Entering the Birth Head Space

Before Christmas I decided that I needed to start winding down towards my forthcoming birth. I started cutting back on my volunteer and support work and tried to focus on me and my family. Christmas made it easy, plenty of family distractions. Entering January brought some challenges, it has been hard to stay away from the forums and groups that I typically frequent and to keep “work” at bay. If my professional life were completely disconnected from birth and parenting then I would just keep going, keep life normal for as long as possible in order to prevent days or weeks of waiting for birth. But my “work”, such as it is, is to support other pregnant women and new mums through problems they are having with their maternity care providers. I’m a sensitive person, I am easily emotionally stirred by the experiences of others and I find it extremely difficult to turn a blind eye to the problems of others. While this is a massive bonus normally, allowing me to fight passionately on behalf of others, at this point in my pregnancy I really need to focus my emotional energy inward, on myself.

There are others like me, with passion, enthusiasm and time to provide advice and support to those who need it. Acknowledging this and trusting them to continue to do so in my absence has been challenging, it is something I absolutely must do now.

A couple of weeks ago, my tribe of wonderful women friends and my amazing mum, came together with me to celebrate my pregnancy and the new life about to be born, in the form of a blessingway. It was a truly wonderful occasion, with friends coming considerable distances to join me for this, so much thought and attention had been applied by all, especially the lovely Jo who organised it. It was a deeply spiritual ritual, tailored to me and my beliefs, but hopefully open enough for those present to share in the thought behind it even if they came from different spiritual or religious backgrounds.¬†Together we shared our fears and hopes, channelled energy and most importantly…. ate cake!

In the moments since in which I have struggled to keep worries at bay, I have looked down at my henna belly, touched the beads strung upon the necklace made for me and imagined the women of my tribe encircling me. Feeling their energy and support around me and within me is a true blessing.

As I approach this birth, which could happen any time in the next few weeks, I will continue to remember that and draw on it for the strength I need to overcome the challenges of the end of pregnancy and to enter the head space I will need for birthing my baby.

I feel emotionally ready to enter birth, I’m prepared on a practical level too with everything we need gathered together and ready to use. We have had a trial run with the birth pool, inflating and filling it, which, of course, had to be followed by an evening spent relaxing in it by candlelight. So now it is simply a case of allowing baby to be physically ready to choose the day. This is the hard part for me, being gracious and patient, though I know and believe it to be necessary and worthwhile. I’m still a normal human woman, I am uncomfortable with my size now and not sleeping as well as I wish I could, I’m bursting out of all of my maternity clothes and constantly fending off the “When are you due?” question with my suitably accurate “Some time soon” response.

I was given some affirmations at my blessingway and have written more for myself since. I share some of them with you now.

I am a link in an endless chain of birthing women.

300,000 women will be birthing with me. Relax, breathe and do nothing else. Labour is hard work, it hurts and you can do it.

We have a secret in our culture, and it is not that birth is painful, it is that women are strong. – Laura Stavoe Harm

I am surrounded by love and support.

My baby will be born at exactly the right time.

Live every day, enjoy each moment of pregnancy, for it won’t last long.

Every day my baby grows more ready to be born.

My body knows how to grow and birth the perfect baby.

Every day my body is preparing for birth.

Use this time wisely.

Breastfed Babies are “More challenging”?

Unless you live under a rock, it would have been hard to miss the news today…. breastfed babies cry more than bottle fed babies… they have¬†“more challenging temperaments”. Really? Where are these headlines coming from?

A recent piece of research from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit has found that breastfed babies are perceived to be more “irritable” or “challenging” than their formula fed peers, by their parents. The researchers have been quick to state that this is actually normal, that babies cry for reasons other than hunger, that formula fed babies are essentially overfed (dare I say, sedated?) and that parents should adjust their expectations of normal infant behaviour, doing so may result in more mums breastfeeding for longer.

The “by their parents” bit highlighted above is the single most important aspect of this research. This was not a robust scientific study, it was a survey of just 316 parents, so for starters it isn’t a large enough study to be statistically relevant. Secondly, parents are not impartial, we all love our babies very much, but our perspective is coloured by that. It is also coloured by our expectations and a whole myriad of feelings.

Most mums in the UK initiate breastfeeding, but by four months only 7% of UK infants are exclusively breastfed. One of the often sited reasons mums give for stopping breastfeeding, or introducing some formula feeds (mixed feeding), is that breast milk alone didn’t satisfy their babies. There are various reasons that parents might believe this, despite evidence to the contrary, one of which may be cultural expectations of infant behaviour. This is what the conclusions of this study are getting at. Formula feeding has become so common in our society, along with detached parenting techniques, that our perceptions of how babies should behave are completely warped. We think they should sleep through the night, feed every four hours, be content to be left alone, or with people other than their mothers for extended periods of time and basically be seen and not heard.

How many well-meaning friends and relatives suggest a bottle in order to settle a restless baby? How little faith in their own bodies do many mothers have?

Formula fed babies may go longer between feeds (because formula is harder to digest and therefore artificially fills babies up for longer), add dummies and controlled crying into the mix and you have very young babies who are essentially trained not to bother crying for their mothers. Obviously there are many parents who formula feed on demand, rather than to a schedule, and who are very attached to their babies, I’m simply intending to highlight other variables that may be contributing factors to the behaviour reported by the parents in this survey.

Also, if as a culture we expect formula fed babies to be more satisfied than breastfed ones, and if we have huge numbers of mothers who ceased exclusive breastfeeding for the very reason that they wanted their babies to be more satisfied, then when we ask them a series of questions how likely is it that they will give the answers they expect to be giving? How many mums who have niggling regrets about introducing formula might defend their decision by stating that their baby is perfectly content, thank you very much?

I don’t mean to say that the respondents to this survey consciously lied, but their answers are very likely to be the product of their experiences and expectations.

The survey was also conducted among parents of three month old babies. I wonder how many of the breastfeeding mums were in the midst of growth spurts and teething, approaching the four month sleep regression and generally feeling the effects of life with a tiny baby who is so reliant on their mother alone to fulfil their dietary needs, with very little support from their family or peers. Their feelings almost certainly coloured their responses too.

The discussions rampaging around the internet today demonstrate clearly the number of breastfeeding mothers who feel that their babies were perfectly content and hardly ever cried because they were able to meet their needs quickly, both nutritional and comfort needs, with the breast. These mums, in the circles I tend to move in, are well supported, determined, knowledgeable and tend to follow attached parenting ideals. They are not “typical” mums in our society, but they demonstrate, again, another set of variables that might suggest that breastfeeding could be a heck of a lot easier than the respondents of this survey have found it.

As with all scientific research, we also have to consider who has conducted it and any other interests they may have. I haven’t been able to substantiate this, but one comment on a Facebook thread that I saw this morning, suggested that this piece of research was funded by a board of over 20 interested parties, some of whom, you can bet, have financial interests in the formula and baby food industry. If this is true then we do need to take a very deep breath before taking the conclusions of the study seriously, despite the insistence of the researchers that this evidence is good news for breastfeeding.

I think we need to take this research with a rather large pinch of salt.

New Year Reflections

This was the first Christmas that the Munchkin has really understood anything about the holiday or been able to get excited about it. It was also his first healthy one! His first two were plagued by sickness bugs and fluey-colds for all three of us. Finally we have some nice photos of all of us looking healthy and well on Christmas morning. Yay!

In the build up to it he got excited about the decorations, especially the tree and he loved helping open cards as and when they arrived, the first few he memorised which was from who but eventually there were too many for him to keep track of. We noticed that he kept saying, with longing “Wish I had [insert name of train here]” a lot and hubby and I would cast furtive glances at each other, knowing we hadn’t bought him what he was pining after.

The solstice passed quietly, although that’s the meaningful day for hubby and I we prefer to celebrate the season with our families a few days later. So Christmas morning arrived and started well. The Munchkin was up relatively late for him, so we didn’t have the ridiculously early start we had prepared ourselves for. We’d put out the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve and didn’t really trust the Munchkin to play happily on his own in the living room like he usually does with all of those parcels tempting him, so knew we would have to get up at the same time as him.

Hubby distracted the Munchkin while I nipped to the living room and turned the tree lights on and when they came in we were treated to the biggest “wow!” you’ve ever heard. It was lovely. But we didn’t dive right in, we got breakfast and got dressed, took our time, determined not to start out on the road of presents being the all-consuming primary feature of the morning. The Munchkin was fine with this and went along with it amicably. Phew.

When we started opening presents it was all very sweet and peaceful, each gift was opened slowly and thoughtfully and the moment of revealing it was treasured. A few books came first and the Munchkin had a flick through each one, enjoying them and asking what they were about, appreciating who they had come from. It all seemed to be going perfectly.

But the pace began to pick up a bit and when the first of the train-based presents came out we noticed a change. The Munchkin no longer cared who the gift was from, he wanted to play with it right away, but only for a few seconds before clawing desperately at the next gift. Once all the presents were opened we took some time to play with the new toys and at lunch time my parents and grandfather arrived, to much excitement from the Munchkin. They brought with them more presents and so a second opening-session began, this one nothing like the relatively positive first one.

The Munchkin had no patience for opening the gifts, he wanted the paper off NOW and carelessly discarded it, each new train, for he received several, was met with a squeal of delight but very quickly it was cast aside in a feverish and desperate need for the next one. When all of the presents were opened he almost seemed disappointed and we were soon met with requests for more and choruses of “Me want a talking Gordon/Edward/Percy” etc.

My delightful, thankful, gracious little boy had been replaced with a greedy and impatient monster and I had to take myself off to my room for a little cry over it. What did we do wrong? How did this happen?

As the days have gone on his pleasure in his new toys has been very positive and the pining for the things he did not get has been steadily diminishing, but it isn’t entirely gone. There was, in fact, one talking train that we ordered that hasn’t yet arrived and hubby and I have decided not to give it to him right away when it does eventually turn up. We don’t want him to think that we got it for him because he was demanding it. We don’t want to encourage the idea that he will get whatever he asks for, whenever he asks for it. So we will save it and give it to him when the new baby is born instead.

Hubby and I have done a great deal of talking over the last week, to see how we can nip this behaviour in the bud and try to prevent it developing into a Dudley Dursley situation (“36?! But last year I had 37 presents!”). This is what we’ve come up with:

  • Just one present from each family member. No more huge stacks, not even of small, thoughtful gifts. I’m confident that with some thoughtful explanation we can get our parents on board with this and more distant family and friends already only give one gift, which is as it should be.
  • Time tokens for all, for example, promises to cook for one another, or go for a walk together and so on. These can be unlimited. Day trips will become more of a feature too, tokens for days out at theme parks, museums and so on.
  • No more wrapping paper! Yes really. We’re thinking of each family member having a bag with their name on it and all the presents go in there, unwrapped. There is still the mystery and some excitement at discovering what’s in the bag, but the emphasis comes away from those physical gifts when they are not wrapped up individually. It also results in massive financial and environmental savings!
  • More regular giving of new stuff throughout the year. This might sound odd, but we think that by spacing out new acquisitions it will diminish the excitement and emphasis of those things on celebrations. It won’t be such a novelty to get a new toy or a new book. We don’t hesitate to buy the Munchkin new clothes as and when he needs them throughout the year, so why not do likewise with meeting his developmental needs with toys and books too? It also spaces out the spending so that December is less of a financial black hole, though see previous steps for the knock-on effect of reducing the cost of Christmas too!
  • We were already decided on not making a big deal out of Father Christmas and certainly steering clear of the bribery element (“Santa only brings gifts to good boys and girls”) and feel even more strongly about it now, confident that we are right in our stance on that one.

As a side note, we’ve also seen the wisdom in the decision of some of our friends to not send Christmas cards and will be following their example as of next year. The whole point of the Christmas card is, in my mind, to touch base with people, send them warm wishes and so on. But how many cards do we actually write a personal message in? Isn’t it better to reach out and actually speak to those we care about most in order to wish them well and catch up? Pick up the phone if you feel you’ve not kept up with someone as well as you would like. Duck out of the awful politics of who to send a card to and who not to, avoid the environmental and financial waste of cards that few people really value. I always buy charity cards made from recycled paper and recycle them again when I take them down, but the recycling process still uses energy and not all people do likewise.

Now that the festive season is coming to an end and the new year has begun, it’s all about our forthcoming new arrival. We have already begun de-cluttering the house; sorting out piles of paperwork and bills for filing, we’ve gone through our CDs, DVDs and even books (for those reading who know hubby in particular, this may come as a huge shock!) and started listing things on eBay. There’s a big stack of old clothes ready for charity donation. Hubby has tidied our cluttered landing and guest bedroom and we’ve retrieved our birth pool from the loft and checked that it is fit for re-use. The baby clothes have come out of storage, been washed and put in the baby’s wardrobe.

New year, new start, new life. Bring on 2012.

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