02 Jul

Book Review: Expecting Better, by Emily Oster

This book has come across my radar a few times, so I finally got round to picking up a copy. I think my lateness to the Emily Oster party may be because I didn’t much enjoy Linda Geddes’ similar book Bumpology, so let’s put that one to bed straight away; this is much, much better than Bumpology.

Expecting Better is well written, with a personal but not annoyingly chatty tone, while also explaining very clearly how to understand some quite complex research, and incorporate that into one’s decision making. It is aimed at parents-to-be and its chronology starts with trying to conceive, and to my disappointment ends at the birth, although I now see that there is a follow up, cleverly named Crib Sheets, which I shall be purchasing as soon as I finish typing this.

The consequence of the book ending with the birth of Oster’s daughter is that I cannot apply my usual test, of checking the tone and accuracy of the breastfeeding section. I have had, instead, to apply my more shallow knowledge of pregnancy and birth, to decide how good I think Expecting Better is.

Oster uses her introduction to explain that, as she is an economist by trade, she likes to make decisions using data. Her model of decision making is to take the data, and combine it with your own personal set of pros and cons. This, then, is how she has set out her book; and while it would be impossible for her to have researched every possible issue that a pregnant woman might face, it’s clear that she has written mainly about those decisions that she personally had to make. So we get almost an entire chapter on caffeine, and two paragraphs on restricted growth and related decisions. However, that is not to say that she doesn’t cover enough; the book is comprehensive, obviously well-researched, and thoroughly referenced., and key points are summarised at the end of each section for when you don’t feel like reading every nuance of the different antenatal screening options.

Language and some content has been edited for UK publication, however Oster is in the USA and this does skew some of what she feels she needs to know about, and her general attitude to birth. She touches on the role of midwives, but knows that a doctor (and a doula – hooray!) will be present at her birth, and she will certainly not be allowed to eat during her labour. The research she looks at are mostly USA, UK, Australian and European, with some cultural comparison as well. The induction methods discussed are definitely american, and there is limited discussion of any pain management options other than epidural.

The implicit message of this book is that informed consent is not possible for the majority of parents-to-be, as the necessary information is not easily accessible. Oster clearly makes up her own mind on a number of issues, after being given scant or even incorrect information by her own healthcare professionals; interestingly she doesn’t seem to question routine vaginal examination, and she is certainly working from an all-that-matters-is-a-healthy-baby point of view.

I sound critical but I did enjoy this book, learned some interesting things about caffeine, and was reminded that I haven’t read so much detailed information on food poisoning since I took my Intermediate Food Hygiene certificate, a quarter of a century ago. Emily Oster is a one-woman systematic review, driven by her own need for evidence to support her decision making; and the book she has produced will undoubtedly be useful for other parents, albeit with the caveat about some of the information being less applicable in the UK.

27 Feb

Book Review: Why Homebirth Matters, by Natalie Meddings

Natalie Meddings is a doula and the founder of Tell Me A Good Birth Story, so sharing positive tales of birth is her way of life. She knows this subject extremely well, and has already covered it extensively in her previous book, How To Have A Baby. Her latest book fits nicely into the Why It Matters series, adding a good helping of How It Works so that this handy little text is both political and practical.

Meddings examines current attitudes to birth generally, and homebirth in particular, both from the medical perspective and that of the general public. However her own perspective, that “birth has never been safer” (p17) guides the reader as she explains the how and why of homebirth in a way that makes both logical and intuitive sense.

For expectant women and their partners, this book has a useful level of detail, making homebirth a realistic possibility, and without neglecting potential “forks in the road” (p109). This is a good resource for getting informed, and for navigating the various faces of the health service in a positive and productive way. This is the kind of little manual that you really could carry around with your pregnancy notes, dipping in as needed or wanted, to really immerse yourself in the way of birth.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of How To Have A Baby. I’d recommend it, and you can get a copy from the publisher, with a 10% discount if you use the code SPROGCAST at the checkout]

02 Feb

Book review: Hard Pushed, by Leah Hazard

Hard Pushed is a memoir of midwifery, drawn from Leah Hazard’s years of experience in the NHS. Leah’s words bring the reader right into the maternity ward, sketching her colleagues and the women she cares for with mostly loving detail. This is a very different book from Ellie Durant’s New Walk, but similarly gives a real feel for the pressures and joys of modern midwifery.

Hard Pushed is structured into pairs of chapters, briefly describing a theme, and then illustrating the theme with a story. We have Eleanor the lesbian mother, Star the hypnobirther, the 15 year old mum, the woman being pressured to breastfeed, the trafficked woman: composites and archetypes of the swirling complex mass of human need encountered in a midwife’s world. These women serve to illustrate what it’s like to be a midwife, and the real insight here is very much from a midwife’s perspective. So we see how incredibly hard midwives work, getting through the day on biscuits and coffee, with barely time to go to the loo; and this gives context to the irritation that comes across at the many tiny anxieties expressed by pregnant women, and the dialogue with women in labour that skates over informed consent (“‘We might have to make a wee cut,’ I call brightly.”) For any reader unaware of the overload on our maternity services, this is a very clear picture.

But Leah does write with love, and what comes across is the midwife every woman wants to meet in labour: intuitive, kind, skilled, and willing to bend the rules just enough to personalise care when it matters most. She writes with gentle humour, but doesn’t steer clear of the bleaker stories. And as in real life, leaves many of the vignettes with an unresolved ending, just as these women leave her maternity ward to get on with their own lives, unlikely to be seen again.

This is a book that can be read for easy entertainment, but the subtext is not hidden far below the surface: midwifery is a challenging vocation. It does me good to be reminded of the efforts going on behind the scenes, and to be thankful that there are women prepared to do this work in such trying circumstances.

[Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of Hard Pushed]

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]

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.]

08 Jan

Prepare for the worst

This week I’m hearing a lot from the 3rd Annual Birth Trauma Conference, particularly about mental health after birth, and how well prepared – or not – women feel. Milli Hill pointed out in a tweet what a straw man it is to blame antenatal preparation alone:

“Blame goes to antenatal teacher, or the woman herself…but oddly never to the system that doesn’t give women optimal chance of straightforward birth but instead often traumatises her. #birthtrauma18”

There are two things to look at here. One is how possible it really is to cover birth trauma and an issue as serious as postnatal psychosis, in a group of 8 couples (for your average NCT class), in a limited period of time and alongside other huge important topics, and in a context that is intended to empower women in the birthplace? The other is, how much impact does antenatal education have in the face of the barriers to straightforward birth including but not limited to lack of continuity of care, time pressures put on women by staff with time and protocol pressures on them, lack of real informed consent, and a society-wide assumption that birth is difficult and dangerous, and a healthy baby is all that matters? It’s a lot easier to say “NCT set me up to fail” than to acknowledge that the entire system sets women up to fail.

I spend much of my working hours and my voluntary time chipping away at the system, and write and broadcast constantly about those big issues. So let’s just look at that one smaller issue, how we tell a group of already-fearful pregnant women that birth might leave them with PTSD, without undoing all the work of empowering them to trust their bodies and birth their babies with as little unwanted intervention as possible. I can’t speak for all antenatal education (and let’s not forget that NCT isn’t the only provider of antenatal courses), but I can tell you about my own. I do this in small groups, providing a set of handouts and a case study for each group. The case studies cover baby blues, postnatal depression (men and women) and relationships and expectations after the birth. The handouts also mention postpartum psychosis. The ensuing discussion covers risk factors, symptoms, self-care, support, and so on. Some groups really engage with this, and often when someone has experience of depression, they make very valuable contributions. I’m always aware that there may be people who have experienced it and will stay very quiet. Once I observed an antenatal session where the practitioner covered feelings after birth immediately after doing a relaxation, and left the lights down low; in that atmosphere of safety and calm, a woman shared the story of her antenatal depression and it was powerful.

I just want to say that if even NCT, who have the best trained and most rigorously assessed antenatal practitioners out there, can’t always get this right for women, perhaps we need to go back and take on the difficult task of addressing the big issues, and work together instead of blaming – which potentially puts people off accessing valuable support and education. It’s also worth noting that antenatal educators of any brand don’t operate in a cheerful idealistic vacuum: we sit on Maternity Voices Partnerships, we campaign, we listen to women, we make and listen to podcasts, we are mothers; and we are involved in the system and we are active in trying to make it better. “Setting women up to fail” is an unfair accusation.

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.