27 Apr

In the red tent

I will be spending this weekend on study days all about processing ideas of birth and motherhood, and in preparation for that [and to avoid doing my tax return], I have been collecting up some bits and pieces to take with me.

The first thing I was asked for was easy: a poem or short piece of prose about birth or parenting. I’ve chosen an extract from Naomi Wolf’s book Misconceptions. The review linked here is rather critical, which makes me interested to re-read the book, as it has been a long time since I looked at it. However there is a page describing the experience of breastfeeding which I found graphically accurate the first time I read it. It’s too long to quote the whole thing here, but it ends: I had never in my life been able to make someone so happy so simply. That gives the impression of an idyllic description, but the entire quote is far from that.

The second thing I have to bring is a favourite short birth story that makes a point, and this I had to think about. I hear lots of birth stories and on reflection I find it hard to pull out a whole story in any kind of coherent detail. I thought I could use my own story, or a fictional birth story that I wrote, but both felt a bit like cheating. Then I remembered reading the story when my son was just over a year old, of journalist Leo Hickman supporting the birth of his third child at home, with the help of the ambulance operator. From the transcript you can tell that the operator is reading instructions from her screen, but she is so calm, clear and encouraging throughout, even when Hickman reports to her that the baby is still inside the sac, and then that there is a large quantity of meconium. She remains cool but not detached, and steers him through an unimaginably alarming experience. If you’re brave, you can listen to the whole call here.

Finally, I need a picture or a small object that holds special meaning for me in relation to birth or parenting. That I am going to have to think about.

I’m looking forward to spending the weekend with my colleagues talking about birth and motherhood in a supportive and safe environment. I think it will be both motivating and educational, and best of all, we are encouraged to bring our knitting!

24 Apr

Regression to the mean

Most weeks, someone will tell me they ‘swear by’ some remedy for one of the many woes of early parenting, and assure me that it has worked wonders. And then they will turn and tell the mum sitting next to them, who [unless healthily sceptical] will unquestioningly accept the recommendation without asking two very important questions:
1. Is there any evidence that it works?
2. Is there any evidence that it does harm?

Infacol is a prime example of a medication recommended widely and unscientifically by mums everywhere, but more worryingly, by GPs and Health Visitors, who must surely know that there is no evidence that it works. Breastfeeding Network has a useful paper [pdf] on colic which discusses Infacol and other remedies, concluding the research is a bit thin on the ground and there are various things you can try; and particularly for the breastfed baby, getting some support with breastfeeding may be key.

Here’s another one: Lansinoh prevents nipple pain. It doesn’t. Its only function is to heal damaged tissue. Nipple pain is almost always prevented (and resolved) by good attachment, and no amount of lanolin cream will facilitate good attachment. In fact, large amounts of it, making the breast slippery, will make it harder for the baby to stay comfortably latched on. In addition, the heavy marketing of Lansinoh reinforces mums’ certainty that breastfeeding will hurt, and is therefore a barrier to doing it at all.

Blogger Scepticon takes a look at amber teething beads and basically demolishes them as a remedy for the pain of teething. Teething is a tough time for parents as well as babies, and parents may feel helpless to alleviate the pain and misery, so it’s no wonder there’s such a market in remedies that are only anecdotally effective.

And when we are talking about our babies’ health, anecdotal is just not good enough. There is an ethical obligation on health professionals not to recommend something just because they have no other answers, but the fact is that few health professionals have the time to sit with an anxious parent and help her to work through her worries and gain confidence in what she is doing. Hence the quick fix: a formula top-up, controlled crying, dummies, all of which can be shown to cause harm.

But the anecdotes of one mum to another seem to carry even more weight at this vulnerable time, and is an inevitable result of the peer-support that we encourage. It’s hard to take that away from new parents, but it’s equally important to encourage them to ask those questions rather than accept at face value the claim that something works.

Regression fallacy.

18 Apr

What do we *really* need?

A friend recently sent me a long shopping list of things she might need when her first baby comes along in May. I set to with a red pen; the items in capitals are the ones I added. Of course, this is just my opinion, so what would you add or delete from the list?


  • moses basket + 2 sheets
    Don’t be surprised if baby doesn’t like it much. Try and get one second hand, and probably more sheets.
  • cot water proof mattress, 3 x sheets, 2-3 x blankets
    buy second hand and just get a new mattress. Current recommendation is for baby to sleep in your room for first 6 months to reduce risk of cot death, so check a cot will fit in your room. Possibly worth looking at co-sleeper cot like the bednest – look on ebay.
  • sleeping sack
    These are SO useful. You can definitely get in a nearly new sale.
  • baby monitor
    not needed until you’re likely to leave baby sleeping in another room – won’t happen in first few weeks
  • room thermometer not really needed
  • night light not needed until much later, but a low light in the bedroom is useful for night time feeding.
  • chest of drawers for clothes or, you know, a box!


  • 6-8 x sleep suits/long sleeved suits
    or more! But you’ll be given loads.
  • 6-8 x vests – short sleeved suits as above
  • 2 x cardigans knitters will knit these for you…
  • 2 x small trousers newborns don’t wear trousers. Sleep suits are where it’s at.
  • 2 x baby socks don’t be surprised if they never stay on tiny feet
  • 2 x hats see above re: knitters. Also, it will be summer.
  • 2-3 x mittens don’t need these unless you want some scratch mitts, which are not essential. Babies like to suck on their fingers for comfort.
  • bootees Not essential.

Bathroom stuff

  • changing mat very useful. Not essential because you could use a towel but not expensive so you may as well.
  • nappies You’ll do at least 10 changes a day to start with. But dad can always go to the shops for more.
  • nappy cream you don’t usually get much nappy rash in the beginning. You may well be given samples in the hospital and that should be enough to start with.
  • nappy bag (I do not want bin for nappies in the room/bathroom) you might change your mind 😉
  • baby bath support optional. Easiest way to bath a baby is to get in the big bath with him. Dad could do this.
  • bath thermometer not essential
  • towels (2-3 enough?) you don’t need special towels if you have some nice soft ones already.
  • loads of cotton wool pads (or cotton balls – which one is better?) cotton wool pleat – the sort you tear off in big chunks, is best. I also recommend washable wipes, e.g. cheap cotton facecloths cut into quarters. Cotton wool tends to smear the poo around a bit.
  • baby wipes (for later, first use cotton wool) yes, later, especially useful when you’re out
  • baby bath oil definitely not
  • baby shampoo no
  • baby sponge yes
  • baby lotion no – don’t bother with any toiletries, babies’ skin is very absorbent so you should only use water to begin with. Also, they don’t get very dirty. Sweet almond oil is a useful moisturizer, you can get it in health shops.
  • hair brush or comb (which one is better?) you don’t need either until baby gets some hair!
  • nail clippers (and file?) I liked clippers, other people like a file. You don’t need both.

Travel system

  • car seat you’ll need this, obviously. I think the sort where the car seat converts into a pushchair is useful, and you can use these from newborn.
  • pram Just make sure you can fold it, lift it, and fit shopping into the basket underneath. A cupholder is nice to have.
  • push chair later – at least 6 months.
  • sling really really useful. You may be able to find a local slingmeet group and try a few out. I absolutely loved the sling I had but if I was doing it again I’d go for a stretchy cloth wrap sort or a ring sling rather than a baby carrier sort. Ask for these as presents. You may even find that if you have one of these then you don’t need a pushchair or a pram at all.

Feeding items

  • breast pumps (automatic, and manual as well?) wait until you know why you need it.
  • muslin square (how many 10?) more!
  • bibs (how many? 6-8 enough??) not essential unless baby is very dribbly and you’re fussy about his outfits!
  • sterilising equipment most practical and cheap sterilizer is Milton tablets and a bucket of water. I wish I had known this.
  • feeding bottles only if it makes you feel better if you’ve got an emergency back up. If you need them in hospital, they will give you them. Otherwise it’s very easy to buy them if you need them.
  • formula (just in case I can’t breast feed) see above. And remember you can get a lot of support.
  • nasal aspirator (nose sucker) I have one somewhere. It was very useful. But revolting.
  • BREASTPADS you may not need them (not everyone leaks milk) but it’s definitely worth getting some to start off with. You can get washable ones which are good if you’re going to need a lot.
  • NURSING BRAS Get fitted around 37 weeks by a trained bra fitter. Have at least two plus a stretchy sleep bra.
  • NURSING NIGHTIE Night-time feeding will be that little bit easier if you are wearing something easily accessible.
  • DVD BOX SETS, KINDLE ETC you spend a lot of time sitting around feeding. May as well have something to do.


  • maternity pads get a few packets, this is the one thing you may not want to send Dad to the shops to buy. You might also want to get some very cheap pants or some disposable knickers, that you can just throw away. Post-birth blood loss can go on for a few weeks.
  • nursing bra get fitted at about 37 weeks by a trained fitter, and it’s useful to have two bras plus a stretchy sleep bra.
  • nipple cream Not essential – only useful if you have cracked, damaged nipples; and if this happens you could call your local breastfeeding counsellor for some help. You’ll probably get samples in hospital. The Medela pure-lan cream (yellow packaging) is cheaper than Lansinoh (purple packaging)
  • baby bag (I really do not like the style of them!! Could a small, comfy back-pack do, I have one.) your back pack will be perfect, just get a cheap folding changing mat to go in it, or get the Boots Bounty free bag and take the mat out of that.
  • dummy not recommended before breastfeeding is established (usually a few weeks)

Day time & play items

  • baby bouncer / rock chair useful. Buy secondhand.
  • baby gym mat not very useful before about 3 months, you could use a blanket on the floor.
  • nursery rhymes books not essential! You could read the BBC News website, baby will be most entertained by the sound of your voice and looking at your face.
  • baby toys as above
  • thermometer (ear one) Not essential. We don’t have one but I know some people like them.

What else would we need?????

  • Non-biological laundry detergent if you don’t already have it
  • Antibacterial handgel, especially useful for nappy changes when you’re out
  • Loose/stretchy t-shirts for easy breastfeeding (don’t buy special breastfeeding tops unless you really want to)
  • A freezer full of food that’s easy to heat up
  • I still find our nappy bucket useful, it’s one of the best things we bought. Not for dirty disposables but for any dirty laundry, washable wipes, muslins etc.
  • Chocolate.
  • The Analytical Armadillo has her own take on the subject:
    20 “Essential” Baby Items That Aren’t Essential…

12 Apr

Donating Breastmilk

Donated breastmilk can save the lives of premature and sick babies, whose immature digestive and immune systems are at even greater risk if given formula milk, than healthy term babies.

Here’s an article from The Daily Record about twins born at 24 weeks, who relied on donor milk for the first weeks of their lives:

Lynsey said: “I’m just so grateful. I’ll never be able to thank people personally but I’m convinced Emma wouldn’t be here without the donated breast milk from other mums.

Thayer Prime writes about her own experience of donating milk. She’s the only donor to her local milk bank, and will soon have to stop.

Here are the details of the UK Association of Milk Banks, in case you think this is something you could do.

01 Apr

Images of Breastfeeding

Part of our job is to normalise breastfeeding, and to fight against the systematic undermining of breastfeeding within our culture. Facebook has been deleting photographs of breastfeeding women for years, because someone somewhere finds them offensive. The Guardian and NCT have finally got on the case.

Rowan Davies in The Guardian stated that A society that is not prepared to accept the odd flash of nipple is a society that is not prepared to accept breastfeeding

She invited readers to:

try a little Facebook-busting. If you’d like to mail your pictures of nipple-accessorised breastfeeding to your.pictures@guardian.co.uk, the fearless folk at Comment is free will post them on the Guardian’s Facebook page, and see whether Facebook takes them down

And here’s what they reported:
The beautiful breastfeeding images Facebook is missing out on

Belinda Phipps, CEO of NCT, commented:
Sorry, Facebook – on breastfeeding you seem rather confused

And just to refer back to that original remark about normalising breastfeeding, The Alpha Parent has a lovely post showing breastfeeding depicted in children’s literature.


Views expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of NCT.