Friday, 30 October 2015

Picture Imperfect

Ever feel like you can't take your baby anywhere?  I jest of course; it would be mildly unfair to expect a three-month-old to be cute on cue, perform for her adoring public and leave the nappies that necessitate a whole outfit change to the comfort of her own home all the time.  But once in a while would be nice!

Two recent instances have hit home to me that my daughter - mostly a gurgling, giggling delight behind closed doors - may not yet be quite so primed for the outside world.  In the first, our dreams of parading round a serene and smiling angel at a friend's party were replaced with sheepishly presenting a squawking, scarlet demon the moment we crossed the threshold.

In the second, a photographer running a session at the local baby group had set the scene for some perfect festive snaps of our little one.  I dressed her in an obscenely adorable crocheted cardigan with strawberry buttons, ensured she was well fed before we set off and arrived early to book the second timeslot.  What could possibly go wrong?

As I watched the photographer extract gurgles galore from the twins ahead of us, baby girl - who usually feeds every three hours on the dot - decided that in this case an early snack was in order.  Weighing up whether to feed her straight away or run the risk of presenting a wailing, fist-chomping banshee to the photographer, I begrudgingly got out the bottle, knowing we'd lose our turn and that the camera would probably capture her in her perennial postprandial state: sleeping, puking or both.

When we finally got seen, little miss was out for the count.  'She might wake up under the lights?' the photographer suggested.  Not likely.  One rushed and frustrating sleepy shoot later, she woke up right on cue and puked, thankfully not on the photographer's faux fur throw.  Suddenly she was all smiles - if I could blot the puke from her cardigan perhaps we could give the shoot another go? Unfortunately not - the long line of adorable babies performing for the camera before her had sent the session way overtime.

I wanted to love the snaps that came back, but propping a slumbering baby up in odd angles doesn't make for photographic gold.  'She just looks a bit sickly,' said my husband, as I killed off my dreams of bombarding everyone we know with cute Christmas cards.

It's not really a problem, of course; for one thing baby girl has saved me some money if not some blushes.  For now, if her parents see her best side more than those on the outside, I can certainly live with that!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Mummy mindreader

A recent postnatal group posed the question: 'If motherhood came with a job description, what would be on it?'.  Among the skills and roles that you might expect (multitasking, cleaner, entertainer, chauffeur, copes well with stress, etc. etc.), I was surprised that the one I offered - interpreter - was new to the speaker.

'What do you want?' and 'Why are you crying?' are the traditional, exasperated refrains of many a new mum and dad, as they try and extract meaning from a tiny person with their own set of limited, highly individual gestures and emotional cues.  If you exclude the obvious (change, feed, sleep), it's still possible that a baby might be reacting to an endless range of complex and conflicting emotional impulses in the only way they know how.

In our daughter's case, reading her mind has been one of the hardest parental skills to master in her first few months.  This is one feisty, mercurial and loud little being whose moods can swing from a sweet smile to screaming blue murder in one barely discernible movement.  Who used to eat her fist to signal hunger, but now seems to do the same for comfort, fun or out of sheer curiosity.  Who will look anywhere but the DIY sensory bottles painstakingly crafted by her mummy but finds a patch of ceiling endlessly fascinating.  Who can be preoccupied by a poo several hours before its explosive arrival.

As parents, finally working out what your baby wants after a ritual of temperature and nappy checks, play, quiet time and running the gamut of different positions and places to put them in brings relief on a par with the moments when they finally fall asleep after a long battle or when it's your partner's turn to change a particularly offensive dirty nappy.  For me, the only time that I can be sure of what my daughter is trying to communicate to me is when she snuggles up to me sleepily for a post-feed singsong, or her contented little smile of recognition when her mummy comes home from a much-needed walk round the block on my own.  It's then that I know that, at least in her eyes, I've got the job.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The guilt mission

Guilt and I go back a long way.  From the legitimate (emptying my childhood savings account to fund  my student Smirnoff habit) to the absurd (bursting into tears when I had to throw out a mini Victoria sponge that had gone out of date), I'm not one to brush off my minor transgressions and move on when I have the option of letting them forever fester in a cranny of my conscience instead.

I probably should have called time on this uneasy relationship before I became a mum.  In those first, fraught weeks of new parenthood, not a day went by when I didn't find something to feel guilty about.  Guilty when I watched my daughter gulp down the measly amount of milk I'd managed to express and motion she wanted more of the "good stuff" rather than the full bottle of formula I'd lined up next for her.  Guilty when, in sleep deprived desperation, I tried to snooze a little longer when I knew she was stirring.  Guilty that a decision to drink in rather than take away when we went out for a restorative coffee meant she was in a dirty nappy for five minutes longer than she might otherwise have been.  Guilty when that first, terrifying nailtrim resulted in a minuscule nick on a tiny fingertip.  Guilty for relishing time away from the baby when I grabbed a shower, and eventually graduated on to an hour out by myself.

The above are episodes that should strike a chord with other new parents, and exemplify how, whether projected by society or self, guilt can go all out to eat you up inside as you stumble through those early weeks.  If you're not careful, you can constantly question the choices you make or find fault with your parenting skills, from the big decisions (breast or bottle, stay at home or back to work) to minor everyday mishaps.  Or you might let big business babyhood get the better of you, and feel bad that your child's wardrobe is mainly bobbly hand-me-downs or you can't afford to fill his or her schedule with sensory classes and high-tech toys.

It's only as I near that three-month mark that I realise that I, along with so many others in my position, need to cut myself some serious slack.  My daughter is well-fed and clothed, with somewhere safe and warm to sleep when she feels so inclined (although she's currently sleeping in her preferred bed - my arms - as I write this).  Her parents may not always get it right, but they comfort her when she cries, spoil her with cuddles and sing, gurn and dance like idiots if it means raising one precious smile.  Guilt and I are parting ways, hello (mother's) pride.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Throwing in the muslin

"Oh. Well that's a shame." The health visitor sucked her teeth with a look of matronly disappointment as she noted down my confession in the red book.  I winced inwardly, telling myself that it could have been a lot worse.

I had desperately wanted to breastfeed, and always assumed it was a foregone conclusion.  Antenatal classes talked about it as the most important thing you could do for your baby, and questions were breezily batted away.  Low milk supply?  Exceptionally rare.  Latching problems? Always surmountable.  We were sold an idealistic vision of all of our babies arriving bright and alert and knowing exactly what they needed to do to relieve their hunger.

Unfortunately this wasn't my reality.  When my daughter arrived she was three weeks early, a pound lighter than she should have been and soon to develop jaundice, while her mother was exhausted, drugged up and physically and emotionally raw after an emergency c section.  That blissful postnatal feed didn't happen, and I watched, frustrated and immobile, as a nurse bundled her away to administer Aptamil.

By the end of a five-day hospital stay, despite the amazing support from the hospital staff, we'd got nowhere.  I'd watched as my tiny, scarlet daughter, bawling with hunger, had been trussed up, flipped and flung at me during fruitless attempts to get her to latch.  On day three, when my milk came in, excitement quickly evaporated when using a breast pump for over an hour had resulted in a pitiful dribble of milk that could only be given to her by oral syringe.

In the weeks that followed, my husband and I did everything we could to build on the minimal progress already made.  We became regulars at breastfeeding clinics, invested in all the lactatory paraphernalia they recommended, from pumps to shields to fenugreek tea.  I hit my lowest ebb when half an hour hooked up to a breast pump under the supervision of a lactation consultant and health visitor produced no milk, sending me weeping back to my husband and baby.

Feeds were fraught and prolonged: latching attempts, feeding dwindling amounts of expressed milk followed by Aptamil, more expressing and an inevitable sterilising marathon before the next feed came round.  I found myself increasingly distressed and desperate to put my daughter down as soon as possible after each feed so that I could find the time to express, usually no more than 15 ml a time.

Throughout all this, I was told by almost every health professional I saw that persevering would pay off, that eventually I would be able to dispense with formula feeding altogether.  A community midwife dismissed my questions about buying a bottle warmer with: 'Well you'll be exclusively breastfeeding soon so why waste your money?", even though our session had almost exclusively focused on my failure so far.  No-one addressed my concerns that, despite our best efforts, my milk supply wasn't going up, and probably 90 per cent of my daughter's intake on a good day was already formula.

It was only when I went to the six week check and was reassured by the GP that actually the well-being of mother and baby is paramount that I felt an immense weight lifted, and moved to exclusive formula feeding within a week.  Suddenly I didn't dread the moments when my daughter, fist in mouth, indicated she was hungry.  We settled into an easy routine of feeds at home and on the go, with plenty of time afterwards for cuddles and play rather than making friends with my breast pump instead of my baby.

I applaud those who breastfeed, and this article is by no means trying to pit that brigade against those who bottle it.  All I ask is that before people judge, they understand that many formula feeding mums have gone above and beyond in trying to breastfeed their baby before conceding that for whatever reason it isn't happening.  While health visitors et al are doing an admirable job in getting those that can to persevere and achieving some major successes, I feel that some fail to spot the signs that a mother, after weeks of trying, should be told that it might be ok to make the switch.  That, whether a baby feeds from a nipple or teat, all that really matters is that they're happy and healthy, and strongly bonded with a mother who is doing the best she can.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The fourth trimester: seven things I wish I'd known

We've nearly made it! In two weeks' time darling daughter will be sailing out of the fourth trimester and reaching that all-important three month milestone.  While I'm not doolally enough to think this spells an end to a lot of challenges, and won't herald in a host of new ones, I can at least content myself in the fact that by this point, we've both got our heads round mother and babyhood a little, my tiny tot is finally wearing newborn size and her mummy has worked out how to fit the carseat without having an aneurysm in the process.  While nothing can prepare you for parenthood, there are certainly a few things I'll remind myself of if I decide to embark on this escapade a second time around:

1. Babies are sneaky
Your little one might seem helpless and adorable, but that innocent exterior is harbouring a machiavellian mastermind.  A deeply sleeping beauty will mutate into a squawking gremlin the moment you decide to take a moment out for yourself, whether you're sitting down to eat, answering the phone, dashing to the loo or trying to have a conversation with your other half that doesn't revolve around nappy contents and cradle cap.  Or, having the health visitor round to weigh the baby? What better time to unleash a triple whammy of projectile poo, pee and puke the moment the nappy comes off.

2.  Health professionals are (mostly) not there to judge you
It's easy to get anxious when incident above happens, or when you find that your baby is the only snarling beetroot in a postnatal group full of pink, pillowy angels, but doctors, nurses and health visitors have been round the block and know the drill with babies and frazzled first-time parents.  Feeding is the only area which might play out a little differently, but there's a whole blog of its own in there.

3. Mealtimes will never be the same again
How I laugh ruefully now at my optimistically alphabeticised spice shelf, arranged a mere month before the baby made an appearance.  For the first few weeks, we lived off ready meals and takeaways when we remembered to eat, and it's only now that I've graduated on to making the odd simple meal in a week of bangers, burgers and stirfries.  Meals are now erratic, frantic and usually bolted down one-handed while trying not to spill sauce or noodles on a tetchy newborn.  And you will probably never feel the same way about korma sauce again.

4. The most mundane of moments are your new vicarious thrills
Usually food-related, including: savouring a biscuit while the bottle warms up at the 3am feed, slathering indecent amounts of butter on cold toast, getting to drink half your coffee while it's still lukewarm, trawling through Buzzfeed in the early hours as you hold your baby upright for that all-important half hour after a feed.

5. That sleeping like a baby... lies
Newborns spend the night grunting, straining, snoring, squeaking, coughing and farting, and you will spend at least the first few weeks sitting bolt upright in bed in terror for every noise you hear.  The times when they are silent and appear to be barely breathing are even more terrifying, to the point where you get no sleep even when the baby is allowing you to.

6. The 'baby in bed' dream is the worst
Many other parents have shared the horror of a vivid dream that your newborn is in bed with you, only to wake up disorientated and scared to find that they are sleeping happily in their basket (probably grunting, farting, etc).  I can take this up one level, and found myself trying to burp a daughter-sized teddy bear while semi-conscious in the early hours.

7. The first smile is worth the wait
After weeks spent fretting that darling daughter hadn't raised a smile yet ('maybe she knows how to but we just aren't making her happy?'), my husband and I both succeeded on consecutive days, me from playing a silly game and him from stuffing his face with food (clearly we have an intellectual heavyweight in the making).  Like so many other things, babies' sense of humour is mysterious and peculiar, though; both of us were pipped to the post in getting a grin by the base of the armchair next to her changing mat, which she seems to find comedy gold to this day.