25 Sep

Book Review: Men, Love & Birth by Mark Harris

I have been waiting to get my hands on this book for some time! Mark is my co-presenter on Sprogcast and the last few months have seen him working hard to get the book finished. I’ve seen and heard snippets of it, and I have been intrigued.

Billed as “The book about being present at birth that your pregnant lover wants you to read,” this book is aimed predominantly at men as fathers-to-be and as birth partners. Mark has filled it with explanations of how we relate to people and the world around us, how hormones work for and against us during birth, and what actually happens during the birthing process. As such, it’s a useful read for anyone working in birth, as it does offer some refreshing perspectives.

Mark is garrulous in person and his chatty style comes across well on the page, successfully combining a grounded and down-to-earth approach with occasional forays into “new age wank” [p109], which some readers might find off-putting. I’d recommend sticking with it, as Mark acknowledges that it is hard to find more grounded language with which to discuss the interplay of hormones and energies between a man and a woman in the birth room. I forgive Mark his occasional generalisations about gender roles in the home, as they do make sense in the context of the book; but I wonder how readers would respond if it was a woman writing that “birth has been hijacked by men.” [p56]

The book sets out to give you “the tools to keep you grounded when adrenaline wants to sweep you off your feet;” [p36] and really does achieve that. Chapter two explains the role of hormones and suggests subtle ways to elevate levels of oxytocin; much of this advice is useful for relationships in general, and not just in this specific context. Chapter three advises men about looking after themselves, and the two chapters of dialogue between Mark and a group of men are packed with information, coping strategies, and advice about how to relate to midwives. Mark himself is an experienced midwife and can be considered an authority on this matter!

Chapter seven on breastfeeding is spot-on in terms of the accurate information offered, and covers a fair bit of political ground too. It is sad that NCT Breastfeeding Counsellors are not mentioned as an excellent source of support, and I felt it would be useful to include the helpline numbers, as in my experience, it is very often new fathers who call the line seeking help on their partners’ behalf.

Men, Love & Birth is humorous, practical, and pitched at just the right level for men who want to figure out what their role is in birth and early parenthood. It’s also rather saucy in places.

Disclosure 1: I was sent a free review copy of Men, Love & Birth by Pinter and Martin Publishers. To order your own copy with a 25% discount, just follow the link and use the discount code KH25 at the checkout.
Disclosure 2: You can’t not like Mark. I’d recommend going on one of his super workshops.

31 Mar

Dean’s birth story

Dean and Claire were on my first NCT Essentials course. Instead of coming along to session 4 of 5, they did this…

Firstly a little recap. Claire’s liver had been playing up so she was on medication and under consultant care. This involved blood tests that were taken on a Monday and the results given on a Wednesday. Last Wednesday we went in at 9am to find out how she was doing and where we were going from there, the options being full term or induced early. The results came in and everything was looking better as Claire was responding to the medication. Due to her age and the problems, Claire was booked in for an induction on her due date and I left to work in Scotland with 4 weeks in hand. I was going to have a nice lay-in at the hotel on Monday, grab a bike ride on the way back and be at NCT for 7.30pm. Read More

30 May

Book Review: Baby Management for Men, by Henk Hanssen

Author Henk Hanssen claims that fatherhood is his favourite subject, and a real sense of fun comes across in this warm and accessible little baby manual.

In this book, the father is the consummate manager. The family is your enterprise, the mother your producer, the baby your product. [p10]

Heavy on the business-speak and technical jargon, it might not appeal across the board, but beneath the veneer of gentle silliness, the book is packed with practical information. It addresses how the new father’s life will change, how to approach his employer with requests for paternity leave and flexible working hours, and directs the him to think about the kind of father he wants to be. It then goes on to describe in detail the baby’s appearance, likely behaviour, and maintenance required in the first year or so.

You might pick up a book with the title “Baby Management” expecting a rigid, parents-in-charge approach; in fact I would place this well towards the attachment parenting end of the spectrum. Hanssen encourages dads to be hands-on, and quotes evidence to show the benefits of an involved, engaged father, for the whole family.

My few criticisms of the book would include a raised eyebrow that the feeding section starts with expressing before actually addressing the subject of breastfeeding. Granted that’s because the focus is on how a dad can be involved with this, but I would rather see the emphasis on supporting the mother to establish breastfeeding first; there are lots of ways dads can help with this. Hanssen erroneously states that breastmilk can be kept in the fridge for up to 72 hours; most reliable sources state 5-7 days. Other than that, the section dealing with feeding is almost entirely accurate. Sadly when it comes to introducing solids, the advice given is rather old-fashioned purees-only approach.

The section on growth and development is particularly fascinating, and the book is well-referenced. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fathers-to-be.

To order Baby Management for Men with a 25% discount, just follow the link and use the discount code KH25 at the checkout.

01 May

Karen’s birth story

Pete is Karen’s partner of innumerable years. They live in sin.

I was woken at about 5am on a Friday morning. Karen was delicately whispering in my ear “Pete. Pete. Pete.” I grunted to acknowledge that I was listening. “My waters have just broken.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. I generally don’t know what to make of things when woken at 5am. Especially not back then. In fact, I think that might have only been the second time in my life that I had been woken at 5am (the first such incident being a fire alarm in a hotel in Swindon). Of course, since that day, I have become somewhat more accustomed to being woken at that merciless hour, or other comparably merciless ones.

Big deal, or not a big deal? I couldn’t decide. So we phoned the maternity unit at Heatherwood and asked them what they thought. Their consensus: no rush, come in in a few hours and we’ll see what gives. We went back to bed for a while, then had breakfast. All very leisurely. Nothing that we hadn’t anticipated.

In the hospital, we were quite surprised by the enthusiasm of the midwifes. I suppose we had been expecting weary, jaded, another-baby-whoop-de-doo sourpusses, but ended up finding ourselves surrounded by a small group who seemed even more excited than us! If there had been something remarkable about our case, then I could have understood that, but as far as I could see: so far, so textbook. It’s not a complaint, not in the slightest.

So they sent us back home for a little while. We didn’t know how long we’d be waiting, and I work fairly close to home, so I went into the office.

At about 1pm I got the phone call. A succinct “come home now.” Message received and understood. When I arrived back at the house, I found Karen and a friend (conveniently visiting for lunch that day) calmly drinking tea. Contractions were timed at 5 minutes apart, and though somewhat incapacitating for Karen, they didn’t seem to be killing her. My head briefly filled with the thought “well, fuck me, this is easy!” before I berated myself for being such a dumb, naive, optimistic idiot.

We phoned the hospital and they invited us in straight away. No rush, mind. No rush at all.

We were in the hospital at about 2:30pm. We established HQ and put on a CD. Over the first couple of hours the pain starts to increase, so we start applying countermeasures. We start with the TENS machine which is a real hit, and it gives me a great sense of purpose to be in control of the dials, setting the intensity according to what I perceived to be working for her. She also had some Entonox, which seemed effective, but after about half an hour was leaving her feeling dizzy and spaced-out, so she adjusted by taking smaller gulps until she found her equilibrium.

After that first couple of hours, we cautiously requested an examination. We were worried that she’d be barely dilated, but the midwife told us that it was 7cm. Fantastic, we thought, we’re almost done already! Half an hour later (now at 5pm, for those of you who have lost track) things started to kick into gear. Time for the final showdown. Game on. Or, in birthing parlance, “fetch a midwife, Pete.”

After about another half hour, I could see the top of the baby’s head with each push, but progress was very slow. With each contraction Karen was getting more and more tired, and I could sense that she was starting to despair. She wanted to get the job finished, but lacked the energy to do so. I knew that we couldn’t leave the baby in there and try again tomorrow, so I would have to do something drastic to focus her, Eye Of The Tiger style. So I leaned in and bit off her ear. She didn’t notice. She hasn’t noticed to this day. Strange, that.

Somehow, after about 45 minutes of this stalemate, we found hidden reserves and a little baby slipped out. And then it wasn’t a birthing story any more. More of a “watch Pete cry like a girl” story.

21 Feb

Support, Advice, and Parental Instinct

As a breastfeeding counsellor, I am sometimes asked why my antenatal classes do not go into great detail about problem solving when things go wrong. The pat answer to this, of course, is that every new family is unique, and I can’t possibly account for all the possible scenarios. I’m also wary of introducing a lot of potential pitfalls, and therefore undermining my own work to show that breastfeeding can be a straightforward experience, and that being well-prepared with an understanding of how it works is more useful than being armed with copious detail about problems that may not occur.

This is a dilemma for me, because to be realistic about breastfeeding as experienced by the majority of new mothers in the UK, I have to acknowledge that there are challenges. So one of my main objectives is to raise awareness of the huge amount of support available to new parents. If time permits, we compile a list, and the group is always impressed by how many people they can think of who might be able to help them over the first few weeks of their babies’ lives. Here are some of the ideas I usually see:

The real trick, though, is in figuring out which of these are sources of trustworthy information (or practical help); and which are, probably with the best intentions in the world, recycling myths and misinformation, or unhelpfully comparing your baby with theirs. But each of these different sources of support has its function, whether it’s sympathy and a cup of tea, the loan of a dvd box set to while away a marathon feeding session, or reassuring confirmation that what you and your baby are going through at any particular stage, is completely normal.

It can also take courage not to follow advice that does not feel right, especially when it comes from a figure of authority. So another of my objectives, both antenatally and postnatally, is to empower new parents to have confidence in their own parenting. We are among the first generations of parents to raise our children in isolation form the extended family, and there are huge commercial interests in undermining parental instincts.

It’s tough being a new parent in the 21st century, but remember that there are reliable sources of help, many of which are under-utilised. So don’t feel you have to struggle on alone, but do pick your support carefully.

Originally written as a guest post for the liberating blog, Free Your Parenting.

09 Aug

Breastfeeding: A dad’s guide

I responded on twitter to a recent post by DaddyBeGood about breastfeeding, ostensibly about how dads can get involved so they don’t feel like a spare limb. Now, there is substantial research literature about the impact on breastfeeding of a supportive and informed partner, including the paper I studied earlier this year. I am absolutely behind helping dads to help mums to breastfeed, but I think it’s a complex subject, and get frustrated by that lowest common denominator, the suggestion that dad can only help by giving baby a bottle of expressed milk.

I don’t wish to be harshly critical of the original post, but I would like to add some more ideas, and to explain why giving a bottle might not actually be that helpful.

I also want to put out there the suggestion that babies might benefit from their different carers loving them in different ways; a parent who does not feed the baby is giving love that is not associated with food. Might this be healthy for the child’s emotional development, and helpful for someone who wants to be able to settle and comfort the child without the assistance of lactating breasts?

Not a lot of bottle
Antenatally, I hear both mums- and dads-to-be ask about expressing milk, so that dad can give a bottle. I suspect that the dads are not always as enthusiastic about doing that 2am feed as their partners want them to be. I suspect also that mums are anxious about the responsibility of being the sole feeder, especially if breastfeeding is as difficult as they have heard it is. There’s also that survival thing where new mums are unconsciously determined to bond dad to baby so as not to be abandoned. And yes, of course some mums don’t want to breastfeed, and that’s their right.

But is it really so straightforward: Dad gives bottle, dad and baby bond, mum gets much-needed break?

Expressing is a chore. If breastfeeding is straightforward, then expressing is not going to be an easier option. Parents of newborn babies are usually experiencing a period of flux and uncertainty, and finding time to express a bottle of milk can be a challenge. Night-time breastfeeding can be less disruptive to everyone’s sleep than getting up to fetch and warm a bottle (and there’s no guarantee mum won’t wake anyway, either because baby cries while waiting for the bottle, or because the longer gap between feeds means, ironically, that she has to express some milk). Expressing milk is less efficient than breastfeeding, and it can knock mums’ confidence to find that it’s hard to pump large volumes of milk. It is not necessarily any quicker to bottle-feed a newborn than to breastfeed. And in those early days when mum’s milk supply is regulating to meet her baby’s need, expressing milk can upset the balance.

So what else can dad do?
To me, the idea that any carer must give a bottle in order to bond with a baby is one of the biggest booby traps of all.

When I meet new families to provide breastfeeding support, I see dads who are totally immersed in the experience of feeding their babies, and their focus is 100% on getting breastfeeding to work so that they can get away from the tyranny of expressing milk. Yes, men feel like a spare limb when they see their partner and child struggling with something as essential as feeding, but they are also learning very quickly what their part in the team is. There’s plenty of research on the benefits of skin to skin contact, and this does not just apply to mothers. Babies get comfort from being close to their fathers, from his familiar smell, the sound of his heartbeat, the rhythm of his breathing, the rumble of his voice. They get antibodies from his immune system. They get social stimulus from him making faces, amusement from him singing to them, security from his arms.

Bonding has the same chemical basis as falling in love: oxytocin and endorphins. If you listened in your antenatal class then you know how to increase levels of these hormones: through relaxation, laughter, touch, eye contact. So any interaction with your child that involves responding to their need for comfort will facilitate bonding. Responding to your baby’s needs helps them to trust you and to feel safe. You don’t have to be armed with a bottle of expressed milk to achieve this.

Dads can give mum a break not by interrupting the flow of breastfeeding, but by interacting with baby at other times. They can carry a colicky baby around in a sling or a baby carrier, bath baby (or bath with the baby), give the baby a massage. They can keep mum company during periods of intense feeding, help her to get comfortable, keep her fed and watered, and give her a hug when it’s needed.

Above everything else, dads can help their partners by getting informed about breastfeeding, and enabling them to access help if they need it.