20 Dec

Book Review: Why the Politics of Breastfeeding Matter, by Gabrielle Palmer

This small book in the Why It Matter series from Pinter & Martin is a distillation of Palmer’s earlier, bigger book with a similar title: a good starting point from which to explore this huge and frankly upsetting subject.

Palmer begins with the well-established health case for supporting and protecting breastfeeding: more than 2,000 baby deaths per day worldwide, as a broad headline; and many far-reaching consequences that affect families every day, in the developed world and beyond. The history of commercial baby milk substitutes going back over 100 years is clearly explained, showing how the creation of a market, rather than the health and wellbeing of infants, has always been the industry’s main motivator. The book explores the ethics of testing the product on the market – also known as giving untested formula milk to babies; as well as the growth of the close relationship between health professionals and manufacturers. This relationship has led to the complete undermining and misunderstanding of normal breastfeeding, to the point at which breastfeeding failure is now framed as a “flaw of women’s bodies” (p45); meanwhile historical practices at the time of birth, and social pressures to parent in certain ways, sabotage the breastfeeding relationship and contribute to this vicious circle of ignorance.

Palmer explains why the ongoing Nestle boycott matters, why the WHO developed the International Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981, and how the milk manufacturers created unnecessary products like follow-on milk in order to exploit its loopholes. One unanticipated side effect of this was to present breastmilk purely as a food product, erasing the importance of the breastmilk relationship, and making it harder for society to value this fundamental aspect of motherhood.

The huge implications of all of this for global issues like poverty and climate change are introduced towards the end, leaving the reader potentially feeling angry and cheated by big business; and hopefully ready to fight for change.

Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Why The Politics of Breastfeeding Matter by the publisher; you can order it here, with a 10% discount at the checkout, using the code SPROGCAST.

21 Oct

Book review: Milk, by Emma Rosen

Emma Rosen knew she had a book in her, and motherhood gave her the material. Milk is, as subtitled, a story of breastfeeding in a society that’s forgotten how. The thing that will stay with me long after reading this, is how strongly I identified with her experience of feeding her first baby; and (although I never experienced this, having stopped at one), how healing I found it to read about her second birth, along with the feeding and mothering experience that I will always wonder if I could have had. I hope this book gets out to pregnant women, in that place where it is hard to grasp the reality of life with a baby, and prepares them just a little bit more to navigate those early months.

Emma’s book alternates between telling her own story, and telling the story of breastfeeding; and in doing so, places her own experience within the wider context of breastfeeding in 21st Century Britain, and in the world, and all of history. There is so much useful information here, and it is thoroughly referenced, too.

For anyone looking for insights into pregnancy, birth, and the world of a new mother, this is a really lovely read, and one that doesn’t shy away form the gritty reality of the physical and emotional changes of this momentous time. This might be the first time I’ve read a book that really succeeds in conveying that reality without either hyperbole or sugar coating. A properly good book.

[Disclaimer: I was sent a preview copy by the author. You can buy it from all the usual places.]

27 Aug

Book review: New Walk, by Ellie Durant

New Walk is the first novel of midwife Ellie Durant, and a fitting companion-piece to Alice Allan’s Open My Eyes from the same publisher. It tells the story of Chloe, a Leicester teenager who has been the responsible member of her family in the years since her mother died, and has finally decided to do something for herself, and applies to study midwifery.

The main philosophical theme of the book is that dilemma between selfishness and responsibility: do women have the right to decline medical advice? Or to choose what happens to their own bodies? And who has the power?

Chloe is a likeable character going through some tough times, supported (or not) by a diverse cast. The plot may not twist much, but it is soundly structured, satisfyingly ended, and well decorated with the details of Chloe’s learning about pregnancy and birth. Ellie Durant writes confidently about what she knows, giving this novel a sincere and grounded feel. It’s light reading with some darker tones: great summer lit.

[Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of New Walk by the publishers Pinter & Martin. Get yours here with a 10% discount at the checkout, using the code SPROGCAST]

07 Aug

Book Review: The Positive Breastfeeding Book, by Amy Brown

Amy Brown’s Positive Breastfeeding Book is presented as a companion to Milli Hill’s Positive Birth Book, sharing a cover design, a friendly, chatty tone, and an absolute compendium of information. 29 detailed chapters are interspersed with quotes from mothers and breastfeeding supporters, and interviews with some very respectable figures from the breastfeeding world, including Heather Trickey, Helen Ball, and everyone’s hero Dr Wendy Jones.

This book pulls no punches when it comes to explaining the impact and the importance of breastfeeding, and breaking down the cultural and commercial barriers that women face in a breastfeeding-unfriendly society. It takes a logical journey through the subject matter, from getting off to a good start, accessing good support, facing and resolving the challenges, to stopping breastfeeding. My favourite section is the lovely list of suggestions for how partners can support breastfeeding women, not one of which is to give a night time bottle. The book also includes two chapters I have never before seen in a breastfeeding book: infant feeding in an emergency, and a chapter on induced lactation that specifically addresses the needs of trans parents. This feels like a book very much for our time.

Technical information about breastfeeding is plentiful and accurate, supported by references and additional resources, such as videos to watch on hand expressing and the breastcrawl. At the end there is a chapter by chapter list of still more websites and books.

The Positive Breastfeeding Book is exactly what it says on the cover, and a very useful manual both for breastfeeding mothers and anyone supporting them.

[Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of The Positive Breastfeeding Book by the publishers; you can obtain your own copy here, not forgetting the 10% discount code SPROGCAST at the checkout]

03 Jun

Book Review: Inducing Labour: Making Informed Decisions, by Dr Sara Wickham

Sara Wickham’s new book Inducing Labour: Making Informed Decisions aims to explain the process of induction to parents and to professionals. It very clearly covers the how and why, and comprehensively goes into the risks and benefits of the most commonly encountered scenarios. Wickham argues strongly for women’s bodily autonomy and individualised care, and the whole book is set firmly within the evidence base. Her discussion of the evidence was for me (and unsurprisingly!) the strongest point of an all-round excellent book, and I was prompted to reflect on her point that we all interpret the evidence according to our existing biases.

This is a book written for women, addressing “you” the pregnant mother, but without holding back any technical points or difficult statistics. It is also an important read for antenatal teachers, midwives, and anyone supporting women to make decisions about their care. There are, for example, some useful points that a woman can use for agreeing a “due date” with her midwife or consultant, and some questions that are helpful to ask in order to ensure care is personalised rather than simply following a protocol. Above all, there is really clear information about the impact of induction in a number of different situations, and a good breakdown of statistics for example on the risk of stillbirth in older mothers, and how likely it is that earlier induction would make much difference to these stats (answer: not very likely).

In fact the message that comes across most clearly is to trust women and to trust women’s bodies. The evidence that induction routinely improves outcomes is simply not there, and anyone needing to argue that point with a clinician would find this book a really useful resource. In a culture where the baby’s safety is prioritised over everything, it is good to read a practical, straightforward discussion of why intervention is often not the best way to do no harm.

I was sent a free review copy of Inducing Labour. You can get more information here, and your own copy from here.

20 Apr

Book Review: Your No-Guilt Pregnancy Plan, by Rebecca Schiller

I’ve been waiting for this book for years – since my own pregnancy, in fact.

Rebecca Schiller, director of Birthrights, has created a manual for pregnancy, birth and the early weeks of parenthood, that is mother-centred and evidence-based, and achieves that incredibly difficult feat of getting the right tone when balancing those two things.

Your No-Guilt Pregnancy Plan – A revolutionary guide to pregnancy, birth and the weeks that follow skips the “your baby is the size of a walnut/pear/skateboard” theme that most writers on this subject consider to be mandatory, and focuses on what is happening to the woman: how she might be feeling, how her body is changing, how the pregnancy/baby affects her world. It includes exercises and checklists to help women reflect on their goals and enjoy the experience; and is kept completely up to date with an accompanying set of links to further reading and support on Rebecca’s own website.

As with most such books, there is a chronological approach. However some things you will not find in most such books are a clear emphasis on the rights of women, on the basis that when women are well cared-for and respected, outcomes improve for them and for their babies. It’s a very realistic book, and a fine example of giving information without advice. With one or two small exceptions, this book is about the reader, not the writer.

And so we come to the breastfeeding section, which you know I looked at first. It’s good. It covers the basics of milk supply and positioning, some of the early challenges, and where to go for help. This sits alongside clear guidance about formula feeding, and not a lactation cookie in sight.

The final chapter of the book helps the reader to refer back to relevant sections of the book, in order to create a personalised plan for pregnancy, birth and afterwards, including a going into labour checklist, and a ‘little black book’ of support for the early days, so you don’t have to figure it out when you need it.

This is the most realistic, practical and informal guide I have seen, and goes straight to the top of my pile of recommendations.

[Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Rebecca’s book.]

31 Dec

A trilogy of book reviews

These are the last three books I have read in 2017, a very satisfying year when it comes to reading. I am not sure how I have managed to find the time, but hope that a less crazy 2018 might mean even more reading time!

A Midwife’s Story – Penny Armstrong & Sheryl Feldman

In this memoir of midwifery among the Amish community, Penny Armstrong reflects on her growth and development as a midwife. It’s fascinating to see her confidence in straightforward birth in a home environment increase through experience. She is well-placed to make the comparison with hospital birth in the 1970s, and it is horrifying to note how little has changed. The vignettes of Amish life are also charming, and this is a well-written memoir – certainly the best story of midwifery I’ve read, thanks to writer Sheryl Feldman’s well-judged turn of phrase. I found it utterly absorbing.

[Disclosure: Pinter & Martin sent me a free review copy of this book; you can get a 10% discount on your copy if you use the offer code SPROGCAST at checkout on their website.]

How To Have A Baby – Natalie Meddings

How To Have A Baby is a doula in a book. It’s nearly a big enough book to fit in an actual doula, and crammed with wisdom (just the “big necessaries,” writes Natalie Meddings) sourced from her own experience and the stories of many mothers. Meddings’ tone, like the ideal doula, is firm but gentle, calm and encouraging.

The book takes the expectant mother through the usual route of pregnancy and planning, into labour, birth and the unexpected, and out the other side to feeding and newborn days. Descriptions are clear and “tips and tricks” are shared helpfully at every stage. Meddings is pragmatic and honest. Birth is discussed in terms of an involuntary bodily function, and how to create the optimal conditions for this to happen. Induction is presented as “a ticket on the intervention rollercoaster” (p116) which is an interesting choice of words, however the pages explaining induction are practical and compassionate, giving a clear idea of what happens and what can help.

This book is an excellent resource for birth planning. Meddings is very concerned with consent and human rights, both of which she covers very clearly; and this is her real strength. I much prefer these well-referenced and forthright pages, to the liberal sprinkling of homeopathy etc alongside the useful coping suggestions.

You are waiting to hear what I think of the breastfeeding information, so I won’t keep you in any more suspense. With contributions from Maddie McMahon, the importance of early feeding and skin to skin is discussed, and Meddings describes the newborn feeding reflexes and how to support the baby to self-attach. It is a little surprising when she goes on to describe a rather prescriptive way to hold the baby, which does not support those reflexes so well, given her let-nature-take-its-course-and-things-will-work approach to other aspects of birth and parenting. And sound the klaxon for “breastfeeding granola,” which looks delicious but should correctly be termed “granola,” given that breastfeeding experience is not generally influenced by the consumption of roasted oats and nuts and so on.

Matters are redeemed by the rest of the new-baby/new-mother section, referencing such respected authors as Naomi Stadlen and Deborah Jackson, and with plenty of exhortations to eat cake.

I think this book is jam-packed with stuff that would be useful during labour and birth, and it would set up a new mother nicely for those early days and beyond. Practically speaking, the book is probably a bit too chunky to carry around with you and make notes in, as Meddings suggests in the beginning; in fact I think it would work brilliantly as a loose-leaf binder (or perhaps an app), so the reader can pull out relevant sections as needed (which would facilitate reading whilst feeding). Some websites and numbers are given to access support but there could be a lot more of this. On the whole a very highly recommended book for practitioners and parents-to-be alike.

[Disclosure: Natalie sent me a free copy of her book to review – thank you!]

Eleven Hours – Pamela Erens

The last book I finished reading this year was perfect to follow these two, and I think I may even have bought it myself. In Eleven Hours, Lore is in labour, cared for by Franckline who is also in the early stages of pregnancy. As Lore’s contractions come and go, we learn both women’s sad stories: Franckline’s lost babies, and Lore’s lost love. Franckline’s midwifery is full of empathy and kindness, but this is starkly framed by the harsh restrictions and requirements of hospital policy, and the insensitive words and actions of her colleagues.

Lore arrives in the maternity ward alone, with a five page birth plan. Franckline is the only one to read and respect this, and does her best to steer things back towards Lore’s wishes, even as events keep on sliding off track. The labour progresses slowly, and then takes an unpredictable turn. Gripping fiction, and a great way to wrap up Meddings and Armstrong, and 2017.

12 Dec

Book Review: The Expectant Dad’s Handbook, by Dean Beaumont

This book came out a few years ago to accompany Dean Beaumont’s DaddyNatal antenatal course for men. It covers pregnancy, labour and birth, and life after birth, in a chatty but intelligent style, while keeping the focus firmly on the partner’s role in supporting the new mother or mother-to-be. I like Beaumont’s approach of describing the situation and the options available, and then exploring what the partner can do to give support.

As with all such books, the first chapter I looked at was the one on breastfeeding. Unlike the birth chapters, Beaumont gives no ‘how it works’ information, which is disappointing given that I often find the men in an antenatal session to be fascinated by the science. In a scant five pages, there is a little too much focus on how dads can get it wrong, and of course the inevitable suggestion that they can help out by giving a bottle, with little exploration of the complications that this can introduce. Formula feeding doesn’t get so much as a sidelong glance.

However, this is the weakest part of the book, and in fact the information on labour and on life with a new baby is thorough and evidence-based. I would recommend this book to an Expectant Dad, but I’d also suggest something a bit more comprehensive on feeding, alongside.

23 Nov

Book Review: Beautiful Birth, by Suzanne Yates

This is a nice book, a keeper for sure. Beautiful Birth is an attractive, slim volume with an immediate appeal to anyone looking for practical techniques for coping with childbirth.

It has two main sections. The first section covers breathing and visualisation, positions for labour, and massage. It gives an uncomplicated rationale for why these things are helpful, and a step by step approach to practicing them during pregnancy, and using them during labour. It does include a little more chinese medicine and shiatsu than I would normally be comfortable with, but actually the book is so useful that for once I’m not going to make snarky comments about that.

The second section is on preparing for birth, and is a straightforward explanation of what happens and how a woman can use the coping techniques from the first section, to help herself have a positive experience. Its approach to planning the birth is about connecting with yourself and reflecting on what kind of environment and support feels best. It touches on decision making when things don’t go to plan, and very briefly on the “fourth stage” of labour, meeting the baby.

I think most pregnant women could find something useful in Beautiful Birth, whatever kind of birth they are expecting; it’s never unhelpful to have some strategies for bringing calm. It’s a shame the pictures are not more ethnically diverse, but I would generally recommend this book.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy by the publishers. You can get hold of it here, with a 10% discount at the checkout using the code SPROGCAST]

22 Nov

Book Review: Truly Happy Baby, by Holly Willoughby

Truly Happy Baby – Holly Willoughby

First, a confession. My name’s Karen and I have no idea who Holly Willoughby is. Having browsed her book, I understand that she is a photogenic mother of three. I assume she’s also some sort of television personality, former pop star, or reality TV type. Why her views on how to parent your baby are important escapes me completely, but an antenatal session rarely goes by these days without someone mentioning her wonderful book.

So I have acquired the wonderful book, and set out to see just how wonderful it truly is.

Holly explains in her introduction that, on becoming a mother, she became the expert on motherhood, and immediately knew she would write a book telling other mothers all the things that nobody else tells them. This is a subject I may have touched on before. Holly’s approach is encouraging: trust your instinct, don’t expect too much too soon, be led by your baby. These are all very important points. She’s also going to be as honest as she can, and give you lots of top tips that worked for her, but you should still do your own thing because every baby is different, and everything will be alright because love.

The book begins with a chapter on feeding, in which she shares some useful information but in the most mealy-mouthed way in order to be inclusive of mums who give formula. In the first few pages Holly provides a useful shopping list, some nonsense about what to eat to “improve the quality and quantity of the milk you are producing” (p17) and a recipe for lactation cookies. There are some pictures to demonstrate positioning, none of which are laid back and there are some helpline numbers for support, none of which are the NCT. She also perpetuates the unhelpful idea of foremilk and hindmilk. Solutions offered for painful nipples are lanolin cream and nipple shields, and absolutely no mention of positioning and attachment, or skilled support.

Moving on to expressing, she points out that “you’ll feel like a cow” (p29), but does at least mention the role of oxytocin in expressing milk.

On formula, she lets us know that she paid a premium for one with a probiotic; other useful information she might have included is that all baby formula must be made to the same standard, and different manufacturers use different names for the same added, unnecessary probiotics. She does describe the recommended method of making up formula, but on the facing page another one of her great tips is not to bother doing it like that because it’s just too much faff to feed your baby safely.

I love the section on winding, in which she says “there’s never a good reason not to wind” (p43) and then goes on to give a good reason not to wind (i.e. your baby doesn’t have wind).

On weaning, again Holly plays fast and loose with the guidelines, because “ultimately it’s up to you.” (p46) Of course this is true, but how can she expect the poor harried mother to decide when the information she shares is so contradictory?

You’d think by this time I would have stopped reading in order to maintain my famous calm, but I couldn’t help dipping into the chapter on sleep. So far so good, we have lots of information about safe sleeping conditions; however within two paragraphs she tells us that co-sleeping is not a good idea, but she did it anyway… on a sofa bed! So about as unsafe as you can get. Remember, she says, do what works for you. Every baby is different. She can’t say that enough, she says. (She can).

Unsurprisingly, Holly recommends getting into a routine from three months. There are lots of nice clock-shaped charts, which she recommends not trying to follow too closely because they worked for her but every baby is different, etc. Apparently turkey is a good food for getting a baby to sleep, who knew. Let’s skip the bit about sleep training, and move on to the useful stuff on getting support for your own sleep deprivation.

The next chapter is on wellbeing, and is actually a very useful and comprehensive guide to caring for a newborn. I’d be inclined to pull this bit out of the book and offer it to people who feel they need some sort of baby manual; it’s far better than the rest of it.

Chapter four, named Lifestyle, seems to be an extension of the wellbeing chapter, with a few extra bits about how to register a birth and how to go on holiday with a baby. None of this is particularly ground-breaking or unavailable online.

And finally, Looking After You. Here we learn about piles and postnatal depression. Interestingly, we get fewer personal anecdotes in the pages about resuming your sex life, but Holly does advise that it’s scientific fact that new mothers don’t love their partners for the next 18 months. No reference is provided for this fascinating piece of research.

So in summary, Holly Willoughby has three babies, but all babies are different and you should do what’s right for you. For £16.99 you too can benefit from this profound wisdom.