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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!