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”!!!
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.
Samantha Chater of Babistic Baby and You was one of the first people to take an “Acorn” sponsorship package for the Growing Families conference, and has been a consistent supporter of what we are trying to do with this October’s not-for-profit event in Manchester. We have a number of friends and contacts in common so I was keen to meet with Samantha and find out more about her business and her own parenting journey. I was expecting to discover a lot about her background, skills and the courses she offers, but I didn’t think it would be relevant to me personally. After all, my children and now 5 ½ and nearly 3. How wrong I was…….
Samantha lives in Timperley with her husband Dave and six-year-old son Dominic. She started her professional life in Performing Arts, and trained in Massage and Reflexology ten years ago whilst living down in London. She was doing Performing Arts work alongside other jobs, juggling a number of projects including teaching baby gym, music classes and toddler classes. Samantha eventually gave up the Performing Arts when she had Dominic, and at that time did a bit of baby massage with him, attending a class with a friend in the hope that it would help with Dominic’s colic. The course was from the International Association of Infant Massage, and Samantha says it all connected back to her own training in holistic health. “It felt like a calling, I did the IAIM training straight away when Dominic was only four months old.” Babistic Baby and You went live in May 2011, when Dominic was less than a year old.
The baby massage training fitted in with Samantha’s own ethos of parenting, and she went on to specialise in reflexology for maternity, postnatal and baby, and baby yoga. Samantha says there was a “buzz” about hypnobirthing and that felt like the perfect next step. She trained in the Mongan Method originally, but when Samantha and her family moved to Manchester she found the Wise Hippo Hypnobirthing Programme. This was recommended to her by Suzy Ashworth, a neighbour from London who had been a case study for Samantha’s training in baby massage. Samantha fast-tracked the Wise Hippo training, having already trained in the Mongan method, and then put it all together in one course for Babistic Baby and You. “The rest is history”.
Classes provided by Babistic Baby and You provide continuity for families through pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period. Samantha takes a non-judgemental approach – she wants to provide useful tools for families, rather than a strict agenda of what they “should” or should not do. It was her husband Dave who came up with the name “Babistic” as an amalgam of “baby” and “holistic”, and the website styles the classes “for bump, birth and beyond.” Baby reflexology and Baby yoga are also part of the Babistic Baby All in One course – giving parents so many tools with which to bond with and help their children.
So what does Samantha feel are the things that new mums need the most?
“To feel a connection with others, to feel like they are not alone. Social media can help with that – it can also be a hindrance! I always tell parents not to get involved in parenting debates online.
It is important for mums to have the tools and techniques for getting to know their baby, and helping baby with any problems he or she might encounter, such as colic. Bonding is an ongoing process, and sometimes parental expectations can be unhelpful. I encourage guilt-free parenting in a supportive, safe and non-judgemental environment. Empowering parents to know that they are the expert on their baby, and that one size does not fit all.”
What about new babies, what are their most important needs?
“To be listened to. Stop, don’t rush in: babies are all different and it is important as parents that we are led by baby, by what they are communicating to us. If we know what is normal and have realistic expectations, we can watch for their personal cues and tune in to our children. Babistic techniques help parents to get to know their baby – we discuss respect for baby’s needs, the importance to baby of having his or her needs met; we talk about allowing baby to give permission and to feel valued. Newborn babies are fully aware human beings. They have the right to say yes or no to any technique that we wish to try with them.”
Do new dads tend to get involved as well?
“I encourage mums to share the techniques with their partners so that dad can get involved if it’s his thing. It has got to be something you want to give. I think it’s important to let dads find their own way. A child will have different expectations of each carer, and that’s okay. Dads can make mistakes and that’s okay too. They need to build their confidence.
The same goes for grandparents – if they want to get involved and try out the techniques that’s great! I have a few Nanas attending my classes. It is great if grandparents can understand the baby led fundamentals.”
Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff is very much focused on the postnatal period and the early days with baby. What was the hardest part of the “fourth trimester” for Samantha?
“Colic kicked in for Dominic when he was two or three weeks old. It was hard. I felt helpless and angry. I couldn’t help my baby. My husband and I became snappy with one another because we were so exhausted. Breastfeeding was hard as well. I thought it would be easy but it wasn’t. I expressed for as long as I could, but not being able to breastfeed was my biggest disappointment of that time.
At the time I didn’t get offered the right type of support – better support may have saved our breastfeeding journey. Through the knowledge I have gained over the years I am now able to signpost new mums to excellent support in the area.”
What has Samantha learned since becoming a mother?
“Patience! Some things I thought were important before I had Dominic are not important now. I have learned to be mindful and in the moment, and not to waste those lovely opportunities – although I am not always successful with that!”
In discussing all of the techniques with Samantha we inevitably discussed my own parenting experiences with Edward and David, my regrets over how little I was able to hold David when he was first born, and the fact that I used to give Edward a massage every night when he was a baby but I haven’t done anything like that since. Samantha discussed how massage can be reciprocal, now the children are older they can learn techniques to use on me and on each other, as well as deciding whether they would like a massage themselves. We talked about how David in particular likes to be in control, no doubt due to how many medical procedures he had when tiny, so may not appreciate massage, but might like to massage others. As always, it has to be child-led.
Samantha recommended the book “Once Upon a Touch”, storytelling massage for children. http://www.storymassage.co.uk/resources/ Talking to her encouraged me to re-connect with touch and bonding with my children, and to remember the benefits that baby massage had for Edward and for me. It seems that it is never too late to tune in.
Our thanks to Mary Nolan for writing for us on the subject of parenting advice, confusion and consistency. Mary is one of our main session speakers at the Growing Families: Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff event in Manchester this October, and will be delivering the section on Understanding Baby, in conjunction with Helen Ball of the Durham University Parent-Infant Sleep Lab.
Mary trained as a nurse in the 1970s and then as a childbirth educator with the NCT. She has worked with parents across the UK and has trained educators in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium and Germany. She has published several books including, ‘Antenatal Education: A Dynamic Approach’, ‘Home Birth: The Politics of Difficult Choices’, and chapters in ‘Essential Midwifery Practice: Intrapartum Care’ edited by Denis Walsh and Soo Downe. Her PhD examined the impact of antenatal education on women’s choices around pain management in labour and her research into women’s and men’s experience of early labour, what women want from antenatal classes, and health visitors’ engagement with new fathers has been published in peer-reviewed academic and professional journals.
My father is 88 years old – a truly splendid octogenarian who maintains a keen interest in a world which he sometimes finds confusing. He is not slow to remind us – with a twinkle in his eye – that advice is like fashion; it comes and goes and if you hang onto what you wore/were told in the 50s/80s/00s, you’ll eventually find yourself ‘on trend’ and doing ‘the right thing’ again after being out of fashion and doing ‘the wrong thing’ for a couple of decades!
He’s particularly keen to point out that the parenting my mother considered appropriate – three meals a day (sitting at the family table) and only water and fruit in between, and bed-time before 8pm are now being advocated again. (Along with real butter which my Dad loves!)
It’s hard today being a mother or a father or a kinship carer or anyone who has charge of children and wants to do the best they can to ensure they are physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually healthy. And people like myself, who are in the business of parent education and research, don’t always make life easier – although we are totally committed to finding the very best evidence to give to parents and co-parents.
Helping out at a playgroup the other day, I was startled to hear two young mothers (mid to late twenties) talking about what kind of milk to give their babies. The babies in question were adorable little girls of around 4-6 months of age. The babies were sitting in their pushchairs smiling amiably at each other and occasionally demanding some attention from their moms which was very willingly given. I presumed that the mothers were discussing breast milk v formula, or different kinds of formula. Not so. The mothers were discussing when to give cow’s milk and whether it should be full fat or semi-skimmed. The conclusion they came to was that it was all right to change from formula (which both babies were receiving) to full fat cow’s milk at 6 months of age. The World Health Organisation and the Department of Health recommendation is not to give cow’s milk before a year at the earliest. It’s one of the few recommendations that has been consistent over quite a long period of time.
These were clearly devoted and conscientious mothers with healthy and happy babies. So how could they have got hold of such wrong information?
It’s not just mothers, of course, who are victims of the confusion that inevitably arises when health information changes from one week to the next, or is transmitted in a confused way or is different according to which health professional you speak to. Health professionals are confused as well. While leading a seminar recently for a bright and dedicated group of student midwives, I found myself in a debate with one young and ardent student about whether caesarean section was as ‘good’ as vaginal birth. I mounted the usual (and, to my mind, correct) argument that caesarean can be a life-saving operation for some mothers and babies and that we are fortunate to have easy access to it, but that vaginal birth has many advantages that may affect the new baby for the whole of their life. I therefore suggested that it is the midwife’s role to support women and their birth companions physically and emotionally to have a straightforward vaginal birth whenever possible. The student quite definitely did not agree with me and felt that vaginal and surgical birth should be presented as equal options.
You might be thinking now that I have made these two stories up for the sake of this Blog – but, actually, I haven’t. Both are true and both incidents occurred in the last month.
Research into health promotion is very clear that conflicting and inconsistent advice leads (who would have guessed?) to conflicted and inconsistent parenting. And that inconsistent parenting doesn’t help young children to feel secure and ‘get a grip’ on the world. The baby and toddler are busy developing a template for life. Their fast-growing brains are trying to sort out which behaviours lead to which responses. As humans, we all need to feel pretty certain that our actions will have predictable outcomes if we are to function effectively on a day-to-day basis and avoid becoming anxious and indecisive. As a very young child, I need to know, for example, that food arrives at certain times and that eating it makes me feel content; that smiling at dad and reaching out to him elicits a warm playful response, and that pulling grandma’s hair hard makes her sad. I need my mom and dad, or whoever is looking after me, to do things in ways that I come to recognise as ‘how things are done in our family’. If mom and dad are continually changing the way in which they look after me because the advice they are receiving is always changing, that’s not particularly good for me as the little person on the receiving end of that inconsistent parenting.
For me as a birth and parent educator, and an academic who’s interested in how to transmit accurate health and child care messages, the age of social media is challenging. Twitter and Facebook can function rather like a game of Chinese whispers with a message starting out as one thing and becoming something very different by the time it reaches the hundredth or the thousandth or the ten-thousandth recipient. For parents and co-parents, trying as hard as they can to be not just ‘good-enough’ parents, but excellent parents, ever changing advice is a nightmare.
It’s a conundrum. So what advice would I give about advice???!! I think exactly the same as I would have given when I first started practising as a parent educator about 30 years ago. Choose one person who you have reason to believe knows what s/he’s talking about and understands the way in which you want to parent, or one website that has been recommended to you by a health professional, or one book that is authoritative (the reliable ones generally have reference lists so you can check the research on which they’re based) and stick with that person or information source. As a very wise friend once said to me (rather shockingly, I thought at the time), ‘Even better than loving your children is being consistent’.
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 blog has been written for Growing Families by Sarah Darton, Director of Programmes at Family Links.
Infant mental health is a concept that may sound unfamiliar to many people. As a parent and former health visitor, I’ve known and worked with hundreds of wonderful new and expectant parents, all of whom want the best for their children. The words “mental health” are often met with the understandable, yet false, perception that this is an issue to worry about when children are older, and then only in the context of “ill” health.
In actuality, and as many practitioners will know, good mental health is something that can be nurtured from the womb right through adolescence and into adulthood. The first ever Infant Mental Health Awareness week was held in June this year, with the focus on “building babies’ minds”. Something that many parents may not be aware of is that babies are born with nearly all their nerve cells already present in their brains, but the ways in which these nerve cells connect and work together is easily influenced by their experiences, both in the womb and throughout their early years and later childhood.
As the Director of Programmes for Family Links, I now deliver training to practitioners who work with all kinds of parents, to help them support parents in fostering good mental health in themselves and their children. One of the key things I talk about in my work is just how important parents are in the development of their baby’s mind, and that there is support and advice to help them. A practitioner’s role in empowering parents to nurture their baby’s mental health can be absolutely vital.
But let’s start at the beginning. What is mental health?
Mental health is a continuum that stretches from mental wellbeing at one end to mental illness at the other, and we can all be at different places along that continuum at different stages in our lives. There is often a perception that mental illness is a purely genetically determined issue. While it’s certainly true that there will be medical reasons behind mental illness, parenting has a very significant role in brain development and how genes are expressed.
Practitioners can help parents to nurture their baby’s mental wellbeing by encouraging them to get to know their baby in the womb, to begin thinking of them as a little person with their own needs and feelings. For example, practitioners can explain to parents that babies can hear them from about 26 weeks of pregnancy, and therefore encourage them to talk and sing to their babies, and help them understand why shouting or violence at home is so detrimental to babies’ development.
One of the most important factors in infant mental health is how parents manage their own mental health. Practitioners can be key to identifying when a parent is anxious or stressed, and letting them know that it’s normal to have some anxieties but it’s a positive thing to seek help if they need it. Even when a baby is in the womb, the parent’s emotional responses are having an impact on the development of the baby, and potentially their future mental health and wellbeing. Low level anxiety is common amongst expectant mothers, and we also know that high levels of anxiety in pregnancy are detrimental to infant development. If a mother is feeling very anxious, it’s important that they ask for help from their GP, midwife or health visitor. Family Links’ Welcome to the World antenatal programme also prepares expectant parents for challenges both mothers and fathers may encounter and supports and encourages the development of an understanding of the baby’s physical and emotional needs, in the womb and after delivery.
Modelling good mental wellbeing and looking after our mental health as parents goes hand-in-hand with helping babies to develop a sense of security and healthy self-esteem once they are born. Parents can help develop this by tuning into their baby, and practitioners can support them by equipping mums and dads with strategies to achieve this connection. Some of these strategies could include talking and playing with the baby, gentle massage or stroking, singing, laughing and smiling, taking pleasure and delight in them so they develop the sense that they’re special and lovable, and that the adults in their lives are dependable. The idea of “turn taking”, when parents reflect back their baby’s sounds and expressions, is crucial, as is an understanding that babies need to take a break sometimes and will turn away when they need to. This is not because they are rejecting their parents’ attempts to engage but because they are easily over stimulated and need rest.
Babies are born ready to be social, and positive interactions with parents and care givers are helping their brains to develop in healthy ways. Parents also need to help babies when they’re distressed by cuddling, rocking, singing and soothing. These actions help babies to form the pathways in the brain that enable them to calm themselves as they get older, so they’ll be able to manage stress and challenges more easily in later life. Babies brains have not yet developed to a point where they could deliberately annoy their parents; their cries or signs of distress are their ways of communicating that something’s not right and they need adult help to enable them to settle.
All this early interaction is like an “emotional immunisation” that will help protect children as they grow and are exposed to things that might knock them or create stress. Just like an immunisation against physical illness, so we can also provide that resilience against emotional stressors. And practitioners can be key to giving parents these strategies and the confidence to carry them out.
For me, the cornerstone supporting all this is helping parents to realise just how important they are, not just for practical care, but for emotional care of babies and children. We need to encourage parents to realise they’re special, and that includes fathers who sometimes feel their role is just to support the mother – their relationship with their baby is special in its own right. And practitioners are in a unique position to support, nurture and empower parents to reach for help if they need it, and develop good mental health in their children.
Sarah Darton MA BSc (Hons) DipHV RGN is Director of Programmes at Family Links. Prior to working for the charity, Sarah worked in the NHS for 30 years as a health visitor, child protection nurse & health and outreach manager for a Sure Start children’s centre.