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Creating a 21st century village for new families

Doula Sophie Brigstocke shares her thoughts about what new parents can put in place to give themselves the best start to parenthood.

It takes a village to raise a child.  At least that’s how the saying goes.  Whenever I hear that phrase I consider how many of us have a village?  How many of us live in the place where we were raised, surrounded by the familiar faces of our childhood – the aunties, cousins, grandmothers?  Very few in my experience.  And how many of us live in true village communities where we know our neighbours, share cups of sugar and feel safe enough to allow our children to play out in the streets with their friends?  The world has changed, and not all for the better.  And it means that for the majority of new mothers they are starting their parenting journey in isolation and/or geographically remote from family. But more importantly it means that many women haven’t grown up around mothers and new babies – they haven’t observed how new babies behave, how mothers connect and bond with their children or how feeding happens and are therefore often really ill-equipped for the motherhood journey.  

Photo by Lillian Craze Birth Photography

Recently I met a young woman who told me about her life before her baby was born – she was successful in the workplace, enjoyed many opportunities for travel, had great relationships with friends and put time and energy into her appearance, hobbies and lifestyle.  She described herself as a confident, able, privileged woman.  However, this new mother has had a difficult few months. Living on a different continent from family she is very alone.  She is the first of her friendship group to have a baby and she is feeling the loss of friends, who no longer know how to relate to her.  Her husband is loving and caring, but was obliged to go back to work within a couple of short weeks of the birth.  And she is living in a country where there is virtually no postnatal support, medical or otherwise, available.  To cut a long story short she experienced feeding issues early on, which meant that breastfeeding came to a much earlier stop than anticipated, the baby struggled with bottle feeding, reflux and discomfort, sleep was even more interrupted than is normal with a newborn, and postnatal depression, anxiety and worry kicked in.  Several months down the line this woman feels inadequate as a mother, like she is failing her child and her husband, self-loathing about her postnatal body and definitely not wanting more children despite previous plans for a large family. Sadly for her, and for others, her experience is not unique.  I hear similar stories all the time.  So, how can new families better prepare for parenthood and what can be done to support new mothers better?  

A few months ago I wrote on Thrive Global about what I wished every woman knew about pregnancy and came up with five areas for consideration. The final area was making a postnatal plan.  All too often the women I meet during pregnancy seem to limit their thinking to preparation for birth, which, of course, is hugely important.  However, thinking about what life with a new baby, or babies, might be like is crucial.  So, here are my five areas for consideration around the postnatal period, which may sound curiously familiar:

One. Bonding with babies is a physiological process.  Women often feel like I am fobbing them off when I talk about skin-to-skin contact.  How could something so simple be so powerful?  And yet, when you put a nappy-clad baby on his mother’s naked chest something miraculous happens.  The newborn, so familiar with his mother’s smell, heartbeat and warmth settles – the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered and oxytocin, that magical hormone of love, bonding, birth and breastfeeding is released in both.  It often looks like nothing is happening at all and yet something really profound is going on – cortisol stress levels lowering, both mother and baby calming and breastmilk better able to flow (if breast is your preferred feeding method).  This is not just a “golden hour” thing, but extends into the first few days, weeks and months. 

Two. Knowledge is power.  In this case it is about preparation – no mother has hours to spend poring over books or websites once a new baby arrives – she will be in a repetitive cycle of feeds, changing nappies, sleep and hopefully gazing at her little one to enable their relationship to develop, learning about the baby’s body language, cues and other subtle ways of communication.  A new mum might well find it hard to fit in a shower, let alone achieving domestic chores and getting rest.  So, the power comes in advance learning.  There is so much rubbish out there about what babies should be doing, written by people with little qualification (and for the record I don’t consider myself an expert). However, there are brilliant people working tirelessly to research areas pertinent to parenting and babies which make our lives so much easier.  Arming yourself with evidence-based information about how babies sleep for example helps informed decision-making about where and how you might choose to put your baby down.  Keeping that information close to hand when the inevitable wobbles happen can be invaluable.  One of the magical qualities I think doulas possess is the ability to signpost – knowing just where the relevant articles, research, information is. 

Three. Avoid the unsolicited advice-givers.  Everyone, but everyone and their dog seems to take it upon themselves to proffer advice in the early days.  “Oh, you must get him in to a routine”, “Oh, you’ll spoil your baby if you pick her up”, “Oh you must give a dummy”, “Oh definitely don’t swaddle” etc.  It can be exhausting fending them off.  You will find what works for you and your baby. As doulas we talk a great deal about the negative impact of advice – isn’t it more empowering to have a range of options and to be supported in making a choice that works for you?  A doula can be like a guide through a maze, not dictating the route, but holding your hand as you find your way.  The old adage “take what you like and leave the rest” is a brilliant one here.  Smile beatifically at the advice-givers and then do exactly what you feel is right – parental instinct is unbelievably powerful.  

Four. Explore your options around feeding.  It is a fact that the vast majority of women in the UK plan to breastfeed and a sad fact that a large percentage give up in the first few days and weeks.  The same trends are seen in other first world countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia.  However, there is a marked difference in countries such as Sweden, Holland and Norway where similar numbers of women start their breastfeeding journey and are still breastfeeding months later.  Perhaps one of the significant reasons for a difference between countries is that their Governments signed up to the World Health Organisation’s International Code for Breastmilk Substitutes.  What it means in shorthand is that those countries have dedicated themselves to providing quality education and support to women who want to breastfeed.  Most women I meet who have breastfeeding problems and/or have stopped feel like they failed.  It is not the women who failed, it is the institutions, health providers and Government who failed them.  Finding quality feeding information and support before birth and knowing where to go or who to speak to once your baby/babies have arrived is essential.  

Five. Create your village.  These days postnatal support can look a bit different.  As I said at the beginning very few of us have the privilege of living in a community where we are so supportive of one another.  In areas where women are encouraged by their peers and family members to have a “lying-in” period, a few weeks of rest and recovery from pregnancy and birth where the focus is on feeding the baby and doing little else, there are few perinatal mental health issues.  Having, or creating, a network of willing supporters to come in and look after you, your family and your home in the first few weeks is invaluable.  It might be a family member coming to stay, or a team of friends taking turns to drop by with a meal, doing something in the house, or looking after your other children.  It may be that your partner can request extra paternity leave.  Or, you might find a postnatal doula to be the best investment – far better than the money spent on an expensive pushchair which your baby doesn’t seem to like.  A postnatal doula can provide emotional, practical and information support – be able to understand and anticipate your needs, help you keep your home running smoothly and signpost any information you may need that you hadn’t considered before. It certainly seems, and research we are planning about doulas specifically will hopefully bear this out, that there are far fewer mental health issues when a new mother has plenty of support – she is less isolated, gets more rest, is empowered to step into her new role and has a willing pair or hands, ears or eyes to hold, hear and see what is happening.  If only that had been available to the woman I met this week – I suspect her journey might have been rather different.   

If you would like to know more about doulas, or find a doula to support you in pregnancy, birth or the early postnatal period then do visit our website www.nurturingbirth.co.uk.  Sophie regularly posts videos, blogs and interviews on the Nurturing Birth sites about all things to do with birth, parenting in the early days and infant feeding.

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