Is my baby broken?

The quotes in this blog are all verbatim from conversations with actual parents.

For many new parents, the immediate postnatal period can be an overwhelming whirlwind of self-doubt, unbridled joy, extreme exhaustion, love and pain.  It’s no wonder that so many are consumed by the worry that there is something wrong with their baby, their body, their parenting or their ability to survive this phase.  It is worth spending some time thinking about the latter three, and I will do so in future blog posts, but for now let us focus on that intrusive thought – “is there something wrong with my baby?”

It’s a serious question!  As a new parent your one aim is to keep yourself and your baby safe and well, needs met and everyone alive at the end of each day.  But you’ve never been responsible for another actual human life before.  You may not have even been the best at meeting your own needs and now this creature is totally dependant on you!  It would be weird if we didn’t all freak out a little bit.  So here is the problem.  For most of our evolutionary history, humans have lived in extended family groups with everyone helping each other with the everyday job of looking after the babies alongside the other work of the village.  This meant that people grew up seeing babies.  Seeing how breastfeeding works; knowing how, when and where they sleep; understanding how and why they can be soothed; witnessing how they learn, develop and grow.  Babies were not surprising, mysterious creatures, they were part of the fabric of everyday life.

Now we life in much larger but also much smaller groups.  We are connected to everyone in the world via the internet, but what we see is filtered and edited; it’s not real life, we only actually live in close proximity to a very few people.  Unless you have much younger siblings or work in a childcare profession, the chances are that you may never have done more than briefly hold a baby in your adult life.  Your view of what babies actually are and do will be heavily influenced by the TV, media and film, the experiences of a very few friends and family members who have got there before you, and possibly a few “experts” in the form of bestselling books or popular websites.  Your expectations will also be heavily coloured by what you WISH your baby to be like.  What you have IMAGINED having a baby might feel like.   Did you ever really observe a breastfeeding baby, peer in to look at the latch and ask the mother intimate questions about what it feels like?  Have you ever seen another naked postnatal body, bleeding and doughy but magnificent in its power?  Have you ever experienced 24hours in the life of a week-old baby, their need to be held, fed and rocked, as they were in the womb, unceasingly?  It’s ok if you haven’t, few of us in our modern, western culture will have before we have babies of our own.

But the problem is that babies are babies the world over and throughout time.  They haven’t changed, we have.  Our expectations of what our babies can do has grown in inverse proportion to our ability to cope, isolated and innocent as we are.

And so your baby is born, healthy and roaring, onto the chest of his mother.  He will expect to live here, feeding on and off without reference to clocks, schedules and routines for several weeks, maybe occasionally transferring to another beloved chest for snuggles while his mother sleeps or attends to her own basic needs.  This would be reasonable in a culture where new mothers are nurtured, nourished and protected; surrounded by supporters and advocates and expected to do no work beyond the essential, sacred toil of caring for and getting to know her baby.  But our modern mother has never seen this, how can she know that this is what her baby expects?  Her partner may dote on their child but he is just one and he will, in all likelihood, be returning to work after a couple of weeks.  And so they have to find ways of coping.  They might be advised that their baby needs to learn to sleep for several hours at a stretch, especially at night.  They might read that their baby should wait for three hours between feeds.  They might feel that their baby will become clingy or spoiled if they meet all of his needs all of the time.  These ideas seem so sensible and they will surely help our new parents attend to all the other things that need to be done – the housework, the laundry, the cooking, the keeping in touch with their valued and valid careers, the maintenance of other relationships, even their own self care and physical and emotional healing.  But this is the problem – they are only two (or on some cases only one) people.  This baby might not be physiologically capable of sleeping through the night, spacing his feeds or being ok with lying on his play mat for a while.  He may not be able to sort his own wind out or even keep his milk down very well without remaining upright and held.  And so, because the alternative is impossible and unthinkable; they don’t have the support to make it work, these parents have to come to the conclusion that their baby is broken, is wrong, is not ok and needs to be fixed.  So we have invented certain terms to describe normal infant behaviours, none of which are pleasant or easy to cope with even with all the support in the world, but with no support at all they become problems that need to be fixed:

“My baby has terrible colic and screams every time I put her down”.

“My baby is on and off the breast all evening and never seems satisfied”.

“My child’s reflux means that she can only feed little and often and I have to keep her upright for ages after a feed”.

“My baby wakes up every 45 mins and won’t settle back in the Moses basket until I’ve rocked her and fed her for an hour”.

And so, because these normal behaviours which have evolved to keep babies safe and looked after are not recognised as such, the problem solving starts:

“My baby had to have colic drops mixed in their bottle and I couldn’t express so I had to stop breastfeeding altogether and use formula”.

“I give her a bottle of formula in the evening because it fills her up more and stops her cluster feeding”.

“This reflux medication means I can put her down straight after a feed and she isn’t so sick anymore”.

“If we leave her to cry for a while she eventually gives up and goes back to sleep“.

We can’t blame parents for medicating their babies if they think they are ill, and often these strategies really do help struggling parents to cope in the interim while their babies mature and become naturally more self-sufficient.  In a society where there simply isn’t enough support for new families, parents will do whatever it takes to get through the day (and night).  Of course they will, and so they should.  But the end result is that we are doubting our baby’s ability to reliably communicate their needs and our ability to meet them, and this arguably undermines the foundations of our relationships with our children.  In my next post I will explore how this undermining impacts parent’s confidence in their own parenting skills and instincts.

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