17 Dec

Baby’s First Year, by Netmums with Hollie Smith

Having read the atrocious Netmums book on sleep, I had quite low expectations of Baby’s First Year. I was also looking at a 2009 edition, and presume that it has been modernised a little since publication. Nonetheless, I found it to contain a good range of highly practical tips, and a reasonably close representation of the evidence with regard to many of the subjects it covers.

Apart from the usual mythology about cabbage leaves and hindmilk, the breastfeeding sections are pretty accurate, although I was disappointed that breastfeeding is referred to as “extended” from seven months onwards. This easily-navigated little manual is also good on formula feeding, expressing, colic, and sex; but there is a huge gaping hole where the discussion of attachment and emotional development should be, which of course allows them to advocate the cruel and damaging practice of controlled crying. Tellingly, they refer to the “handful of child psychologists… [who] believe it could be damaging,” versus “a great many other experts” (none of whom are named) who think it’s fine. Nothing in the book is referenced, so really they can and do just say what they please.

The book is also quite poor on introducing solids, recommending waiting until six months but with only an aside about baby-led weaning (this being one of the topics which they may have updated, to reflect its increasing popularity).

Personally I am left cold by the many quotes pulled from Netmums message boards, but I guess that is their USP, and you can always skim them like I did. For a manual of the basics, Baby’s First Year is good on the first six months, but the second half is probably too general to be useful to most new mothers, who I expect would be figuring things out for themselves by that time, or seeking out more specialised guidance for the issues they might be experiencing. I’d tear this book in half before giving it to a friend, and wrap it with a copy of Sweet Sleep.

17 Mar

If only someone had told me…

In the first few weeks and months of parenthood, new mothers and fathers very often comment on the range of knowledge they were missing, and skills they didn’t have, to cope with this new experience. If they paid for antenatal classes, at least they have someone to blame for the gaping mismatch between expectation and reality; but the majority of new parents do very little formal preparation, and unsurprisingly say the same sort of things.

To misquote Tolstoy, “each new family is new in its own way.” This presents a challenge when it comes to helping a couple to prepare for parenthood. Living in the midst of extended family, as they might have done 100 years earlier, the whims and wiles of the newborn baby would have been somewhat less mysterious; or at least the family elders could have helped to unravel some of those mysteries. New mothers might have found themselves less isolated. New fathers might have had more clearly-defined roles. And there would have been none of this pesky research into attachment and brain development, less pressure to have it all, and not so much of an expectation to be the perfect parent.

“I wish someone had told me that cluster feeding is normal… that formula isn’t evil… what ‘broken sleep’ really means…” they say, or write, with the authority of the first fully enlightened human being to have studied this matter. Emerging from the newborn fug into the crystal clarity of a new mum or dad who is finally getting a bit of sleep, the simmering resentments about the truly unexpected turns in their road, and the vast range of surprises that society simply forgot to mention, become pronouncements upon The Things I Have Learned, From Which You Too Must Benefit.

As an antenatal educator, I am often advised of the many ways in which I failed to prepare people for what it’s really like to have a baby, and find yourself relentlessly on call to a tyrannical but adored bundle of cute, who speaks no language that you know, and for whose health and well-being you are entirely responsible.

And I know I would have mentioned cluster feeding, and can think of any number of reasons why they might not have really taken it on board: were they focused on the impending birth to the extent that this was too abstract to be meaningful? Did they think this would never happen to them? Was it one small forgotten detail, many weeks ago now, lost in the fog? Is it actually possible to convey the real intensity of early breastfeeding, with the language we have at our disposal?

I also know I didn’t say that that formula was evil. In fact I may well have given examples of making a positive decision to use it. I explained about milk supply and responsive parenting and feeding cues, but I don’t believe that formula is evil, so why would I have said it? Is it perhaps that they expected me to say that, and didn’t really listen to what I actually said? Or did someone else say it, and they misremember it as being me?

As for sleep: well, some babies sleep, and some babies don’t sleep, and your interpretation of broken might be different from mine. The challenge is to drill down through platitudes and unrealistic expectations, without frightening the living daylights out of people who can’t predict what’s coming their way. In a society where people with some medical or scientific authority still insist, in the face of the evidence, that babies “should” sleep in a certain way, it’s not surprising that the sporadic and uncontrollable nature of newborn sleep should be hard for parents to manage.

I call for people to carry on being this honest about their experiences as new parents, but not to assume their experience is universal, nor to blame the people offering information and support for the fact that parenthood is not, in every way, as you expected. Join your voice to ours in increasing the support available. Ask the government not to cut funding to essential services such as Children’s Centres and breastfeeding support groups. And don’t be part of the problem by telling other parents-to-be what to do: every new family is new in its own way.

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.]