This is not going to be a rant about health professionals. Nor is it a rant about grannies, mothers-in-law or anyone else for that matter. It is a rant about how fear can work its way into the mind of a mother, especially a new mother, and derail her own instincts or lead her to hide her perfectly valid choices as a mother, for fear of being criticized.
I’ve written here before about the effect of fear in parenting. Many of us (myself included) have made decisions about our children based on a fear of what might happen. In my last post I wrote about how that fear can prevent us from being as flexible as our children need us to be, and about how some childcare books prey on our fears in their attempt to impose predictability and control on what is actually a very fluid relationship.
So why am I cross? Yesterday I was chatting to a breastfeeding mother and she was talking about her baby’s bed-time needs. She said, “I know you’re not supposed to, but I do feed my baby to sleep.” She gave a sheepish grin and some colour came to her face. She was embarrassed to admit it, perhaps seeing me as a potentially-critical ‘professional’ or perhaps even just as a mother who would disapprove of her choice. I said, “Who says you’re not supposed to do that? Where is that rule written?” Her reply? “My health visitor.”
(For the benefit of American readers, a health visitor is a nurse practitioner trained in child health– ages 0-5.)
I wondered to myself whether the same health visitor would advise a mother of a bottle-fed baby to take the bottle out of his mouth before he fell asleep, or if a baby using a dummy (pacifier) should have the dummy removed before falling asleep. Why this concern about breastfeeding a baby til he falls asleep? Is it based on a worry that a child will expect this forever? Is it because we fear a baby’s dependence? Or is it because society finds it difficult to accept a mother’s role as comforter?
My own thought is that many people assume that a baby’s expectation of comfort from his mother is a learned behaviour. To my mind this is patently wrong. All mammalian babies are born expecting their mothers’ care. The nature/nurture argument and Freudian psychology are so ingrained in our culture that we assume that a baby’s behaviour is always down to his parents: blame the mother.
I admit that before I had children I assumed that babies are like a blank canvas on which you paint all of the qualities you want in your offspring. When I had a high-need baby I struggled to understand why she cried so much, why she was so sensitive. What was I doing wrong? Nine years later I can confidently say: nothing. It’s just the way she is. But I was told not to feed her to sleep, not to pick her up when she cried, not to sympathise when she bumped her head, not to run to her if she hurt herself, to whisper when she shouted. I suppose if I had done these things, it might have ‘hardened’ her. But at what cost? Nine years later she is a thoughtful, sensitive, perceptive person who experiences her emotions keenly and can empathise deeply with others. I see nothing negative in this. And importantly, I can say with satisfaction that I acted on the feelings that came from deep within me and made my decisions based on the deep and unique connection I have with my daughter.
Parents love their children. They want the best for them. Unfortunately, professionals, whether they be health professionals, authors, or just professional busy-bodies, can easily undermine a new mother’s confidence. We have in-built instincts, and yet other people think they know better. How can someone else know how to mother my babies better than me? Telling a breastfeeding mother not to feed her baby to sleep undermines her instincts, it makes her life harder, and it confuses the baby. It’s like someone telling me I can’t have the most comfortable pillow in the house because I might begin to expect it. Babies just don’t get our double-speak.
A baby’s basic instructions? “Hold me, feed me, keep me warm. Love me.” It’s simple. Resistance is futile.