Broken babies or broken mummies?

Last week I wrote about how some parents find typical new-born behaviour so outside their experience and their expectations that they, quite understandably, have to come to the conclusion that there might be something wrong with their baby.  This can lead to a very understandable urge to “fix the problem” and a massive over-labelling of colic, reflux, sleep problems and “clingy” babies.

Some new parents will come to a different conclusion and decide that they must be deficient as parents.

“I can’t cope as well I should be able to”.

“Maybe I’m not making enough milk”.

“I have no idea what I’m doing”.

In a society where parenting happens behind closed doors and the pictures we see on social media are all of babies smiling, sleeping or gazing adoringly at their caregivers, it can be so hard reconcile this pooing, crying, squirming, puking, hungry little bundle with what we expected to be dealing with.

Many of the parents I support are highly successful in their chosen field of expertise.  They are used to feeling accomplished and being good at what they do.  It may have been many years since they were “beginners” at anything.  And yet, here they are, responsible for a whole other person who can’t communicate their needs verbally and comes with no manual.  Is it any wonder that many (most?) new parents feel out of their depth?

I’ve observed that, for many, a lack of positive feedback is the major stumbling block in the early days.  In an educational or corporate environment, we can expect to receive positive words of encouragement, good assessment results and visible, measurable results from a job well done, and, conversely, poor results, negative feedback or even disciplinary proceedings if we do badly.  A newborn baby doesn’t smile or laugh, doesn’t reassure or comfort.  A happy newborn is likely to be quietly sleeping or feeding, while an unhappy newborn will scream and thrash uncontrollably.  There seems to be very little positive reinforcement and a disproportionately high amount of negative feedback, at least in the first two weeks.  Until we get to know our babies and learn to read their happy, content cues as well as their angry, distressed, hungry, tired cues, it can feel like our babies don’t like us very much and that can be heart breaking for parents.  Couple that with extreme sleep deprivation and a nagging sense of disconnect between expectation and reality, and you have the prefect breeding ground for self-doubt and self-recrimination.

“I can’t get him to settle in his cot, I must be doing something wrong”.

“She will only sleep on my chest; I don’t think we can go on like this”.

“I love him so much but I just can’t make him happy”.

“She feeds and feeds and feeds, there’s something wrong with my milk”.

I believe that part of the problem is that parents aren’t aware of what success might look and feel like when it comes to newborn babies.  Our image of a happy baby is so skewed that we don’t always recognise one when we see one.  So here are my top five markers of parenting success for the first 2 weeks of your baby’s life:

  • A baby who won’t be put down is a baby who knows that you are their happy place. They are secure and confident in your arms and that’s ok.  Find a way to sleep when you can and delegate the housework and cooking to someone else.  It’s ok to just hold your baby.
  • If your baby breastfeeds relentlessly it does not mean that you are not making enough milk. It means that your baby is protecting and increasing their milk supply, as well as benefiting from skin-to-skin and cuddles.  Try to set aside the expectation that babies feed every 2 hours / 3 hours / whatever regular schedule aunty Edna told you to expect.  It’s not true.  (If feeding is painful in any way, there are ways to improve the latch and make it more comfortable for you and satisfying for your baby.  Reach out for help. NCT breastfeeding counsellors are available to support you 8am to midnight on 03003300700)
  • Wee! A well-fed baby will produce lots of heavy wet nappies.  Poo is more variable and differs between breast and formula fed babies, but all well-nourished, well-hydrated babies wee a lot so if you are changing a lot of wet nappies you are nailing life.
  • A happy baby will make the most of any brief periods of alert watchful time in each 24 hour period. Some parents are disappointed that babies seem to be in a continuous cycle of sleep-feed-cry-feed-sleep-poop-feed-etc, only occasionally engaging with us properly.  We can’t wait to play with our children and take them on adventures.  Please know that the 10 minutes you spend with your baby gazing into your eyes, so serious and calm, maybe imitating your facial expressions and listening to your voice, is enough to spark fireworks in their brain and get those synapses going.  Your baby is a sponge and they are learning all the time.  Trust the process, it won’t be long before you will really see the differences starting to happen as your baby’s brain grows and develops.
  • The one thing we can really measure is our baby’s weight, but it’s so sad how fixated we can become on this one statistic. It’s really important to understand that babies are individual and no two will gain the same weight at the same rate.  But if, after an initial drop as your baby loses the fluid that was in his tissues, lungs and gut at birth (another reason to delay the weighing of babies for several hours, especially those born by caesarean), you find that your baby is gradually and steadily getting bigger, heavier, longer, chubbier, whatever, you can be reassured that you are clearly dong everything they need you to do to help them grow.

And that’s it!  There is no need to worry about “wake windows” or “sleeping through the night”.  No magic wand to wave and make your baby go longer between feeds or cry less in the evening.  Your baby will find their own way through their transition to the world outside the womb, all you need to do is hold them, feed them and make sure you are held and fed while you do it.

This is obviously easier said than done and, with so many families parenting in isolation it is more important than ever to reach out and seek help.  If you are struggling to enjoy your baby please know that you are not alone.  Help and community are out there.  I, along with Alys, run a weekly NCT drop-in on Zoom, every Friday 1-3pm.  Come along and find a space to share your worries, revelations and nappy disasters.  We are all just muddling through and that’s ok.  Message me for the Zoom link.  We’ll see you soon.