In my last post, I talked about the importance of immersing yourself in the bubble that surrounds you and your baby in the early weeks. For you, scary and uncertain as this time is, allowing the new role of mother to wash over you and for your other roles of partner, friend, daughter, worker to step aside for a little while can enable you to appreciate the strange and special early days and catch up with this tremendous change.
Not only is this important for you, but it’s pretty much essential for your baby. The whole idea of primary maternal preoccupation ensures that you are highly attuned to your baby’s needs, to promote their survival and ease their arrival into the noisy, bright and chaotic world. While you’re going through the biggest transition of your life, your baby is too. Literally. Just imagine lying in a flotation tank, comfortably suspended (ok, a little squashed) in a perfect balance of no hunger, no cold, just the familiar rhythm of a heartbeat, muffled noises and gentle rocking. And then the door opens and instead of being wrapped in a big fluffy dressing gown and handed a steaming cup of cocoa, a torch is shoved into your eyes, trance music is blasted into your ears and twenty people all poke at you wanting your attention. And you’re starving, and cold, and maybe you’ve pooed your pants. And you can’t do a damn thing about it because you can’t move. Wouldn’t you feel like crying?
Dr Harvey Karp, author of ‘The Happiest Baby on the Block’ has called the first three months of a baby’s life ‘The Fourth Trimester’ and suggests that parents treat themselves as a ‘walking uterus’. Your baby’s underdeveloped body echoes this. Born with a brain less than a third of the size of an adult brain (possibly as a more developed brain would mean a head that couldn’t fit through the bipedal pelvis), much of your child’s development will take place in the first year. His or her brain will grow by around 35% and, from about two months before birth, trillions of connections are made (and made and made and made – in fact, many more than we need, which is why some are ‘pruned’ from about 11 years of age to make your brain a very efficient organ indeed). In a sense, then, your baby is born as a parched sponge, soaking up every bit of information that comes its way. But also about as useful.
Emulating life in the womb for this frazzled, overwhelmed and overstimulated creature is one of the kindest things you can do for your newborn. For him or her, the only thing that has remained the same in the journey from the womb is you. If your only job for the next few weeks is gently helping your baby make the transformation from crinkly peanut to plump infant, it will set you both up for the coming months. Your newborn learns that the world isn’t such a scary place after all with you by their side, and you learn that you’re able to understand and soothe this little ball of mysteries.
Sounds easy, right?
The thing is, with all that growth going on in there, trying to make sense of noise and movement and sight when you don’t even know what’s a noise and what’s a movement… that little sponge can get very upset sometimes. Not even upset, but experience a ‘feeling storm’ of confused senses and emotions which results in an almighty howl. To you, it can seem like your newborn has two settings – life is ok, and EVERYTHING IS AWFUL!!!! And all of your energy can go into keeping things ok, only for it all to be ABSOLUTELY AWFUL!!!! again. And you can manage to get it back to being ok, but then you’ve got to carry on keeping it ok, you can’t go for a fag break, or a cup of tea break, you’ve just got to try and maintain this fragile equilibrium.
So what do you do? The temptation is to try and restore some sort of order. You’re not going to be one of those weary mums with a puke stained jumper and hair that hasn’t been washed in days. Right? But yet you have one of those tricky babies who won’t be put down, who is hungry yet again and will only sleep on you. You could, of course, keep trying, and eventually it’ll work. But remember that thing about the walking uterus? There’s a reason your baby doesn’t want to be put down – or be anywhere that isn’t warm, soft and with a heartbeat. And, sorry to say, but trying to encourage newborns to sleep anywhere else can increase stress for them – and for you when they wake up after ten minutes.
So why not just hold them? It’s all warm and snuggly, you get to smell that milky breath and they get exactly what they want. And what’s so bad about sitting on the sofa with a sleeping baby, perhaps watching a film or reading a book. Ok, it helps to get a glass of water first, a handy remote control and make sure you’ve been to the loo.
But what about the washing up? And the hoovering? And there’s the food shopping to do, and I need to get dressed. Plus if I keep holding him all the time, won’t he get dependent on that? And if I cuddle her to sleep, she’ll never sleep alone will she? Not to mention I’m exhausted and I need a bit of time out.
If we accept that babies are needy, and that they turn to us (and those around us) to meet their needs, how can we make that acceptable for us?
Usually at this point I would say something like, you’ve got to do what’s right for you and your family. And, of course, you do. But there’s something to be said for the fact that we in the West are very unusual in our insistence on getting babies to do things on their own as soon as they’re out of the womb. And sometimes it’s worth questioning all the voices which encourage you to do things one way – and listen to the little sponge who’s asking for something a little different.
So how do we meet that need to be close when, let’s face it, there are showers to be had and lunches to make? Let’s start with the practicalities. Parents (and grandparents, siblings and childminders) swear by slings to enable baby to get all the warmth and cosiness he or she needs while enabling you to have both hands free. Not only are there a whole host of benefits for the baby, but most slings cost a fraction of the price of a pram. There are a few things to consider though, not least the type of sling and position your baby is carried in (in short, facing you, with the chin away from the chest and with legs held in a ‘froggy’ position is best for baby).
Although ‘babywearing’ has become increasingly popular – and perhaps easy to dismiss as another parenting fad –this single behaviour can have an enormous impact. Way back in 1990, researchers found that carrying a baby in a soft carrier versus a separate seat promoted secure attachment, Let’s be clear here, this alone can have a positive impact on your relationship – who can argue with that?
There are other ‘behaviours’ too which can help your baby continue to feel connected. Staying with them during sleep ensures you are close at hand when they invariably wake up, maximises sleep for you and has the added bonus of making you feel like a pack of tangled up lions. And yes, I should say something here about safe sleeping practices but you are an intelligent human being who doesn’t want to squash your baby so let’s take that as a given. Plus, planned co-sleeping is hugely preferable to dozing off on the sofa. Feeding on demand rather than to a schedule also helps your baby feel that their needs will be met as they arise. If you’re breastfeeding, the emphasis here is on demand (which is actually pretty normal). In fact, these two practices are also closely linked. Sleeping with your baby has also been found to increase the likelihood that you will continue to breastfeed and, for the record, has actually been associated with a decreased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
And just to deal with the age old ‘but won’t all that make my baby really clingy’ argument – the beauty of the development of a secure attachment (more on attachment in another post) is that it will enable your baby to feel confident in exploring the world. So, less clingy (or, at least, it says so here and here). Ultimately, what all of these practices do is make it easier for you (or your partner) to respond to your infant, ensuring that all those new big terrifying sensations are dampened down and soothed away.
Of course these things may not be for you, and how quickly the transition is made from being held in utero to being a separate being ex utero will vary from family to family. And of course, I’m not saying that not doing these things will mean you’re going to f*&k up your kids (just as doing these things doesn’t guarantee you’re not!) But practicalities aside, what’s really important is that the only way you can really ‘hold’ your baby is if you feel held yourself. How do you meet those demands on less sleep than you’ve ever had and when you can barely remember your own name? Only if you hold yourself in your mind, by thinking about what you need to make this experience a pleasure rather than a stress. This might also mean reducing all the other demands you feel you have. By doing so, you might find that you have been working hard to meet demands that aren’t really there. People really won’t mind getting their own cup of tea when they come to visit, and you really don’t have to reply to all of those congratulations texts. Of course, sometimes the demands are urgent. But, as you’ll know when you’ve heard that piercing, angst ridden cry – nothing is as urgent as a newborn who needs attention.
It helps if you have others who can hold you too. Whether this means having someone on hand to pass you a glass of water when your little sponge has fallen asleep on you again, or to be the warm heartbeat while you have that shower, or even just to remind you that you’re still you and ask how you’re feeling. Or, sometimes, to really, truly hold you so you can have that warm heartbeat yourself.