Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Babes in Arms: looking back

I originally wrote the following article and had it published in the (then) NMAA Newsletter [Vol 39, Issue 1]  when my eldest was 18. 

Rare photo of the family photographer!
Wearing 6 week old Kaitlyn
in an NMAA Meh Tai 1987
Babes in Arms - a rod for your back?
Not long after I left home aged almost eighteen, I became the owner of a fluffy, black kitten I named Midnight. My boyfriend’s mother visited to see the new arrival and found me stroking her as she lay curled up on my lap, asleep. This was greeted with “You don’ t her to get her too used to that - she’ll expect it all the time”.  

I thought that was why I got a cat! It has actually been documented that stroking or patting a pet can calm and relax you - even causing a drop in blood pressure. The animal also enjoys it - a kitten must surely remember with pleasure the sensation of its mother’s tongue, mimicked by the hands of their new family.

 A few years later, I was married and the mother of our first child, Melissa. Having spent my pregnancy reading every book I could get my hands on about raising babies, the reality came as a great shock. My reading told me that babies would sleep for long hours between regular feeds and would learn to settle themselves if placed in the cradle when awake. Feeding to sleep was frowned upon and “over-handling” discouraged. Trying to get Melissa into any sort of routine seemed to only end in tears - hers and mine! She settled best when allowed to feed as long as she wanted and always fell asleep at the breast. She seemed to know what she was doing, so I decided to forget the rules and do what worked best.

 Melissa was fed when she wanted, for as long as she wanted. If she cried, she was put to the breast and it always seemed to work. She was held a lot, carried in the Meh Tai, massaged daily and slept in our bed frequently.

 It was years later that I read the books by Dr William Sears and learned the things I was doing were called “attachment parenting” - I just called them Instincts!

 My mother-in-law (previously boyfriend's mother!) was not comfortable with the way we did things. Others felt the same way. But we continued to parent in the way most comfortable for us, despite the grave warnings we received. The set of rods I was making for my own back was coming along nicely - at the rate we were going, my husband and I were set to produce clingy, dependent children who would never learn to sleep in their own bed, would never wean, would be spoiled etc etc.

 Along came Kaitlyn, when Melissa was three and a half. She breastfed more often and for longer, slept in our bed earlier and longer and was raised with even less regard for the “rules” than Melissa. I read more books, this time ones that didn’t make me feel bad about the way I did things. I became much more confident as a mother. I enjoyed my baby, holding her while she slept, without an underlying feeling of “doing the wrong thing”.

 When Kaitlyn was three, Kieran was born. Unsettled from the word go, he rarely left my arms, sleeping only at the breast, in my arms, the Meh Tai or a moving pram. The disapproving mutters grew louder. I read again William Sears book, “The Fussy Baby”  - it could he been written just for us. Kieran was a ‘high needs baby’, and what we were doing was just right.

 As Kieran continued to breastfeed to sleep for longer than either of the girls had, things came to a head when he was 18 months old. I declined to attend a family wedding because Kieran was not welcome. I was unwilling to leave him with my patient mother who would not be able to settle him in the way that worked best. (Although later on she spent memorable evenings looking after Kieran and my also-breastfed niece, who was the same age, with all three of them asleep on the couch when we arrived home!)

  My husband, when discussing my decision with his mother, was told “ Kieran wouldn’t be like this if she didn’t carry him in that sling thing all the time”! Time went on, still co-sleeping, still breastfeeding, until Kieran weaned himself at 2 ¾ years.

 At 3 years, Kieran was no longer sleeping in our bed, nor needing the breast. However we were having difficulty getting him into his own bed at night. We kept finding him asleep on the floor of his sisters’ bedroom. When we talked to him, he told us he didn’t want to sleep alone. Thinking about this, I realised sleeping arrangements in our three bedroom home were unfair. Because of his gender and convention, the youngest member of our family of five was the only one expected to sleep alone. After all, even Mum and Dad got to share a bed!

 So we took the radical step, after discussion with our children, of putting all three in one bedroom and converting the third bedroom to a badly needed study. People tut-tutted - a girl Melissa’s age (11) shouldn’t share with a young brother, she needed her own space etc. But we did it anyway.

 But this was all years ago. Our children are now 18, 15 and 11. How have they all turned out? I know many other new parents are torn between the way that feels right and the “right” way. 

Today there is a trend back to “settling techniques”, “teaching babies to sleep” and something called a “feed, play, sleep” routine. Babies are again seen to need teaching and routines are often considered necessary. So, did we spoil or ruin our children by the way we cared for them as infants?

 Well, Melissa as a teenager is a confident, independent young woman. She is warm and openly affectionate to her family - even in front of her friends! Kaitlyn is a quiet, gentle, helpful girl, with a natural ability with babies and young children. And Kieran, our fussy, unsettled little boy, sleeps happily in his own bed and is cuddly and shares a wonderful relationship with his sisters.

 They have all have been complemented by others for their independent ways. The clingy, dependent children never eventuated.

 The three shared a room for nearly two years, until we moved into a four- bedroom home. Melissa then got her own bedroom (aged 13). Kieran and Kaitlyn shared until Kailtlyn turned 12, with Kaitlyn moving into her own room with Kieran’s “blessing”.

 Despite all our bad ways, they seem to be pretty good kids. The added bonus was unexpected.

 Through my ABA involvement, I have a lot of contact with mothers and their babies and through this, my children also spend a lot of time around them.  Our extended family has also ‘extended’ in recent years. The way they confidently handle young babies is a pleasure to watch. They enjoy holding and rocking babies and seeing them fall asleep in their arms. They instinctively want to hold a baby who is crying. Only when a baby makes that certain cry do they hand them back to Mum, already recognising the sound of a baby who needs the breast.

 Not only have our own children benefited from attachment parenting techniques in their infancy, but they have gained confidence and skills they will use when they become parents themselves. I recently heard a speaker discuss mother and infant bonding, who spoke of mothers remembering how they were mothered as babies and how this is brought to their own parenting skills. What a wonderful gift to pass on to our children.

 As a society we speak highly of mother/child bonding, nurturing and motherhood. Why is it then that so many are quick to condemn the very acts of these qualities - indeed, warning against them? Close physical contact from birth is the very basis of maternal bonding - the type gained by feeding according to need, co-sleeping, massage, carrying and holding babies.

 In traditional cultures babies are rarely put down. Carried all the time, primarily by their mother, but also by other females within the family unit. And these babies rarely cry. So often, when our babies cry, it is blamed on “wind” or other physical ills. Perhaps all our babies are really asking for is the loving touch of their mother, supported and encouraged by those around her to do so. We need to teach society that these acts do not get in the way of a mother “doing her work” - this is her work, and infancy is frighteningly short. Our babies only need this intense commitment for such a short time. By meeting their emotional, as well as physical, needs we are not making them dependent. Rather, we are giving them the security to develop independence, so highly prized by our society.

By the way, I still have the cat! And on a cold, winter evening in front of the television, there is nothing I enjoy more than stroking her, as she lays asleep on my lap! I still have my mother-in-law too, only no longer do I feel the need for her approval. After all, my way seems to have worked pretty well, so far!

Vale, Midnight,At the grand age of 19 1/2 years, Midnight quietly passed away in her sleep.
When our new cats, Frodo and Merry joined our family, they bonded quickly - Frodo with Kaitlyn, Merry with Melissa. All enjoy snuggling up together, patting and cuddles.

2013 Update: 
Kaitlyn is due to have her first child in April 2013 and is expecting to bed-share with her daughter, incorporating an Arms Reach co-sleeper in the early days. She also plans on baby wearing and breastfeeding her babies. I can't wait to sit around holding my granddaughter too much, wearing her when I can and reminding my daughter of her own breastfeeding and bed-sharing infancy! Aunty Melissa and Uncle Kieran, now 29 and 22, are excitedly looking forward to the new arrival and spoiling her with love :)

October 2013:

My granddaughter Charlie is now six months old and, as expected, her mother is doing all those things I was warned against, with the same, delightful results! Charlie is breastfed whenever she wishes, carried in a range of baby slings and shares her parent's bed most nights, occasionally spending time in the attached co-sleeper.

When people try to cast doom on her future, she can explain Charlie will eventually sleep in her own bed, wean from the breast, not need to be held - just like her mother did! 

All these years later, people still try to convince parents it is wrong to follow their child's lead, bad to let them sleep (safely) in their parents' bed, breastfeed when they want, be carried and held when they need. In the past thirty years, the evidence to support all these things has grown, not diminished!

We still have Frodo and Merry, now about to turn 14! Charlie loves to pat and stroke them and Frodo, in particular, will seek her out to do so. I still have my mother-in-law too! And when she saw Kaitlyn wearing Charlie in a sling for the first time, she asked if it doesn't hurt her back!

Love and enjoy your babies - too soon they will be grown.
Bed sharing - Kaitlyn & Melissa woke up together on the day of Kaitlyn's wedding


Jennifer said...

Yvette, how lovely.
What a really beautiful story to share with your grandchildren when they appear in the world too.

Tangerine Meg said...

I am slowly reading through your previous posts of this year. What a lovely one this is! Well said.