Ania Witkowska (Dip IBMT)*1 was born in London and raised her family in Manchester. She is a Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist who specialises in the perinatal period working with parents to be, parents and babies in individual and group settings. She also runs professional training workshops and offers supervision. She has a private practice based in Berlin, Germany, teaches internationally and offers sessions via Skype. You can connect with Ania via her blog and website at www.witkowska.com.
We are privileged to have Ania write for us as part of the Growing Families blog series.
As a Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist I spend a lot of time trying to dispel myths and encourage people to see things from a different perspective. Our value systems are intrinsically based on a premise – that there is a hierarchy of mind over matter, or that the brain is superior to the body which has been repeatedly challenged. In recent years there is a growing body of scientific research that demonstrates the complex and sophisticated relationship between brain, body and mind. But though the researchers may be excited by the detail of these new ‘discoveries’, this knowledge really isn’t so new. Every parent is witness to the egalitarian process of development as they play with their babies – but it can be hard to appreciate something when you know little about it.
Our babies grow and learn through movement. The developmental movement sequence that takes us from curled up to standing up is not just about building muscles and practicing balance. As we move we also build our neural connections, we experience and express emotions, we learn how to connect and focus in our world. As each pattern elicits and integrates particular reflexes it teaches us something more about ourselves and creates new possibilities for relationship and communication.
So how is it that the baby books seem to consign this rich and informative dance of development to a simple series of movement milestones? They encourage parents to race through that first year anxiously waiting for each seemingly miraculous achievement rather than relaxing and sharing in the fascinating process of getting there. Worrying when their child is not yet doing ‘whatever’ and unaware of the experiences a baby needs to have to support this moving journey.
It’s not just about the positions a baby can get into, it’s about how they get there by themselves that makes a difference. A process of yield, push, reach and pull, identified by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen*2 underlies each new achievement and allows babies to pace themselves, to find their safety before taking a risk. Building their confidence as well as their ability.
It’s not that hard to gain this knowledge, with guidance the body remembers, it just needs a bit of encouragement and a comfortable floor to roll and stretch out on. When parents try a movement themselves all kinds of things come to light. For example if a parent has tried to crawl on their belly like their baby they will know that the movement is initiated by a push from the big toe so they can see the disadvantage of wearing socks that will slip and frustrate their efforts. They will notice how hard it is to belly crawl on a carpet and how impossible movement becomes when their body is stiff and tense. This information will help them provide their baby with an appropriate environment and to intervene sensitively recognising the difference between effort and total frustration. And if they should join their baby down on the floor to try it out with them, their child will see the whole body movement and recognise it, will be encouraged by this moment of connection and empathy. Their relationship will deepen.
But, as The Cat in the Hat would say, “ …that is not all, oh no, that is not all…” You see something magic happens when we take some time to experience our physical sensations, to notice how we feel rather than focus on what we think. We slow down, take care of ourselves and are better able to deal with the demands of caring for a baby. In a world which trains us to look outside ourselves and our own experience for answers exploring the movement patterns helps people to look inside, activate those mirror neurons and trust the wisdom of their body. Acknowledging the value of these intuitive responses builds parent’s confidence and enriches their experience and enjoyment of their new role. It really is a win – win situation!
Much has changed in childcare practice and I look forward to the day that every 12-year-old will explore the developmental movements in their biology lessons. Until then however why not join me in working to ensure that an understanding of the process of movement development and how it underpins relationship and learning becomes standard knowledge for parents and anyone who works with them.
Jenny Neill of Connect Emotional Education is kindly sponsoring our breakout session on Babywearing, and has written for us here about why babywearing means so much to her.
When I found out about the Growing Families conference I knew that I had to be involved. I have always worked with children (as a teacher) and in the last five years I have worked more closely with parents too, culminating in me setting up my own business ‘Connect Emotional Education’ this year where I provide 1:1 support and parent workshops in the area of emotional wellbeing of children and teenagers.
I’m really happy to be sponsoring the Babywearing breakout session. Babywearing has been important in my parenting journey and I am a trained babywearing peer supporter which means I help other parents in my local area to find out about babywearing. I love introducing new parents to this simple way of meeting their babies’ needs that has a myriad of other benefits too.
Before I became a parent I had learned, as I did further study in Emotional Education, about the evolutionary theories about babies’ attachment to their parents. It made total sense that a baby who had spent time growing inside their mother would notice a sudden change once they had been born and that this was down, in part, to the fact that this was something that had been a definite advantage in the days when we lived in caves and had very real physical threats.
For a few years I worked as a Baby Sensory teacher and this gave me a great insight into baby development and I was also lucky to be working in Sheffield, which some call ‘The Sling City’ due to its’ large numbers of babywearers and babywearing support sessions. I would watch lots of parents come to my classes with their babies wrapped up in various slings and carriers and I saw, first hand, how these babies looked content and settled. NB – there’ll probably be a time when your baby is looking far from content and settled and you will hope that nobody sees you as you feel sure you are the worst advert for babywearing ever – this happens! I was convinced by what I saw and decided it was something that I wanted to do with my baby when he came along.
So I did and at nearly three years old we are carrying still, for shorter periods of time and on my back now as wearing evolves as your little one gets older. I don’t know how long we’ll enjoy this but it’s so much easier that carrying in arms at this age – toddlers are heavy!
A lot of the work that I do with older children and teenagers involves understanding the reptile and mammal parts of the brain so I’m going to start there. Babies’ brains are not finished at birth and will continue to grow and be shaped by their experiences in the first years of life. The lower (reptile) parts of their brain are quite well developed as these deal with survival aspects like breathing, feeding, getting rid of waste and sounding the alert (through crying) if they’re in pain, discomfort or hungry. The upper parts of the brain (those associated with mammals and humans in particular) are not very developed at all which is why when I look at this picture of my son from when he was about six weeks old I’m left thinking, “Where is the rest of his head?!”
These upper parts of the brain develop rapidly throughout the first three years of life (which is why you might have heard about various organisations supporting parents and children during the first 1000 days). Part of our role as parents is to provide nurturing experiences for our babies so that their brains develop and grow. They are learning about themselves and the world in every interaction so these need to be positive (or challenges dealt with in a positive way). When they have positive interactions pathways in their brain are strengthened. Being close to a loving parent also helps to calm baby and send lots of chemicals whizzing through their brain and body. Oxcytocin is particularly important, sometimes called the ‘cuddle chemical’, and it’s released through touch, sucking and warmth. Touch and providing warmth can be achieved through holding baby (something that we instinctively do); babywearing using slings and carriers can be used to make this easier – even small babies get heavy after a while! Having your hands free to do other things is also a benefit (particularly if you have other children to look after as well).
If you want to find out more I have included some book recommendations at the bottom of this post.
“Having that extra contact is wonderful. I think it makes them feel more secure. I love the closeness.” – Lisa, mum of three
“One of my favourite things was carrying her in our sling. I loved having the intimacy and whispering in her ears; being able to respond and have that degree of closeness to her was truly magical.” – Ben, dad of three, slingdads.co.uk
As I briefly mentioned before, the world can be a new and confusing place for babies when they arrive. As they get older their understanding of the world increases but so does their awareness and this can lead them to need more security. Wearing babies and toddlers can help them feel secure by keeping them physically close but also by having them close to you they can be included more in daily life and it’s easier to reassure them or explain what is happening as you move around.
Babies have a lot of things going on that they can’t understand and the main means they have of communicating is crying. Laura, mum of two, sent this picture with the caption, ‘early evening walks in the ‘colic hours’ … relaxed and contented baby and mummy!’ There are various theories about what colic is but, when it occurs, a baby’s main method of communicating about their pain is through crying. Parents will try anything and everything to help and it’s often reported that holding or wearing baby in an upright position can help. Laura elaborates, “my son had horrendous colic. My daughter (in the picture) didn’t but had some unsettled evenings that reminded me of my son’s colic and taking her out in the wrap was brilliant! I wish I’d have tried it first time round!”
Adam, babywearing blogger, talks about the benefits of wearing his son close, “what I love about baby wearing is the closeness, the bonding we have enjoyed from birth to toddler. Babies love it in the sling. It calms them down.”
Security for parents
I read the quote, “making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” and it’s what I think of when I think about that time after birth. I had been very anxious during pregnancy and was desperate for my baby to arrive safely then, as soon as he did, I was unnerved by not always being able to reach down and touch him as I had when he was a wriggly bump. It’s not quite as simple of that but I can definitely understand the comments of two mums that I spoke to recently:
“I found babywearing hugely helpful. I suffered from PND and anxiety but could feel the pressure lift and my anxiety drop when I wore baby. By keeping her close it made me feel calmer.” – Rebecca, mum of one
“I have felt panicked when separated from both sons as infants. Holding them close in a sling meant we felt connected. I could feel their movements and hear their breathing.” – Natalie, mum of two
It’s a natural instinct to want to keep our babies close and meeting their needs as they grow is important too. Claire, from Honeybee Mama, sums it up when she says, “Now I can meet my son’s needs whilst still getting on with other stuff. So apart from the beautiful early days where all you want to do is hold them, slings are great for your sanity as your children grow.”
Seeing the world through the eyes of your baby. Living in the moment.
Becoming a parent involves a big change, a really big change; in pace, priorities an perspective. One thing that I hadn’t considered until a friend pointed it out was that connecting with your baby through babywearing could have the following impact on us as parents.
“For me, it took an actual baby looking at the world with such awe to make me truly look deeply at what was around me and be taken aback by it all.” – Tracy G. Cassels, author of My Unexpected Consequence of Babywearing.
When you’re walking along wearing your little one it’s almost impossible to stop yourself from talking to them, pointing out things that you see along the way or around. As they grow this inevitably involves stopping to touch leaves on trees, post letters, talk to people you see and your child can be more closely involved in these things when you wear them so it’s great for communication and so you roll along in a circle of communicating and connecting leading to more communicating and so on.
This picture is of me wearing my son at around 8 months old. We were on a very windy beach in Scotland and I remember his exhilaration at the wind in his face. Being in the sling meant that I could get the balance right between letting him experience this new sensation but sheltering him from the wind when it started to get too much.
Carry on wearing
Babywearing could be called baby, toddler and pre-schooler wearing (but it’s not a very snappy title). I love a bit of myth-busting and it’s often thought that babies are too heavy to wear after a certain point. It’s not true and may be down to finding the right sling or carrier for the next step on your babywearing journey. I find it so much easier to carry my nearly three year old on my back in a carrier than I do to pick him up and carry him in my arms. He walks about 90% of the time because he’s an active toddler but there are times when he’s too tired to walk or he’s fallen or another reason and then carrying him comes into its’ own again. I spoke to two other parents about their experiences of carrying their older babies and children. Louise, mum of one, spoke about the conscious effort she made to wear her son when she returned to work. “I returned to work and our son was being cared for by my husband. I felt that I would miss out on loads (of experiences and opportunities for connection) so continuing to carry at this time (10 months until now at 22 months) has really helped to keep us connected. Now he’s at nursery part time and I sling him there and back so we can have one on one time to talk about the day and ensure he is comforted during this transitional time.”
Ellie, sling consultant at Peekaboo Slings, said, “(when my son was 2 ½) I began carrying him home in a sling, pushing the babies in the buggy … this gave us the chance to talk while the babies were soothed by movement. He’d tell me about his day and I’d feel us reconnecting, finding our way through our new normal.” For more insight into this see http://peekabooslings.co.uk/why-i-carry-my-big-kid
I’m looking forward to the Growing Families conference, if you are attending and are interested in finding out more about babywearing you can attend the breakout session run by Victoria Ward from School of Babywearing. There will also be a pop up sling library run by Ellie Thouret of Peekaboo Slings. I hope the new parents attending will be inspired to have a go at babywearing – search for your local sling library or babywearing meet if you want to find out more information after the event or you can ask lots of questions at the event. I love this quote which sums up the benefits of babywearing, both emotional and practical:
“Babywearing can soothe our children, help us become a flexible ‘all-terrain’ family. Really it’s almost close to a super-power from something that’s a simple as a piece of fabric. Something that feels so instinctual and so good.” – Daniel Nisbet
Books I love if you want more information on neuroscience and its’ implications for parenting
What Every Parent Needs To Know – Margot Sunderland
The Hormone of Closeness – Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg
Kiss Me! – Carlos González
Baby Calm – Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Why Love Matters – Sue Gerhardt
Baby Bliss – Dr Harvey Karp
Brain Insights cards (Love Your Baby, Fun While I’m One etc) – Deborah McNelis
Family Links is a national charity dedicated to empowering children, parents, families and schools to be emotionally healthy. We are honoured to have them as Oak sponsors of our event in Manchester this October. This is their second post for our blog series, and has been written for Growing Families by Sharon Lawton.
Sharon is a Parent Group Leader and Trainer for Family Links. She is an award winning Personal Performance Coach, Neuro Linguistic Programming Practitioner, Thought Field Therapist and Personality Profiling Specialist with over 10 years of experience of delivering conflict management, Personal Development and a wide portfolio of Parenting Programmes.
“Empathy! Yes, I know what that is, I use it all the time!”
In my work as a parent coach and also a trainer of practitioners working with families and parents, this is a common response when I mention the word empathy. However, do we really know what empathy is and how powerful it can be in our relationships with our children (and in fact in all our relationships)? When I looked up the meaning of the word “empathy” I found this: “The ability to understandand share the feelings of another.”
But can we truly “understand” the feelings of another? For me the difficulty I see is that we forget to stand in the other person’s shoes and see the situation from their emotional view point, and not our own – this is where the power of empathy lies. How many times have you started to share something that you are really upset about and get a response like “Oh yes, I know exactly how you feel…” cue them recounting their story leaving yours to be side-lined. Or perhaps you got a response “Poor you! How awful! What you should do is…” Again, there’s no empathy here; there’s a bit of sympathy and lots of trying to fix things! However, if you use empathy correctly, it has the power to heal, connect and transform relationships, making empathy a vital skill to learn as a parent. It’s fundamental to our parenting tool box.
At Family Links we see empathy as the ability to see something from the other person’s emotional point of view; trying to sense what it’s like to be them by stepping into their shoes. Not thinking about how we’d feel if the same thing were happening to ourselves. It means we have to stay emotionally neutral and also out of judgement. So you can see how tricky it might be, particularly where our children are concerned as it’s easy to get hooked in and respond emotionally. However, empathy does allow us to think about the feelings behind the behaviour without agreeing with the actual behaviour.
All of us feel angry, frustrated, lonely etc. at times, and this is the same for our children too. Children often act out feelings because they can’t put them into words – they might do this by being aggressive, tearful, shouting or becoming withdrawn, or even having a big tantrum because you won’t buy them an ice-cream after playgroup or because they weren’t picked for the football team. Being able to put yourself in your child’s shoes to understand their behaviour (not agree or condone it) means that we can parent assertively too! An empathic response to our child’s moods makes our relationship with them happier and closer and, of course, children who are treated with empathy and respect will learn to be empathic and respectful to others.
That’s all very well, but for some of us it might all sound a bit “soft and fluffy”. I certainly think about six or seven years ago my husband would have definitely been in this camp! Our youngest son is, let’s say, a little “feisty” and empathy has been a tool I’ve tried to use in my parenting with him. Examples of empathic responses I’d use with my son are: “You look very angry with me”; “It can be disappointing when you’re in the middle of a game and the toys need to be put away” or “You sound very cross about that”. Many times it has helped to stop a potential meltdown or defuse some strong feelings.
Originally, my husband’s parenting style was more authoritarian. A typical response might have been to say “stop making such a fuss about it” or “you’re so rude, I’m not listening to this anymore”. Those types of phrases can place blame or brush feelings aside that should be addressed. Over the years it’s been interesting to see how he has adopted a more empathic response towards me and the children how it’s made a big difference in our family.
Let’s look at it another way. Can you think of a situation where you turned to someone for support or advice and they failed to respect your feelings? Dismissed how you felt? Didn’t actually listen to you? How did you feel towards that person? Can you think of another time when someone responded truly empathically to you, really tuning into your feelings? Listened without interrupting or telling you what to do? How did you feel towards them? If we notice how helpful it can be for us when someone truly accepts the way we feel, then we will know that it will be similar for our children too.
That’s the theory, but what about in practise? There’s a whole language around empathy and sometimes it can be helpful just to have a starting point. So after listening to our child and trying to stay neutral emotionally ourselves, we can respond using open sentences beginning: “That seems”; “I wonder if”; “It can be hard when” or “You look”. Followed by suggesting how they might feel, then pausing and not going into “fix it mode”, (this is the powerful bit). Using this type of language opens up space for our children to think about their emotions and try to verbalise how they feel. By suggesting feelings our children might be experiencing we’re also helping develop their emotional vocabulary. We can follow it up with the second stage of offering a suggestion that might be helpful in that situation, but sometimes it’s not necessary.
So back to my husband – after 7 years or so he’s becoming pretty efficient at practising empathy even to the point that he will now say to me when I get frustrated with our children “It sounds like your frustrated with the kids! Remember Sharon, empathy is your ace card”!!!
We are so pleased that Helen Holmes of Yogabellies has been able to sponsor our event in Manchester this October. Yogabellies are an Acorn sponsor of “Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff”, a not-for-profit event for families and the professionals who support them. I had the pleasure of meeting with Helen earlier this month to find out more about Yogabellies, and Helen’s own experiences of pregnancy, birth and the early days!
Helen lives in Sale with her husband Gary and their two boys who are six and two. She has worked as a teacher in Trafford with children with mental or physical health difficulties, teaching them when they are unable to attend school, and then helping them to get back into mainstream education. Sadly, staff changes and big changes to the service meant that following maternity leave with her youngest son, Helen was desperate for a new direction, and an alternative that fitted in with her family life.
In September 2014 she bought the Yogabellies franchise and classes kicked off in January of last year. Helen teaches three classes a week – pregnancy yoga, “belles” which is a relaxing and gentle class for women only, and mum & baby yoga. Pregnancy yoga is specific to pregnant women: all of the postures used are safe in pregnancy, and relaxing blends of essential oils are diffused during the class, before which there is chance for a herbal tea and a chat.
Helen explained that it’s not all yoga though. She likes to have a focus topic for each class, and these have included birth, the postnatal period, what to pack in your hospital bag, the “baby blues”, sharing birth experiences and the first few days with a new baby. Helen encourages women to think about what support they might need during birth and to talk to their partners about that before the day arrives. Other key topics have been optimal cord clamping and gentle caesarean birth.
“It’s all about women supporting women. We have coffee mornings on occasion, it’s about building a community. The Yogabellies teachers across the country all support each other as well.”
When it comes to thinking about the birth, Yogabellies classes include birthing breathing, relaxation and hypnobirthing scripts – all, as Helen says, to “get women in the zone”. “Even women who have gone on to have a caesarean birth say that the breathing techniques helped them to stay calm.”
Helen says that she has learned so much more about birth since getting involved with Yogabellies. “I was quite naïve when I had my boys – I have learned so much more now. I encourage women to research and get information on all of their options. If I did it again I’d go for a homebirth. My sisters were both induced and had caesarean sections, so I thought that was the norm.”
So what, in Helen’s opinion, are the things that new mums most need?
“That’s a really hard question, because women are all different. People say that you need to hibernate in bed for days after the birth, but personally I’d have been climbing the walls! I had to get back out in the world. Cabin fever hits me!
I would say though don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. If you want to breastfeed, read around the subject, and definitely ask for support. Think about who you want to have visiting and don’t be afraid to say no to people. If someone turns up with a meal they have cooked for you, accept it! With your first you are still learning to put yourself and your family first, ahead of other people or your career. It is a learning curve.
I also think it is so important for partners to be educated in the signs of PND and other potential problems so that they can spot them straight away.”
And what about new babies?
“Babies have simple, basic needs: food, love and to be cared for. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the ones on the bottom are crucial before you can tackle the ones at the top.”
And how do Dads and partners fit in?
“It is so important to communicate as a couple. Your partner needs to be told how they can help. Be aware of how distressing it can be for your partner to see the person they love in pain. Talk to them about how they can help, give them a role in the birth and the early weeks. Empower them to feel useful and involved.”
What did Helen find was the hardest part of those first months with a new baby?
“I remember my eldest screaming in the night and me going in to Gaz and saying ‘I can’t handle it anymore, you take over’. I felt so lucky to have him there to help. Those early weeks would have been so much harder without the support of my family close by. Going back to work later on was hard, trying to juggle everything. You do learn to cope with the tiredness though, and it does get easier.”
What has Helen learned since becoming a mother?
“I say ‘no’ now to people – I was a people pleaser before but I’m not anymore! I am better at sharing my own opinions! I have different priorities, my boys and my immediate family always come first.”
Through her work as a teacher Helen has specific insights into the mental health of her children and family. Along with Bernie Meagh of MATTAC (Manchester and Trafford Therapy and Counselling) Helen has set up The Parenting Hub, working with families & schools to support children in managing and understanding their emotions. Helen says of her parenting style “some people talk to their kids when the kids are acting out, but Gaz and I talk to each other and try to think about what we are doing and how it is affecting them”.
On the MATTAC website Bernie and Helen explain that they understand the challenges and pressures that both young people and parents face in life today. They believe if parents have the tools to help young people understand and manage their feelings then this will increase their emotional resilience and increase their ability to learn and achieve their goals.
It sounds to me that mums attending Helen’s Yogabellies classes will get a lot more out of it than simply the ability to wrap their legs around their heads. Although when it comes to childbirth, that ability is not to be underestimated!
Lynne Barton of Entrust Care Partnership is one of three speakers who will be leading our session on Parenting Under Pressure. The session is part of our event this October for families and the professionals who support them. “Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff” is a not-for-profit event, and you can read more about the aims and organisers here. The conference is taking place in Manchester on Thursday 6th October – please click here to book your place.
This is the second post that Lynne has written for our blog series, and here she explores how disability takes you on a different parenting journey.
Entrust Care Partnership offers short breaks, respite, holidays, advice and support to children with additional needs and their families.
We listen and respond to parental and children’s aspirations organising our activities to fulfil expressed needs. Families are at the heart of our organisation and we pride ourselves on offering good value for money, maintaining our integrity and delivering on our promises.
Parenting under Pressure
A different parenting journey
Every situation is unique, each family is different and one size is unlikely to fit all.
A baby’s additional need can be apparent from birth but for children it can be a more gradual realisation for parents that their son or daughter is not developing as anticipated.
I can only offer our experience, derived over many years, from listening to parents we support, which may resonate.
Some parents tell us they feel very alone, others feel they need to grieve, feelings of guilt associated with being at fault in some way seems common, as does a reported ‘loss of self’ with the child’s disability or additional need becoming ‘centre stage’.
A medicalisation of the child’s condition can often be a consequence with new language and all manner of medical and para medical engagements, this in turn can create many extra pressures. The usual pathway of new baby, many congratulations and a circle of grandparents and close friends escalates rapidly to include, paediatricians, speech, physio and occupational therapists to name but a small few!
So here you are on an unexpected path caring for and raising a baby with additional needs what happens now?
Support and new friendships
Most importantly celebrate your child, look forward to the joys he or she will bring to your family, act intuitively you will know best and don’t be defined by disability. Communication with your partner and family is vital as the situation can put strain on everyone, siblings will be a source of help but can also have their own needs overlooked. The siblings we meet in the course of our work are loyal, caring and understanding with a maturity beyond their years
There is support available both from voluntary organisations and the public sector, find out all the information you can taking time to find the service which suits you and your family circumstances best. The Health Visitor should be a useful starting point for signposting and general advice.
Contact a Family http://www.cafamily.org.uk is a wonderful national charity providing access to all manner of information on siblings, fathers, entitlements, organisations that can help you fathom the maze of systems which can steer anyone ‘off course’.
You may have an entitlement to a government benefit known as Disability Living Allowance, the form itself is a challenge but one thing you will develop is resilience. It is an inescapable fact that if you have a child with a disability or additional need more practical resources are needed. At the click of a button www.skybadger.org.uk can assist on many useful aspects at all times of the parental journey and have a true empathy and understanding borne out of their own experience.
Connecting with other families is a source of fantastic knowledge, fun, enjoyment, useful tips, advice, comfort and real support. Lifelong friends are made along this journey which can be an unexpected blessing and joy.
Sometimes we all could do with a little help in putting our point across in an assertive but non-confrontational way. If I had a £1 for each time a parent or carer has exclaimed that they ‘have to fight’ for services for their child I could have retired by now! If we accept this basic premise then as parents what is it that you might need to do differently to protect your own health and wellbeing?
Meetings are an inevitable part of this journey and powerful emotions, although natural, can sometimes interfere with the process of successfully getting what you want.
At Entrust we recently engaged a coaching specialist to work with families and at a workshop he gave us a few tips:
Always be well prepared before the event
Decide what outcome you want to achieve
Have three key points you need to get across, write them down if you need to
Put yourself in the professional’s shoes and reflect on their likely responses, practice your answers
Lead the Agenda – “I understand that your time is limited these are the issues I need to discuss”
Stay calm and focussed
Engage in active listening
I hope you can find your voice and feel empowered even when parenting under pressure you won’t be alone.
Entrust Care Partnership
I know everyone is talking about the person who is about to give birth.
It might feel like not much of the conversation is aimed at you – but I wanted to take a minute to talk about your role in this upcoming breastfeeding story.
You may not have the breasts (or perhaps you do and they are not going to be doing any lactating) but you cannot underestimate how important you are about to be in this next stage.
Breastfeeding works because of breasts and a baby. I would also say that it needs YOU to be there and to get how much you matter.
If your partner is struggling, it’s going to be hard to watch. You might wish you had some sort of magic wand that could make all this struggle go away. Your partner might even be in physical and emotional pain and you desperately wish you could fix it.
When you live in a society where many people choose to bottle feed, it can be difficult to understand why you wouldn’t just stop.
If your partner is asking you to help her stop breastfeeding, then bottle feeding might be an answer.
But if it’s clear she DOES want breastfeeding to work, that’s where she needs your support to help it happen.
Imagine she wanted to run a marathon and it was something she felt passionately about. It was a decision that may take some commitment but her health will benefit in the short and long term and she will live with the sense of achievement for a lifetime. Imagine she was asking you for help and support and your answer was, “Yes, absolutely. How about I drive slowly behind you while you run and then if you get tired you can just pop in the car? Running is hard work and I’ll be there to help you out if you need it.”
Then on her tough runs, when she looks exhausted and seems to be struggling with her timing, you shout out the window: “You’ve tried really hard. Come on! There’s no shame in getting in the car now. Lots of people can’t run marathons. Don’t worry if you can’t manage it”
On the face of it, it might look like ‘help’ but anyone can see what a twit you are being. What would be really supportive would be rubbing her feet, linking her with people who can support her effectively, encouraging her and supporting her goals.
What does real breastfeeding support look like:
Learn about breastfeeding. Have a look on that UNICEF baby friendly site. Learn about why breastfeeding matters. Do some reading.
Your partner might be sore and emotional so if you can also be the well-informed one, you might be worth your weight in gold. The books about breastfeeding that you read when your partner is pregnant will matter more than the time spent painting a nursery. What are the good websites? What is normal for a newborn baby? How often do they normally feed and how can you tell that they are getting enough milk? What do the first few weeks often look like? What common problems can arise and what do people do about them?
Be a gatekeeper and know when to keep people out.
The first few days are crucial when it comes to early breastfeeding success. It is up to YOU who visits, how long they stay for and how they can best support your partner. If just a tiny part of her is nervous about breastfeeding in front of a particular person, that might not be the person who needs to be sitting on your sofa in the first week. And if they care about you, they’ll get that. YOU ask people to only come for an hour, stay in a local B&B, have a Skype visit instead of a real one if you sense that’s what would be best for your partner.
Partners are champions at finding the right support when things aren’t going well and getting the right people through the door. They call helplines (when your partner is too upset but in the end you do manage to hand the phone over). They find the local breastfeeding support groups. They look for lactation consultants (IBCLCs) on lcgb.org and contact the local peer supporters. This is information you can get lined up before baby is even here. Do you know which local groups welcome partners to attend? What days are they on? When your partner is struggling, you might be the one who approaches midwives on the ward or phones the community midwife service and asks what feeding support is available.
Know that you don’t need to feed your baby to bond.
Your new relationship with your baby will be about oxytocin and cuddling and skin-to-skin contact. Anyone that tells you that a partner needs to give a bottle to develop a relationship with their baby is talking baloney. Giving a bottle is not a time without stress – you might be worried about getting it right, a breastfeeding baby might be missing out on some of the aspects of breastfeeding and confused about latch and flow, a baby is more likely to take in air, your partner has to worry about protecting her supply. These are not the ingredients for some blissful magical experience.
There might be times when it’s really useful for you to feed your baby (especially after the first few weeks when breastfeeding is established) but I can promise you that ‘in order to bond’ is not one of the common uses.
The most magic time is the skin-to-skin cuddle. That produces the oxytocin hormone in you and baby – the hormone that facilitates bonding. Smell your baby, hold them, say hello. Enjoy your new relationship. You have a life-time ahead of you of warming up fish fingers, making sandwiches for school and taking them for special dinners. Right now, you don’t need to do the feeding. You just need to help the feeding to happen. When things are difficult, talk to your partner about what she really wants. If she had a magic wand, what would she wish for? How can you help that to happen?
Those of us who support mums who want to breastfeed get how important you are. You are often the person who opens the front door for us and we can see it written on your face – this is a household where everyone is working towards the same goal. You are working as a team. Breastfeeding success is not just about a mum and her baby. It’s about all of us. You are crucial.
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book about what it was like for children in the nineteenth century. Some of the facts and figures quoted were startling. At the start of the century, about one baby in four died before reaching his or her first birthday and another one in four died before they reached the age of 15. Across Europe, enormous efforts were made to identify the cause of infant deaths and governments became increasingly involved in trying to protect children through such measures as limiting the hours they worked in factories and mines, introducing compulsory primary education, improving sanitation and reducing overcrowding in urban housing.
Such measures were largely successful and today, being born and being a baby, toddler and child, aren’t anywhere near as hazardous as they were two hundred years ago.
However, there are new hazards – or, at least, there are hazards that we’re now much more aware of because we don’t have to spend so much time worrying about our children’s physical health (not that we don’t still worry about this, of course!)
A survey carried out by Action for Children last year found that parents worry more about their children’s mental health than any other health issue, including diet, weight and serious illnesses such as cancer. The Chief Executive advised that, ‘Spending time and money preventing a problem rather than repairing the damage is the right and logical thing to do’. I could not agree with him more.
The best way to support children’s mental health is by supporting their parents’ and by being clear about the value and importance of families, however the family is constructed. Families may be constructed in different ways in the 21st century just as they were in earlier centuries. (Until I read the book I mentioned at the start of this blog, I thought that 19th century families always consisted of a father and a mother and a (large) number of children. This is not true. A lot of children were brought up by relatives other than their parents because one or both parents had died; there were a lot of single-parent families, and probably as many families combining children from different marriages as there are today.) The key to successful families lies not in who the family members are but in how they relate to each other.
Let me share with you an example of the transformative power of a family. A couple I know very well had three children whom they raised to adulthood and saw happily settled with partners and families of their own. Now in their fifties, this couple decided to adopt five siblings, three girls (including twins) and two boys, whose own parents were unable to care for them owing to longstanding and deeply ingrained problems with drug abuse. The children were aged from a few months to five. The first thing I want to do is to honour this amazing couple who, not in the first flush of youth, had the courage to take on such a commitment.
The baby they adopted needed the usual amount of attention babies need (i.e. a lot!) but the other children needed even more attention to help them settle in their new home and with their adoptive parents. Let the camera roll and ten years later, these children, now aged 10 to 15, are the happiest, most sociable, fun-loving kids you could ever hope to meet. I had the privilege of being at a social event with them recently and enjoyed lovely conversations with the oldest girl about her ambition to become a child psychologist; with the middle children about football, mobile phones and dancing, and the youngest boy about how to manage bulls (they live on a farm)!
This is a story of tragedy and joy. The birth parents have lost the care of their children and remain poorly and in receipt of mental health services. That is a tragedy. The adoptive parents have given five highly vulnerable children a family that has enabled them to thrive and to realise their innate potential to be happy young people who will make a contribution to the European country of which they are citizens. That is a cause for joy.
This isn’t a plea for more adoptions; the outcomes are not always as successful as the example described here. But it is a plea for supporting families because they are so important in shaping the adults we become.
So my wish list for children’s mental health would first and foremost, prioritise parents’ mental health because that, maybe more than anything else, impacts on children’s wellbeing. Children of depressed parents have a 50% risk of developing depression themselves before the age of 20 according to the Mental Health Foundation. I think preparation for parenthood education should include opportunities for mothers and fathers-to-be to explore their personal strategies for maintaining good mental health and learn some new strategies, such as relaxation and mindfulness skills.
Next, I’d make sure that families have enough to live on. The single most critical risk factor that predicts later mental health and behavioural problems in children is poverty. The research tells us that poverty threatens parents’ positive interactions with their children and makes it more likely that negative and punitive relationships develop.
Thirdly, I’d take some simple measures to support pregnant women who have a history of mental illness or are suffering with antenatal depression. I’d use a buddying system whereby a trained, sensitive, empathic professional, or lay person, visits the mother regularly throughout her pregnancy, supports her at the birth if she so wishes, and continues to visit for as long as the mother wants after the birth. The ‘service’ would be simple friendship with an opportunity for the mother to talk about her feelings and to think about her relationship with her baby.
And finally (but only after all of the above had been put in place) I’d ensure adequate funding of parent-infant mental health services (of which we have only a few in this country), and of children and adolescent mental health services.
But to reiterate: offering support and education at the earliest possible moment – and that probably means educating young people in schools about positive mental health well before they become parents – is surely the way forward. We should certainly be ‘intervening’ in pregnancy with information, education and support. So if you’re pregnant right now (congratulations!) and are looking for antenatal classes, do ask whether the curriculum includes positive mental health strategies for parents and babies. You might feel that you really don’t need this kind of input, but you never know and what you learn will still be very useful if ever you find yourself supporting friends and family members in the future.