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The Anniversary – Part 2

Here, to celebrate the first anniversary of the launch of my book, is the second part of my gift of the first chapter (see March 2018 blog post for part 1):

YOUR BABY SKIN TO SKIN

Chapter 1 (continued)

Coming into the World: Your Highly Evolved Baby

The first moments

Hello, little one

Mothers with their still-damp babies inhale deeply, instinctively drinking in the musky aroma of their own and their baby’s body scents mingled together like some heady cocktail. The high adrenaline level in both mother and baby heightens their awareness and ensures that these aromas fix themselves deep in the memory for good. Even months (and, indeed, years) after birth, a lot of time is spent burying their noses into each other. As sweet and cosy as this is, it is simply evolution’s solution to ensuring that a mother and baby know each other in the dark of the night and that we protect our own genetic inheritors first. Remembering this with the birth of my first son, I now find myself sniffing my grandson in a way I have never felt moved to do with the thousands of babies I have held as a midwife. I already know his unique smell and can sometimes catch it on myself days after seeing him.

Much the same happens with our baby’s first cries: they move us so deeply to respond. Even if we have never held a baby before, we hear those first tiny gasps and mewls and immediately our hands begin to hold, stroke, soothe and reassure. We slide our baby up closer to our face so we can whisper in the tiny ear and kiss the top of the warm head. The higher female voice being particularly ‘keyed into’ the baby brain, and the mother being particularly triggered by her new baby’s cries, further two-way bonding and imprinting takes place. Our baby will take a little while to learn the unique look of our face but she already recognises the particular pattern and timbre of our voice from those months listening to the bath-like echoes inside the womb. During the early hours and days, the imprinting deepens and mothers find that they are completely unable to relax until they have responded to their baby’s cry and feel anxious when separated for even a very short time. Seeing someone else holding their crying newborn will make them twitchy and want to grab her back – this complete stranger already a permanent resident in their heart.

Skin to skin

In the modern birthing environment, irrespective of how the baby made her entrance, women are encouraged to enjoy prolonged ‘skin to skin’ time. While this automatically happened before the times of mass hospitalisation, during the 1970s and early 1980s increased medicalisation led to babies being bathed, dressed and wrapped before their exhausted mothers got to hold them after birth. By the mid-1980s ‘bonding’ was all the rage, and women today still ask me if the purpose of skin to skin is to help them ‘bond’. In fact, those early hours when we hold our peach-soft, damp, warm bundles of wiggliness on our chests do very much more than give us sniffing time. This is where our baby picks up more friendly bacteria – the ones that we have bred to protect us from the harmful bacteria we always carry on our bodies. So our babies gain protection from the bugs in our homes that we have as our companions.

More than that, skin to skin time calms the baby’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) right down. We will look at the ANS in great detail in Chapter 6 as it tells us so much about why our babies behave in the seemingly random way that they do, but, for now, you just need to know that skin to skin helps the newly birthed baby to stay soothed, warm and safe while you get to know each other.

Falling asleep during skin to skin

The first in-bed snuggles after birth are often wide-awake ones as the adrenaline that has permeated labour hasn’t quite left yet. Women describe staring at their newborn baby for hours; right through the first night together. However, you might fall asleep on a sea of endorphins and oxytocin and you need to keep yourself and baby safe. The safest way to share a bed in these early hours is skin to skin together under light covers (a hospital sheet and light blanket or, if you are at home, your summer duvet tucked under your elbow); don’t swaddle your baby in your bed and don’t try to limit her movement with pillows or tucked-in sheets; if she is tucked up with you like this, she really doesn’t need a hat!

If you are bottle-feeding formula milk or are still under the influence
of labour drugs, sleeping with your baby is not safe: set an alarm on
your phone to buzz after about 20–30 minutes so that, if you do nod off despite your best efforts to stay awake, you will wake pretty soon and can put your baby in a crib. If you are at home, make sure that, if your partner is in bed with you, he or she is not drunk or been smoking.

Your baby, after the first post-birth suckling, may sleep for many hours and, as long as she is kept skin to skin, she will wake when she is ready to suck again.

 

The first suckling

Even more soothing and calming for both the baby and her mother is suckling. As we saw with our primitive baby, soon after birth, the newborn, lying seemingly helpless on the mother’s chest, starts to instinctively search out the breast. She isn’t thinking ‘I must feed. I must get just the right amount of calories and nutrients inside me and I know just the restaurant!’ She is driven by primitive reflexes and instincts, just like every other mammal on the planet, to search out a nipple. Smells, sensations and sounds guide her and, to begin with, her journey can seem pretty random. But as she gets closer to the breast, that enticing contrast line of the paler flesh against the dark edge of the areola catches her eye, and off she heads to explore. Women often tell me when I ask about the first feed that ‘It just happened. I don’t really remember doing anything. She just knew what to do!’ Of course. It would be a bit of a disaster if our primitive mother, having just given birth in the dark shadows of a cave shelter and still needing to urge out the afterbirth, had to know how to get a baby onto her breast to suckle. This baby can’t wait around for her mother to practise and learn! In any case, in the low light, the mother wouldn’t be able to see much of what she is doing. The baby can do this solo.

We are really not very far away from this early setting, and evolutionary adaptation ensures that the newborn baby, driven by a rooting reflex, hunts and snuffles around until eventually she finds the nipple and, after prolonged head-bobbing and faffing, draws it in and sucks. Endorphins and oxytocin flood the bloodstream of baby and mother, taking away the pain of birth and replacing it with a deep relaxation and sense of calm, at the same time causing contractions in the womb to push out the placenta and stop bleeding. With the surge of the placenta contraction, the mother pulls her baby in even closer to her chest and the baby suckles more deeply. There is no need to help or direct the baby and, in fact, she will manage better without you doing very much except what comes instinctively. She has a reflex and, just like with a sneeze, if you try to help it might get a bit messy!

 

Love at first sight?

You may believe you should feel an immediate thunderbolt of love hit you when you first hold your baby or, at the very least, soon afterwards.

And if you don’t, you feel there’s something wrong with you. In my experience, although many women do indeed feel an almighty rush of instant love at first sight when they first hold their baby, for just as many it isn’t like that at all. So, whereas for some new mothers it feels like an instant recognition of a loved one – ‘Oh my word, it’s YOU! I know you and I love you so much!’ – it may feel more like ‘Oh! Hello. Not quite sure what you mean to me. I’m pretty puzzled right now because I really don’t know you at all. Who ARE you?’ or ‘Hmm, you’re a funny- looking thing! Not at all what I expected and I’m not sure quite how much I care about you at the moment. We will have to muddle this one through …’

Sometimes relationships simply take a while to grow, settle and cement. Don’t worry. Your baby doesn’t have any of these worries and doesn’t care about your musings (she doesn’t know that you feel somewhat ambivalent right now). She will show you how to mother her. As you feed her and change her over the days and weeks, her smells and her cries and her searching eyes will gradually, bit by bit, get inside you if you just relax into what it is rather than try to wrestle it into what you think it should be.

 

Partner ponderings

Although much of this book inevitably looks at mothering, there is plenty here for partners. Reading through the whole of the chapters will help you understand things from your child’s mother’s perspective. It may help you make sense of her hormonal swaying, explaining why it can seem at times as if the woman you love has left the building and been replaced by a stranger! At the end of each chapter is a bit just for you, to help you discover your unique and essential role, different as it is from that of the mother. Your baby needs you and your partner to be different; this helps build flexibility of thinking and, in time, your baby will grow into a child who understands how to respond differently to different people and how to understand emotional needs.

Labour

During the labour, birth and first minutes and hours, the birthing woman is completely awash with hormones, driven by instinct and reflexes to bring your child into the world safely. It can be tough to watch. Many partners feel a huge need to rescue their birthing woman, but there is no need. She needs your strong emotional and physical support right now. She is quite safe with the midwives and doctors, who are expertly trained to do the checking and rescuing (if necessary) so that you can be the support coach to the marathon runner. There is nothing to be scared of – this is simply what we look like and sound like when we are pushing another human being into the universe. It’s fine to ask the midwife if you can watch your baby’s head emerging if you like (and if your partner doesn’t need you to hold her while she pushes) and even to ask if you can help hold the baby as she is finally born. If all is going well, most midwives are only too happy to guide your hands. Or simply watch in awe …

The first moments after birth

The moments immediately after the birth can be very emotionally mixed. Exhaustion and adrenaline mix with shock and delight. Watch now as your partner and baby, driven by deep, deep instinct, discover each other. This is millions of years of evolution laid out in front of you. Your baby may take some time to splutter and cry. Don’t worry: the cord is still pulsing with oxygen and nutrients and she will breathe for herself in good time. Stay close to your partner and just be. It’s fine to join in the gentle touching and see if you can smell those musky tones too. Your partner’s senses are massively heightened to ensure that she knows her baby’s scent from the very beginning. It won’t be so strong for you – you have a different role to play – but you may still be surprised by how powerful and good your baby’s smell seems.

Refreshments all round

When your baby starts to nuzzle and move around, searching for a nipple, don’t feel moved to help: the baby needs to take her own journey in her own time and her mother will ease her up without even thinking. Instead, while your baby sets about foraging, you can ensure that your partner is warm and nourished. Pop a warm blanket or towel over the snuggling couple first and then sort out refreshments. If she needs stitches, you will need to wait until these are done before sorting out food. You and your partner will need plenty to eat and drink, but keep it light. Tea and toast is the usual order of the day. A very newly birthed woman will tell you that the first cup of tea after birth is the best cup of tea in her life, EVER. If you make it, rather than leaving the job to the care assistant, you will get the kudos!

Skin to skin

Eventually, after much nuzzling and eating and chatter, most women want a shower and you can finally enjoy some skin to skin time with your baby. Simply put a hat on her head, pop a nappy on her bottom and then carefully pass her down your T-shirt until just the top of her head is sticking out. That’s it! Talk to your baby, kiss her, smell her, or just grin and enjoy this moment in silence.

 

Questions and answers

At the end of each chapter you will find some answers to common questions. Tempting though it is to turn straight to this bit, do read the full chapter as it will help you make sense of the answers.

Caesarean

I am expecting to give birth/have given birth by Caesarean. How can I ensure that my baby gets the friendly bugs?

Evolution has done a brilliant job of getting us here, but there are still inevitable glitches (that kind of defines how evolution works), and medical interventions give us a means to survive these glitches. Caesarean-section (C-section) births, forceps births, ventouse births, epidurals: these things have dramatically improved the lives of thousands of mothers and babies. For our part, we need to look at the bits that science can’t yet replicate and add those in as best we can. Compared with vaginally born babies, those born by C-section are more likely to develop asthma, allergies, eczema, type 1 diabetes and coeliac disease. They are more likely to be hospitalised with tummy bugs. While some of this may be attributable to the greater likelihood of these babies having formula milk in the early days, there is growing interest in the notion that babies born by C-section just don’t get the good bacteria from the mum’s vagina and perineum. Some maternity units now encourage mothers expecting to birth by C-section to collect friendly bugs from their vagina before the operation. If your unit does not suggest this to you, just put it in your birth plan and do this:

  1. Take a piece of gauze soaked in normal steriles aline.
  2. Fold it up like a tampon with lots of surface area and insert it into your vagina.
  3. Leave for one hour, remove just prior to surgery, and keep it in a sterile container (the sort of pot you collected your pee in during pregnancy is ideal).
  4. Immediately after birth, simply wipe the swab around the baby’s mouth, face, then the rest of the body.

Note: It is really important that you only do this if you are free from HIV, thrush, group B strep and any STDs or other infections. If you are in any doubt, talk to your midwife.

Also, as soon as possible, get skin to skin and stay that way with your baby for as long as possible (hours rather than minutes and days rather than hours). There is no reason not to have skin to skin while the post-op stitching is completed unless you are too poorly to hold your baby. If this is the case, your partner could, if possible, hold your baby skin to skin on you or on themselves. Let your baby suckle freely and don’t feel the need to bathe her for at least 24 hours. If possible, take your own linen into hospital and don’t be obsessive about you or your partner forever cleaning yourselves! Just normal daily hygiene is enough.

Special care

My baby is in special care! What now?

It is incredibly stressful for everyone when a baby is too poorly or too little to be with her parents and needs the care of a neonatal unit. The newly birthed mother can feel split between gratitude that her baby is in safe hands and misery that her arms ache to cuddle her newborn. This upset can be made even worse when a baby has to stay in hospital after the mother has been discharged. There is clear evidence of the benefits of ‘comfort holding’ and ‘kangaroo care’ for premature and sick infants. ‘Comfort holding’ can simply mean touching your baby with your warm hands on her skin while she rests in an incubator and it can also extend to sitting quietly in a chair with her lying on your chest. This can bring rest and comfort to mother (or partner) and baby and is also a simple, effective way of reducing stress for both when a baby has to have unpleasant procedures like blood tests.

‘Kangaroo care’ is an extension of ‘comfort holding’ and involves putting the baby, skin to skin, with mum or her partner, either sitting in a chair or while they are getting on with something else. Skin to skin has a profound positive impact on babies and their parents, settling breathing and heart rate, reducing stress and managing temperature as well as helping to protect against infection by increasing the baby’s exposure to those essential friendly bugs. As well as getting close to your baby as often as possible, express your milk for her. Even tiny amounts of your milk will protect her from infection and soothe her emotionally. Read Chapter 4 on feeding for tips on expressing.

Skin to skin during stitching

I want to keep my baby skin to skin for a long time after birth, but what if I need stitches?

If we hold and suckle our babies while we are stitched, have blood taken, have ‘after pains’ or are upset for any reason, we get a rush of endorphins and oxytocin and feel better! Most women simply don’t ask or, if a midwife says ‘I need to give you a few stitches – maybe your partner would like to hold baby?’, they don’t say ‘Thank you very much for your kind offer, but I’d like to keep her with me and feed her.’ If needs be, get your partner to hold your baby against your bare skin. Of course, your partner could hold the baby skin to skin with themselves, but the ideal is for baby to get your friendly bugs first and foremost. There will be ample time ahead for cuddles with others.

No skin to skin

I had a vaginal birth but didn’t get any skin to skin time. Is it too late?

No! Things just don’t always go according to plan. We have tougher labours and births than anticipated, we have drugs that make us and our babies sleepy, we are too sore or poorly just after birth to hold our babies … so don’t panic! Just let the dust settle and then catch up. Strip your baby down to her nappy, strip yourself off down to your pants and get snuggling. Don’t worry about your baby getting cold: as long as her tummy is skin to skin with yours and her back is snuggled under your blanket, you will share your body heat and smells with her. Explore her with your hands and face or simply relax and read a good book – you will quickly discover that those ‘lost’ moments just after birth will fade.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading chapter 1 “Your Baby Skin to Skin”. To enjoy the rest of this unique look at the first year of your baby’s life, follow this link to buy a copy …

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The Anniversary – Part 1

To celebrate the first anniversary of the launch of my book, my March & April blogs will be a gift of the first chapter:

YOUR BABY SKIN TO SKIN

Chapter 1

Coming into the World: Your Highly Evolved Baby

Reaching back …

Some days ago, in the dark of the late evening, not long after the sun dropped suddenly below the horizon, a young woman, hidden with her group in the protection of some fallen trees, felt the first cramps of her impending labour. Deep in her belly and back, sporadic waves of tension grew and eased. She rested and fidgeted through the night and walked through the days, stopping occasionally to eat, drink and rest. Her companions stayed close but un-interfering, busy as they were with surviving and finding a suitable shelter for the safe birth of their newest member.

Now, a few days later, the cramps gradually strengthen and lengthen, grabbing her attention and driving this woman into herself on waves of endorphins. As bright as the midday sun is, inside the labouring woman’s head the lights gently dim as she becomes quieter and more settled. Her companions help her into a cave shelter where she creeps into a hidden corner and hunkers down, moaning with the waves of intense power that flow through her. As the day wears on, her moans grow louder and more urgent. She is up now, swinging her aching hips, pressing her hot brow against the cold stone wall of her shelter and hanging on the shoulders of her strong companion. Oblivious to the world, she is wrapped entirely in her own experience as the hours slip by. And then, just before dusk, the cramps stop and she sleeps for a few delicious moments, listening to the reassuring hum of gentle activity around her.

So, here we are, at the very dawn of time, watching in wonder, and waiting for the moment …

Suddenly she wakes; urgent, adrenaline- filled eyes; frantically trying to get up on her haunches. Her animation alerts her companions, who now gather around her, supporting her weight and watching as she starts to gasp, grunt and urge. Throwing her head backwards, arching her back and heaving again. And now, the wave gone, she is quiet again, but attentive. And another, bigger urge, greeted with deep, throaty groans and gasps. And another, and another. It seems like forever, and just when she thinks she is nearly ready to birth, another great wave hits and the groans deepen and intensify. A sudden gasp and yelp, and now she is panting quickly with the shock of her baby’s head stretching her open with a hot burn that takes the breath out of her body. The woman, numb from the stretch, breathes silently, eyes focused steadily ahead as the moment lingers. Now the urge builds again, the stretching starts and then, emerging slowly, glistening and dark amid the wolf-like howling, a head! The baby faces away from its mother and she looks straight ahead, searching for reassurance, almost oblivious now to the nature of her work and suddenly freed for a moment or two from the stretch that made white stars dance in her eyes.

Perfectly still, silent, the baby stays, head out, aware of the cool air around its face; its body held tight inside the mother for a minute before gently turning slightly to bring it around ready to emerge. As the baby’s body turns inside, the head turns too, bringing the tiny, scrunched-up face into view. Dark skin, bubbles of fluid popping at the mouth, eyes clenched tightly shut. The mother, wondering what is emerging from her body, reaches down between her legs and the baby, in response to its mother’s touch, wiggles its head ever so slightly. Shocked, the mother draws her hands away, holding sticky fingers star-like in the air as the urgent, irresistible force of another wave rocks her body one last time.

On a wave of shiny fluid, accompanied by one long, low hum, like a grateful hymn, the baby finally slips out onto the dusty floor. The baby, lying like a landed fish between its stunned mother’s legs, takes a minute to respond. Its mother, likewise, does not grab her new baby but looks lost, unaware momentarily of quite what has happened …

… and now she moves. Hands between her legs, searching, finding her baby and drawing it up into her hot arms, close to her, where she can just see in the dim light of her cave shelter that she has a girl! The thick cord hanging warmly from her daughter’s belly to her own vagina, swollen and numb from the birth, still pulses with blood from the placenta, giving her baby enough time to adjust to her new surroundings. Even now, as she starts to cough and cry little bubbly cries, her heart is adjusting to the outside world: her circulation changing as some valves snap shut for good, no longer needed now the baby is starting to breathe for herself and her once-blue body gradually infuses to pink.

Now the new baby smells her mother, like a small, snuffly hedgehog in the dark. Her own amniotic fluid, still warm and slippery, mingling with her mother’s salty sweat. Her tongue creeps out and licks around, catching the sea tang of her mother that seals her forever-knowledge of who she must cling to now. And at the same time another sound, another sniff but this one long and deep, like the drawing in of the first sweet air of morning. The newly birthed mother, sticky hands steadying her slippery eel-child on her chest, is smelling her too! She doesn’t even know she is doing it. As the mother–baby dance begins, the new cries build and the mother, high on a sea of adrenaline, learns it by heart in that moment. From now on this cry will touch her in a way that no other baby cry has before. It is part of her own experience, a reminder of the struggle she endured to bring this baby into the world. While others may be able to turn away from this noise, it will reach straight into her heart and wrench at it until she responds. Even now, that first cry is working its purpose: mother shushes gently into her daughter’s ear, muttering and gently calling to her. No words are needed; the gentle sounds, mixed with the warm smells and touch, signal that this is sanctuary.

Before the cord has even broken, or the afterbirth pushed out, the baby bobs her head about. Her hands opening and shutting, grasping at flesh, legs pushing over and over against her mother’s damp, warm skin, gradually moving her just-landed body, heavy in the air, over her mother’s chest. She snuffles and bobs, cries and then falls quietly asleep for a moment before moving again. Creeping around, more sniffing, more bobbing. Slowly, so slowly, she searches for something of which she has no knowledge, no understanding: a nipple. Her eyes opening in the easy natural just-light, she is drawn to an area of contrast, where the flesh of her mother’s chest meets the darker flesh of her areola. No smudged line here but a sharp edge between light and dark, with an oily aroma that tickles her nose. Irresistible. She reaches her destination and then falls asleep, again! Her tired but alert mother wraps her close, beginning to feel cramping again, softer now than the sweeping torrents an hour ago but intense all the same and accompanied by a deep fullness in her vagina. Moaning and grasping at her baby, she lurches upright and the warm afterbirth falls heavily out. Another second of surprise before she turns back to her baby, who has, while her mother’s attention was away, drawn herself onto the dark nipple, pulling it deep into her mouth.

Adrenaline seeps slowly away as endorphins start to flood mother and her newborn. Eyes glazing over, the mother starts to shiver and her companions, having broken the cord and hidden the placenta from the attention of hunting animals, cover the pair and snuggle up nearby for added safety and warmth. The mother and baby, the two who have had the hardest of days, are wide awake, staring at each other in the dark, eyes just inches apart.

We will leave our primitive family now and check back over the next few days and months. They remind us of where we came from and can help us find our own way back to a calmer, more settled experience of parenting in the modern world.

 

Highly evolved beings

Modern life can look so very different from that of the earliest humans, but some things bind us together in our experience. Birthing our babies, bringing a new human being into the world, discovering our child for the first time – none of this has changed in thousands of years. Whatever our birth story, we are linked, down through generations as far back as you care to go, to our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, to our friends and to strangers. All highly evolved to carry, birth and protect the next generation. This simple knowledge is at the heart of this book: you and your baby are the highly evolved survivors carrying, silently and without realising it, the knowledge and ability to do just fine.

Of course, life is complex and noisy and we can’t get away from that – the house must be cleaned, the car must be serviced, the shopping must be done, not to mention the emails that must be answered! But mothering our baby does not need to be scary or fraught with impractical rules. If we can relax and watch evolution at play, just as we did at the start of this book, we will realise that, far from needing to learn how to wrestle our newborn into some book-invented, regulated creature to save us from creating ‘a rod for our own back’, our babies will show us perfectly well what it is to be a new human and we can find ourselves just simply responding. So scary to think that we should know what to do and how to teach this tiny being; how much more fascinating and creative to watch and learn from evolution itself.

The newborn baby comes with its very own set of reflexes and instincts. These have evolved over many millions of years for one purpose: to ensure survival. The process has been long and messy: in order to achieve the survival of the fittest, a lot of weaker babies have been lost along the way. This is how evolution works, whether we like it or not. Other branches of early human-like creatures became extinct while our own branch strengthened and evolved, gradually getting better and better at adapting and surviving. We developed language and social structures, discovered fire and cooking, and learned to control our environment. The rate of the explosion of knowledge and learning has been staggering and we now feel so sophisticated and smart in comparison to our early ancestors that we forget that they had to survive against the odds.

But our babies are not sophisticated like us. They are not able in their earliest weeks to make choices and conscious efforts to control their environment. They are little bundles of instinct, without critical thinking, and this is what keeps them safe.

 

Birthing instincts

Think about a modern birthing scene. Mentally strip away the buzzers, lights and machines, and you will see the same things happening as in our primitive birth scenario – even in assisted births, many of these things still happen, and are noticed by the midwife, although the mother may not be aware of them. Here we’ll examine what the mother may experience while birthing her baby naturally, and what she may feel without any epidural. If you had an assisted delivery or Caesarean, you may feel robbed of some of the emotions and experiences described above and grieve for them even though your baby was born safe and healthy. Turn to the Q&A section of this chapter for more on how you can capture some moments of wonder, whatever your birth story.

 

The importance of healthy bacteria

The baby comes into the world, generally speaking, facing downwards towards the mother’s bottom, the mother’s pelvis perfectly shaped to help this happen. This may seem odd – why wouldn’t the baby want to see the mother looking down at her? But in our ancient scenario the gloom would make seeing a face difficult, and babies cannot clearly see that far (they have no need to). There is something more important right now to the baby’s long-term survival: this baby is just about to exit a bug-free environment and enter a very dirty world! Facing the mother’s bottom as she emerges into the world allows the baby’s face to pick up some of the mother’s gut bacteria, which contain, among the bad bugs, millions of helpful bacteria that will get into the baby and help her to fight infection during the early days. What a brilliant adaptation!

But when I first trained as a midwife, and we knew a baby was about to be born, we swabbed the mother’s thighs, perineum and vulva enthusiastically with cleaning solutions. Apart from the horrible sensation of having cold water sloshed onto your delicate vulva during maximum stretch and concentration, it prevented the baby from naturally obtaining protection from the very bugs we were swilling away. Somehow we thought that babies should be born into a sterile environment because they lack the ability to fight off bugs, when all the while, had we looked back, we would have seen that evolution had taken care of things for us. Happily, we stopped doing this many years ago, but women still worry about being dirty when they give birth. Of course, the very first labour contractions usually cause the bowels to empty well before birth and, in any case, once the baby’s head is in the pelvis there really isn’t room for anything else, so pooing is not an issue. The vagina and perineum, uncleansed with chemicals, provide just the right number, type and mix of bugs to ensure that the infant skin and gut become quickly inhabited and protected.

 

How the ‘ouch’ of crowning protects us and baby

The birth of the head takes a few contractions, giving the vagina time to stretch gently and the baby to adjust to the different pressures in the outside world compared with those in the tightest parts of the pelvis. A very fast birth of the head can cause your baby to have quite a headache, so evolution has sorted that out for us and slowed it all down just enough. Women have huge, irresistible reflexes and urges and, in most cases, need absolutely no guidance as to how to birth their babies. Over millions of years we have evolved to do just the right things to keep us and our little ones safe. So, as the head crowns, the intense heat of the stretch causes women to gasp and pant, which, in turn, slows down the speed at which the head slides out, thereby adding protection. Women will often instinctively bring their thighs together a little as they gasp and pant away the burning and stretching and this adds further protection by steadying the pace and taking a little of the stretch off the perineum, protecting against tearing. We may wish the head could pop out double-quick, but this wouldn’t serve us or our baby at all well. And then, at the exact second the head finally births, as women we know for absolute certain exactly how a champagne bottle feels when the cork has been popped! The relief is instant, the contraction has ended, there are a couple of minutes before the next contraction comes, and, awash with adrenaline, women often start to talk animatedly, telling the midwife about their latest shopping trip while seemingly unaware that there is a baby’s head just outside their vagina! A midwife’s job is often a surreal one.

With the next contraction the baby’s body slithers out with a sudden rush, which can leave us feeling as if ‘someone has just walked over our grave’. More often than not, the midwife either quickly puts the warm newborn on the mother’s chest or suggests that the mother ‘takes’ the baby herself. Sometimes a midwife will let the baby lie, just as in primitive times, between the newly birthed mother’s thighs. In any event, the same thing happens if you watch closely: there is a brief moment during which the mother is not quite ready or aware. She doesn’t immediately engage with her baby but time stops for a tiny moment, a brief suspension in the clatter and noise. And then she shakes back to reality, takes her baby onto her chest and the sniffing begins!

 

Head back here next month to read the second part of chapter 1 “Your Baby Skin to Skin” and, if you can’t wait ’til then, follow this link to buy a copy …

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Biting the hand that feeds you!

As I settled down to tuck into my first (but very much NOT my last) mince pie of the Christmas season, a message pinged into my WhatsApp folder like a cheery little festive jingle. “Help!” … all my work messages start that way … “My 8 month old baby has started biting me when I feed her. What can I do?”

Another bite of mince pie and a glug of sherry (come on – it was Christmas!) to ease me into my reply and another message popped up, this time by Email, saying exactly the same thing. One sure way to ruin your mother’s Christmas? Take a hearty chunk out of her nipple!

Some babies are born with teeth: little razor-like pearls peeping out of pink gums. Most babies, however, get their first teeth some time between months 4 and 7 with the two bottom front teeth being the first to push their way through. After the two bottom front teeth come the two front top teeth and then, as time goes on, the gaps fill in.

As soon as your baby starts dribbling a lot, around the 2 to 3 month mark, the world and its mother will tell you that “she’s teething”. In fact, dribbling starts with babbling and coo-ing: extra saliva is produced to moisten the tongue, lips and gums for vocalisation and babies take time to learn how to keep the extra drool in their mouths. For at least a year and a half, any excess saliva simply escapes out of their mouth and covers your clean clothes just seconds after you’ve got dressed in the morning. There will be another increase in saliva production around the 5-6 month mark in preparation for starting family foods.

Having said that, you might notice EVEN more dribbling when a tooth is erupting but, given that the amount of dribbling in the baby over 3 months is so big, you’d be unwise to place a bet. Some babies do get a hot, red cheek, swollen gums, and an irresistible urge to gnaw on things when cutting a tooth but, more often than not, the first tooth appears some time after all teething symptoms have disappeared and you’ve stopped checking. There is no evidence that teething causes diarrhoea or a temperature so, if your baby seems unwell, see a doctor.

So, having admired the first pearly white, bought the first toothbrush and sickly-flavoured baby toothpaste, you’ll quickly realise that, because the tongue covers the bottom gum during feed times, boobling remains perfectly pain-free. And then one day …

She is boobling quite happily whist you catch up with your favourite Netflix box set. Just as you take a slurp of tea, your sweet little “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” baby pulls her tongue back and delivers a killer bite! You yank her off, yelling uncontrollably, tear at your shirt to inspect the damage (you just know that you’ll be missing a nipple now) and, at the same time, plonk your bemused child unceremoniously on the floor.

Satisfied that you still have two decorative nipples gracing your boobs, you’re suddenly drawn back to your nipper who is lying desolate on the floor, looking heartbroken and crying REAL TEARS! Guilt sears your soul and you grab her back into your arms, profuse with apologies, and plant her firmly back on the other boob.

Given the visible, and audible, shock that your little boobler experienced when she saw and heard you completely lose your rag, why then does she repeat the experience before the day is out? Surely she won’t want another heartbreak? How can you continue to booble your baby whilst preserving your nipples?

Not many babies bite the boob when their teeth first emerge but most do so eventually and it is tricky to know what causes that first chomp. In truth, the why does not matter overmuch. You simply want to know how to stop it before you become nipple-less. Mums generally say that the bite occurs either as their little one tries to come off the boob, or as he nods off for a good boob-in-mouth doze. He seems to forget where he is for a moment. Away in a milk-drunk haze, he starts to fall off and then jolts awake and clamps down. It isn’t meant and it isn’t personal. It certainly isn’t naughtiness but it is painful.

The reason why most mum’s get into a pickle of being repeatedly bitten is actually very simple … lack of congruency.

Congruency means harmony. When it comes to giving our babies and children clear messages, if we are not totally congruent, we can cause confusion and the message can be misunderstood.

Imagine that you have just bought a new outfit. You are thrilled to bits with your purchase and decide to show it off to your partner. “What d’you think?” you ask cheerily. Your partner looks you up and down, tightens their shoulders, furrows their brow, winces and then says, “Lovely!” in a tone of voice that says “It stinks!” You look crestfallen as you wail, “I thought you’d like it.” “I just said it was lovely didn’t I?” You know this conversation, we’ve all had them. Your partner maintains that, because they said the outfit was lovely, surely you should be delighted. What’s the point in you asking their opinion if nothing they say is right? You know that, no matter how much they protest, there is no doubt what was meant. Your partner was saying one thing, but everything about their face, body language and tone of voice said quite another.

We are essentially pre-verbal for many years. Sure we learn to talk our mother tongue from the first year but, long after we start to speak we continue to rely on the non-verbal cues to get us through a conversation safely. Indeed, as the scenario above demonstrates, even as adults, when there is a mismatch between the words and the body cues and tone, we will “go with” our first language: the non-verbal.

You think your baby understands every word you say, but he doesn’t. He is a master of the non-verbal and, if you give him a mixed message, he will go with the unspoken. So when your little baby sits howling on the floor whilst you tend to your poor, nipped nip, and you, overcome with guilt, turn your horror to a ready smile, soften your yell to a song and draw that rosebud mouth back to the scene of the crime with a warm apology, it is little wonder that you get nipped again. The message you have given has been, “Sorry poppet! My mistake! It’s perfectly fine to do that bitey thing. All’s fine now, carry on …”

Next time you get even the faintest hint of an impending bite, take your little one off quickly with a look that says, “No you don’t!” Bring her back in gingerly ensuring that your message is clear, “Go steady, sweetie. Mum’s nipples are a no-bite area”. If you’re too late and the teeth get there before you can swipe her off, do the honest thing: take her off, fast, and say as loudly as your poor nipple asks you to, “NO!” Don’t sugar-coat this with an apologetic smile or a tone of voice that says, “Gosh, what a busy day we’re having!” Be congruent. And when your nipper howls at being put on the floor whilst you tend to your own trauma, sort yourself out and then pick her up as nervously as you feel. Let your face show your anxiety as you tell her, “No biting!” No need for theatrical screaming. The tone of your voice, the look on your face and the hesitancy in your subsequent pick-up will be perfectly adequate.

Our babies and children need clear, un-muddled messages if they are to keep themselves from getting things wrong. Our children want to please us; they are desperate to learn how to get things right and we can help them, and ourselves, by just saying what we mean and meaning what we say.

NOTE: There seems to be a fashion on some social media breastfeeding groups for suggesting pulling a biting baby firmly into the breast to close off the nose and prevent breathing until the baby has no option but to let go. This is thought to frighten the baby enough to prevent further biting. This is unkind and potentially dangerous. It teaches your baby nothing about how we naturally deal with a hurt and sets a bad example to any older child watching of how to manage a biting baby. Just don’t ever do this!

The Book Launch!

My cheeks are aching from full-on smiling and I have an unmistakable bounce in my step this week.

After a year of really full-on work, my first book has finally launched and I have been partying!

Two years ago I was mooching about the kitchen trying to cobble together a supper from the can of beans and a bendy carrot that told me that it was Friday and a “big shop” was overdue. The phone rang, I handed the wooden spoon over to my husband and picked up. A voice I didn’t recognise told me that she had heard along the grapevine (namely, she had been drinking coffee with my sister) that I had some very interesting ideas on babies and parenting and that I had a book I wanted to write. “Er. No! I do write leaflets for my clients and I do have a somewhat unique approach to supporting women with their babies, but I hadn’t planned to write a book.”

I agreed to email over my leaflets and so began a relationship I was not looking for and a new line of work which I had never anticipated. Both have turned out to be unexpected joys.

It took a year of nagging from the mystery caller, who turned out to be a literary agent (Jane Maw), before I finally said “yes” to writing. By then there was a publishing house (Crimson Publishing) interested and I felt that I couldn’t keep people waiting any longer. Having decided what my theme would be, I was asked to write a book proposal. A what?? Jane sent me a “How to …” guide and I went through step by step. I clearly remember the anxiety of sending off my proposal, wondering if I had come anywhere close to what was being expected of me. It seemed that I had studied my guide correctly and the green “GO!” button got pressed.

Panic set in. No going back …

As always, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, I decided to make it into a project: I set down specific goals in my diary for the weeks and months ahead, decided how and where I was going to work and then I moved my other work around to make sure I could follow my plan. All that was left was to write.

The writing was actually the easy bit. My days are spent submerged in the world of the worried parent and so I simply drew on the thousands of conversations I have had over the years and just “talked” onto my keyboard. I was certain of my aim – to provide a reassuring read for mums and their partners to say “You are not alone, every new baby behaves like this and every new parent has the same worries. You are highly evolved to mother just beautifully and your baby is highly evolved to be perfect at being a baby. You are safe, so relax and enjoy getting to know one another.” I decided to root the book in the theory of evolution via a primitive back-story of a newly birthed mother. In this way I hoped to draw the reader’s eye back to her basic humanity, to learn to trust her own instincts as well as those of her baby, and to listen to her deepest and most primitive knowledge. A book then to say, “Stop reading this book and start reading your baby! Put down this book and pick up your baby!”

I am lucky enough to be a fast typist and also to work best when getting my head down for a long stretch – not for me the 20-minute burst of action followed by a break. When I write, I keep going without raising my eyes for up to six hours. Keeping to my schedule was not difficult and I found that I really enjoyed being locked away with my smart-tablet and my thoughts.

After the book was written, various people appeared as if by magic and the work got thoroughly edited (this was a very long, joint process between my editor and myself); a wonderful cover was designed; people were asked to read and provide testimonials; the font, text size and layout were all carefully chosen and then the book began the long round of promotion and publicity (another joint effort, this time between the publicist and myself). After all that, my book still wasn’t finished – a last-minute decision to drop the working title and find a new one resulted in the final perfect polish before “Your Baby Skin to Skin” went on sale.

So, there I was on Friday evening last week, dress, heels, make-up and hair duly on display, walking into the Bell Bookshop in Henley for a celebration, a party, a huge thank-you, and a grand letting-down of my carefully coiffured hair. And there, right in front of me on the bookshop shelves were myriad copies of my book! It looked so beautiful – clean, fresh, modern and utterly buy-able. It was simply thrilling.

Surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and my amazing production team, the evening went in a buzzy blur of book-signings, hugs, laughter, speeches and more than a little prosecco. Not a shred of nerves, just a happy delight in the knowledge that a job has been well done and that I have had the love and support of a whole army of people to see me through. It has been the ride of my life …

Resolutions

Happy New Year!

The fireworks have fizzled away, the chink of glasses is a distant memory and now it is back to work as usual. I remember the start of each new January school term as a child – newly sharpened pencils, school socks whiter than white and with springy elastic irritating my ankles, the sweet tang of anxious excitement as I strode out, full of good intentions to keep my pencils ever sharp and my socks permanently clean. A week in my pencils were chewed and my stained socks hung despondently over the tops of my scuffed shoes.

New Years Resolutions: I hate them! The cold, dark mornings and the dank evenings hardly inspire us to get out and get fit, or to eat more salad. The bar, set too high, is destined to fall as we crash, hungover, cold and miserable, headlong into it. I save my tough resolutions for the summer when I feel energised and sharp-minded. My January resolutions are of a more sumptuous kind – “eat more chocolate”, “always have a drink of red wine in the bath”, “enjoy sneezes” …

However, this year is a little different. Amongst my various charming and indulgent resolutions, I have snuck in a challenging one and so far, so good. I have resolved to avoid using the word “breastfeeding”.

I have long had a difficult relationship with the word: breast sounds so formal and joyless as well as simply not being the word we women use in everyday life. All the women I know only have breasts when they are poorly: as in “doctor, I have a pain/lump/weird thing in my breast”. At all other times we have boobs or tits. Some lucky women have bosoms. I do not possess anything ample enough to be granted that title so I have boobs. The word “breast” alienates young and old alike, not to mention our partners who, having enjoyed living with a frisky, fun-loving boob-owner, suddenly discovers he is living with a breast-owner and that screams “fusty old matron”! Certainly “breast” does not reflect the smoochy, squirty, crazy world of babies on boobs.

And “feeding”. This word, paired up with “breast” has, I believe, done more to harm women’s belief in their ability to nourish and soothe their own child than any other I can think of. Constantly drawing us to consider amounts and measurements, from the very outset women are destined to feel a failure.

Because babies don’t go to the boob to feed. Anyone who has ever lived with the muddle we call a baby knows that. They dive in at the slightest provocation  – too hot, too cold, too bored, too excited, morning, afternoon, evening, evening, evening, evening …

Babies want to suckle. It is at the boob that they can keep warm, settled, protected from infection, and safe from everything this scary new world can throw at them. Suckling causes a huge release of endorphins into the baby’s bloodstream to calm his nerves and relax his immature, spasming gut. If he needs extra soothing, he will squeeze down to make the boob give up some milk which is rich in this soporific drug and he will spend a few happy moments transported away to a sleepy boob heaven before the endorphins wear off and he comes to to start suckling again.

Evolution doesn’t need your vulnerable baby to feed and then come off and sleep in her crib. That would never do. Your little one cannot manage any of her systems right now. Her breathing, heart rate, thermostat, reflexes, immunity and gut are all completely erratic, deregulated and this is what keeps her safe: her little erratic system creates an internal chaos that drives her to do anything she can to get into arms and she will wriggle, root, writhe and yell until you can’t stand it anymore and haul her to your chest. Out plops a boob and this instant skin to skin calms the frantic systems down. Now her breathing, heart rate, temperature, reflexes and gut all quickly settle and her risk of infection plummets. This is called survival.

If a baby simple went to your boob to feed, she would guzzle her milk, go down in her crib happily and then spend too long away from this skin to skin security. So young babies have evolved to take any milk they might need interspersed with many long moments suckling but not taking milk.

Just like me when I have a damn good book to read but only £2.50 in my pocket, I can while away many a happy hour in Costa: a sip of coffee and then a minute or ten lost in a chapter, another sip and then an idle while spent in a pleasant reverie before returning to my book, then a swirl of my drink followed by a glug before heading back to my book again. Safe from the rain outside and without a care in the world. Why would I rush out to do battle with the germs and traffic?

So take a tip and ditch the terms “feeding”, “breastfeeding” and “cluster feeding” and choose a more honest one that doesn’t create unrealistic expectations that your “Coffee-Shop Baby” can never meet: suckle, nurse, cwtch, soothe, smooch, snuggle.

The Solstice

The Winter Solstice and I’m sitting here in bed, nursing my morning cup of tea brought to me, as ever, by my husband. He knows me well enough to understand that, for the first hour of my day, I am best left in my own space with a hot beverage to gently recover from my “it’s too early” fog. Best not to poke this particular bear before she has had a dribble of caffeine …

The Winter Solstice is my favourite day of the year. Not because I relish its dank gloom and oppressive chill but because it brings the promise of the next phase of the seasons – the gradual return of the sun; a lifting of spirits brought low by too many damp days; the day before we humans can emerge, blinking into the light to welcome what should surely be the real start of the New Year. And, paradoxically, on this darkest of all days in our northern hemisphere, I feel emotionally light, finally able to embrace the snuggle-down, wrap-up-warm, melancholy of Winter.

The beauty of the dark is in the awakening of our deeper senses. Robbed of light, we are more aware of the pleasure of touch, the depth of odours and the crackle of ice in the night air. Those senses that get bleached out in the glare of the sun, get their moment to romance us.

So on this, my very own New Year’s Eve, I turn, as always at the end of one year and the start of the next, to think about what the new year might bring to me and what I, in turn, might bring to it.

There is much that I hope the year will bring to me: more time to spend with my beautiful grandson to watch him discover the world with fresh eyes; exciting new learning opportunities as I step ever deeper into the world of publishing, culminating, on my husband’s April birthday, with the launch of my first book, “Your Baby Skin To Skin” (what a celebration that will be!); and more singing – much more singing. Singing with my close friend around her grand piano and sinking into our shared passion of classical music-making calms my ever-fidgety soul and soothes my needling anxieties in a way that nothing else can. More singing then …

What can I bring to the year?

Pondering my relationship with my work, quirky as it often is and steeped as I am in the world of hormones, peach-fresh babies and the milky haze of suckling, I feel that the time is right for me to create a new way of reaching women and their families, and the professionals who hope to support them. Some way of providing advice, ideas, tricks of the trade and simple across-the-ether hugs when it is 2am and the baby is crying AGAIN, or in the middle of the day when the pain from a bitten nipple threatens to derail a mum’s snatched moment of calm over a cappuccino.

I cannot always be at the end of a phone and my vast texting and emailing time spent supporting women sometimes threatens to overwhelm me to the point where there is no song long enough to settle my exhausted nerves.

There needs to be a place to go, quickly and privately, to find answers to those parenting questions that seem to attract endless conflicting advice and mythology when all that is needed is clarity and honesty.

So this blog will be that place. Somewhere I can bring my daily work worries which I have inherited willingly from my clients and offer up my ponderings. A place where women and their partners, and professionals can come when they are feeling worried, alone and vulnerable. They can come here, flailing for answers and, hopefully, find some. Those who know me well will not expect the conventional wisdom or earnest sops. My somewhat sideways look at life and my often irreverent language are legendary and as this is my blog, expect my voice, my language, my ways.

Over the year, I hope to build a body of posts covering every aspect of early parenting and infant feeding: from skin-to-skin to bleps and from sling-making to weaning. If your problem or worry or question is not listed here, let me know. This blog will be my offering to the year. A hand in the darkness and gloom so that we can journey along more confidently together.

Happy Solstice!