Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 7-13 June 2021 Part 4

Babies are Humans! or An IBCLC lactation consultant, breastfeeding counsellor and mother’s free associations around Infant Mental Health Awareness Week

Your baby

As discussed above, they are fully fledged humans! And they need us to survive and thrive. Over the last century, many world renowned psychologists have performed studies on primates and human babies, which confirmed that for them, their mothers’ bodies, closeness, attachment and secure bonding are more important than food itself! John Bowlby, Harry Harlow, Mary Ainsworth, Nils Bergman (see his talks on skin to skin contact and kangaroo mother care on YouTube), James MecKenna and many others all emphasise the biological norm and necessity of a newborn human to be held close to its primary carer (normally and most generally the mother, but this can be replaced by another regular close loving contact in need): the baby considers the mother’s body his or her natural habitat.

“Without the stimulation from maternal-infant contact and interactions – including nighttime sensory exchanges – neonatal brain cells are potentially lost forever. …Minimal contact with mother’s body can make the neurological scaffolding less stable and effective, weakening the structures that provide the basis of the infant’s rapidly growing communicative skills, emotionality, and ability to effectively regulate and respond to its own needs.” (*3)

Astonishingly early on, we hear many parenting guides, approaches ‘helpfully’ suggesting we start creating routines, showing our babies ‘who is boss’, teaching them consequences of their actions or else… we may be making a ‘rod for our own back’! How about if, just for a moment we stop and wonder. In the words of Carlos Gonzales (*10):

“No one reminds us that our children are good people. And they are. They have to be, out of necessity. No animal species could survive if its individual members weren’t born with the ability to acquire normal adult behavior and the instinct to reproduce it.…Human beings are social animals and therefore the ability to love and be loved, to respect and to be respected, to help others and obtain the help of other members of the group, to understand and respect social norms (in short to be a good person), are normal aspects of our personality.”

And if you need more inspiration, here are the words of Gabor Mate again:

“For a child to be open to being parented by an adult, he must be actively attaching to that adult, be wanting contact and closeness with him. At the beginning of life this drive to attach is quite physical – the infant literally clings to the parent and needs to be held. If everything unfolds according to design, the attachment will evolve into an emotional closeness and finally a sense of psychological intimacy. Children who lack this kind of connection with those responsible for them are very difficult to parent or, often, even to teach. Only the attachment relationship can provide the proper context for child-rearing.”(*2)

Lyndsey Hookway and Amy Brown, our contemporaries and experienced academics, mothers and parent supporters have authored many books (some examples below) which can serve as positive and practical guides (with just enough scientific underpinning for the tired pregnant or new parent brain) to keep you going in those early exhausting months. Lyndsey Hookway runs a fantastic Instagram account where she generously shares her wisdom on a regular basis, well worth following.

One example is when she talks about interpreting babies’ cries. How many reasons can you think of for this? They must be hungry, tired or in need of a nappy change.

“I’m often asked how to support babies who are crying a lot, for reasons that are hard to figure out. Some babies cry more than others for sure. Others cry to let us know that there’s a problem. Some babies are sensitive and seem to have quite a short fuse. Some babies are hard to read and it’s easy to feel like you’ve missed something….

If your baby cries a lot, then run through this checklist:

– Are they hungry? Or do they need a comfort feed?

– Are they hot, cold, sweaty? Do they hate the itchy label in their clothing? Is there a strongly scented air freshener irritating them? Is it too loud? Too bright?

– Are they ill? Fever? Something that’s worrying you?

– Do they have a hair tourniquet? (strand of hair wrapped round a finger or toe)

– Do they need a change of scene? Are they bored? New toy? Go outside?

– Are they tired? Do they need your help to calm down, and then settle down for a nap?

– Do they have tummy ache? Is their nappy/diaper on too tight? Do they have gas? Try my wonky winding suggestion, massage, warm bath…

– Are they just having a bad day? Or is this a pattern of behaviour playing out every day?

If it’s unusual behaviour for your baby, it’s worth considering whether they might be ill or in pain. You don’t have to diagnose your baby – you only have to be their advocate and notice when something’s not quite right.

If in doubt – get it checked out.

If you can’t figure it out and you’ve explored your options, then honestly, try to focus on calming yourself so you can calm your baby. Holding a crying baby is a world away from leaving them to work it out on their own. You’re not doing accidental cry it out. Tears actually have been found to have a different chemical composition depending on the emotion being expressed – awesome huh?If your baby is crying in the arms of a loving, responsive parent, you’re doing the best you can. I know it’s hard and stressful to listen to, and I wish there was a genius fix, but sometimes you just have to love them through it.”

So much wisdom there. Well worth spending a bit of time digesting it.

The beautifully written La Leche League publications: The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Sweet Sleep (sleep strategies and information for the breastfeeding family) collect together decades of experience and centuries of wisdom – some of the best choices for a baby shower gift! The Womanly Art has a paragraph I wanted to share with you as it summarizes so aptly how a bit or re-framing can put everything in a different light:

“Your baby is part of your support system, not just the reason you need support. Yes, he gives you an excuse to leave parties or end phone conversations whenever you choose. But it goes deeper than that. You may discover that you begin to feel lost when your baby isn’t with you. Babies and breastfeeding can give us a confidence we never had, and ability to cut through the nonsense and make solid decisions, to know for sure what’s right for us and our families. Babies turn us into mothers, and motherhood is astoundingly powerful. Yes, we all need to find our network, but don’t forget that your baby is part of it, too, with his smiles, his warm body against yours, his bright eyes focused on you when you say his name. Someday soon this amazing little person, who led you to need a network in the first place, will be its most important member.”(*14)

One thing you can do from the word go is to look for communication from your tiny human. They might not have words, but they have a whole array of ways to communicate their needs with you, if only you can listen. One basic example of this is their expressions for needing food: their feeding cues. If you look up feeding cues in babies, you will find a neat chart with ‘early’ cues, ‘mid’ cues and ‘late cues’. When did you learn to pick up on those tiny moves of the fists, the squirms in the legs or the head rooting, brow wrinkling, rather than wait for the cries? And as we have seen above, even simple crying can mean a hundred different things!

“All behaviour is communication, so behind behaviour you will find the feelings. Once you discover the feeling behind any particular behaviour and empathize with it, then you can put the feeling into words, you will help a child use words to express themselves and they will have less need to act out on that feeling.” (Philippa Perry *21)

If you want to learn more about how our babies and children communicate with us, how to interpret that communication and what our reaction to these messages tell us about US, as well as how to potentially change these patterns if we wish to, it’s well worth reading Daniel Siegel’s two books from our recommended list. They will give you valuable insights, based on latest neuroscientific and psychological research, but in a truly parent friendly and practical way. I found reading them a truly emotional and pretty earth shaking experience, with many insights learned.

to be continued…

Your reading list

  1. Naomi Standlen: What Mothers Do (especially when it looks like nothing)
  2. Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld: Hold on to your kids
  3. James McKenna: Sleeping with your Baby & Safe Infant Sleep
  4. Sarah Ockwell-Smith: Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters
  5. Amy Brown: Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter
  6. Amy Brown: Let’s Talk About the first year of parenting
  7. Emma Svanberg: Why Birth Trauma Matters
  8. Why … Matters series including Why Babywearing Matters from Pinter and Martin Publishers
  9. Lyndsey Hookway: Let’s Talk about your new family’s sleep
  10. Carlos Gonzales: Kiss Me
  11. Anna Le-Grange: The Mindful Breastfeeding Book
  12. Meredith F. Small: Our Babies Ourselves
  13. Jean Liedloff: The Continuum Concept
  14. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Sweet Sleep by LLLI (La Leche League International)
  15. How Do Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood
  16. Patti Wipfler and Tosha Schore: Listen
  17. The Fourth Trimester: A Postpartum Guide to Healing Your Body, Balancing Your Emotions, and Restoring Your Vitality by Kimberly Ann Johnson
  18. Zainab Yate: When Breastfeeding Sucks
  19. The Positive Birth Book by Milli Hill
  20. The Positive Breastfeeding Book by Amy Brown
  21. Philippa Perry: The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read
  22. Amy Brown: Informed Is Best
  23. Daniel J. Siegel: Parenting from the Inside Out
  24. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson: The Whole-Brain Child

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