnant lies unused in a drawer beside my bed while my baby suckles happily every few hours, night and day.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
I feel ashamed of the times I denied the breast to my crying baby because I thought she wasn't hungry. I feel angry about the time I was told the baby was "wrapping us around its little finger" because we picked her up out of the pram when she cried. What would a cavewoman do if her baby cried? She would instinctively try to meet its needs, to stop the crying. Did she worry about carrying it too much? I don't think so - she was probably more concerned with keeping it safe from danger (perhaps this is why babies expect to be carried so much). Did those babies grow up to be clingy and overly dependent? Well the human race did succeed in colonising almost the entire planet, so I guess some of them must have struck out on their own eventually.
Thank goodness I learnt to trust my own instincts.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
To a mother primed to expect nights broken by the cries of an infant, the peace and serenity of co-sleeping was a revelation. When people asked how she was sleeping, I honestly had to answer, "Really well. She never cries at night." But even while my baby was showing me how she wanted to be mothered, I was feeling guilty for parenting in the "wrong" way and I continued to struggle to sleep her in a moses basket. Needless to say, my stone age baby was having none of it and made sure that she took her rightful, natural place beside me every night.
My self-doubt arose from a clash between what books and "childcare experts" were telling me, and what my baby and my instincts guided me to do. Six months on, having read more deeply into the subject, I am so grateful that I have co-slept with my baby since the very beginning and I consider it a gift to both of us.
Monday, March 2, 2009
OK I know I'm generalising here, and cynics can point to many flaws in the argument above, but the fact is that parenting in Britain today is largely based on a set of arbitrary rules invented by Victorians just over 100 years ago. Before that time it was normal to feed babies on demand, sleep them in their parents' bed and carry them in their carer's arms (just like most other mammals on earth). Six months ago I was all ready with the pram and the cot, preparing to follow the accepted model of childcare just as the vast majority of mothers in this country do. But something went wrong - nobody told my baby that the rules had changed. Nobody told her how to stay asleep in a cot, without the warmth of her mother beside her. Nobody told her how to lie quietly in a pram, staring at the sky, without the comforting bouncy sensation of a human step. Nobody told her how to go for more than an hour or two between feeds. So I was forced to adopt frowned-upon practices like sleeping with my baby, giving unlimited access to the breast, and carrying her around with me. And the result? She is now a happy baby and I am, at last, a happy mum. But I have spent months feeling like a failure and it is only now that I have come to fully understand that the social norm for childcare in this country is not necessarily the best for all our children.
I know that I will continue to find it difficult to deviate from the norm without questioning my decisions, and I hope that I might be able to offer some support to other parents who can't shake the feeling that their baby was just not made for cots and prams.