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.

29 Aug

Book Review: Growing Up Pregnant, by Deirdre Curley

I sat up in bed and admired all the women in the room. All of us had different birth stories, and we each realised how lucky we were to have healthy babies. Although we were all at different stages in our lives, we were all going to be going through the exact same transition into motherhood. (p184)

Deirdre Curley is pregnant and 19. She is surrounded by a supportive family and a loving partner. She really wants to be an actress, and she isn’t at all sure she wants to be a mum.

In Growing Up Pregnant, she tells the story, not just of pregnancy and birth, but all the things that bring her to this point. And then in detail she takes us through the months of her pregnancy, and the reader witnesses her maturing from good-time girl to “the most beautiful pregnant lady” one waitress has ever seen. When she and her partner make up their minds that they will be parents, they commit to the changes they need to make, even when it’s hard to adjust to the loss of old pleasures and still-partying friends. It’s so interesting to read about their mixed feelings as they adjust to this new lifestyle, and the strength and positivity they bring to it is admirable.

Deirdre pauses between each trimester to give a little rundown of what a pregnant woman might be experiencing, how her baby is developing, and any preparation she might consider doing. This includes the most down-to-earth “what to buy” lists of any pregnancy book I have read. She refrains from too much specific detail about pregnancy and birth, but gives a useful overview that would be relevant to a pregnant woman of any age.

This is a properly grounded book, both reflective and informative, and does as good a job as any (and better than most) of getting across what it’s really like to be pregnant and to have a baby. Although the focus is on pregnancy as a young mum, most of the feelings Deirdre expresses are pretty universal: what is happening to me? Will my body ever be the same again? Can I rely on the support of my partner? Am I going to be a good enough mum? Women twice her age think the same things.

I enjoyed taking this journey with Deirdre and her partner Gary, as they put down roots and prepare for the baby. The birth itself is well-written, and early motherhood is covered with both wistfulness and joy. It is a very realistic description and I would certainly recommend this book to pregnant women, whatever their age.

[Disclaimer: I was sent a free review copy of Growing Up Pregnant. You can order yours from Pinter & Martin, with a 10% discount at the checkout if you use the code SPROGCAST]

21 Jun

Book review: The Importance of Dads and Grandmas to the Breastfeeding Mother, by Wendy Jones

I would consider Dr Wendy Jones to be one of the most trustworthy resources on breastfeeding in the UK, particularly in her specialist area of breastfeeding and medication. This is a general book about breastfeeding, aimed at fathers and grandmothers. The dad-focus is on how to help (and a little bit of how not to) given that fathers may not fully appreciate the importance of their role to start with; and the granny-focus is on reframing some of the older generation’s expectations and preconceptions, given that they may have done things differently themselves.

Jones lays out the rationale for her advice, with a detailed explanation of what breastmilk is and how breastfeeding works. Each chapter includes a summary of take home messages, and she covers many “But what if…?” scenarios. Well-referenced, with a decent index and a list of helplines, this could be a very useful book. It’s worth pointing out that it covers formula feeding, sterilising equipment, and expressing in some detail too.

My small criticisms would be that the pictures are often small and unhelpful (although there are many good diagrams and tables of information), and being in black and white they are not at all useful for illustrating the colours of newborn poo or changes to a nipple after feeding. I disagree with Jones’ description of colic as pain/wind, when so many authoritative sources, including the NHS, define it as unexplained crying. Perhaps it is difficult to take the pharmacist hat off altogether.

Where Jones does take the pharmacist hat off, however, is in her friendly personal tone, and in the “bonus feature” of her own story about supporting her daughters with breastfeeding, which is fascinating and moving.

This is a book I will keep to hand as a good source of reliable information, and I would widely recommend it to breastfeeding supporters, and of course to Dads and Grandmas.

[Disclaimer: Wendy sent me a free review copy of her book – thank you! We had a chat with her on Sprogcast a little while ago; listen here]

20 Jun

Book Review: Why Starting Solids Matters, by Amy Brown

The subject of starting solids divides parents into those who trust their instincts and those who do not. Those who trust their instincts will enjoy this book, which offers evidence to help them make decisions; but they won’t need it. Those who do not, will find it insufficiently instructional. This is the eternal dilemma of the subject, and Amy Brown recognises that.

This is not a manual for introducing solids. It’s a really good resource, though, for anyone supporting parents in either state of mind. It is a sensible, well-researched little book, casting no moral judgement on any of the different options, even as it sets out the compelling arguments for waiting until around 6 months, and enabling babies to self-feed.

Why Starting Solids Matters gives us an interesting history of infant feeding, which lays foundations for the following chapters. It acknowledges the sparsity of good evidence around allergies, and really makes its point about the importance, above all else, of responsive feeding.

Closing with a ten-step summary and a long list of resources, and thoroughly referenced, Why Starting Solids Matters ticks all my boxes for a thoroughly useful book. I fervently hope that it will be as widely read as it deserves.

[Disclaimer: The publishers sent me a free review copy. You can buy it from their website, and get 10% discount with the code SPROGCAST]

09 Jun

Book Review: The Happy Birth Book, by Beverley Turner with Pam Wild

Beverley Turner’s Happy Birth Book was originally conceived as a handbook for people attending her high-end antenatal courses, and covers a huge range of topics in alphabetical order, so that readers may dip in or look up the thing they’re interested in. Hitting the same market at the same time as Clemmie Hooper (and with a matching cover image) and Milli Hill, Turner’s book lands somewhere between the two, closer in tone to Hooper, but in content to Hill. All three focus on active birth, but while Clemmie digresses into shopping lists, Milli and Bev are both encouraging women to get informed and assert their rights in the birthplace.

The Happy Birth Book is good for instructive diagrams, pithy descriptions (she’s especially good on labour), and a few moments of truly gritty realism which made me laugh out loud. There is a lot of ‘Bev’ and therefore a lot of opinion, and rather too much alternative therapy for my personal taste. I wasn’t too impressed by the breastfeeding information, which tends to give the impression that babies can be fed on a regular timetable, that mothers should eat well to maintain a good milk supply, and that breasts need time to fill up between feeds, none of which is scientifically accurate.

The A-Z approach doesn’t feel to me like the most intuitive way to organise the subject matter, and certainly going from skincare to stillbirth to stretch marks is a bit of a bumpy ride. On the other hand, it does make it – as intended – a book you can dip in and out of, and have to hand for extra information as needed. With its cheery, direct tone, it’s a good alternative for readers who might find the more comprehensive Positive Birth Book a bit too dense, and definitely more empowering than most of the mainstream birth books out there.

[Disclaimer: I was sent a free review copy by the author, and also had a lovely chat with her for the July episode of Sprogcast]