Unsolicited Advice: the Good, the Bad, and the Downright Barmy

Be prepared to share your sketchbook

Be prepared to share your sketchbook

I often think how lucky I am to be a mum in the internet age. I am at home with the kids, yet I have a brilliant way of connecting with the outside world, which comes out of a box in our cloakroom. I have a fantastic resource for researching parenting topics I want to learn more about. I have a community of people doing exactly what I am doing with their daily lives who can offer insights and support. I can stay in touch with family and friends and share a virtual space with them, even when it’s not possible to see them in a physical location. Yes, it’s a wonderful time to be a mum at home.

However, there are so many resources that you can feel overwhelmed. There are lots of parenting choices and often one piece of advice is not the right fit for everyone. A sort of ‘advice fatigue’ kicks in. I made a list of old advisory chestnuts, which I have been handed time and again. Here is what I think of them:

Sleep when your baby sleeps

Probably some of the most wonderful advice ever given to a new parent. I never regret prioritising sleep during baby naps, because I need it and there are not many opportunities to crash out. I realised by baby number 2 that no matter how much washing up and clearing out there was to be done, I would still get the stuff that was truly important squared away after my nap. I also realised that showering and washing up are easy enough to do with a lively baby along for the ride, as long as you don’t mind interacting with them at the same time and giving them some bubbles to examine. I would say that an even better piece of advice is ‘When baby sleeps, do things you cannot do while taking care of an awake baby‘. On some days this is napping, on others it is writing, or have a few quiet minutes with a nice cup of tea and a book.

Enjoy your baby

My kids bring me more joy and satisfaction than I can express. However, there is a certain amount of pressure to only be positive about babies. I challenge anyone to always enjoy round the clock baby care. Especially when the wee sunbeam is going through a fussy phase or teething. After all, everyone is entitled to think selfish thoughts. It is ok to grieve for things you left behind in your life as a childless person too. I miss getting dressed without considering how to breastfeed in my ensemble or whether my accessories will get tangled up with busy little hands. I miss being able to travel at the drop of a hat, and being master of my own free time. I miss hanging out with just my husband. I miss being alone.

I have found that being a parent is absolutely worth the sacrifices, and I love my kids so much, but this advice misses the mark. A more useful thing to say would be ‘Be grateful for the love and joy you and your baby share‘. I don’t believe having the odd negative thought makes you a bad parent.

Remember that you’ll miss this when they’re bigger

Yes, it’s true. I absolutely will miss many things about the nursery phase when my kids are older. I will not miss potties or spit up or tantrums. Probably. Anyway, this is a moot point, because it doesn’t make life easier when your kid is staging a car seat rebellion, or screaming at you because you gave them a blue bowl for their cereal instead of a red one, or you have not had more than 45 minutes unbroken sleep. A better piece of advice is ‘Take a step back and realise what a marvellous job you are doing in the face of adversity.’ Really

Talk to your baby

From the first time my babies looked up at me and said ‘aaah gooo’ I was hooked. Babies clearly enjoy being talked to, are uncritical of content, and will remember none of this chat. Happy days. You can go with ‘who’s a cheeky chops? who’s a sweetheart?’, recite poetry, go through the shopping list. If baby feels like it, they will listen and make some sort of contribution. Babies and parents are all different though and I’m sure some crave more conversation than others. There are also the ups and downs of daily life to consider: some moments leave you rabbiting on, and others find you taciturn. I think it’s useful to remember that parents don’t need to entertain babies with their observations and witticisms all the time. Indeed, unless this is really what comes naturally, silence can surely be golden. I think a better piece of advice would be ‘Be a good companion to your baby’. This means being sensitive to your baby and trying to respect their need for talk or quiet when you spend time with them. Perhaps one day the kids will learn to do this too. I remain hopeful.

Let your baby cry

There are two situations in which I have been advised to let my baby cry alone in a cot. When they were hungry outside of meal time and when they were tired. As far as baby advice topics go, the leave to cry or not debate has teeth. Big fangs in fact. I know there is a lot of variation in what parents want to do, feel they need to do, with their child. As a breastfeeding mother, and having seen the evidence to support demand feeding, collated here by Kellymom for example, I always feed when baby shows signs of hunger. Personally, I am also fine with them using the breast for comfort and have never had problems as a result of this. I have preferred not to use ferberizing or cry it out sleep training  techniques, and have not regretted this choice. So, I have never found this advice super useful in the above situations. However, I have had to let my baby cry a times because that is what they needed to do to let off steam, or because I was driving down the motorway and couldn’t stop. Hearing your baby cry is upsetting and stressful,  but trying to be a reassuring presence to my little foghorn, and not getting too wound up seems a helpful thing to do for us both. I think an important piece of advice is ‘Accept that your baby will cry sometimes, and all you can do is be there for them in words or in gestures.’ Crying is not always a problem to be solved, such as hunger or discomfort. As grown ups do, sometimes they just need a good cry and a warm shoulder to wipe their nose on.

Don’t let your baby wrap you around their little finger

From the moment we are born, we seek to make other people do what we want. First we learn to do it by crying, then we learn to laugh, and eventually we move on to things like stomping, wheedling, and bribing. This is part of our basic survival as a pack animal. Having their needs met does not spoil a baby, nor does it make a mug of a parent. Neither should we worry about trying to give babies what they want as long as it is a reasonable and harmless desire. I am not advocating handing them forks to stick in plug sockets here. In my book, meeting needs and respecting wants, even if we cannot always fulfil them, is the foundation of a good relationship, not a manipulation. The trouble is babies are very demanding, and it is hard for one person to be equal to a baby’s needs and wants. This is the time to call in back up. For instance, my son was going through separation anxiety at around 11 months and would cry throughout the night summoning me to his room and refusing to settle. After this got too much, I woke husband and asked him to go in. He climbed into the cot with Sam, gave him a cuddle for a bit, withdrew, and peace reigned supreme until morning. Magic. The moral of the story is ‘Recognise when you need back up and don’t be afraid to ask for it‘.

Give your baby a routine

As a one time teacher of English to younger learners, I have witnessed the stabilising effect of routines on clusters of tiny hooligans. So, though parenting is not teaching, I can really see the point in this advice. However, in my experience, most people have a routine without having to impose one. I get up at a similar time every day. Rarely do I eat lunch before breakfast. I am usually more active in the morning, when I feel fresher. I accept that some babies might benefit from a greater degree of routine than others, but experience suggests that they are content to accompany their parents on their daily trajectory, provided they get to feed, sleep, play, and interact, as often as they need to. As they get older, a separate bedtime routine seems a good idea, assuming that you decide they should enter sleep in their own space at an appointed juncture. This is not a necessity, but a choice, which may not be appropriate for every family, as discussed in this excellent blog post by Lulastic and the Hippy Shake. I am sitting here typing during the peaceful interval between my kids’ bedtime and my own. For us, the bedtime routine is an important part of our evenings with the children. It works for us as a way of getting everyone into pjs and having some calm one-to-one story-reading with each kid. So, I would say ‘Find room for your baby in the rhythm of your days, and set routines as necessary for your family’. After all, routines can help parents to keep track of what they need to do, and can help kids feel more secure. At best, they can become treasured family rituals, but only if they are well-suited to the individuals in question.

I imagine that for every generation of parents there are some tried and trite pearls of wisdom. It is up to us to call them into question! The cycle is sure to repeat itself further down the line. Today’s blogger is tomorrow’s eccentric loudmouth.

Did I miss anything? Is there some advice that you are sick of hearing? Please feel free to vent, share, debate. Whatever floats your boat.

Regression Frustration: Being Compassionate about Learning Setbacks

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

I’ve been dwelling on the topic of regression. Baby Evie had been sleeping for longer stretches, even approaching five hours some nights. The four month old ‘awakening to the world’ phase began and Bam! Suddenly two hours unbroken sleep seemed like a luxury. Over the last two years, Rosie has been having months of successful toilet learning, where she goes dry panted for weeks. Each time we breathe a sigh of relief to have this potty stuff sorted out. Then the accidents start up, often to the point we run out of clothes to put on her. A general welling up of frustration over regression has been a familiar sensation these past few years. Especially with Sam, who according to some websites, had a bad case of four, five, seven, nine, and ten month sleep regression.

The concept of regression rankles with me. It suggests that we learn skills in a linear fashion, in isolation. We pretty much begin as newborns, and go from A to B to C to D with sleep, toilet learning, driving, and so on, until we have all we need to function as adults. The regression comes in when we get ‘stuck’ at point C and need to return to B before we can progress again to D.

I tend to prefer a more holistic view of behaviour and abilities: that when and how we learn one skill is affected by our mastery of others, and that what appears to be an isolated ability can be broken down into a matrix of sub skills. Learning is not like creating lonely footpaths, but building a sprawling metropolis where the new gets built around and on top of the antiquated, and it’s all connected by various transport systems.

I don’t need to look very far to find articles which support this latter idea, such as this excellent one by Jean Mercer.

As Mercer states, regression is often cited as a consequence of psychological struggle, even trauma. This means, there is an inevitable hammering on the parental guilt button when your kid seems to be backtracking in an area of development. Happily, regression can also be seen as a consequence of developmental progress. In which case, you can embrace apparent potholes in the road to success as a sign of your child working out how to do something better.

As long as your child is as happy as a 4 month old baby at 3 in the morning (Let’s play Mum!Look! I have feet!), your main worry is that unless you take action of some sort the ‘regressive behaviour’ will  be with you forever. There is much to be gained from acceptance that you cannot make your child sleep or urinate on cue, and that attempts to try will be, at best, futile; at worst, detrimental to your child’s eventual success. At times, it is possible that mums and dads struggle because we need to go through some sort of development in the way we parent, rather than attempt to change our child’s behaviour.

Mercer concludes that it is best to relax about regression. There is no real back and forth going on. We should accept what our child is doing or not doing at the present moment and leave it at that. It is easy to forget this advice when you are told that your baby will not learn to sleep unless you do X, Y, Z, or that your child will still wet herself when she’s 20, because you didn’t start potty training at 8 months (ok, that’s a mild exaggeration).

An encouraging point that Mercer makes is that when children learn to control bodily functions, such as sleep or urination, they can only master them by learning to a) let go when they are in the correct place to wee or sleep, and b) to hold their urges when it is the wrong time to wee or sleep. These are two separate skills and when it seems they cannot control their urges, they may well be practicing the art of the sudden release. A baby must learn how to override the urge to sleep, just as a child learns to override the urge to wee. However, the baby must be able to fall into slumber, as a child must open the floodgates when the time comes. It’s no wonder it takes them a while to sort it all out.

If your child is not a happy little sunbeam at the time of regression, then it tends to be more worrying. However, the scientists who wrote the bestselling book, The Wonder Weeks report that development spurts in young infants have a consistent form: a fussy, clingy phase in which the baby needs a lot of support, is followed by a some kind of new leap in development and a period of comparative ease. I love this book, because now I can see that these changing phases are normal and more importantly, not my fault. Being reminded that, no matter what I do, ease and difficulty are temporary is a comforting thought, in that it makes me appreciate the good moments and know that the bad ones will not last. When Evie is wailing for no apparent reason, there’s a puddle on the floor, and we’re headed into some sort of toddler/ older child meltdown contest, it helps.

In my experience, these ideas apply to grown ups too. When I regress in my ability to do something, there is a related struggle involved, and often a frayed temper: My yoga practice is not what it was. On the one hand, I’m less flexible and carrying some extra baby weight. I have bigger boobs from breastfeeding that never seem to be in the right place. On the other hand, my arms are stronger from lifting infants, and I am more grounded in my body after going through pregnancy and birth several times. One challenge is that I need to find a new way of doing yoga, which is in tune with the mind and body I have now. The main reason I’ve let my yoga slide though, is that I have been too busy learning to balance life with a baby and two older children, to find the time and energy for working out. I find my mood is far from soft-focussed calm and part of me resists even trying to change that because it seems like too much effort! Now that things are settling down a bit, I can get back to a regular practice and banish the urge to sit on the sofa and eat chocolate instead.

Mercer says that children’s development is more like weather than a path: sometimes parents get to bask in the sunshine of our child’s facility, and sometimes we hang onto the coattails of their personal whirlwind. I think we can apply this to the ups and downs of our own lives too.

So, the best thing we can do for our kids and ourselves is to be compassionate about setbacks. To see them as a natural part of a learning process. Hell, of a living process. Be kind to yourself and others. Take a deep, resolute breath, and know that the only way is, not forwards or back, but up and down and up again. Except for wee. Always encourage your child to wee downwards.

Having said all this- I would welcome any tips and hints for helping kids learn to conquer the loo once and for all! What can parents do to empower their children in acquiring new skills?

Sent from my iPad

Notes on the Fourth Trimester

Peepo!

Peepo!

For anyone not familiar with this term, the ‘fourth trimester’ is the initial three months in which a newborn adjusts to life outside the womb, and the parents adjust to life with their new family member. Dr Harvey Karp hit upon the idea after observing that human babies are born less developed than other mammals because we need to exit the womb before our large craniums become too big to pass through the mother’s pelvis. This means that babies are thrust into the world somewhat unripe and need to be reminded of their uterine world in order to feel secure and happy. Psychologists, such as Louise Kaplan, believe that it is not until about four months of age that a baby is able to perceive itself as a separate entity to its mother, which tallies nicely with the fourth trimester concept, marking a natural endpoint to this period.

This is obviously a time of great transition for babies and first time parents, but also second, third, and I’m sure, fourth and fifth timers and so on. A great deal of mental and physical development goes on in this period. This is somewhat more cataclysmic for babies, but has a huge impact on parents and siblings too. It can feel like you are lurching from one survival strategy to the next, but also that you are blossoming into a family, or new version of it. There is something new happening every day, and it is both a joy to observe your baby’s development and a struggle to keep up with it. Not to mention watching older children becoming big sisters and brothers, and helping them to find their feet in their new role.

I thought I would write a post celebrating the things which I loved about the fourth trimester and that helped me, Evie, and our family through these first months:

Co-sleeping has been a parenting choice with all three of our babies. For us, this involves both putting baby in a moses basket by our bed and bed sharing to different degrees. With each successive child I’ve spent more time sleeping next to them and less time settling them into the basket, but continue to make use of both arrangements. Needless to say, we observe co-sleeping safety rules. An all-time favourite mother and baby pastime of mine has to be co-napping. It is so lovely to snuggle up to your milk drunk babe in the middle of the afternoon, while the autumn rain pours down outside.

Breastfeeding is beneficial for the health of mother and baby in many ways, as we all know. The first time round it took a couple of weeks to get going and this was incredibly tough. With babies two and three it has been pretty great from the outset. It’s always hilarious hitting your roving toddler with a sudden shower of milk when the little one gets distracted by a sudden noise.

Massaging too, has been another preferred mother and baby pastime. Let’s face it, it can be a bit of a struggle to come up with activities for a two month old. Giving baby a little rubdown with sesame or almond oil, followed by a nice warm bath, is a relaxing way to spend that fleeting newborn awake time, and moisturises your hands. Also a great way to use up the perineum massage oil that I never got round to using;). Waste not. Even better, it seems to promote long, sound, sleeps.

Mindfulness practice is a new thing for me, but has helped me remain sane these last few months. Focussing on being in the moment helps to prolong and get the most out of those rare moments of peace that come by but rarely. I began to take slow walks with Evie in the sling, where I tried to really notice the world around us: the colour of the sky and trees, the sounds of wind (both weather and baby) and traffic, Evie’s snuffling noises. When I had the occasional opportunity to have a bath I lit candles and enjoyed watching the light dance across the water, playing through the steam. Being more mindful also helps in the less peaceful moments when the spaghetti is boiling over, our baby girl is crying in my arms, our toddler is pushing me towards the biscuit tin in a determined manner, and our big girl is shouting that she needs me to wipe her bum. To observe the situation and think ‘wow, I feel quite stressed, but this too shall pass’ is a bit of a safety valve. I can’t pretend I’m great at this yet, but certainly this is a start!

And playing cuckoo. You know the game. You say ‘cuckoo!’. Baby says ‘aaaah’. You say ‘aaah’. Baby says ‘gooooo’. You say ‘goo’. Exchange manic grin and gummy smiles. Repeat. Fantastic when you’re delirious from lack of sleep.

Wearing a baby, all wrapped in a sling is, in my experience, just lovely. With our little ones it turned out to be the very best thing for keeping them calm and contented during the early days and beyond. We started off with a Babyhawk Mei Tei. This is a fantastic sling for first timers with newborns, and can even be used for toddlers down the line. I have used it with all three kids in the last three months. Not all at once. Now that would be impressive. I have had a lot more use out of my Storchenweige the third time around, because I needed more than ever to nurse hands free. I can breastfeed one-handed with the Babyhawk, but I required all the hands I could get through the first weeks of constant feeding. I also had trouble doing a newborn back carry with it, though I know such things are possible. I’ve used wrapped front carries with the other children, but this time I learned a newborn nursing carry, and the art of the newborn back carry. That has been a godsend while cooking or racing round the garden. The wrap sling has taken me some time and effort to master, but I have to admit it is the comfiest and most versatile option. The only drawback is needing time to wrap carefully and make gentle adjustments, which is not always ideal, but practice makes perfect. I do feel like I have acquired some badass parent-ninja skills in learning to baby wrap with confidence!

So, these are a few of my favourite things!

(music swells)

In the small hours, after midnight,
When we’re not asleep.
I try to remember my favourite things,
And I’m not induced to weep!

I’d like to send a big, encouraging hug to all those in the fourth trimester xxx

PS Here is a lovely post on life in the fourth trimester and I recommend this site for baby-wearing advice in general, but in particular on using a Mei Tei sling.