Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The way we love our babies

People keep telling me how lucky I am to have such a happy, mellow baby. I am - Bella is sweet-natured, full of fun and relatively uncomplicated when it comes to digestion and feeding. But are they therefore saying that if she were unhappy and stressed I would be unlucky? The implication is that the happiness of my baby is a matter of chance, rather than ultimately dependent on the way she is raised. This bothers me, because while colic, teething pain and other health problems can be largely beyond our control, causing terrible distress, the emotional state of our baby is pretty much down to us. It may be a frightening prospect, but surely far more frightening is how many parents seem to be ignorant of the abundant evidence that shows us how easily we can enhance or prohibit the emotional development of our babies’ brains, simply by the way we love our babies.

Let me be clear from the outset. I am not saying that a baby who suffers chronic pain, which causes him to cry a lot, is anyone’s fault. Bella had almost constant stomach ache for the first month of her life. But a baby in pain can still feel loved and secure, and happy when the pain ceases. To help Bella cope with her discomfort we carried her constantly and let her nurse for hours (sucking motion relaxes babies’ tummies). She squealed and squirmed and groaned for most of every night, but she did it in my arms.

There is a great difference between a baby screaming with pain in a pram in the corner to one who is held in loving arms. Uncomforted crying causes dangerous, toxic levels of the stress hormone Cortisol to be released in our babies’ brain, which can cause long-term emotional damage. Comforted crying enables the baby to cope with his pain and feel loved and secure. (To read more about how we can enhance the emotional development of our babies’ brains throughout childhood, I cannot recommend enough The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland. It is written simply and concisely, is full of photos and addresses everything, sleep, tantrums, behaviour, play and more. It is my motherhood bible.)

I do wonder, when someone comments on how calm and contented Bella is, whether they notice that every time they see her she is in my arms, on my lap or in the sling. Or that when she wants the boob she can have it, when she cries I cuddle her straight away (usually, of course there are times when she has to wait a bit), and that every night she sleeps in my arms, or next to us in bed.

One mother I know who compares Bella with her ‘difficult baby’ does not seem to draw any correlation between her child’s insecurity and protests at being put down with the fact that he is left to scream in his cot for twenty minutes each morning when he wakes up too early, and deliberately made to wait, when he cries, before he is lifted out of his play pen. This child is not difficult, but simply responding to negative parenting. He is learning that his needs are not as important as his mother's. This makes me sad. Why do so many adults believe their needs are even equal to, let alone more important than their undeveloped, immature, emotionally and physically dependent children?

I know it is not always easy. I am not a model mother. I deeply regret certain moments with Jemima. There were times when we got into such battles over bedtime that, when she ran out of her room crying, playing up a bit, but obviously feeling insecure, I, a supposedly mature, educated, supported mother, would pick up my tiny two year old daughter and storm back into her bedroom, plonk her on the bed and leave, closing - no, slamming - the door on my way out. Just when she needed my cuddles and warmth most, I rejected and traumatised her.

Admitting this here is painful. I want to delete it but I won’t because my main goal in life these days is to encourage mothers to respond lovingly and promptly to their children’s expressed needs. And I believe this can only happen if mothers are open about the trying times and bad things they have done with their children as well as all the loveliness. I’ve a pretty good feeling we all go around believing that we are the only one among our peers who have ever felt tempted to hit our child, or who ever raises our voices.

Women need support, solidarity, and encouragement in order to fulfill our true potential as mothers - and not just when their babies are smiling and cooing happily like Bella. I have been quick to judge a mother with a crying baby in the past, but now I see this is the time when they most need support. Crying babies can drive us to do desperate things, particularly if we isolate ourselves at home. My sister’s baby screamed with pain all day for nearly five weeks due to severe neck ache. She felt embarrassed to take him out because even when close to her in the sling he still cried. Instead of congratulating her for bravely loving and holding her screaming baby, people stared and assumed it was her fault. My friend Tara was in the supermarket with her daughter Elia, who was crying due to very bad and on-going ‘colic’. A woman commented helpfully “Ah poor mite must be famished!” You will be delighted to hear that Tara responded, “No, actually, she has very serious health problems and is a lot of pain”. Brave woman!

Positive parenting should be encouraged by society – I often wonder why the government does not invest in more support and information for parents (and I am not talking stupid sleep advice leaflets), given that we are basically undertaking the extremely important job of raising the next generation. Meanwhile I’ll just get on with it at home with my own two, and maybe they’ll become fabulous and influential politicians one day and save the world.

Seriously, second time round I am determined not to make the same mistakes with Bella as I have with Jemima. I am resolved to love and nurture both my children and respond to all their needs with loving kindness. When Jemima doesn’t want to brush her teeth and I feel at the end of my tether, I no longer raise my voice (well, I’m still learning!) but instead make up a game to make it fun for both of us. When she turns up in the middle of the night and I am tired and grumpy, I remind myself that she will soon be a teenager shrugging off my advances. Even if I don’t feel like it, as soon as I make myself smile at her and welcome her into my arms and our bed we both benefit from the rush of opioids, (feel-good hormones,) to our brains. Loving my children more consistently every day, is good for me as well as them. Positive parenting makes the world a nicer place. I think I might write a post on positive parenting ideas later this week just to get my happy hormone fix.

P.s. Please excuse my rather inarticulate, rambling posts lately. It is due to no lap top at home and pressured time at my neighbour’s. Thanks.

If you like this post read this


Anonymous said...

Whilst i agree with all your comments and believe you give many valuable tips to parents i think you do not put enough emphasis on the importance of the father in the happiness of your children. it would be interesting to hear your views.

Georgie said...


Thank you for this. You are right and I should probably write more about the role of my own husband in raising our kids.

You have exposed a huge gap in my experience of parenting in that apart from my husband I hang out with women women women when it comes to parenting! I absolutely value the role of fathers and believe that children suffer greatly for the lack of a father or father figure in their lives. I suppose I write about what I know and I am also aware I use the word mother often when I should say parent. Thank you for picking me up on this. I welcome more ideas and input into my blog!

Georgie said...

p.s. I'm also happy and surprised that I have some male readers! (I assume you are a father!)

Georgie said...

Ho ho ho, a day later and I discovered last night that anonymous is my hilarious husband. Read on... www.motherland1.blogspot.com/2007/12/about-their-father.html

Tara said...

Well good on you James for making your 'voice' heard - and good on you Georgie for responding with your follow up post. I don't know how I would have coped with E's colic / reflux / trapped nerve painful crying phase had it not been for a wonderfully supportive and hands on husband either. He encouraged the co-sleeping and the breastfeeding even when I had ridiculously hormonal doubts about whether it was helping etc. E is a living example of how you can transform a difficult entry into life (for her) and parenthood (for us) into a happy, loving, fully-attached and secure relationship. Thank you G for writing about it - it also helps me explain to others what it was like for us in those early months and a lot of the first year. Tx

kat said...

hear hear - I'm sick of people giving me that patronizing, 'thats nice dear, but...' look when I say how much I'm enjoying being with my 5 month old..."well you're lucky; he's a really good baby." Credit where credits due I say! I made decisions about how I wanted to raise my son (co-sleeping etc) and I think that as as a result he's a happy, calm, communicative baby. love your site - when's the book coming out?
tara's friend karen who used to live in sri lanka but now lives in bangkok is my sister in law...

Spicegal said...

A friend of mine often tells me I got a "good un" and she got a "bad un". Which gives me absolutely no credit for my parenting methods - which are far removed from hers! I find I can't always explain my parenting choices without people thinking I'm a little off the wall, and yet, I agree, I have one of the easiest going little girls around. I find it frustrating that people are happier to judge and put tags on things rather than look internally for answers.

Your blog is therefore incredibly reassuring to me! Thanks. Keep the observations coming.

Georgie said...

Hoorah! Well done and keep hold of that faith in what you are doing! I find it strange too - if one of my girls are not happy I immediately look at my actions/words that day and wonder what I have done and how I could make it better! It would never occur to me that it was just the way they were, and that I was not somehow responsible. Mind boggles!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the link, but argg it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please answer to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if someone here at motherland1.blogspot.com could repost it.