21 Mar

Media manages to shut Jamie Oliver up over breastfeeding. Nice one.

As soon as Jamie Oliver opened his mouth, it was open season for bashing the breastfeeding supporters once again. To be fair, his choice of words was poor. ‘It’s easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free,’ he said. Well, it’s certainly free.

Cue a whole cornucopia of articles arguing the rest of those points, largely from journalists who experienced a variety of difficulties in feeding their own babies, most of whom seem to be using this most inappropriate platform to debrief their feelings of guilt and anger and disappointment.

The typical argument goes something like this:

He’s a man. How dare he stand up for women?
It’s not even true. How dare he say that breastfeeding is a good thing? Lots of women can’t do it. I couldn’t do it.
Breastfeeding support is all about pressuring you to continue. All my friends said so too.

This argument is generally concluded with either “I actually fed my baby for 18 months but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t;” or “I gave my baby formula and she’s fine and I’m fine so shut up.”

And this is how journalists manage to perpetuate the social and cultural difficulty of breastfeeding. I have no problem with them reminding us that breastfeeding can be hard; this is supported by experience and by evidence. The sadly now-discontinued Infant Feeding Survey showed in 2010 the drop-off rate from around 80% to around 55% of mothers breastfeeding their babies by six weeks, and 34% at six months (none of this is exclusive breastfeeding, just a baby getting any breastmilk at all). The 2005 survey showed that 90% of the mothers who stopped by six weeks, had planned to breastfeed for longer. This is the statistic that we should be shouting about, because this represents all that guilt and anger and disappointment.

We need to stop setting up straw man arguments like the Smug Self-Righteous Lactivist, and ask why councils are closing down breastfeeding support services run by highly-trained breastfeeding counsellors and attended by huge numbers of mothers. To take one example, 17% of all new mothers attended the Hampshire drop-ins, and 98% of them would recommend the service to others. This doesn’t speak of pushy, pressurising, “well-meaning” (translation: “ineffectual”) supporters who spout about “breast is best” and insist you carry on no matter what.

Generally speaking, breastfeeding counsellors are trained to listen and support women (and sometimes men); to give them a safe space to figure out what they want to do and how they want to do it; and to share information to help with that decision making. Breastfeeding counsellors don’t use words like “easy” and “convenient,” mainly because their experience is of working every single day with women who are not finding it easy or convenient. Nor do they use such phrases as “breast is best,” since they are well aware that parents tend not to make feeding decisions on the basis of evidence about nutrition. No, parents make decisions on the basis of what’s happening to them at the time. Telling a struggling mother to continue doing something that is making her miserable, because it is best for her child, is contrary to the philosophies and the training of all the UK breastfeeding support organisations.

Yes, Jamie oversimplified breastfeeding in his statement on the radio, but that was a droplet compared with the oversimplification of the state of breastfeeding that followed, media-wide. Well done for enabling a backlash that prevented someone speaking out for supporting women.

17 Mar

Book Review: The Psychology of Babies, by Lynne Murray

Lynne Murray is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at Reading University, and this is her second book. Her first book, The Social Baby, is an essential tool for most antenatal teachers, and really useful for parents too. The Psychology of Babies is a very detailed text on psychological development from birth to the age of 2, richly illustrated with photographed sequences showing interactions between babies and their parents.

Subtitled “How relationships support development,” the central focus is on how sensitive parenting supports a range of developments in the areas of social understanding and co-operation, attachment, self-regulation and control, and cognitive development. The book provides an academic level of information and is extremely well-referenced. It would certainly be useful to anyone studying child development or working with families and children. It may well also be interesting to parents, however there are more accessible texts such as What Every Parent Needs To Know, which I would be inclined to suggest as an alternative.

As a general read, I found it a bit heavy, and would be more likely to dip into particular sessions. In some places the photographs are too small for any useful detail to come across, although they are all captioned with explanations.

The chapter on self-regulation covers infant sleep, however there is a real contradiction in the way Murray writes about attachment, promoting sensitive parenting (see pages 74 and 78, for example), and the advice to discourage reliance on the parent when it comes to bedtime; and she fails to address the “ethical questions of whether it is acceptable to leave babies to cry for any length of time” (p164), in any meaningful way. It’s clear that despite her comments in the Independent interview linked above, she subscribes to the notion that babies shouldn’t rely on their parents to settle at night.

There is a very interesting section on supporting babies to settle into childcare settings, which could be useful and reassuring for parents in this situation. This includes discussion of research into the effects of childcare on social and emotional development, and the importance of high quality care.

The section covering the introduction of solid foods is disappointing, with its limited focus on spoon feeding, starting from five months, and nothing on developmental signs of being ready for solids, which arguably would fit the remit of this book.

The final part that I want to mention is the pages covering TV and books in relation to cognitive development. This is something that could be usefully and effectively shared with parents, particularly in light of the huge force of commercialism pressuring parents to buy Stuff to entertain and educate their children.

I enjoyed leafing through this book, and will take some ideas into my work, but it would not be the first book that I recommended for new parents to read.

17 Mar

If only someone had told me…

In the first few weeks and months of parenthood, new mothers and fathers very often comment on the range of knowledge they were missing, and skills they didn’t have, to cope with this new experience. If they paid for antenatal classes, at least they have someone to blame for the gaping mismatch between expectation and reality; but the majority of new parents do very little formal preparation, and unsurprisingly say the same sort of things.

To misquote Tolstoy, “each new family is new in its own way.” This presents a challenge when it comes to helping a couple to prepare for parenthood. Living in the midst of extended family, as they might have done 100 years earlier, the whims and wiles of the newborn baby would have been somewhat less mysterious; or at least the family elders could have helped to unravel some of those mysteries. New mothers might have found themselves less isolated. New fathers might have had more clearly-defined roles. And there would have been none of this pesky research into attachment and brain development, less pressure to have it all, and not so much of an expectation to be the perfect parent.

“I wish someone had told me that cluster feeding is normal… that formula isn’t evil… what ‘broken sleep’ really means…” they say, or write, with the authority of the first fully enlightened human being to have studied this matter. Emerging from the newborn fug into the crystal clarity of a new mum or dad who is finally getting a bit of sleep, the simmering resentments about the truly unexpected turns in their road, and the vast range of surprises that society simply forgot to mention, become pronouncements upon The Things I Have Learned, From Which You Too Must Benefit.

As an antenatal educator, I am often advised of the many ways in which I failed to prepare people for what it’s really like to have a baby, and find yourself relentlessly on call to a tyrannical but adored bundle of cute, who speaks no language that you know, and for whose health and well-being you are entirely responsible.

And I know I would have mentioned cluster feeding, and can think of any number of reasons why they might not have really taken it on board: were they focused on the impending birth to the extent that this was too abstract to be meaningful? Did they think this would never happen to them? Was it one small forgotten detail, many weeks ago now, lost in the fog? Is it actually possible to convey the real intensity of early breastfeeding, with the language we have at our disposal?

I also know I didn’t say that that formula was evil. In fact I may well have given examples of making a positive decision to use it. I explained about milk supply and responsive parenting and feeding cues, but I don’t believe that formula is evil, so why would I have said it? Is it perhaps that they expected me to say that, and didn’t really listen to what I actually said? Or did someone else say it, and they misremember it as being me?

As for sleep: well, some babies sleep, and some babies don’t sleep, and your interpretation of broken might be different from mine. The challenge is to drill down through platitudes and unrealistic expectations, without frightening the living daylights out of people who can’t predict what’s coming their way. In a society where people with some medical or scientific authority still insist, in the face of the evidence, that babies “should” sleep in a certain way, it’s not surprising that the sporadic and uncontrollable nature of newborn sleep should be hard for parents to manage.

I call for people to carry on being this honest about their experiences as new parents, but not to assume their experience is universal, nor to blame the people offering information and support for the fact that parenthood is not, in every way, as you expected. Join your voice to ours in increasing the support available. Ask the government not to cut funding to essential services such as Children’s Centres and breastfeeding support groups. And don’t be part of the problem by telling other parents-to-be what to do: every new family is new in its own way.

15 Mar

Book Review: Why Perinatal Depression Matters, by Mia Scotland

This is the first of the Why It Matters series that I have read, and I am deeply impressed that so much insightful information is packed into this densely thoughtful little book, although I feel that it may have the wrong title. I feel this because any new parent or parent-to-be could learn a huge amount about what they might feel or be feeling, why this happens, and many strategies to protect against or cope with it.

Psychologist Mia Scotland creates a very vivid picture of what perinatal depression is, for those who have never experienced it, and then sets it firmly in its cultural context. The central theme here is support, the concept of the village that it takes to raise a child, and how hard it is in these modern times to manage without this. Her writing style is strong and clear, and she includes a great explanation of research and evidence, and the limitations of applying these to individual circumstances. I found the whole book to be excellently evidence-based and sensible, and at the same time striking a mother-centred and deeply feminist tone.

Even though the section on actual therapy for perinatal depression is quite small, the book offers a range of preventative strategies that would certainly be useful for most new parents. Rather than simply exhorting the mother to seek support or take care of herself, Scotland has plenty of practical ideas about how she can do this, and how other people can help.

This is a sensible, informative book, which I would recommend to parents, expectant parents, and people who work with parents: an absolute must-read.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Why Perinatal Depression Matters, which you can obtain from the publisher’s website here.]

03 Mar

Book Review: Beyond the Sling, by Mayim Bialik

Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist, an actress, and with this book a real spokesperson for Attachment Parenting. If you imagine a spectrum with absolutely routine-focused, parent-led families at one end, and completely baby-led, bed-sharing, nappy-free families at the other end, then Bialik is telling a story set right at the tip of the baby-led end of that spectrum. The title “Beyond the sling” tells us just how far along it is.

As she tells us at the start, this is not a quick-fix parenting manual. Although she clearly is writing about what, in her view, is the best way to parent, she delivers most of this through anecdotes about her own family. I spoke to a new mother recently who liked that because it gave her a new perspective to think about, rather than telling her what to do.

Attachment Parenting considers parenting to be “the most natural and instinctual event on the planet.” (p11), fostering respectful and loving relationships between parent and child, and ensuring a securely attached, happy individual. Bialik argues that this process is innate and this outcome biologically inevitable, and devotes one chapter to explaining some very basic science behind attachment theory. This section was disappointingly thin on actual science.

Part Two of the book is entitled “What a baby needs,” and covers birth, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedsharing, and elimination communication, which she feels gave her a deep intuitive connection with her children. These chapters are mostly evidence-based, however they frame this style of parenting very much within the limitations of natural birth, exclusive breastfeeding, and easily cleanable floors, which I fear would make her exhortations inaccessible to many parents.

Part Three is about what babies don’t need, and while there is much to admire in keeping one’s home free of battery-operated toys, I absolutely cannot get behind her “informed decision” not to vaccinate her children, and feel that the resources offered to support this very brief section are rather one-sided.

The chapter on discipline gave me a lot to think about; I felt like I violently agreed or disagreed with every other paragraph. There is much clear and logical thinking about how to deal with behavioural matters, but many of the anecdotes about how she and her co-parent implement this thinking seem not to line up with the theory. I think that a child would understand “not for Miles” (p195) to mean exactly the same thing as “no,” but perhaps it depends on the parenting context. I feel like I must be missing some very subtle nuance here.

I would be unlikely to recommend this book to someone who hadn’t specifically asked for something on Attachment Parenting. I am uncomfortable with dogma at any end of the spectrum. Bialik states that “this is not a judgemental book,” nor is it one of those books that “make me feel that I am failing and inadequate,” (p13); and yet this is exactly how I felt reading it – and this is from the perspective of a straightforward birth, bedsharing, full term breastfeeding, and a pretty good grasp of brain development myself. When Bialik claims that she does not need to put her own needs on hold to parent in this extreme way, she also contradicts herself by repeatedly telling us how tired she is, but that it is the right thing to do. I think it would be okay to be honest about the amount of sacrifice needed to parent in this extreme way, and that there are parents who will choose it anyway, or moderate their approach to meet both their own needs, and those of their children.

Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Beyond The Sling by the publishers Pinter & Martin. You can currently buy it on their website for £6.99.