In amidst the joy of seeing a new family together earlier this week there was a moment that jarred for me, the question put to Harry and Meghan about whether their baby was “good”. It’s one that crops up a lot and it begs a question … is there such a thing as a bad baby?
I recently attended a brilliant conference in Plymouth – an entire day spent in the company of some of my most esteemed colleagues in the breastfeeding world. It left me on something of an oxytocin high and yet again considering what more I can do to support new families. A topic that we at Nurturing Birth focus on a lot is the power of language and how it can radically affect parents during pregnancy and in the early days with newborns. Every speaker at the conference talked about the type of language used, typical questions asked and behaviour of people around new parents, often undermining them unintentionally. Take the aforementioned “is he a good baby” question asked all the time, often by random strangers when they coo over your offspring in the supermarket, coffee shop or park. What it is interpreted by most to mean is “does he sleep through the night?” And the answer for most parents, because their baby is entirely normal, is no, which can lead to shame, lack of confidence and insecurity. Parents begin to doubt themselves and their parenting ability, rather than trusting their instincts and reading their baby’s cues. Amy Brown, Professor at Swansea University, who is particularly interested in breastfeeding rates in the UK and how sharply ours nosedive compared to many of our international counterparts made me laugh out loud when she said her stock response to the good baby question now is “he’s ok this week, but last week I had to bust him out of prison twice!”
I started to write down some of the words associated with babies and breastfeeding during the day – lazy, diva, malco, fussy, spoilt, cranky – all judgments on a baby and their behaviour as if they are deliberately being naughty or difficult for not feeding well or sleeping as much as we would like. But, how often is it that a baby is demonstrating innate newborn behaviour that is being misunderstood? Babies sleep patterns are totally different from those of adults, plus they have tiny tummies that need filling on a very regular basis, so it is expected that they will wake often and feed frequently. No wonder Harry and Meghan were welcomed to the “Sleep Deprivation Society” by a tired older brother with three children under the age of 6!
Back at the conference I was introduced to babies being described as piranhas or vipers and I felt my own nipples fast-tracking towards my ribcage – what woman would begin to think about putting their baby to the breast if they were described that way? We all want to protect our bodies – as Amy rightly said we wouldn’t be seeking out the table we stubbed our toe on again to deliberately open up the wound would we? Nipple pain in feeding has become something regarded as normal, but perhaps we should change that word for common – not normal – it is not normal to have cracks, damage, bruising – our bodies are not designed to be deliberately damaged in the process of “normal” mammalian behaviour.
So, what do I want to see going forward? Firstly, let’s stop blaming babies. They are brand new human beings without agenda other than having their needs met. Let’s stop undermining parents’ confidence and ultimately, let’s start thinking about how we can help, rather than sitting in judgment. Let’s give parents practical and emotional support so that they can focus in on the all-important job of bonding with their babies. Let’s try and support new parents to recognise their babies’ needs and respond appropriately, by signposting evidence-based information, such as that shared by Amy Brown and Lyndsey Hookway at the conference. Doulas are brilliant at that – supporting in all aspects – emotionally, practically and with relevant up-to-date information. Let’s hope that every new parent, including Harry and Meghan, surrounds themselves with the right people in these precious first few days and weeks because let’s not forget that when a baby is born so are parents.
Click here to watch Sophie’s video blog on unrealistic expectations in the postnatal period
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