Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paddling Furiously Beneath the Surface

People don't frown in photos. In photos, everything is hunky dory. Mothers are the same with our out-of-the-house faces. We are experts at putting on a brave public face even when chaos and frustration reign at home.

Do you ever look at another mother gliding along, calmly pushing a pram, and wonder how she manages to be so competent, so together? I read an explanation for this (was it in What Mothers Do? I'm not sure) and it went roughly as follows. We all feel such a sense of relief when we manage to get organised enough to leave the house that we are bound to look a bit calm and happy as we walk along. Let's face it, the afternoon stroll is the highight of the day when you're caring for a newborn and you're pretty pleased with yourself for getting your shit together long enough to step outside the door (plus the fact that this may be the first time in the day that the baby has stopped crying). At the same time as you're looking at some other mother and wondering how she manages to be so organised, she is probably looking at you thinking how confident you are.

Our own mothers can be just as unhelpful when it comes to understanding how bloody hard motherhood can be. I have already forgotten just how bewildering the first few months were (I don't think I got enough sleep to actually form memories). If I've forgotten after a year, imagine what it's like after 30 years. They remember the good bits (the human brain does have a tendency to forget bad things anyway) and it is the good bits that they tend to talk about. Hence, insecure new mums like me wonder why we are so much less competent than our mothers were.

I think blogs also tend to give a false impression of how great other people's lives are. You read about what a wonderful day some blogger and her family had, you see pictures of attractive children kicking up autumn leaves in dappled sunlight, and you think, "How come my life isn't as perfect as that?". But what the blogger doesn't write about is the tantrum the child had at breakfast time; the fact she had to be bribed to put on her wellies; the way she cried when she was put in her car seat. I'm not criticising anyone for writing nice things about their families; I am just saying that we naturally tend to edit out the worst bits and write about the things that went well, that we enjoyed.

The point of this post is to say that intelligent, self-aware people tend to be self-critical and, when comparing themselves with others, to find themselves wanting (at least, I do). Mothers are no exception. We always think everyone else is coping so much better then we are (I do anyway). But I have met enough mums in real life to know that when you scratch the surface and get past that public face, we all have the same worries and problems. Even a confident, capable, charity-working, volunteering, supermum-of-three, long the subject of my admiration, admitted to me yesterday that she feels she can't cope when her toddler plays up. I know that shouldn't make me feel better, but it does.

So what I am trying to say is that it is easy to look at other people and imagine that their lives are more enjoyable than your own, or that they are much better parents than you, or they are happier than you, or whatever other metric you use to measure your own self-worth. But I don't think it's true. I think other people look at you and think exactly the same thing. I think mothers in particular are brilliant at putting on a brave face. In reality, we all appear to be gliding serenely while beneath the surface we are paddling furiously. This is the nature of things and it will never change. So (and I am saying this more to myself than to anyone else) chill out, make the best of things and stop thinking that everyone is so much better at motherhood than you.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nursing Wisdom

Welcome to the October Carnival of Breastfeeding! This month's theme is "What I Wish I Had Known..." and links to all the other posts in the carnival will appear below during the day. Enjoy reading them all.

There are two pieces of advice that would have totally changed the uncertain scary, sleep deprived early days with my daughter. They are simple tips yet I never read them in a book until I was given a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, eight months into my mothering adventures. So many mums I have talked to have agreed how useful these pieces of wisdom have been to them - in fact I have often wondered why they are not more widely advised. So, without further ado, here they are.

First: the best way to get your baby to nap and to get some sleep yourself is to lie down beside it, nurse it to sleep and allow yourself to rest with it until it wakes. This is so obvious, yet most of us believe we "should" put the baby down in a basket or crib and sleep on our own somewhere else. Every book advises new mothers to sleep when their babies sleep, but if you are breastfeeding in a chair and your baby nods off in your lap, what are you supposed to do? So, to any new mothers out there who are reading this: feel no guilt about cuddling up in bed with your little one for a gorgeous nap. Treasure every moment you get to spend in such a lovely yummy way. And get someone else to do the housework. (Even daytime naps like this count as co-sleeping, and as such, should be done safely. Though, it must be said, it is safer to intentionally co-sleep with your little one in a bed than to drop off on a sofa with the baby on your knee).

Secondly: get a sling that you can breastfeed in. Seriously, this changed my life. A sling is such a warm, cosy place for a baby to be, and when you add the comfort of suckling it becomes almost impossible for a baby not to settle down and sleep. What is so great about nursing a baby to sleep in a sling is that it untethers you from the sofa: whether the baby is awake, asleep or in the process of dropping off, you can wander about the house, go outside, use a computer or do whatever else that appeals. The sling also provides a familiar environment for the baby wherever you happen to be, so it will fall asleep more easily in strange surroundings. What is perhaps most useful for parents of spirited, high needs babies is the fact that it is easier to put a baby down without waking it when it is in a sling than when it is just being carried. And if you do manage to put your sleeping baby down, you can enjoy some precious moments of me-time because you should be able to slide your body out from within the sling without disturbing the baby. I found my ring sling incredibly useful for this and I still use it nowadays to hip-carry my 13 month old daughter. I am sure a stretchy wrap would be equally as good.

The fact that these simple tips, that can make such a difference, are omitted from standard childcare manuals amazes me. I think it owes a lot to our society's irrational fear of letting our babies control us that we are afraid to do such natural things as napping with our babies or carrying them around. So, without wishing to become some kind of annoying advice-giving know-it-all, I spread the word whenever I can (and almost always find someone who completely agrees with me, and, like me, can't understand why we all had to learn these things the hard way). May you, dear reader, have many happy and restful days with your baby.

Fancy Pancakes: Wish I'd Heard More Good Things
The Milk Mama: When breastfeeding begins badly, and what I should have done about it
Hobo Mama: What I wish I'd known when I started breastfeeding
My World Edenwild: What I Wish I'd Known Then: A Poem
Happy Bambino: I wish I had known then…that it wasn’t up to me alone
Three Girl Pile-Up: 4 things I wish I’d known about breastfeeding
Birth Activist: What I Wish I Would Have Known About Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding Moms Unite!: You Don't Have to Grin and Bear It
Momma's Angel: What I Wish I’d Known Then – My List For Next Time
The Starr Family Blogg: I Wish I Would Have Known
Whozat: If I'd Known Then
Massachusetts Friends of Midwives: What I wish I’d known back then about breastfeeding
Fighting Frumpy: When Breastfeeding Feels Wrong
Breastfeeding Mums: 15 Breastfeeding Facts I Wish I'd Known as a First Time Breastfeeding Mum
Mum Unplugged: What I Wish I'd Known Then
Blacktating: Breastfeeding is life changing
Breastfeeding 1-2-3: Trust Yourself and Your Body

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Gift I Want To Give

If there is one thing that I hope for my daughter's future, aside from her being healthy, it is that she will grow up loving the natural world. I hope she will know how calming and restorative a walk in a green space can be, even if it just a park. I hope she will have the confidence to pick up a map and a compass and set out to wander the outdoors. I hope she will find it rejuvenating to fill her lungs with air scented with grass and manure. And I hope that she will delight in watching wild animals and birds whenever she can.

My parents worked long and hard to give me this gift. They put up with incessant moaning from my brother and I when they dragged us all out for long walks at the weekend. They took us on holiday to remote caravan sites beside windswept coastlines or craggy mountains, and hauled us up hills and down cliffs to catch elusive sightings of shy birds and animals. It must sometimes have been hard to maintain enthusiasm in the face of our cynical complaints. But do you know what? After all those years, something in us clicked. We started asking to go out for walks. When we left home for city universities we found that we missed those doses of country air. We bought tents and sought out quiet green campsites. We started looking for opportunities to watch wildlife. My parents really did succeed in giving us that appreciation of nature.

Will I be able to give my baby the same gift? I feel that I have so much to live up to. I remember so many wonderful moments, and I wonder if I will be able to give my daughter the same memories. I remember my first, thrilling view of a fox hunting at twilight; going out at dusk to watch a family of badgers emerge from its sett; visiting frenetic colonies of nesting seabirds; peering through binoculars at bobbing seals; seeing salmon leap up a weir; eating sandwiches in a hide while waiting to catch sight of a woodpecker; spying a weasel scurrying along a grassy bank. My best memory of all is watching a family of bluetits fledge from a nestbox on the front of our house.

Though I know it is going to be hard to give my daughter the same fond memories, I know that if I can, I will be giving her an escape route from the grey rush of urbanity. So I will do my best at every opportunity to escape the suburbs where we live and to immerse us in fresh air and greenness, in animals, plants, birds and insects.

Of course it's not even a given that there will be so many plants and animals for my daughter to look at when she grows up. If you have a moment, consider signing the RSPB's Letter to the Future that aims to show the UK government that millions of us humble citizens wish they would plough as much money and effort into safeguarding the natural world as they do into saving the economy. You don't have to be an RSPB member and you don't have to give them any money, though I think you have to be a UK citizen. It's a really good idea, and the more people that sign, the stronger the message becomes. Happy pledging.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Co-Sleeping in the News

A new study in the British Medical Journal has linked co-sleeping with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But read between the lines and it quickly becomes clear that, like all SIDS studies, there are many more factors at play than the fact that the deceased baby was sleeping with its parents.

For a start, it is a startling fact that among the 80 mothers of babies who had died, 25% had drunk more than 2 units of alcohol in the previous 24 hours. This compares to only 2% of mothers in a control group (though these figures may be skewed by the fact that the mothers of deceased babies were questioned at the weekend, when they were more likely to have been drinking). When drugs were also taken into account, the proportion of mothers of deceased babies who had been affected by drugs or alcohol climbed to 31%.

The finding that has hit the headlines hardest is that in 54% of the 80 cases of SIDS, the baby had been sleeping with a parent (which means that in 46% of the deaths, the baby was sleeping on its own). But this does not mean in a bed, safely adapted for co-sleeping. In fact 17% of the SIDS children had been sleeping on a sofa, versus 1% of the non-SIDS cases. The use of pillows was also found to be a statistically significant factor in the SIDS cases. I wonder how many more had been in a chair, sleeping on a parents' knee after a night feed where the parent had desperately tried to stay awake to avoid the terrible risk of taking the baby to bed.

Factors that were also found to be associated with SIDS, but which are less likely to be associated with co-sleeping were swaddling, maternal smoking during pregnancy, preterm birth, ill health, stomach sleeping and sleeping alone (not in the parents' room).

The presence of bedding over the head or face of the baby, a side sleep position, excessive bedding and clothing and postnatal exposure to tobacco smoke were not found to be associated with SIDS.

Tellingly, the researchers themselves said that co-sleeping should not be demonised. Their conclusions support what co-sleeping advocates have been saying all along: parents should be educated about safe co-sleeping before birth. That means not consuming alcohol or drugs prior to sharing a bed with a child, not smoking, not co-sleeping on a sofa or in a chair and not co-sleeping if the parents or the baby are very ill (though this is perhaps the occasion when our instincts make us more likely to bedshare). It also means keeping the baby next to its mum, having a safe sleeping environment with no dangerous gaps, keeping pillows and duvets away from the baby (which should preferably be on top of the covers with its own blanket, though I only did this for six months) and making sure the baby sleeps on its back (or possibly its side).

I know that having my baby in a cot in my room is in theory the "safest" sleeping arrangement. But I also believe there are positive benefits to sharing a bed, and my child would miss out on these benefits if she slept alone. It is very easy for the medical community to recommend using a cot, but the reality on the front lines of parenting can often make that a very difficult ideal to achieve. My daughter cannot usually be placed in a cot without waking, so cot sleeping would necessarily involve a lot of crying and that is not something I am prepared to inflinct on her. That is just my experience; it is possible that if she had been an "easier" baby, I would never have bedshared at all.

Cot sleeping became popular as bottle feeding went on the rise. Breastfeeding babies feed more frequently and for longer than bottle fed infants, and can only be fed by their mother. The night-time parenting of a breastfed baby is therefore easier if the baby co-sleeps some or all of the time. Co-sleeping is much more compatible with breastfeeding, and as breastfeeding numbers increase it is inevitable that more mothers will co-sleep (a recent study in the north-east found that 65% of breastfeeding mothers sometimes co-slept).

The NHS and UNICEF have not changed their advice to parents - cots are safest, but if you co-sleep, follow the above safety guidelines. Now, a study into SIDS where the co-sleeping babies were all doing it safely in a bed with responsive parents... wouldn't that be something?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Time, Or Lack Of It

Gosh, I don't know how all these so-called mummy bloggers find the time to post several times a week, especially those with more than one child. As Cave Baby gets older (13 months and counting) things don't feel like they are getting any easier, and my free time seems to be in shorter and shorter supply. Her naps get ever shorter and her night-time sleep shows no sign of improving. When she is awake she wants to practice walking ALL THE TIME. I can forget about doing anything on the computer when she is around unless I want more of the keys to break following one of her keyboard mashing sessions (only the equals has succumbed so far). And what with my "other projects", not least the preparation for imminent bathroom refurbishment, this blog has been way down my order of priorities.

But in lieu of a proper post, may I encourage you to click on The Feminist Breeders article on breast vs formula. It is just the kind of rant I would be too scared to write. She is a brave blogger with real integrity.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Swipes, Scratches and Bites

I often wonder how other parents manage the baby/animal interface. A typical baby/cat encounter in our house goes roughly as follows. Cat finds a quiet place to lie down. Baby spots cat (cue pointing and cries of "Dada dada"). Baby crawls towards cat. Baby prods cat in face. Cat looks annoyed. Baby pokes face again then strokes hair. Cat looks more annoyed. Baby grabs handful of fur. Cat raises paw threateningly. Baby pulls fur. Cat places paws (claws out) on either side of baby's head and menacingly approaches baby's face with teeth bared, remembers that this scenario has previously concluded with the delivery of quite a hard kick from the mother of said baby, and runs away.

I do my best to prevent Cave Baby from tormenting our cat, but short of banning the cat from the house, there is not a whole lot I can do to keep them apart. Besides, the cat seems to actually gravitate towards the baby. It must be her sadist streak. Or, rather more sadly, it may be her attempt to get attention from the humans who have neglected her for the year in favour of their precious baby.

Well, actually, maybe I could try harder to keep them apart. But I am not an over-protective sort of person and I kind of think that learning to deal with our vicious cat won't do Cave Baby any harm. Granted, she has had quite a few scratches so far. But on the positive side, she is learning to respect animals and she's maybe learning a little lesson about the world not being completely fluffy and cute and nice.

So I probably could do a little bit more to keep them apart, but I'm trying to let them sort it out themselves and I'm hoping that eventually they will reach a state of mutual respect and understanding.

What I want to know is, do other people have this problem with their cats and dogs (or whatever other creatures you have running around your house)? How do you deal with it?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cleanliness Anxiety

At what point in the last ten years did I turn into one of those women who can't function unless the house is clean? It's been a slow transformation, from a relaxed studenty attitude to dirt, through the easy solo living days to my current anxiety-filled quest to maintain cleanliness in the face of a rampaging crumb-scattering baby. I'm not stupid about cleaning: a quick vac once a week, cleaning the bathroom when it smells or gets spattered with toothpaste, a bit of dusting once a month and a daily wipe of the kitchen surfaces is quite enough for me. But I just can't stand it if things get out of hand and the place becomes dirty.

Last week I was stressed out, all week. And I am ashamed to say it was all because I felt like I was drowning under a weight of housework. We had been away for a long weekend, meaning that the previous week had been mostly about preparing for the trip, so very little washing or cleaning had been done. That meant this week I had to do several loads of laundry, clean the kitchen and vac the house as well as the usual daily washing up. I know this doesn't sound much to a normal person but to a sleep deprived mother with a trying-to-walk baby clinging to her legs, it feels like climbing a mountain.

Every day I put the washing out on the line, only for it to rain again and soak it through. My dad came and did some DIY which coated our entire bathroom and landing in dust. Then he threw a cup of coffee down the stairs. And of course Cave Baby was going through one of her "difficult" weeks which meant she refused to eat her normal meals and preferred to throw food all over the place instead. Three times a day. Ahhhh.

The fact that this all gets me so stressed out is probably related to my SAHM inferiority complex. I think that if I'm at home, the least I should be able to do is welcome Cave Father into a clean house at the end of the day (Feminism? Never heard of it). When I worked full time I didn't really care about dirt because (a) I was only at home when it was dark, so I didn't see it; and (b) I had much more important things to worry about. But now I spend many daylight hours here in my house I have far too much time to look at the state of my carpets and stress about how on earth I am going to find time to clean them when I have to go shopping and take Cave Baby to this or that baby group and meet my mum and make a cake and check my emails and blah blah blah blah. I wish I could have Lisa from Edenwild's healthier attitude towards cleanliness.

Thank god for my mother who came on Thursday and did all those niggly little jobs that Cave Baby just won't tolerate me doing. That helped a lot. But what shocked me the most was that on Friday, when I did manage to vac the house, I instantly felt a hundred times more relaxed. Now isn't that so sad? My anxiety genuinely was caused by my need to clean. I really am turning into one of those women who have to have a clean house. And that's not who I want to be!

Let's just set a few pledges out right now. I am not going to be one of those people who wipes my baby's face or washes her hands in the middle of a meal. I am not going to worry about her picking up soil. I am not going to ask anyone to take their shoes off at the door. And I am going to try not to ever let staying clean get in the way of having fun. I shall have be mindful about reigning my cleaning urges in. Wish me luck!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Human Babies Should Be Carried

Babywearing is becoming increasingly popular, but it is usually chosen for convenience and is rarely thought of as a biological necessity. However there is strong scientific evidence that human babies are biologically adapted to be carried, just like gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees, and that babywearing is the best way to meet our infants' needs.

Firstly, a human infant naturally assumes a bent-legged, curved-spine position that allows the baby to be carried astride its parent's hip. Baby apes adopt a startlingly similar position when laid down. Furthermore, a baby carried on a hip instinctively clings on by gripping its carrier's waist with its thighs. And humans may have lost their fur but babies retain the strong grip that allows their their ape cousins to hang onto their parents' coats. Even without our fur, have you ever noticed that human skin has a lovely non-slip quality that really helps support your baby's weight when you are naked and you are carrying a naked baby? The first time I took my baby into the shower I was amazed at how much easier it was to carry her without the bulkiness of clothes between us. Newborns even have reflexes that help them to maintain a strong grip on their parents' bodies. It has been shown that when a carried infant is startled, triggering a "Moro" reflex, its grip on its parent actually tightens.

Evidence for our carrying needs also comes from the composition of human breastmilk. Mammals that habitually leave their offspring alone (while out looking for food) have high-protein, high-fat milk and their babies feed very quickly. Their babies can be sustained by a quick feed every few hours. In contrast, species that produce low-protein, low-fat milk are also characterised by the extensive contact that takes place between a mother and her babies. Their young are carried or follow their mother if they can walk. These young also feed fairly continuously. Unsurprisingly, great apes and humans are examples of mammals that make low-fat, low-protein milk. Great apes do maintain constant contact between mother and babies, and do feed continuously. Biologically speaking, humans should.

A baby's distribution of body fat even contributes to the evidence in favour of carrying. Dark fat cells, that provide insulation, are more densely distributed on a baby's back than its front. A carried baby is therefore able to absorb heat from its parent on its front without losing too much warmth from its exposed back.

Finally, the facts that human babies defecate readily and cry when they are left alone support the theory that they expect to be carried by their parents. In species which are usually left alone, the young do not defecate without assistance to avoid creating smells which would be detectable by a predator. Similarly, they do not draw attention to themselves by crying when the parent is absent. Human babies can defecate and cry at will because they have evolved to be with a parent at all times.

So, babywearers, it seems you are not just making your life easier by carrying that heavy baby around with you. You are meeting your baby's biological needs for constant contact and company and you are providing the right conditions for your child to regulate its milk intake and maintain its body temperature. Next time you strap your baby on, you can do it with the confidence that you are meeting your baby's biological needs and expectations. And that can't be bad for a baby's first experience of life.

This information and more can be found in "Natural Parenting ― Back to Basics in Infant Care", a paper by Regine A. Schön and Evolutionary Psychology, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Enjoy!