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Category: Postnatal

Safe Co-Sleeping

Safe Co-Sleeping

Unfortunately, there is a very sad article making the rounds on Facebook and several of my news feeds at the moment about a 7 week old baby who tragically died while bed-sharing with his mother. I don’t want to minimise this terrible loss in any way whatsoever, and I completely understand this mother’s desire to share what happened to her child with others as a way of trying to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again (and I can’t even imagine her heartbreak she must be feeling).  However, a lot of the information in this article is not evidence based, and it’s piling a whole lot of fear onto the words “bed sharing”, which isn’t helping when there’s already so much fear and misinformation out there in the first place. (I’ll put a link to this article at the bottom of this post so you can read it for yourself if you want).

First, the article doesn’t mention if this mum made a deliberate choice to co-sleep with her baby, and had therefore baby-proofed her sleep environment with that in mind, or if instead she had accidentally fallen asleep with her baby in her bed. We know that accidentally falling asleep with a baby in an unsafe sleep environment is much more dangerous than making the sleeping environment safe, and planning on sleeping with your baby in your bed. The mum doesn’t say that she was co-sleeping or bed sharing. She says that she fell asleep with her baby, and the baby slipped off the breast.  These are two very different scenarios.

We don’t know if this mum was exclusively breastfeeding or not. The recommendations we do have make it very clear that co-sleeping should only be done in an exclusively breastfeeding relationship. Even one or two bottles of artificial baby milk a day can put babies into a deeper sleeping pattern that is harder for them to rouse from, and it also weakens the mum’s instinctual awareness of her baby in bed with her.

Waking up repeatedly to breastfeed a baby and accidentally passing out from exhaustion in a chair or on a couch is actually much more dangerous for your baby than deliberately planning on co-sleeping safely with them.  There are hormones released during breastfeeding which are designed to help both you and your baby to fall asleep, so it’s very common to nod off while breastfeeding. It’s better to plan for this occurrence to happen in a safe environment, rather than fighting against sleep (and most likely losing the battle) propped up in a chair or on a couch.

Also, the title of the article itself makes it sound like *breastfeeding* was the reason that this baby died, when actually it wasn’t the breastfeeding, it was unplanned bed sharing. In reality, all the evidence we have tells us that exclusively breastfeeding is some of the best protection we have against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

The article keeps linking to a parents.com article as evidence, saying things like “experts have found…”. Unfortunately, parents.com are not experts on co-sleeping, bed sharing or breastfeeding. Professor Helen Ball and Dr. James McKenna are experts on co-sleeping.

And finally, we need to remember that co-sleeping is not a “trend”. Parents aren’t doing this because it’s cool. They’re doing this because it’s the biological norm for our human species, and the way that we’re supposed to feed our human babies. It’s also the best way to get more sleep as an exhausted new parent, IF you’re exclusively breastfeeding, and IF you make the sleeping environment safe.

So how do you safely co-sleep?

In a nutshell: you need to be exclusively breastfeeding, make sure the mattress is firm and not something you sink into, and that any cracks between the headboard and wall are packed with rolled up towels or clothing so there are no gaps. Duvets and pillows need to be kept well away from the baby (including snoozepods and snugglers and sleep positioners), and the baby should zipped into a sleep sack rather than swaddled, with their head uncovered (and their arms free) The temperature of the room should be about 18 degrees Celsius, and the baby should be dressed appropriately so that they don’t overheat. The baby needs to have been born at term, and should be placed on his/her back to sleep. And obviously, mum and dad both need to be nonsmokers and sober.

Want better evidence than my word alone? Professor Helen Ball’s research from Durham University is one of the best places to start. She has a fantastic website you can visit which talks more about where babies sleep, and how to make their sleeping environment safe.

La Leche League has a check-list you can use as well, called The Safe Sleep 7.  La Leche League also has great article called Safe Sleep and the Breastfed Baby.

Dr. James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, also has an excellent guideline on how to make the sleeping environment safe.

And finally, if you are an exhausted new parent who is combination feeding (i.e. breastmilk and artificial baby milk) and wanting to co-sleep but unable to do so because of these guidelines, putting the baby in a side-car cot that attaches next to the bed (so that they have their own separate sleeping environment while still being very close to you) is a good option, or else a bassinet close to your bed. You could also look into using a baby box in your bed with you, which research from Finland is supporting (although if you’re going to use a baby box, there shouldn’t be any extra padding, blankets, bumpers or pillows with the baby, just a baby and a zippered sleep-sack).

(And finally, the article in question can be found here.)

Notes to Self

Notes to Self

We’re beginning the clinical portion of our midwifery education now, after a very intense, action-packed 8 weeks of theory and classroom work. For the next 8 weeks, we’ll be in the clinical setting, on our placements, learning by doing, helping and shaping the antenatal, birth and postnatal experiences of the women we meet.  I’m SO EXCITED to begin actual midwifery work again! But on the eve of my clinical placement, it seemed like a good time to write a few notes to myself (and my fellow students on the eve of this exciting milestone):

Clinicals are going to challenge you in ways we can’t even imagine yet–even though you’ve done parts of this before, it’s still going to be challenging, and new. You’ll need your mind, your ability to think, your ability to feel, your ability to see clearly, to watch and wait, to put 2+2 together, to use all of this knowledge we’ve been working so hard to acquire.

But remember that birth isn’t in the textbook. It’s in the mother, sweating with exertion, it’s in the partner, whispering words to encourage her, it’s in the baby, liminal and waiting.

Remember that wherever you stand in that labour room, no matter how chaotic, you stand in a holy place. Your heart has called you to this profession, this path, this work. Let your heart shine–your wisdom, your strength, your love.

 

 

Sleep and “Self-Soothing” Roundup

Sleep and “Self-Soothing” Roundup

There is so much conflicting information out there on sleep, and so many messages you’ll hear on why having your baby “sleep through the night” is the holy grail of parenting and that if your baby isn’t hitting this milestone by (insert whatever age you like here), it’s a disaster or they’re not a good baby or you’re not a good mother or you’re allowing them to create bad habits etc. etc.  But the truth is that every baby is unique, sleep needs vary tremendously between kiddos, and learning to “sleep through the night” is a developmental milestone that you can’t really force a baby to hit before they’re ready, just like you can’t force them to sit up or crawl before they’re ready. Also, it’s important to remember that even as adults we wake up several times in a night (because we’re thirsty, or hot, or cold, or have to use the toilet, or had a bad dream, or heard a loud noise, or are stressed about something, or uncomfortable, or or or…), but the difference is that as adults we have learned to roll over, self-soothe and go back to sleep. Babies are still learning this skill.  It takes years for them to fully master it, and until they do, they often still need our help, input and reassurance to fall back asleep. Meeting a baby’s needs is not “creating bad habits”; it’s being responsive and attentive to the baby’s needs, which in the long run will create more security and independence.

Strangely enough, discussing sleep and self-soothing is a very “controversial” topic. On parenting boards and facebook groups and public forums, there are strong advocates for sleep training, using either “controlled crying”, “gradual extinction” or “crying-it-out” (CIO) methods as a way of teaching a baby to sleep through the night. There are equally strong advocates against these methods. Because every parent is exhausted (EXHAUSTED!), there is an unending market for books, sleep gurus and training methods as desperate parents (understandably) look for ways to get more sleep. And not surprisingly, the message you get from mainstream sources, news articles and “how to get your baby to sleep” books suggest that a baby who isn’t sleeping through the night by (insert whatever age you like here) is a problem that needs to be fixed. But what I am more interested in looking at is the actual science behind these differing approaches. Research into sleep, such as what Professor Helen Ball at the University of Durham is doing through the Infant Sleep and Information Source, is still a relatively new field, but there is a growing body of evidence which is beginning to refute the claims of the many (insanely popular) sleep experts and authors and gurus who recommend this or that sleep training technique.  The following is a round-up of some of these articles.   

First, Sarah Ockwell Smith has a great article on realistic sleep expectations for babies. As you can see, there is A LOT of normal variation in this, and even if one baby is ready to sleep through the night at 8 months, another baby might not be ready to do so at all. Each kiddo is unique and has different needs. 

Sarah Ockwell Smith also has a good article on what’s really happening when you teach a baby to “self-soothe”. Unfortunately, sleep training methods don’t really teach our babies to self-soothe. This is a developmental skill which they can only learn with time and maturity. Instead, it teaches a baby to stop signaling her distress. Babies are smart and they very quickly learn that if crying doesn’t bring a response, it would be better to conserve their energy instead and not use a method that doesn’t work. A study done in 2012 by Middlemiss et. al. monitored the cortisol levels (i.e. stress levels) in 25 mom+baby pairs and found that at the beginning of the study, the mom and baby were synchronised in their stress response, meaning that when the baby was stressed and signaled this to the mother, the mother responded to this with a rising cortisol level of her own. In other words, if baby was distressed, mom was distressed, and their cortisol levels were in sync. By Day 3 of the study, after using a gradual extinction sleep training method, the researchers found that the baby was no longer exhibiting stressed behaviour, but the baby was still distressed (as demonstrated by high cortisol levels). Meanwhile, because the baby was no longer signaling its distress, the mom’s cortisol levels had decreased, indicating that she was no longer in sync with her baby (at least in terms of cortisol levels).

Calm Family wrote a very detailed response to the BBC One’s recent airing of Panorama, Sleepless Britain, which addresses many of the ways “sleep issues” are portrayed in the media.

The Analytical Armadillo, another IBCLC blogger, has also written a good analysis on what happens during self-soothing, and that even though it works (and it does work), it’s not necessarily harmless.

Evolutionary Parenting looks at the science behind exposing our kids to stress, and what’s actually going on neurochemically in their brains when this happens. 

Uncommonjohn also looks at the science behind self-soothing

The Milk Meg writes about the many reasons our babies wake so frequently in the night.  

And while this doesn’t actually get into the science behind it, Mama Bean Parenting documents quite…succinctly…the many, many, many messages we receive in our society which tell us that a baby that doesn’t sleep through the night is a “problem”.

Finally, Dr. Sears has some good suggestions on ways to get more sleep without using CIO methods, as does Dr. Jay Gordon in this article. The Milk Meg also has some ideas on ways to gently night-wean breastfeeding babies.

And one final disclaimer, since I know this is an incredibly sensitive subject for many parents. I understand the desperate need, the overwhelming desire, to somehow find a way to get more sleep! We’ve all been there. Many of us are still “there”.  Parenting is exhausting, and waking frequently with our babies in the night is not at all conducive to our modern lifestyles. I absolutely get it. And I have many clients and friends who have used sleep training methods, sometimes with very good results–hell, I’ve attempted a few of these methods myself with my first son out of sheer desperation (but wasn’t able to follow through with them). I am in no way judging the reasons why parents might turn to these methods, and I have nothing but empathy for the desperate exhaustion that makes these methods seem like the only answer. Getting more sleep is a positive thing for everyone involved, and allows us to be better parents, and in our bleary, sleep-deprived states figuring out how to get more sleep seems all-consuming and anything promising a quick fix seems like mana from heaven. But it’s important that we as parents do careful research and make informed decisions before deciding on a parenting course of action. Our media and society is saturated with messages about sleep and ways to “fix” it, and nearly all of these messages usually recommend some form of sleep training. That is one side of the debate. All of the articles I have posted here are the other side. It’s important to understand both sides before making an informed choice.

As a midwife, asking “Is your baby waking regularly and feeding regularly?” is a much more supportive and useful question for new parents instead of “Is your baby sleeping through the night?”. Most likely, a normal and healthy baby who’s feeding regularly and growing well will NOT be sleeping through the night, so rather than make parents feel like there’s something wrong, it’s much better to emphasise what’s absolutely right about this scenario. And then look for other ways to support exhausted parents to sneak a bit more sleep into their lives.

Sealing Birth

Sealing Birth

I’ve been finishing up the requirements for a Sacred Pregnancy Belly Bind and Sealing course which I started years ago, but was never able to complete thanks to the birth of my second son, which threw me for a bit of a loop. Two years later I’m finally coming back to it again, and have been enjoying it very much. At the heart of the course are the skills needed to do a bengkung belly bind (pictured below), but the course is about more than just the physical binding itself. It’s also about learning how to create a sealing ritual to honour the birth and provide closure for the woman, as well as supporting her through her postnatal journey–both of which are sorely lacking in our modern world!

Pregnancy and birth is all about opening, on so many levels: opening yourself physically, opening yourself spiritually and emotionally, opening yourself up to the vulnerability of a new and powerful love, and opening yourself mentally and psychologically to the needs of another human being (and being willing to put those needs first). Our western culture is fairly good at discussing the physical opening that takes place (just go to any childbirth class or antenatal prep class and it will be all about the stages of labour and dilation and what happens to your body), somewhat good at acknowledging the mental and psychological opening that takes place (but better at focusing on the baby’s needs than on the mother’s needs), and generally not so good at the emotional or spiritual opening that’s going on. Antenatally, there is the tradition of the Baby Shower (very popular in the US, much less so in the UK), which revolves around gift-giving and providing for the material needs of the baby but tends to gloss over the emotional or spiritual needs of the mom and the transition she’s undergoing. A Mother Blessing, based loosely on a Navajo tradition known as a Blessingway, is a newer tradition that’s been growing in popularity and does a better job of filling the emotional and spiritual void by honouring the mother and her journey and showering her with love and blessings from her community. However, this still pertains mostly to the antenatal time period, and is focused on the birth itself. Overall, in our modern society, very little attention is given to providing closure for women, helping them to ground and center themselves again after such a transformative experience, and acknowledging their new role as a mother. That’s where a sealing ceremony comes in.

After an opening, it makes sense that there should be a closing. A woman needs to be sealed, on so many levels. Physically, her womb and pelvis and pelvic floor need to contract again, after softening and expanding and dilating. Her abdomen has to knit together once more after the diastasis recti muscles have literally come unzipped.  Her blood volume shrinks and her blood pressure may rise again (slightly–this is normal, and has nothing to do with the stress of having a newborn!).  On a chi/ energy/ prana level, she has to re-balance herself and find her own, singular energy rhythms again, after having adjusted to holding her own chi as well as that of her growing baby.  Emotionally, she has to adjust to the sudden emptiness inside of her, after having grown used to sharing her body and feeling the baby’s movements inside her for months and months.  And even more importantly, she has to adjust to being the only occupant of her body again, reclaiming herself as a single entity, and feeling the wholeness of herself once more. Spiritually, she is going through perhaps one of the biggest transitions of her life, from maiden to mother, with all of the new uncertainties, vulnerabilities and identity upheaval that contains. It’s a very big deal–SO much is happening on so many levels, but in our western culture there is no formal way to acknowledge or honour this process.

Many traditional cultures around the world have sealing ceremonies and traditions which are an important part of the postnatal process. In China, new mums are encouraged to stay in bed for the first 30 days and are fed “warming” foods, often with lots of ginger and bone marrow in them to help . In India and traditional Hindu cultures, women remain home with their new baby for the first 40 days to help promote breastfeeding and avoid infection (interestingly enough, it takes about 6 weeks for a woman to fully establish her milk supply, which may be the underlying reason for this), allowing family and friends to care for her while she learns to care for her baby.  Bengkung binding traces its roots to Malaysia, where it’s part of the traditional postnatal care offered to women. But of course, in modern America and the UK, there’s often very little room made for the woman’s transition during the postnatal phase. The focus is very much on the baby. The early weeks of the postnatal period involve trips to the paediatrician (in the US) or home visits by midwives and health visitors in the UK, checking the baby’s weight gain before finally discharging the mother/baby dyad from care around Day 10. Well-intentioned family members and friends encourage the mom to “get her life back” or “get her body back”, set up feeding schedules and routines for the baby and attend baby classes and postnatal groups as a way of socialising, all of which require the mum to leave the house with her newborn at a time when she’s not fully confident in her new identity yet, and often still overwhelmed by the transition and the round-the-clock needs of her baby.

And of course, we’re getting it wrong again and again. For one thing, very few women are recovering from a peaceful or empowering birth in the first few weeks.  Most are having to process and contain experiences that ranged from disappointing to outright traumatic.  As a midwife and lactation consultant, part of my job is to listen to women’s birth stories. Often I’m visiting with women in the first few days or weeks after the birth, when the experience is still very raw and they’re still processing it. Asking them to share their story can sometimes open floodgates of emotion for them, particularly if the birth was traumatic to them. A big piece of my job is to give the woman time to tell her story, in her own words and at her own pace–not just to share the details of it for the purposes of collecting her medical history, but to give her a chance to debrief. Even if she’s already told all of her friends and family about her experience, there’s something different about the listening you do in the role of a birth worker. It’s important to give her space, without judgement, and to acknowledge her experience. Sometimes sharing her story will bring up questions about it that she didn’t even know she had, which I’m sometimes able to help answer (particularly if the question is about something technical), and sometimes not (but sometimes just being able to formulate a question for the first time is helpful). Other times she doesn’t have any questions, but will simply repeat something over and over again, usually until it’s acknowledged (and here, echoing the woman’s words back to her helps tremendously; she might say at 6 different points in the story that she hadn’t really wanted to be induced, and saying a statement like: “You really didn’t want to be induced” allows her to feel like she was heard). There are many counseling tips and tricks that you pick up along the way, such as active listening, asking open-ended questions, reflection, paraphrasing, summarising and clarifying etc. But the root of it, of course, is listening without judgement, and holding space for her to be or feel whatever is coming up for her. This is an important part of sealing a birth, and can be very healing for a woman.

Mothering is incredibly invisible and unappreciated in our society. In other cultures, mothers are respected and honoured on a fundamental level which we seem to be missing. So much of our identity comes from what we do professionally. Just think of a dinner party with new acquaintances where everyone is going around asking you about “what you do”. When I was not working professionally but rather staying home with my children, I would often respond to these types of questions with something like: “Oh, I’m just a mother right now” (JUST a mother…), or “Not much”.  Not much! As if the enormity of my daily work–caring for my children, nourishing them with my body when I was breastfeeding, preparing and cooking meals for them, running the household, doing laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping and a gazillion other domestic chores, but more than anything else teaching them *constantly* by my words and actions and attitudes–amounts to nothing much at all because at the end of the day I had very rarely achieved anything, at least anything that could be crossed off of a to-do list or recognized by the wider culture as important.  The work is repetitive, monotonous, lonely and under-valued, and in our culture it’s very low-status work. One has only to read a book like What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen to see the damage this lack of status inflicts on women on a daily basis. Here we are working our guts out, but the idea of a stay-at-home mother in our culture connotes the idea of not doing much of anything (but actually, this applies to any mother, because even working mums still have to come home from their paid job to begin their unpaid job of mothering, and are most likely only recognised for the work they do as part of paid employment). And we wonder why women are suffering from postnatal depression and anxiety in higher and higher numbers, or why modern women today are struggling as much as they are find their way.  The author of this article eloquently points out that perhaps feminism has let women down on this front. I agree with that, but I also think it’s part of a wider malaise in our society: raising children and parenting the future generation is not seen as important, meaningful work, and this is a problem.

Which brings us back to sealing birth…rather circuitously.  We need to get better and sealing birth for women. We can do this formally, through a ritual like the one Sacred Pregnancy has created (or something that we create on our own), or informally through birth debriefing, but at it’s very heart sealing a birth involves acknowledging the transition she’s been through, recognising the incredible work she has done and is currently doing–the work of giving birth, which is in itself a monumental achievement, but also the ongoing work of mothering–and honouring her for this. Sealing birth won’t elevate the status of motherhood overnight, or fix the many deficiencies in our culture, but it can definitely help to make a difference on an individual level to the woman herself. And every woman who feels supported, recognised and honoured as a mother will bring that confidence to her vital and incredibly important job of raising the next generation, and shaping our society in the process.

Looking back, I think that I was very lucky in that I was able to seal my first birth pretty well. While I never had a formal ceremony done, I was lucky to have had a very empowering birth experience (I’ll get my two birth stories posted soon) and I happily recounted my birth story over and over and over to whoever would listen. I felt like superwoman–I felt like I could do anything, after having given birth! There was something about repeating it again and again, something in the telling of the story, that helped make it real for me, and helped me gain closure on it. The telling of it and the closer helped to translate the confidence I felt about my birth into a growing confidence I felt about my new role of as a mother (Breastfeeding? Pshaw! OF COURSE I can breastfeed. I just gave birth after all–I can do anything!) I also had loads of support and help from friends and family in the first few weeks after my first birth, which made it a relatively smooth transition. With my second birth, this wasn’t the case. Even though the birth itself was wonderful, joyous and empowering, the postnatal period became incredibly stressful due to a medical emergency with my 5 day old son, which threw everything off kilter. Also, since it was the second time around, my expectation was that of course I would be able to manage it, just like I had with my first…but in reality, I found the transition from one child to two children incredibly difficult!  And perhaps not surprisingly, I suffered from postnatal depression with my second son (again, I’ll share the story on here sometime soon). I think sealing is crucially important part of the birth experience. Was your own birth sealed? And if so, how was this accomplished?

 

Bengkung belly binding

 

 

Breastfeeding News Roundup

Breastfeeding News Roundup

Breastfeeding has been in the news a lot the last few weeks. Here’s a quick roundup of some of the most interesting and exciting new articles regarding our first food, and why it’s so important.

First, a viral post about the microbiology research of a Vicky Green, a Biosciences student at South Devon College, who demonstrated the power of breastmilk by placing it in petri dishes cultured with some of the nastiest bugs around, including MRSA and E. coli. In the picture in the link, you can actually see clear rings surrounding each drop of breastmilk on the petri dish where the bacterial growth was halted by the breastmilk proteins. What’s even more remarkable is that she’s using the breastmilk from a mum nursing a 15 month old and a mum nursing a 3 year old, which just goes to show that breastfeeding DOES continue to play an important and vital role in nourishing our children and providing optimal health for them well past the first 6 months of life. Unfortunately, as an IBCLC, I hear all too often from clients that they were told by a (presumably well-meaning) GP or Health Visitor that there’s no benefit to nursing a baby past 6 months. Absolute nonsense, as this research so clearly demonstrates! And who knows, perhaps the protein in breastmilk will hold the key to defeating bacteria like MRSA in the future.

And speaking of nursing babies beyond infancy, Tamara Ecclestone recently posted a lovely photoshoot of herself nursing her 2 year old daughter Sophia and just about broke the internet in terms of controversial backlash, as people reacted so negatively to the photos that she was actually forced to defend her decision for posting the photos in the first place. Which honestly is just a very sad state of affairs. Also, the BBC article linked above doesn’t provide 100% accurate information. UK guidelines for breastfeeding are in line with WHO guidelines, and state that babies should be breastfed exclusively for six months and then continue to be breastfeed for a minimum of 2 years OR BEYOND, in addition to the food they’re eating. For the record, the right time to wean is whatever feels right for mom and baby, but the biological norm for our mammalian species is to breastfeed for anywhere from 2-3+ years, and as with all phases of growth or development, there’s a huge range of normal in terms of the right time to wean depending on the mother and baby dyad. It’s irresponsible to suggest that the UK guideline only encourages breastfeeding for the first 6 months. As for the controversy, unfortunately that’s nothing new. People are often outraged by the thought of breasts being used for purposes *other* than sexual, and sadly we hear of stories all the time of women being shamed for nursing in public, or told to use the toilet instead. And not surprisingly, most likely due in part to these cultural perceptions, the UK has one of the worst rates of extended breastfeeding of any developed nation in the world–even lower the the US’ rate of extended breastfeeding, which is quite surprising given that women in the UK routinely have 6 months of maternity leave (and often a year) compared to women in the US who often receive a scanty 6 weeks, if they’re lucky enough to receive anything at all. Clearly there’s still A LOT of room for improvement, and personally, as someone who’s still nursing her own two year old, I applaud Tamara Ecclestone’s decision to share her beautiful photos, which is an important part of how we can begin to normalize breastfeeding in the first place. The Milk Meg also has a wonderful article on this entitled: 9 Reasons my child is not “too old” to breastfeed.

And finally, this is a fascinating article by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, IBCIC (who I saw at the LCGB conference last year, and is a fantastic speaker), discussing all of the ways that breastfeeding doesn’t just provide the optimal food for our babies, but also provides the best emotional and neurological foundation for their mental health. Breastfeeding encourages responsive parenting, promotes sleep (which in turn supports better parenting, as well as lowering the risk of postnatal depression–and breastfeeding is an independent factor for reducing maternal depression as well, regardless of sleep). Breastfeeding also promotes nurturance, attachment and bonding. As I often tell clients, breastfeeding is 10% about the FOOD we’re feeding our babies (and what incredible food it is!) and 90% about THE MANNER in which we’re feeding our babies, setting them up for healthy brain growth, emotional processing and psychological attachment in addition to optimal nutrition.

My First Week Away From Them

My First Week Away From Them

I just spent a week away from my boys–the longest time I’ve ever been away from them since my eldest son was born five years ago. I went skiing with some good friends, entirely on my own, while my partner held down the fort in my absence.

I think I’ve been dreaming about this week away for nearly five years now. In the early, bleary-eyed days of new motherhood, when I was certain the exhaustion would kill me, I dreamed about mere hours away.  A week was unimaginable, but I would fantasize about someone taking my son and holding him for three hours while I took a nap. And in all fairness, there are several occasions when I can remember exactly that happening. My in-laws would babysit every now and then, or my partner. Once two work colleagues took him for a walk for two hours while I slept on the couch, and once, in desperation, I went to a friend’s house 10 blocks away and slept in her bed for three hours, as I found it nearly impossible to sleep–really sleep, deep and undisturbed–if the baby was anywhere in the house with me. Even his slightest whimpers, faint snufflings in his sleep, would set me bolt upright, in those early days, so any chance of a real nap would have to be done away from him.

And then, as he grew older, I began to dream about entire days away, and even entire weekends. I would imagine how glorious it would be, how unfathomably luxurious, to have an entire day to myself. To do the things I used to do, the things I took for granted, before I had children. To sleep in late, have a lazy morning in bed reading the paper, showering for a full, uninterrupted 20 minutes, enjoying a leisurely brunch at a local restaurant, lingering over my coffee–hell, on some days even an uninterrupted 5 minutes on the toilet felt luxurious, the stuff of fantasies.  I couldn’t imagine an afternoon spent browsing through bookstores or watching a movie, cooking a complicated meal from a new recipe book, knitting while watching TV, drifting off to bed whenever I felt tired, rather than trying to sprint through the evening’s interminable to-do list with the bed at the finish line and the distance between us growing longer and longer.

My partner would leave, often for work but sometimes for pleasure, and I would think about how much easier it was for him to have a week or weekend away. He was less tethered, his life carrying on in many of the same ways that it had before children, whereas for me my post-kids life was unrecognizable to my pre-kids life. I was often unrecognizable to myself.  Some days I would cry bitter, jealous tears about this. Some days I felt like I was the default option, taken for granted. He could head off on stag-dos and weekends away because I was at home, maintaining the routine, ensuring that naps were had and noses were wiped, food was cooked and cleaned up and cooked and cleaned up again, bodies bathed, teeth brushed and bedtimes kept. Needs were met. That was partly where the bitterness came from; that needs came before wants for me now, and that there was never time or room or energy for my wants, whereas my partner could still occasionally fulfill some of his wants.

But little by little, I started to have opportunities to leave. First an evening out with girlfriends after putting the boys to bed, so that they never even knew I was gone, and then an afternoon here, a morning there. A day spent at a conference now and then. I started working again, one day a week as an IBCLC at a breastfeeding drop-in (strangely enough, my day spent “working” often felt like a holiday), and then I began working two days a week, and then three. An avid runner, I began to train for another marathon about a year after my second son was born. I spent hours away, running. And then, for the race itself, I left for an entire weekend away with my partner, while the grandparents watched our children. Brief glimpses of my former self, snatched here and there like an exhausted swimmer coming up for air.

But now, for the first time, with a five year old and a two year old, I am finally in a place where I can go for a week and not feel like my absence will be harmful to them. In fact, I feel quite the opposite–that it would be good for all of us.  Good for me to be away, good for them to realize that they can manage without me (for a little while, at least), good for my partner to be on his own, and understand what it feels like to be the one left behind, holding down the fort, and good for them to see their daddy not just helping me, but single-handedly doing all of the tasks I normally do.  Good to change the routine and remind ourselves that we’re all flexible, that we can adapt. And for the record, my partner is an incredibly capable and involved dad. Leaving him alone with the kids for a week is by no means beyond him, or even a stretch for him, and I had absolutely no qualms about it. They’re in good hands.

And so, here I am, on my own for a week…and it’s been WONDERFUL! But it’s also felt like I’ve had an arm chopped off. I keep feeling the phantom twinges of my family all around me, as if I’ve lost something really important and keep forgetting what it is. I walk into restaurants and start to ask for a high chair before remembering that it’s not needed.  During dinner, I keep feeling like I should be doing a gazillion different things besides just eating my meal and enjoying the conversation. I should be reminding the older one to use his cutlery, reminding the younger one to sit still or he’ll spill his water, trying to get both of them to have a few more bites or else there won’t be any pudding, snapping at both of them to stop harassing each other, refilling plates and making pointed reminders about using napkins, cutting meat and retrieving forks off of the floor etc. etc. It’s as if I’ve gotten used to juggling eight balls while also eating a meal, and now all of a sudden the balls have disappeared…but I still feel like I should be juggling.

And how strange it’s been to move through the world unencumbered again!  To only have to think about myself and my own needs. To be the one traveling light, to sail through airport security in a matter of minutes. To board a plane on my own, with a good book to read and no mental checklists involving emergency snacks and drinks, knowing exactly where various toys, books, games and Lovies have been stowed, checking the batteries on the iPad which is the inevitable emergency back-up to the games and books, and making sure that nappies have been changed and wees had before boarding. To just get on a plane, sit down, put on my seatbelt and be ready to go. How unbelievably decadent! I can roll out of bed and be ready to go 20 minutes later, whereas usually dressing, cleaning, feeding and preparing my children to leave the house is a 1.5 hour long endeavor. The freedom and ease is staggering!

Our culture is really good about focusing on the positives of motherhood and glossing over the negatives, but in truth, motherhood is usually always a mix, and it’s important to acknowledge the dark as much as the light. So much love you feel like you’ll burst (!!), on a daily basis, but also so much uncertainty, responsibility, tedium, loneliness and isolation (and in many cases, depression and anxiety as well). Lots of dark in addition to the light, and rarely a perfect balance of the two. And in those first few days and months, nothing can prepare you for how swift the bulldozing of your identity and former life can be! I feel like the process of becoming a mother razes your identity to the ground, and then, in the wreckage of your former life, you slowly begin to rebuild your identity from the ground up, trying to figure out how to reincorporate all the pieces of who you used to be into this new shape.  And bit by bit, over time, you remember the things you used to enjoy and do on your own before motherhood, and learn new ways to do them again. But this week has made it very clear to me that you never go back to being the person you were before you had kids, even when you do get to the point that you can leave them for a week. All of those months and years fantasizing about time away, so that I could be who I used to be, even for just a little while, is impossible.  That person is gone. Those things I used to love to do before children, I still enjoy, but now they don’t feel like they’re quite enough for me, on their own, because I guess it takes more to fill me up now.

And I miss my kids like crazy. This time away has been nourishing and vital, and very eye-opening, but I feel like what it’s done more than anything else is give me energy to plunge back into the fray of parenting again. And be a better mother for it, as well. I can’t wait to see them again!

The Wasted Hour

The Wasted Hour

We’re mammals. We like to ignore this most of the time, but when you attend births, it’s something which is impossible to forget. And like all mammals, we’ve been programmed to perform an elaborate bonding dance in the first hour after birth, often referred to as The Golden Hour*. During this time, babies are primed to respond to their mother’s voice, to look for her face, to root and nuzzle and find their mother’s nipple, to fix in their mind the image of their primary care-giver, and to breastfeed. Simultaneously, mothers are primed to fall in love with their babies. In fact, the hormonal cascade of labor is actually designed to change the brain chemistry of the woman who just gave birth, increasing her desire to nurture her newborn. Oxytocin, the hormone of love (and breastfeeding), peaks at its highest level immediately after the delivery, ensuring that motherly love—strong enough to move mountains, to fight like a tiger for your cub, to throw yourself in front of a moving bus to save your child without thinking twice—is cemented into place.

Bonding is crucial to survival; evolution has demonstrated this again and again. It’s well documented that in nature, if an animal fails to bond with her baby, that baby’s chances of surviving, let alone thriving, are pretty slim. With humans, it’s not as clear cut. Obviously strong bonds can form even without sharing the very first hour of life together, as adoption and chosen family (as opposed to biological family) demonstrates again and again, but it takes a lot more work. The beauty of the Golden Hour is that the wheels have been so perfectly greased—all you have to do is show up and be present, and falling in love is just about guaranteed.

Or was guaranteed, even just a few years ago. These days, it seems as if we’re almost willfully trying to shoot ourselves in the foot, having gotten way too meta about the entire experience. Since nothing has really actually happened until it’s been posted on Facebook, the very first thing new parents are doing these days is whipping out their phones to share the good news with the world. Gazing in wonder at the new human being who’s just entered their lives is often done through the lens of the smart-phone camera. It’s all about the stats—weight, height, name, time of birth—which is then texted to all the anxious relatives, ensuring that in addition to their parents’ voice, the very first thing the baby will hear is a barrage of beeps, vibrations or ring-tones heralding the arrival of each new text or tweet; their parents are often lost for 10-15 minutes at a time as they respond to the deluge of sms congratulations.

When I first started my career back in 2003, smart phones didn’t exist yet. Parents brought cameras with them to the hospital and maybe snapped a few photos before cuddling with their baby, but that was it. How refreshingly quaint that now seems! These days, I find myself frequently reminding parents to put their phones down. The updates can wait, the baby needs your attention now. Back in New York, when my husband and I tuned in to an episode of the American version of One Born Every Minute, we watched a well-intentioned new father accidentally drop his phone on his sleeping infant while trying to take a picture. Phones have become so ubiquitous now that no one in that delivery room even blinked—except the startled baby.

Right now we’re in the middle of giving birth to the first generation who will come into the world with smart phones as a given. My two year old son seems to think everyone has a phone the same way that everyone has a nose. He’s already quite adept at unlocking mine. The other day, in an unguarded moment, I caught him queuing up Winnie the Pooh on my Netflix app. While the American Academy of Pediatricians and Royal College of Paediatrics have warnings about this, recommending that television and other entertainment media be avoided for the first two years of life, it seems impossible to enforce. Media is everywhere we turn.

Evolution is a very slow process. Birth and bonding hasn’t changed that much in the last two thousand years, nor has our mammalian hard-wiring, while technology seems to move at the speed of light by comparison. Who knows what will happen to our species over time if we continue to squander the Golden Hour*? Put down the phone. Falling in love will never be this easy again.

*For the record, it’s not just a Golden Hour…it’s more like a Golden First Six Weeks! The many benefits of skin-to-skin contact–increased oxytocin release for both mum and baby, improved breastfeeding success, comfort, stable newborn core temperature, bonding etc.–can still occur well after the first hour of life. So even if the first hour wasn’t that golden (because you were separated from your baby, or under anesthesia, or in too much pain during a repair to be able to hold her) you can make up for it by putting your baby skin to skin as soon as possible. And for as much as you’d like to in the weeks to come!