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]

30 Jan

Book Review: The Breast Book, by Emma Pickett

Emma Pickett is just the person to write a book for confused or anxious or curious teenage girls. She has an abundant and fascinating knowledge of the subject, and a humorous, patient tone with which to impart it. What makes this book particularly special is the deep feminism that comes through on every page: your body is normal, your body is good, your body is your own for you to make decisions about.

The Breast Book covers how breasts grow, what they are for, and why society gives us such confusing messages about them. Illustrated with cartoons, photos, and anecdotes from women of all ages and one transman, it’s very accessible even for the younger reader. And while the younger reader may not take in all of this detail to start with, just owning this book means they have a reliable resource for when they are ready. It even includes sample notes to highlight in order to start a conversation with parents, should it feel too difficult to do this out loud. And parents, note: this book is not a substitute for talking to your daughter, but is an excellent companion.

29 Jan

Review: The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), by Philippa Perry

Disclosure: I’m a fan of Philippa Perry. I’ve read her other books and I’ve seen her speak a few times. When I saw that she had written a parenting book, I shamelessly pestered for a review copy and an interview for Sprogcast.

The book arrived (and the interview was arranged; aim for the stars, people). It says it is a parenting book for people who don’t buy parenting books, which seems like an unusual marketing strategy. I think what she means by this is that hers is a non-mainstream position, she doesn’t lay down the usual guidelines about how much sleep the baby needs or pussyfoot around with the whole “just do what’s right for you” approach; nor at any point does she list the useful gadgets and best possible wardrobe for the accessory-baby of your dreams.

TBYWYPHR(&YCWBGTYD) starts by looking at how you, the reader, were parented, and by encouraging some reflection on the impact this has had (or could in future have) on your parenting. There are some short exercises to help with this, and a couple of illustrative anecdotes. It’s about noticing your trigger points, being aware of negative self-talk and where that comes from, and avoiding judgement. These sound like straightforward ideas with sound reasoning behind them, until you ask yourself how to put them into practice.

Happily the rest of the book goes on to explore this process, by looking into the world of the child and showing how empathy and compassion can be such powerful tools both on an everyday basis, and in difficult situations. The chapter on pregnancy was of particular interest, as this is the one place where Perry really gets into the socio-cultural context of parenting. There is a lot more to say about the challenges that modern parents face, in a world where expectations of parents are at odds with this approach. And crucially, most parenting books don’t touch on this at all.

Perry uses her own life experiences to demonstrate some of her points, giving examples where she got it right, as well as examples of when she got it wrong but it turned out okay anyway. What I took from this was not that she was a smug perfect mother who always knew the right thing to say, no, but that none of us is perfect and that just because we get it wrong sometimes that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Parenting is, as Perry says, a long game with a high up-front investment in the relationship.

I felt that the book became increasingly practical, and I was particularly grateful for the ten or so pages on parenting teens (perhaps the next book could expand on this). Parents of toddlers would find it useful, especially on days when parenting feels like wading through mud, and not in a good way. Most people reading it will wish that they had read it sooner, so I am strongly recommending it for the expectant parents in your life, alongside a huge helping of support. While it’s never too late to do better, it’s definitely never too early to be more compassionate and understanding.

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.