As a society we are so caught up in our individual lives that we fail to see that when we let down a mother (or father), we are letting down a child; and a child is a member of our society. We need to invest in supporting and educating parents, in order to invest in our children and raise healthy (both physically and mentally) and happy citizens, who will in turn invest in our world. Instead of fixing the damages that are done to children once they are adults, we need to start taking them more seriously as children. We need to treat them (as well as each other) with love and respect, value them and acknowledge that they too have rights. We need to see ALL of the children in the world as ours… as they are the future of our world and our existence. This starts with the parents; when a parent is alone, struggling and is not receiving the support they need, this also affects the child.
The Difficulties of Becoming a Parent in Today’s World
I live in the UK and like many other Western societies (not all, because some are pretty clued on!) I often find myself frustrated and asking the following questions… Why are we as a society so scared of being realistic? Why are we so afraid to talk about the difficulties that new mothers face? Why do we lie to first time parents? I understand that it’s not nice to focus on the negatives, and that becoming a parent is the most amazing and beautiful thing ever… however, we also need to tell first time parents the whole truth. Maybe, just maybe, it would help with the increasing rates of post-partum mental health issues.
In many ways it is harder now than it was in the past to become a parent. Of course there are so many advances (i.e. medically) that we need to be grateful for, we have more knowledge than we did in the past and the standard of living has generally improved. However, socially we have also regressed in many ways due to the system we live in. I am fully aware that we are extremely lucky for merely being born where we are and having the privileges we do (and me complaining about our system should not take away from that fact). I know that in the majority of the world parents are struggling to feed their babies, to provide shelter, the basic needs and an education, to give them the nourishment, nutrition and immunity that they need from the diseases they face and the unhygienic conditions they live in. We are extremely lucky, I get that, and I will do my best to make sure that my children get that too. However, it is almost more insulting to those that do not have the basic needs and rights, that we (by living in wealthier countries) have the resources and money yet we are still letting parents (and children) down in many other ways.
As I touched on the subject in my first post A Brief History of Parenting, people used to have their families and their communities around, they used to have a big support network to share the burden; they used to watch others (and help them) to raise their children, which would give them the knowledge and experience on what to actually expect. Moreover, children were growing up in highly social environments, constantly surrounded by other people. As humans we need this social interaction to learn and develop; yet children are missing out on this in the most crucial stages of their lives. Nowadays families and communities are drifting apart (for some both are completely non-existent) and we are becoming extremely individualistic and isolated societies. Mothers are often raising children as single parents, as their partners are required to work long hours and there is no one else around to help.
I recently watched a documentary called The Beginning of Life, where there was a statement which really got to me… ‘A mother could be crying in her apartment alone with her baby, and there’s another mother alone with her baby upstairs. And they can’t share anything. Isolation is very harmful for human beings; we live through language, contact and companionship’ – Episode 5:‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Child’.
For so many people there is no longer that extended family, friends, neighbours or other villagers that they can count on and turn to. The closest members of a family are even too busy with their own lives; a person’s family could literally live round the corner and they hardly ever see them. People are also becoming distant because they assume that the new family want their own space; yes this may be true at the beginning when the mother doesn’t want to be bombarded by visitors and needs that time to relax and bond with her baby… however, the majority of people would appreciate the offer of help or simply checking in to see if they are well. People come to see the baby, they buy a present (which is socially expected but let’s face it, although very kind, not what the parents really need) and then they leave without even asking if the mother needs any help or someone to talk to; I suspect in case it implies that she isn’t coping! At the fear of ‘what ifs’ and the risk of offending parents, we have become so unbelievably closed off. The thing that amazes me the most (which is very ironic) is that when you become a parent for the first time, EVERYONE HAS TO have an opinion and a suggestion about EVERY decision you make involving your child… yet people are too scared to even ask ‘how are you?’, ‘do you need me to do anything for you?’, ‘can I get you anything from the shop?’, ‘can I clean the house for you or cook you something, so you don’t have to?’, ‘This is one of the hardest times, how are you coping, do you need someone to talk to?’.
Breastfeeding is another topic which is not talked about enough (I have expanded on this further in my Breastfeeding article). Many women do not know what to expect and do not have the support to deal with the struggles and realities that they face. I recently heard a room full of women acknowledge this fact, yet a professional then said that all of the potential issues or obstacles of breastfeeding should not be mentioned to pregnant women, as it ‘is not necessary and may put them off’. I just wanted to scream ‘no, that’s not the point!’ Why are we so afraid of telling the whole truth? Why is it ‘unnecessary’ to discuss everything that could go wrong… have we become that lazy and afraid of educating ourselves that we only take information on a need to know basis? And have we become that lazy and afraid that women won’t breastfeed because there is a possibility of it being difficult? If many of these women will experience difficulties anyway, then isn’t it better to be prepared for them so that we can deal with them quickly? Maybe it’s just me, but I fail to understand why we always want to just give the bare minimum of information and advice, and avoid subjects that ‘may’ make people feel uncomfortable. I feel very sad that we have become so defensive to the point that nothing can be discussed without it being taken the wrong way. If this wasn’t the case, mental health would also be talked about a lot more openly, which I suspect for so many would prevent it in the first place!
Unfortunately social media has not helped either. We are constantly surrounded and bombarded by images and statuses telling the whole world what a wonderful life everyone has. Information and photos are filtered and people generally only see the positives (sometimes completely staged), rather than the reality. If anyone does talk about the realities they are then considered a drip! Moreover, people are choosing to interact through social media rather than face to face. Yes there are some fantastic support groups on social media (which I myself am actually extremely grateful for), but it is not the same… imagine having that support network around you face to face, especially when you are on your own and could really do with some help.
We need to have that open dialogue (that I keep banging on about!). We are completely failing new parents (especially mothers). Because the beginning IS bloody hard! When they DO struggle, when they DO find it difficult and they sit there in tears wishing there was someone who would just understand and acknowledge how hard it is, and when they DO end up with a postpartum mental health issue, then they are made to wonder if they are a terrible mother, abnormal or completely alone for having all of these feelings.
11 Things I Wish I Was Told During My Pregnancy
1. Supply of Food
I know this may seem like a silly one and has probably already crossed many people’s minds, but I feel there is no harm in sharing it. I would recommend preparing lots of meals and freezing them for after the baby is born, as you will be so tired and the last thing either of you will want to do is cook. If you’re lucky enough to have a family member/friend to cook fresh food for you then brilliant, but in this society sadly this is rarely the case. Buy plenty of HEALTHY snacks, as mum will get hungry regularly if breastfeeding and needs to look after herself (I was often found munching during the middle of the night!); and keep a bottle of water and muslin at hand at all times (breastfeeding is very thirsty work!).
If you are expecting a baby, you have no doubt already been told about the sleepless nights (and probably not been given useful information, but sarcastic comments instead!). Unfortunately what people don’t often say is that it is biologically normal for a baby to wake throughout the night (and feed) see articles here: Kelly Mom, here: The Milk Meg and here: Grubby Mummy and The Grubby Bubbies. Secondly, no two babies are the same and you can drive yourself crazy comparing sleep patterns with other parents. Yes it will be VERY difficult at times and sleep deprivation is absolutely awful, however, it won’t last forever and we seem to be one of only few societies that even focus on this subject and make such a big deal out of it. The best advice I can give is lower your expectations (to zero!) and don’t wait for your baby to sleep through the night. Ignore generic parenting books and sites that suggest babies ‘should sleep through’ at a certain age (sleeping patterns will continue to change as babies grow, start teething and go through developmental milestones, etc.) Once you accept that it is normal for your baby to wake during the night and you don’t have unrealistic expectations, it becomes A LOT less stressful for everyone, and you can focus on finding ways to make it easier (i.e. regular naps, prioritising sleep over other things, etc.) I would suggest following your baby’s cues; do what works best for your baby, don’t put pressure on yourself or set times for baby to sleep (routines will change and you don’t have to have a set ‘bed time’). Lastly, please, please, PLEASE do not ‘sleep train’ your baby, they are not an animal they are human!
Leading on from the topic of sleep, cosleeping can be life changing for parents who are sleep deprived. I wish I was told that cosleeping (if done safely) can actually be the best thing for your baby’s development, and for the parents. Apart from it being the most natural and normal thing which the majority of the world does without even having a term for it, it also helps with the lack of sleep parents face and makes life easier for everyone. Cosleeping has many health benefits for baby and mother; and contrary to common belief, it actually reduces SIDS rates as well as anxiety and stress in both baby and mother. I really wish someone told me not to waste money on a cot and to just put our mattress on the floor! if you are interested in reading more on this subject you can see my Cosleeping article here.
Breasts produce colostrum beginning during pregnancy and continuing through the early days of breastfeeding. This special milk is yellow to orange in colour and thick and sticky. It is low in fat, and high in carbohydrates, protein, and antibodies to help keep your baby healthy… when your baby is breastfed early and often, your breasts will begin producing mature milk around the third or fourth day after birth. Your milk will then increase in volume and will generally begin to appear thinner and whiter (more opaque) in colour. In those first few days it is extremely important to breastfeed your newborn at least 8-12 times each 24 hours, and more often is even better – La Leche League. Breastfeeding on demand is the best thing for the baby and for a mother’s supply; doing this at the first sign of feeding cues will avoid a crying baby and will make breastfeeding easier for both mum and baby.
Another major factor that I wish I was told about breastfeeding is that it can be very difficult, it may not come as naturally as we wish it would and can be painful. However, these are all issues that can be easily solved with the right support and guidance (which is unfortunately lacking in our hospitals and immediate services). If everything is going as it should be then mothers should not be experiencing any pain… if they are, then it means that there are other issues (which can include baby not latching on properly, tongue tie, low supply etc.). The one piece of advice that I would give to breastfeeding mums is please go to a breastfeeding support group where there are trained professionals (midwives and health visitors do not have the training for breastfeeding and can often wrongfully advise to supplement with formula or miss the root of the problem). The support groups usually run once a week in local children’s centres and they offer invaluable information and support. Again, I have written more on this subject in my Breastfeeding article.
On days 1-2 baby should have two or more wet nappies per day and one or more dirty nappies (poo at this stage is called meconium and is very dark in colour and sticky).
On days 3-4 baby should have three or more wet nappies per day and two or more dirty nappies (poo at this stage changes to a more green colour).
On days 5-6 baby should have five or more heavy wet nappies per day and at least two dirty nappies (poo at this stage should be softer and yellow) – NCT.
It has been advised by professionals not to wean a baby on to solid food before they are 6 months old. You may hear a lot of people saying ‘well we weaned our baby earlier than 6 months and they turned out fine!’ Research shows babies can get all the nutrients they need from breast milk (or infant formula) until they are around six months old. Waiting till then gives their digestive system time to develop fully so it can cope with solid foods – NHS. After a few weeks of a baby exploring with different foods (even though you may hear that ‘food before one is just for fun’), I personally think it is important for babies to have three meals a day and a varied nutritious diet; as breastmilk or formula milk is no longer enough to cover all the nutrients a baby needs (although still very important alongside healthy food and especially breastmilk continues to be so until way into toddlerhood).
7. Understanding Newborns
An amazing article written by Sarah-Ockwell Smith explains this topic very well, so I am just going to paste a section of it here… but please follow the link as it gives you bullet points of the best tips for understanding a newborn and making the transition from inside the mother to the outside world easier for both the baby and the parents.
The first three months of parenting are often the hardest. A quarter of all babies in this age group are diagnosed as suffering from colic, a diagnosis given when doctors don’t know why a baby is so unhappy and parents are unable to stop their tears. There is hope though, understanding the enormous transition that babies make from ‘womb to world’, a concept commonly referred to as ‘The Fourth Trimester’, can prove ground-breaking for sleep deprived new parents… Inside a uterus it is incredibly dark and the baby is in warm water, permanently heated to 37 degrees centigrade, they have never been in air before, let alone much colder temperatures. In addition all of the baby’s surroundings are soft and they are naked, they have never had to wear a nappy or be placed in a cold crib. When the mother is pregnant the baby is in constant physical contact with her, after the birth the baby instantly spends most of his day and night alone. In utero there is constant muffled noise from the mother’s heartbeat and digestive system. After birth the baby has to get used to lots of different sounds. During pregnancy the baby spends a lot of the time curled tightly upside down, in a position ready for birth, after birth they spend most of their time flat on their back. Due to their aquatic environment smell is almost impossible but after birth, once they live in air, babies are exposed to hundreds of new scents per day. Lastly, before birth babies have never been hungry or thirsty, those sensations are entirely new to them once they are born. The change from uterus to ‘earth side’ is so huge it’s no wonder that they cry so much! – Sarah-Ockwell Smith, Huffington Post.
8. Attachment Parenting
Although a lot of this way of parenting came naturally to me (and I believe it is innate to humans for evolutionary reasons), I still wish I discovered and read about Attachment Parenting before I gave birth; rather than a few months later. Unfortunately in our society, even if the majority of it does come naturally to parents, we are constantly made to doubt ourselves and told ridiculous statements such as ‘put the baby on a schedule’, ‘don’t give the baby too much attention or milk as it will get spoilt’, ‘let the baby cry to sleep or it will never learn’, ‘it’s just a little cortisol’, etc.
Attachment Parenting is an approach to childrearing that promotes a secure attachment bond between parents and their children. Attachment is a scientific term for the emotional bond in a relationship… Attachment quality is correlated with lifelong effects and often much more profound an impact than people understand. A person with a secure attachment is generally able to respond to stress in healthy ways and establish more meaningful and close relationships more often; a person with an insecure attachment style may be more susceptible to stress and less healthy relationships. A greater number of insecurely attached individuals are at risk for more serious mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. How parents develop a secure attachment with their child lies in the parent’s ability to fulfil that child’s need for trust, empathy, and affection by providing consistent, loving, and responsive care. By demonstrating healthy and positive relationship skills, the parent Provides critical emotional scaffolding for the child to learn essential self-regulatory skills… Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting are designed to give parents the science-backed “tools”, valuable, practical insights for everyday parenting: 1. Prepare for pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, 2. Feed with love and respect, 3. Respond with sensitivity, 4. Provide nurturing touch, 5. Ensure safe sleep, 6. Use consistent and loving care, 7. Practice positive discipline, 8. Strive for personal and family balance (each of these are explained in detail in the following link) – Attachment Parenting International.
If you are interested in reading further on attachment/peaceful/respectful parenting then I can highly recommend the following books:
Alfie Kohn – Unconditional Parenting
Sarah-Ockwell Smith (any of her books)
L.R.Knost (any of her books)
Dr. Laura Markham – Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids
Adele Faber – How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (and the other How To Talk books)
Shefali Tsabary – The Conscious Parent
Naomi Aldort – Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.
9. Natural Products
While I was pregnant I happened to do some research on safe products for babies, as I was aware that some contain toxic ingredients. The more research I did, the more I was horrified and shocked at just how many toxic ingredients are in ALL the mainstream products sold for babies and adults (with the biggest baby brands being the worst!). I was very adamant about buying only safe and natural products for my baby… but only recently I thought to myself, if I’m doing this for him, then why are my husband and I not doing it for ourselves too. I know it can be more expensive and often difficult to find (as supermarkets don’t stock natural products), however in my opinion it is definitely worth cutting back on other stuff in order to go natural… as what we put into our bodies is very important.
After A LOT of research and testing various products, I have managed to find our favourites. I have written an article about it here, which includes our recommended products for both babies and adults.
10. The Happy Song
This may seem a bit crazy, but TRUST ME on this one… you HAVE to download The Happy Song by Imogen Heap to your phone! This song has saved us on many, many, MANY occasions.
Breastfeeding is still my number one go to whenever my baby needs comfort, and please don’t replace it with this song (because it really is a magic song!)… However, even when breastfeeding has not been possible (i.e. in the car or when he has been so ill that he has struggled to feed), this song has been the only thing that has worked. After 12 months, it still makes him stop crying within seconds (I’m really not exaggerating!)
The Happy Song is the first-ever song scientifically tested that makes babies happy. BETC London, Goldsmiths psychologists Caspar Addyman and Lauren Stewart, and Felt Music all collaborated with Heap to produce the song. The song was designed to be jolly, and thus, bring babies happiness – Digital Music News.
11. Baby Blues and the First Few Months
In my opinion this is a very important subject and something that I feel very passionate about when it comes to things that I wish I was told during my pregnancy (so much so that I believe it should be covered in antenatal classes). I had not even heard of the term ‘baby blues’ until way after I had experienced it myself (which of course left me feeling awful not knowing what was going on with me at the time).
The baby blues are thought to be linked to the changes in chemical and hormone levels two to four days after giving birth. Suddenly, your body has some major adjustments to make. Levels of certain hormones that were required during pregnancy drop rapidly, while others that promote the bonding process and trigger the start of milk production rise. These rapid changes can leave you feeling confused – NCT.
Although in Western societies there is a term for acknowledging this period of changes in hormones, if you search online for the definition of baby blues, you will find that a lot of the mainstream sources say that it only lasts for the first week or two. This creates the idea that if women experience baby blues (or general anxiety from being a first time mum) for any longer, then there is something wrong with them. If a woman is seen not to host visitors, to take the baby out, to go out and do the shopping, and to show the world that she is on top of everything, people start to question and armchair diagnose the woman as having postnatal depression (not that PND should even be seen negatively). With these social expectations it is almost as if women are in competition to see who will get out of the house, back into their old clothes and back to their old lives the quickest. With all these pressures on women and them being pushed to recover too quickly, this can in turn end up leading to PND for some women.
Giving birth to a child is a physical and emotional experience that’s as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Afterward, every new mom needs recovery time, even if she had a relatively easy birth. Factor in a C-section or other complications and the need for care after birth increases exponentially. For many women around the world postpartum support comes from partners, family, and friends who rally to help out and give the new mom a chance to regain her strength and focus on bonding with her baby. The type of support moms get and the length of time they receive that support vary around the world. In Asia and India, many new moms practice the tradition of postpartum confinement after the birth of a child. Confinement is a period of time, usually from 30 to 40 days after the birth of a child, when a new mom rests and avoids physical work. The mom stays home and is attended by close family and friends. Some [more affluent] women even hire a professional confinement “lady” or maid. These helpers cook special recovery meals for the new mom, teach her how to bathe, swaddle, and care for her newborn, and tend to the baby when mom needs rest – Linda Murray, Global Motherhood.
This is however becoming a luxury in many Western societies, with women being expected to immediately ‘bounce back’ after the birth. In some developed countries women do not even receive paid maternity leave. So if there is a financial burden on families to pay for their mortgage or rent, bills, health insurance, etc. women are put under a lot of pressure to immediately return to work. In at least 178 countries around the world, paid leave is guaranteed for working moms, while more than 50 countries provide wage benefits for fathers, according to the International Labour Organisation. The United States, along with Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia and Lesotho are some of the only countries in the world that provide no type of financial support for mothers… Maternity leaves aren’t simply a matter of time off for childcare — they can also strongly impact the rest of a child’s life. According to a report by non-governmental organization Save The Children, in countries with longer periods of parental leave, children were found to be breastfed for longer and their life expectancy was higher – The Huffington Post (if you scroll down in the article you will find a very interesting list comparing the time and pay for maternity leave in countries all around the world). Dr. Julie Wray, a researcher at Salford University in England, interviewed women at different stages of post-partum life. She found that the standard six-week recovery period is a “complete fantasy,” and it can take a full year to recover from childbirth. It’s not just physical recovery that’s needed, but mental as well. Many feel the pressure to get back on their feet soon after childbirth and feel it may be necessary to head back to work as early as six weeks – EcoNewsMedia.
On this subject, I recently saw a fantastic poster which parents to be can share with their family and friends to help make this stage easier (see number 7 on this article: The Milk Meg).
Postpartum Mental Health
In addition to baby blues (which is very normal but never talked about), postpartum mental health issues are on the rise. With the pressures of the capitalist system and without the support that parents need, more and more women are facing postpartum depression, anxiety, birth-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychosis.
Worldwide about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. In developing countries this is even higher, i.e. 15.6% during pregnancy and 19.8% after child birth. In severe cases mothers’ suffering might be so severe that they may even commit suicide. In addition, the affected mothers cannot function properly. As a result, the children’s growth and development may be negatively affected as well. Maternal mental disorders are treatable. Effective interventions can be delivered even by well-trained non-specialist health providers – World Health Organisation.
If there was adequate care and support from society and health care services, many of these cases could be prevented. Even in instances where it could not be prevented, women are let down by society’s attitude towards mental health and towards motherhood. As well as there not being enough physical support, the mental health services are failing as mental health is not a priority for many governments. With profits being made from the sale of drugs, people are also being prescribed medication too quickly. The waiting list to see a counsellor/therapist is growing and those that aren’t considered an ‘immediate danger’ to themselves or others have to wait for a very long time to get the help that they need (which also isn’t adequate when it does come and only lasts for a short period of time). It is also important to talk about the fact that it is not just women experiencing these issues. Men can also experience postpartum mental health problems, which is even more rarely talked about or acknowledged.
You see an interesting phenomenon in a baby group. Groups of smiling women, somehow managing to hold a conversation while keeping small objects out of tiny mouths, feeding a baby and getting it to sleep. They talk about their babies, their partners, the news – but never about how tired they are, how relentless life is, how sometimes they have a secret cry in the bathroom. Among the many women that I’ve seen for therapy, one thing links them all – their struggles are silent… Although there have been many awareness campaigns in recent years, how often do we talk about mental health in daily life? Instead, being “fine” and “getting on with things” are badges of honour. For mums, this stigma is exacerbated by the fear of what happens if we confess we are not coping – especially if a professional agrees with us. And let’s add in our new bundle of joy. What does it mean about us if we’re not blissfully happy and in love? To top it all off, as modern parents we often exist in a vacuum… Alongside extra funding, we need to see a clear recognition throughout maternity, primary care and mental health services that most women do struggle when they become mothers. If we can tackle the isolated, high-pressure status of new parents by ensuring support is available during pregnancy and after birth, then women may not have as much to hide – Dr Emma Svanberg, The Guardian.