08 Dec

Book Review: Breastfeeding Uncovered, by Amy Brown

Before reading Amy Brown’s book, I became aware of a highly critical review of it, written by someone who admitted to not having read it. She felt pretty strongly that the world doesn’t need any more books exhorting women to breastfeed.

Having actually read it myself, I get the feeling that Amy Brown would agree with that sentiment; and while Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who Really Decides How We Feed Our Babies comprehensively demonstrates the importance of breastfeeding for babies, mothers, and society, this is not a book telling mothers that they must breastfeed, but rather one that explains the complex range of reasons why so many of us don’t. It’s not even a book that is explicitly aimed at mothers, since it isn’t a how-to-breastfeed manual; and it is likely to be useful to a wide range of readers including new fathers, grandmothers, health professionals, and anyone supporting a breastfeeding mother. It also might be a helpful read for mothers who have stopped breastfeeding and perhaps have mixed feelings about that decision. And one final demographic: I’d recommend this to policy makers, politicians, budget holders, and anyone involved in public health promotion – these are the people who can really use this information to protect and support breastfeeding in a society that just doesn’t seem to get it.

Breastfeeding Uncovered addresses social, cultural and political issues; examines the impact of transition to motherhood; and talks about the reality of breastfeeding for modern families. There are some lovely clear explanations, for example the SIDS statistics in relation to bedsharing; and I found myself trying to memorise certain facts and phrases for use in my own work.

Amy Brown’s voice comes across very clearly, and initially I wasn’t sure if I would find the occasional sarcasm a bit annoying. But she uses it to make such good points that it’s pretty hard to get annoyed. She really just tells it like it is.

If I had to find gaps in this thorough work, I would like to see a little more mention of highly qualified volunteer Breastfeeding Counsellors such as those trained by NCT and ABM, who occupy the space between Lactation Consultants and Peer Supporters. There is also a vast network of support now available on social media and websites like Netmums, but perhaps that’s scope for the next book.

The real strength of Breastfeeding Uncovered is its firm grounding in an absolute wealth of evidence, both from the author’s own research and from many other reputable sources. Haters gonna hate, but they can’t actually argue that Amy Brown is wrong, or that she doesn’t understand the complexities of infant feeding, or that she is exhorting mothers to do things her way; to do so would indicate that they too have not read the book.

You can get a copy of Breastfeeding Uncovered here, with a 10% discount if you use the code SPROGCAST at the checkout.
Disclosure: Pinter & Martin sent me a free review copy of this book.

22 Apr

Modern Living and Mucky Kids

My reading material lately has been exhorting me to switch off my screens, talk to my child, and get out into the garden a bit more, to get my hands muddy. According to both Mama, and The Microbiome Effect, we are becoming physiologically and psychologically damaged by modern life.

According to Antonella Gambotto-Burke, mothers are damaging their children by existing in a society that doesn’t value motherhood. She longs for a time when children were healthier and happier, but doesn’t pinpoint exactly when that might have been. Recalling my own childhood in the 1970s and 80s, it’s true that I spent more time outdoors, but that might be because we lived in a Cumbrian village, not a Berkshire commuter town. I can also remember my mother working full time as well as running the home, and my father being far less hands-on and involved than my partner is in the home and in co-parenting our child. AGB claims that modern fathers are vanishing from their children’s lives, and an epidemic of divorce is ripping society apart. Again, my parents’ divorce when I was 15 was tough at the time, but the real tragedy would have been the misery of them staying together, especially if they had stayed together for the sake of my brother and me. I am certain that prioritising the children does not necessarily mean preserving the marriage.

Call me a hard-nosed bitch, but I can’t think of a time when children have been a higher priority both socially and within families. Look at the lengths some parents go to, to acquire them. We also have a wealth of knowledge about attachment and brain development, as well as a supportive network of health and social care professionals to help us use this knowledge. I’m not saying it’s adequate; the rate of closure of Children’s Centres is appalling; and there are countering social and financial pressures that keep parents at work more than most of them would probably like. But it is a lot more than my mum had. I wouldn’t say that society is failing mothers more now than at any time in the past; I would say that motherhood has never been a valued role, but to romanticise earlier times seems unhelpful.

Meanwhile in The Microbiome, Toni Harman tells me that now she knows what she does about the human microbiome, she aims to live a microbial life, getting a dog and doing the gardening, and eschewing the anti-bacterial in all its forms, because of the potential long-term effects on our health of a too-clean lifestyle. I discussed this with her for episode 13 of Sprogcast, and again it seems like modern technology is damaging babies, in this case by not seeding the gut with good bacteria at birth. Too many caesarean births and not enough breastfeeding means that the human race is gradually losing its ability to protect itself from disease. Scientists supporting this viewpoint make some strong theoretical arguments, but as yet the evidence simply does not exist. My fear is that a focus on speculation about damage to the microbiome distracts from the big issues around birth and breastfeeding, where we do have plenty of evidence about long term health consequences.

Having said that these books challenged me, I did find some points to agree with, and have tried to cut down on screen time at home. My partner and child indulge me but are less than thrilled about no-screen Sundays. The kid has disappeared off to play outside; I really must get him digitally tagged in some way…

11 Apr

Book Review – Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution, by Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Reading Mama is like reading two interleaving books: one collection of vignettes painting a glorious picture of Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s ineffable love for her daughter; and one collection of essays and interviews about parenting in the modern world. There is only the most tenuous connection between the two.

Taking them separately, the vignettes form a profound tribute to love of her family, with whimsical stories of moments when her daughter has made her proud; but also dark tales of her own childhood, displaying a deep resentment of her own emotionally absent parents. The link between the two books, such as it is, is the attempt to explore and understand her own experiences of mothering and being mothered, in the context of the pressures of today’s society. She has learned from her own mother that motherhood has little value in itself, and honestly reports on her realisation of the importance of the slow pace of parenting, that the little things: “kissing, nursing, coddling, caring,” (p60) are really not so little; and yet are perceived by society to be low priorities.

The thesis of the second book is that this society is broken when it comes to parenthood, in that nobody other than a few select parents actually value or appreciate what parenting is, and how it works. This is supported with reference to literature, and interviews with a number of experts who generally make strong statements about how parents (as a generic group) are getting it wrong. Presumably excluding themselves, they largely see parents as a feckless, economically-driven crowd, so welded to their smartphones that they are unable and unwilling to give their children the proper amount of attention. This dysfunctionality is blamed for a range of social and mental health disorders from autism to AGB’s brother’s suicide. There is much handwringing over examples of parenting that have been witnessed by AGB and her interviewees.

Some of the interviewees unfold coherent and interesting arguments demonstrating the feminist nature of motherhood. Stephanie Coontz extends this to argue for the democratisation of care in general. This was the book that I wanted and expected to read, and I was frustrated by the much less coherent inclusion for example of the slow chapter on slow living, and the absolutely harrowing chapter about IVF. Some of the conversations, however, explore the strange and fallacious idea that the world is an unhealthy place, “toxic to children,” (p100), as if there was a time when all childhood was blissful and perfect. Perhaps this was the 1970s; I’m fairly certain that for most of the existence of humanity, children have had to muddle along with the rest of us, taking greater responsibilities at a younger age, subject to real hardship. When the focus shifts to fatherhood, AGB accuses men of “vanishing” (p178) from their children’s lives, yet when in history have fathers been expected to be more hands-on? Steve Biddulph on p83 claims that the children of hunter-gatherers were smarter; how can he possibly know this? And how are modern children even comparable to those whose life expectance was a fraction of ours? Modern concepts of attachment parenting are a very different thing.

AGB is an intelligent writer, and she has had access to some big names in parenting and child psychology. Her feminism rings loud and clear through this book; this is her manifesto for a society that recognises the contribution of mothers. Without the anecdotal chapters, it would be a very earnest book, making some fairly controversial points. Perhaps controversy is necessary to kick-start this important conversation.

After a final chapter on the nature of marriage and what it means to her (a dogmatic view that only marriage – not cohabiting – can facilitate continuity and commitment), AGB bravely completes the book with a heartbreaking epilogue about the horribly ironic end of her own marriage, which must have broken down even as she was writing about her love for her husband. It is hard to read, after some of her strong words (supported by several of her interviewees) about couples not making enough effort to stay together for the sake of their children, and the contribution of divorce to the dysfunctional disconnectedness of society. One wonders where she can go from here, in her thinking and her writing.

Mama presents some important ideas, though none of them are particularly new. I am frustrated and conflicted by this book, which comes out of a deeply personal self-exploration: AGB’s discovery that motherhood should not, after all, be a lesser status; and her shock that the rest of society has not yet figured this out. Because the state of motherhood does include vulnerability, and sacrifice, and menial work; but that does not mean that it wrecks our lives or that we are lesser people for doing it. In many ways, the motherhood she discovered lives up to her own expectations, but she is able to recognise the strengths that mothers must find to fulfil this role in the face of society’s judgement, and the lack of support from the community:

“At the most vulnerable time of their lives, mothers are repeatedly failed by the community.” (p24)

This disconnected, tech-obsessed world is the one we have, and I would rather read a manifesto for the future than a polemic moan about the state of the present, suffused with nostalgia for a rose-tinted past. This is an interesting, challenging read, which left me with much to reflect on.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Mama by the publishers Pinter & Martin]

17 Mar

Book Review: The Psychology of Babies, by Lynne Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 Mar

Book Review: Why Perinatal Depression Matters, by Mia Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

03 Mar

Book Review: Beyond the Sling, by Mayim Bialik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 Feb

Book Review: Helping your baby to sleep, by Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor

Helping your baby to sleep is a book about being kind and gentle to your baby: a persuasive philosophy in anyone’s book. It is divided into two sections: the science of responsive parenting, and the practice of gently encouraging a baby to sleep. Its starting point is very much the argument that “bringing about change by causing a child to be distressed can never be considered a success.” (p.xxi)

Like many, many such books, authors Gethin and MacGregor explain the mechanisms of sleep: cycles of sleep, survival needs, and what exactly does “normal” mean, anyway? Each chapter has a nice summary of key points, useful if you are reading this as a sleep-deprived parent.

Having laid out the scientific support for responsive parenting, the case against sleep training in chapter four makes complete logical sense, if somewhat distressing reading in places.

Moving on to the practical section, they offer a range of “slow fixes” for helping babies to settle and parents to get a less disturbed night, appropriate for different ages and situations, as well as a chapter addressing most of the common sleep difficulties that parents experience.

The book finishes with a helpful section on self-care and support for parents, which really needs to be threaded throughout lest parents give up reading while it all still sounds rather onerous. Of course parents want to be gentle and responsive, but attachment parenting books can appear to ask a lot of parents at a challenging time in their lives. It really helps to have the science of brain development and attachment so clearly laid out, alongside quotations and ideas from other parents. The cartoon on page 130 seems very apt. Buy it and see for yourself!

28 Jan

Book Review: The Hypnobirthing Book, by Katharine Graves

Hypnobirthing is something I think I understand, without ever having read much about it. As a general topic, the background theory of pain and fear was one of the first truly “birthy” things I learned about; and this book offers a clear explanation of how that works, as well as the impact of language on a birthing mother’s state of mind. The whole thing is mind-blowingly logical, and Katharine Graves sets out the case beautifully.

I enjoy the writing style, which is, for me, the ideal combination of gentle and no-nonsense. I particularly like the author’s suggestion that if something she suggests seems wrong or sits uncomfortably, to research it and then, if you still want to, reject it: a good strategy for informed decision-making.

The Hypnobirthing Book covers the physiology of birth, the importance of the birth environment, and strategies for getting into a helpful mental and emotional place to cope with the experience of birth. These include many practical things such as relaxation scripts, as well as some strong advice about a woman’s rights during childbirth. As such it is quite an all-encompassing read and I would recommend it to anyone supporting women during birth or teaching parents-to-be about birth, as well as to pregnant women themselves.

As with most largely sensible books about birth, there is the usual dip into alternative therapy, which if it worked would be called therapy. If you have a skeptical nature, just skip this bit, as the rest of the book is superbly useful: clear, direct, and comprehensive.

22 Oct

Book Review: Fit To Bust, by Alison Blenkinsop

Fit To Bust is something of a jocular memoir about breastfeeding, full of historical fact, amusing anecdote, and “songs,” which are basically re-written lyrics to popular tunes. I particularly like Mammary, to the tune of Memory from Cats (p77).

I have had a few opportunities to flick through it before, but never owned my own copy until I came home one day to find that the postie had brought me a copy signed by the author. Apparently it was sent by my grandmother-in-law, a woman not known for her enthusiasm about breastfeeding, which of course makes this random gesture all the sweeter.

For a comical book, Fit To Bust is pretty thorough, and pleasingly well-referenced, and I would recommend it for readers who are interested in the social and historical context of breastfeeding. It does give some great how-to information as well as some practical strategies for various common challenges; but the main purpose of this book is as a celebration of breastfeeding in all its diverse glory. Blenkinsop’s depth of knowledge and enthusiastic passion shine through. It’s a fascinating book to dip into, and with her musical bent, I’m sure the author won’t mind if I conclude that she may be preaching to the choir. The choir is loving it.

Proceeds from Fit To Bust go to support the excellent Baby Milk Action.

19 Oct

Book Review: The Food of Love, by Kate Evans

The Food of Love is a fun breastfeeding guide full of Kate Evan’s clever pictures and even fuller with words. I think it is aimed at mums-to-be and new mums, but I think it’s also widely enjoyed by people working with new parents.

There is a lot to like about this book. Most of the cartoons are funny (some of them are a bit judgey), and it is jammed with a huge amount of well-researched information. Evans positions herself firmly at the Attachment Parenting end of the spectrum, and is more than capable of backing up her position with evidence. Unfortunately she doesn’t, always, which relegates a lot of her bold statements to opinion. The book would be much stronger if it was better referenced.

In the early chapters, Evans covers the basics of how breastfeeding works, using cartoons to demonstrate very clearly the mechanics of breastfeeding as well as a lot of the interesting sciencey stuff about breastmilk. The section on hand expressing is excellent; the section on positioning is surprisingly prescriptive – I’m sure laid-back Kate didn’t always sit bolt upright to breastfeed.

Evans’ passion and enthusiasm for breastfeeding comes across on page after page of often rather stream-of-consciousness text, as though she has scribbled down everything she can think of about breastfeeding, and when she runs out of that she goes on to talk about parenting in general, sleep, postnatal depression, relationship stuff, and toddler discipline. It’s a really useful general parenting book in that respect and could probably reach a wider market if sold as such.

I enjoyed the lovely bit on the evolutionary context of attachment theory, again illustrated with amusing drawings. Occasionally she follows a fairly idealistic opinion section with a contrasting realistic cartoon, for example the starfish baby in the middle of the bed showing the reality of co-sleeping for many parents.

We have the obligatory dip into alternative medicine (which if it worked would be called medicine), which is a shame when she’s so clear and comprehensive on brain chemistry and other sciencey stuff. The recommendation of homeopathic belladonna as a treatment for mastitis is a highway to a breast abscess.

The chapter offering solutions to common breastfeeding problems includes some excellent flowcharts (pp131-132), however the solutions offered are a bit garbled in places and there is no signposting to reputable breastfeeding support organisations such as NCT or ABM, nor any discussion of breastfeeding support groups (which surely would lend themselves well as subjects for caricature).

In summary, I loved parts of this book but not all of it. I probably would give it to a new parent, but not universally; I think some people might be more receptive to it than others. I’d love to see it repackaged as a general parenting book as it’s so good on attachment parenting. And I can strongly recommend Kate’s blog!