Have you heard of the new term on the parenting block called elephant parenting? I’m personally not a fan of labelling parenting styles but I thought it might help me explain this blog and what type of parents sleep training appeals to. Elephant parents are nurturing, protecting and gently encourage their children as opposed to Tiger parents who are pushy, authoritarian and low on emotional connection.
Elephant parents do not rush their babies towards independence and thus would not sleep train their babies at all or at least wait until they’re developmentally ready. Tiger parents are more likely to sleep train their babies at a young age because they want to encourage independence.
I like the sound of elephant parents, it reminds me of the term ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ These animals are known for raising their babies in a herd and if the mother cannot do something for her baby other family members step in to provide this role, even supplementing nursing. If an elephant is in danger, the whole herd will usually come to help. The herd is led by a matriarch viewed as confident, wise and inspirational by the rest if the herd. Sounds great but not entirely realistic in our world.
Like it or not, we are all stuck at home at the moment for the good of the country’s health. However, if you have a little one it may be more challenging than usual; the lack of ability to interact outside your bubble means your baby’s sensory needs may be unmet and they become bored/dialed up as a result. Parenting can be lonely enough without being able to follow your usual routine of meeting up with friends and coffee groups, but now it has now become even more isolating. Being isolated with a fussy baby who hasn’t had its evolving sensory needs meets doesn’t sound like enjoyable household.
So in order to help with that, here’s a list of sensory activities you can do with your little one at home to optimise your baby’s needs and development. We often forget that meeting your baby’s sensory needs is so incredibly important, even from an early age because so of then the focus is on feeding and sleeping.
In an effort to make the ‘healthiest’ milk for our babies, many of us breastfeeding mums are eating lactation cookies, oats and taking herbal supplements plus eliminating alcohol and coffee. However…
Research proves that the mother’s diet does not change the components of breastmilk, the only exception being fatty acids (Hale & Rowe, 2017)
So the good news is you can save your money on supplements, and for those of us that want to indulge, you can enjoy a morning coffee or a glass of wine in the evening. For wine or other alcoholic drinks, the percentage of alcohol that is transferred to into your breastmilk that your baby will digest is so small that the benefits your baby receives from breastfeeding in the first place far outweigh any harm to your baby. However, the safe level of alcohol consumption for a breastfeeding mother is unknown and could vary from one person to another. A good tip is if you plan to have a glass of wine, do it while you are breastfeeding or immediately after. None of us want to end up in a tragedy like we heard in the media this time last year. That being said, there were several other risk factors for this family that the media did not mention Extra caution should be taken when your baby is under 6 months of age as the risk of SIDS is much higher and bed sharing is definitely not recommended as the babies natural reflexes will be affected (UNICEF link here). The general rule is if your sober enough to drive your sober enough to feed and prohibiting nursing mother from drinking alcohol just makes life unnecessarily restrictive: https://www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/alcohol/
I often get asked by parents if it is ok to move their baby into their own room before they are 6 months old because they are finding it difficult to sleep due to the snuffles, grunts and groans that their baby is making. I’m sure this is a question that resonates with all of us. Laying there in the night pondering what is causing your baby’s discomfort? And out of desperation spending and arm and leg on all the over the counter remedies – Colic Calm, Gripe Water, Infacol or taking the advice ‘just give him a teaspoon of water,’ and the self-doubt must be because I’m not burping him properly.
The truth of the matter is that your baby makes these noises 24/7 but at night it’s more obvious because it’s an environment that is dark and quiet when everyone is typically asleep! These noises are normal new-born noises. Babies have sensitive digestive systems and are nose breathers because they have large tongue that is needed for breastfeeding. Their nasal passages are narrow and even more surprisingly it is normal for new-born babies to aspirate small quantities occasionally without causing any harm (Nikki Mills ENT specialist – Symposium conference April 2018).
Pregnancy and birthing practices, politics and social norms have evolved as medical practitioners and mothers have become more experienced and knowledgeable with birthing methods. That being said, many societies’ rituals and customs have remained sacred throughout centuries. One such ritual that is gaining popularity is the “Lotus” birth.
The placenta is the temporary organ that feeds the foetus inside the mother’s womb. In some cultures the expelled placenta holds a spiritual significance - some bury it, some eat it and some leave it attached until the umbilical cord dries up and it falls off on its own (up to 14 days) – this is a Lotus birth.
This type of birthing practice had only been witnessed in chimpanzees until 1974 when Clair Lotus Day - pregnant and living in California - began to question the routine cutting of the umbilical cord. Her search led her to an obstetrician who was sympathetic to her wishes, and her son Trimurti was born in hospital and taken home with his cord uncut. More recently Jeannine Parvati Baker in the US and Shivam Rachana in Australia have both been strong advocates for this practice ever since.
Dr. Sarah Buckley adopted this practice with her second child in 1993, when she placed the placenta in a hand sown red velvet bag and rubbed the placenta daily with salt and lavender until it fell off after six days. She described it as having a ‘slightly meaty smell’ and that it attracted the attention of her cat.
A Lotus birth is an uncommon practice and therefore there are many unknowns but to date there is no research to support any benefits of this practice and there are warnings of associated risks such as bacterial infection. However, the spiritual meaning of it aligns with optimising mother baby synchrony after birth which is something we all aim to achieve regardless of our cultural practices.
I am uncertain as then when it became common practice to cut the umbilical cord immediately after birth but it is now more commonly known that delayed cord clamping (30-60secs) or cord milking can increase iron storage of the infant, supporting healthy brain development.
With this is mind, you can see how things can be done so differently but not necessarily wrong. Most of us try to keep ourselves informed as to what modern practices will optimise health and wellbeing of ourselves and our baby.
I have been reflecting on all that we try and do to promote good health through preconception, pregnancy and birth, and most of it boils down to achieving and maintaining a state of calm. By remaining calm we can balance hormone production and this is at the heart of our bodily processes; from our menstrual cycles to our moods and energy levels. More specifically, keeping our fight or flight hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) at bay so that our more healthy and helpful hormones like endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin can be produced in higher quantities.
We know that maternal stress during pregnancy does effect the developing foetus and can lead to adverse obstetric outcomes. Sadly, in the 21st century with dual working families, single parenthood, geographically dispersed families and friends, the energy demands of employment, home, parenting, family and friends it almost unavoidable. Therefore relaxation techniques during pregnancy such as massage therapy, hypnotic relaxation and breathing/tension release exercises are effective to keeping a state of calm and improving outcomes for mother and baby - demonstrating lower heart rates and blood pressure, and a lower incidence of gestational hypertension
During birth, remaining calm becomes particularly important, not only to help with labour, but also to allow your body's helpful hormones - especially oxytocin and prolactin - to make bonding and attachment and initiating and maintaining breastfeeding as easy as possible. Keeping mother and baby in hormonal synchrony (as best you can) is vital for the healthy transition into motherhood.
Becoming a mum is filled with both joy and pain - these emotions go hand and hand. The struggle with keeping that state of calm is now real. Postnatal stress and anxiety can impact on your life with your baby and effect your baby’s development negatively. So many of us today are goal focused and working towards the ideal. Getting caught up in self-blame thought processes. More often than not there is a silent competition at coffee group about whose baby is doing what first. Please do not rush your baby through developmental milestones such as self-settling, you are wasting your time and energy because they will do it when they are ready. Instead, focus your energy on keeping your state of calm and enjoying the journey. I like to compare sleep training to toilet training. You do not need to train your child to go to the toilet, just wait until they pull the nappy off themselves and refuse to wear one. Wouldn’t parenting be so much easier on our emotions if we simply just waited until they were ready! We would have a more respectful, healthier relationship with our offspring.
As you can probably appreciate from the differing of birthing practices mentioned, some of them even rather unusual, infant care practices also differ. There is not right way and there is no ideal, there is however, more than one way to skin a cat. I must still have cats on my mind!
Nathan Wallis - The developing brain
Regardless of which way you lean politically, Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy has got a lot of people talking. Underneath the politics is a woman pregnant with her first baby in a very high pressure job that carries a lot of expectations – not just those of the people around her but her own and her partner’s as well.
Most of the headlines and opinions I have read so far are in favour and support of Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy and baby plans. At the time of writing she has stated she will take 6 weeks’ leave with her partner after which time he’ll continue on as the primary caregiver and she’ll return to the workforce. I asked some local Auckland mum’s to find out what they thought about this move since the media have only really focussed on the job rather than the motherhood aspect.
The Question I asked was:
“What do you think about Jacinda Ardern’s decision about returning to work 6 weeks after having her baby?”
Here are a few of the responses:
‘It’s not something I feel is the right thing to do for herself and of course for the baby but I also believe it’s every mothers choice to do what she thinks is best.’
‘I personally think it’s too soon but understand her position and the horrible scrutiny she’ll be under whatever she decides to do?
‘I think it is amazing she is having a baby but not sure she realises how hard it will be to do leave her baby until she holds him/her for the first time. I think it will be incredibly hard for both her and the baby but if dad is hands on from the start, it will be easier. I couldn’t have done it. I just feel a bit sad for her.’
‘I respect her choice and I don’t think it will be detrimental to the baby because he/she will still be with a full-time primary caregiver – Clarke will be a stay at home dad’
Let me make this very clear: this blog is not an attack Jacinda Ardern and her proposed choices on how she chooses to care for her baby - mothers need to be more supported by other mothers, not judged. The issue here is that Jacinda becoming the ultimate multi-tasker is being glorified: That having a baby and getting straight back to work full time after only 6 weeks makes her superwoman! My concern is that this is this placing unfair societal pressure by role modelling – an expectation that mothers should be doing it all by juggling numerous roles including looking after a baby, running the household, paid work and being a wife. I personally don’t that think this is something to be hailed as a great thing for mothers. Feminism is about empowerment - not that woman should do everything! Let’s not sugar coat it; in line with the comments from above returning to work after 6 weeks would be extremely hard for any mother in any kind of role, not just the Prime Minister of New Zealand. And this is why…
There are many physical and hormonal changes that take place after having a baby that are important for many reasons other than the most obvious – actually meeting the biological needs of the baby. Hang on, has anyone even thought about what is in the best interests of the baby here? Perhaps we have but are all too afraid to say it out loud because might make other mothers feel guilty for choices that they have made. Many mothers do need to return to work soon after having a baby for financial reasons and nor is this an attack on them. Being a stay at home parent has become a privilege in today’s society however we do need to also acknowledge that they do an incredibly hard and very important job.
Stay at home dads totally rule and it’s great to see Clarke role modelling the importance of a father’s involvement in raising a baby. However, mother and fathers are different again for obvious biological reasons – in the simplest terms they cannot carry a baby and they do not have breasts for feeding. In the early days, weeks and even months dads tend to feel rather hopeless and it’s not their fault - mum gets a 9 month head start. She has already begun the bonding and attachment process with her baby, right from conception. After birth both mother and baby produce large amounts of oxytocin which further supports the development of that relationship. The baby spends many hours of the day in close proximity to its mother who it instinctively knows can provide food and comfort including a familiar smell and voice while it transitions and adapts to life outside the womb.
I wonder if Jacinda knows that baby brain is a real thing? From what I can see this is a major obstacle she will need to overcome. The brain in simple terms is made up of 2 sides, the right side controls feeling and emotions and the left side controls logical thinking and decision making. Babies use majority of the right side of their brain to form attachment with loved ones. Once a mother gives birth the left side of her brain becomes less active and the right side goes into overdrive to allow crucial bonding to take place. This is why new mums are very sensitive to things people do and say that would not normally bother them. Jacinda’s job involves making important left brain decisions for the wellbeing of New Zealanders so I am a little nervous for her. Now let’s add sleep deprivation to that equation. Crikey!
Surely she does know that breast is best and is probably planning to breastfeed or mix feed for a period of time – more than 6 weeks though? I am picturing Clarke driving around following Jacinda from place to place with a hungry, screaming, red faced baby yelling ‘he/she won’t take the bottle.’ Personally I would love to see some media interviews with her boob out but we probably won’t. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see her feeding her baby in public places and baby wearing? This would be some real positive role modelling! Without this type of contact pumping and bottle feeding breast milk may not be sustainable long term.
I really hope that Jacinda will be kind to herself and allow herself some more physical recovery time before returning to work for everyone’s sake – more 6 months than 6 weeks. Nobody should judge her for that. Early separation from her baby will ultimately risk her mental health as well as the baby’s and really nobody will be winning. The first 3-6mths of life with a new baby is an intensely emotional time while you spend time getting to know each other. After these first few months the transient nature of it all begins to settle and life resumes somewhat back to as it was.
But most importantly this baby will be loved by its parents and by the nation. Babies that have loving responsive parents do well. Best of luck to Jacinda and Clarke, it is going to be an incredible journey with many challenges – many common and some that are unique just to them.
What gives us happiness also comes with pain and as this is the only way we can truly appreciate the best things in life. Being a parent is the best job in the world.
Many years ago no-one talked about cued care, parents simply just looked after their baby. Families were larger and the majority of mothers were stay-at-home caregivers which meant baby care was synchronised around other siblings and a pattern of sensible responsiveness was used to meet baby’s needs. Being a stay-at-home parent is not relevant for all of these days but that in itself does not rule out cued care which is simply the intention to respond. It does not mean you should expect to drop everything to attend to your baby’s every grizzle or for your baby to be happy and contented all of the time. You are modelling cued care when you are doing your best to communicate with your baby in the blur of confusion and crying and this will mean your baby will feel protected.
The current infant care culture revolves around deliberately delaying responses and teaching your baby to ‘self-settle’ as soon as possible. The intent here is to prevent baby requiring parental assistance to get to sleep or to get back to sleep. Using this method, intervening to assist your baby to sleep can leave you worried that you are creating bad habits such as baby relying on your help to get to sleep. When teaching your baby to ‘self-settle’ fails to work, parents often seek out a pre-defined schedule to guide their parenting and entrench ‘self-settling’. Unfortunately, babies are not all programmed to follow an identical pattern because they are all unique, and by trying to follow a schedule you may end up feeling more lost than ever.
Some people are of the belief that babies do not feel pain or have emotions. I do not share this belief! Let me explain this controversial matter. Babies do suffer pain and emotion but there is a communication barrier. Cued care aims to break down that barrier by letting them know you are responding to what communication they can give. Babies have a biological drive to survive and commonly will cry because they are hungry. Feeling ‘Hangry’ is a real for them and this can be a painful and stressful experience especially if establishing breastfeeding has not been a smooth ride or if their cues have not been regularly responded to. Studies show that babies produce less of the hormone cholecystokinin (a hormone that signals satiation and satisfaction) so even if all is going well with feeding, babies just simply do not feel as contented after eating as the rest of us.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking that cued care sounds fab but seems unattainable. Well, read on because I have a couple suggestions of how to make cued care easier.
Study your baby instead of your phone:
Cell phones and internet-connected devices are a huge part of modern life with a baby and connect us with the outside world. It is rightly said that this may reduce the feeling of isolation and protects parents’ mental health. However, these devices may also be a barrier to attachment and bonding with your baby. We may be oblivious to the amount of time we spend on them accessing social media, internet and other applications, especially if those are being used to try find the cure to poor sleep! In truth, the answer is right in front of you. Be mindful about how much time we are spending on devices that could be taking your attention away from your baby and as a consequence missing your baby’s cues. Limiting screen time for parents will mean that you are more in tune with your baby and will also mean you that you can get on with parenting the way that you want to rather than listening to and reading articles that go against intuitive parenting. Balance is something many of us struggle with but is so important. When you are meeting up with a friend for a playdate – leave your phone in the car! You can return missed calls later and scroll news feeds during down time. Relax and enjoy the playdate.
Stop hurrying, hustling and stressing:
Have you ever wondered why your baby grizzles more than usual when you are in the company of others?
Being a parent today is about being everywhere and doing everything. We teach by doing and if you want to nurture calm then you need to slow down. Scale back the number of activities so you don’t need to be somewhere in particular at every moment of the day - you will find that you will have more time and energy to connect with your baby and pick up on their subtle communications. This will make you more capable of keeping your baby’s stress responses dialled down by creating an example of calmness. Babies are like sponges and they pick up on our stress and worry, likewise they will pick up on calm and relaxed behaviour. Try not to let stress and worry steal the joy of being a parent. It is worth noting though there is no need to avoid outings just because they fall around nap times. If you do rush home for nap time, your baby will be picking up on this chaotic frenzy and respond in a similar fashion.
If you are finding it challenging to look after a baby and get the housework done and dinner prepared, don’t feel ashamed to take a friend up on the offer of help or use some of the paid services that are available to accommodate our busy lives.
One of the main things parents do stress about is their baby not getting enough sleep to support their development. Average sleep requirements are just guides with a broad distribution, the truth is that sleep needs vary greatly between babies. Let this reassurance give you the permission to make the change starting today. Love grows brains and nurtures development, talk, sing and read to bubs from day one.
My hope is that one day soon no-one will talk about cued care at all, it will just be the default mode of parenting. For now we need the term to educate parents and begin to change infant care practices that have become so embedded in society. We are well educated about maternal anxiety and depression, and now acknowledge paternal depression. Childhood anxiety is on the increase and I wonder if we are overlooking infant mental health? Take me back to the days where the term cued care didn’t exist it was just what was done. This could be the answer to better mental health for the whole family.
Denaye Barahona, simplefamilies.com
Possums conference, Brisbane 2017, possums-au.breastfeedingconferences.com.au/index.php
Parents are commonly concerned when their baby does not sleep through the night, especially if the largest stretch of sleep is not when they sleep. The results of this study give us a guide of appropriate developmental expectations for infant sleep, and help determine the optimal timing for prevention and intervention of sleep problems. From a developmental perspective it reflects an understanding of infant’s physiological capabilities in self-soothing and sustained sleep, showing the large variability of this from one baby to another.
This NZ based study enrolled 75 parents of healthy, developing infants and parents completed sleep diaries for 6 days each month for 12 months. Parents recorded the time and at what state the infant was placed into the cot and then the duration of time until the infant fell asleep. Parents also recorded the time and duration of each night-awakening and the time that their baby woke in the morning. Accuracy of parent reports were assessed by using videosomnography (diagnosis by behavioural observation).
The sleep of each infant was classified based on the three criteria below:
1) 2400hrs to 0500hrs
2) 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep
3) 2200hrs to 0600hrs
The findings of the study showed that self-regulated sleep (without behavioural intervention) became apparent most rapidly in the first four months, with 50 percent of infants meeting criterion 3) at 5 months. From 4-9mths age infant sleep length tended to plateau and began to lengthen again between 10 and 12months. However at 12 months age, 32 percent of infants still did not meet criterion 3) - many babies do not sleep through the night by one year of age but are still perfectly healthy and this is not necessarily problematic.
The authors of the study recommend that criterion 3) should be used to define ‘sleeping through the night’ for babies from the age of 4 months. The reason for this is because it is harmonious with family sleep patterns, and falls within typical sleep times of the parents. Additionally, it is recommended that prevention of sleep challenges should begin before 3 months, emphasising the importance of working with infant sleep biology to determine healthy sleep habits in the long-term.
Many families aim to put their baby to sleep at 7pm but why do we place this expectation on our baby? A later bedtime may be better suited for baby’s actual sleep patterns and may also be beneficial in synchronising their sleep with their parents. It is actually possible to aid in the prevention of sleep challenges by achieving a synchronised sustained period of sleep during the night after completing day to day activities and self-care tasks. For example moving bed time routines out to a later hour can not only help with preventing sleep challenges but perhaps even more importantly, reset parents’ expectations of their baby’s developmental capabilities.
One of the main limitations of this study was that there was no data provided on the method of infant feeding (i.e. breastfeeding or formula feeding) as this does seem to impact sleep duration and quality of sleep. Many parents believe that supplementing their babies with formula feeds will encourage earlier sleeping through the night. A separate study has found that although breastfed babies do wake more frequently in the night, they often get better quality sleep as they settle back to sleep more easily.
Additional research is now needed to establish the factors that precede and predict infant sleep problems.
For full aticle please see:
Sleeping Through the Night: The Consolidation of Self-regulated Sleep Across the First Year of Life
If we were to look at cultures purely in terms of their infant care practices, norms and values, which culture would you choose to be born in to? Think carefully, as this choice can make a huge impact on how you develop as a healthy, happy baby. Because the thing is, it does not matter which culture or country an infant is born into, its biological needs are the same – but does the culture a baby is born into meet these needs? Or does it promote crying, fussing, feeding and sleeping issues?
The western culture’s predominant norms and practices around infant care often stray very far from what a baby biologically requires. In fact, when describing how both historically and cross-culturally unusual our parent-infant sleep practises are, researches have come up with this acronym to describe the worst offenders - W.E.I.R.D (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), (Heinrich et al., 2010).
The western way of child rearing is one of the biggest mismatches between culture and what a baby biologically expects.
Human babies are mammal babies, more specifically secondary precocial. This is because typical brain growth cannot be completed before birth. Human babies have 25% adult brain growth at birth, compared with 50% of other primates. Humans produce mainly single infants that have well developed internal and sensory organs (can see, hear and call) but our babies have poorly coordinated neuromuscular control, so cannot follow or even cling to their caregiver. Our milk is low in fat and high in sugar, so our infants need to be fed frequently.
Every primate baby is designed to be physically attached to someone who will feed, protect and care for them. They have been adapted over millions of years to expect nothing else and humans produce unusually helpless primate babies!
When you take this into consideration and then think to some of the predominant advice around caring for a new born e.g. teach them to self-settle independently, space their feeds, do not let babies fall asleep at the breast, put babies to bed awake, carry out feed/play/sleep cycles, leave babies to cry or leave them to cry but give them verbal ‘reassurance’, do not let your baby form ‘bad habits’, don’t let your baby sleep on you, enforcing feeding and sleeping schedules or routines and never co-sleeping (for families that have no risk factors and are doing it completely safely), you can start to see what I am talking about.
The dominant western approach to infant care has evolved far faster than baby’s biological needs ever could and this is why there is such a mismatch.
So where does this ‘expert’ advice that pervades western culture come from? During the 1920’s, doctors John B Watson and Frederick Truby King advocated the ‘scientific’ approach to infant care. The focus of their approach valued independence, self-control and self-reliance. It is this focus which you can still see today in many approaches to infant care – particularly in the management of crying, fussing, feeding and sleeping challenges.
It is this approach which encourages independence, self-control and self-reliance that research clearly shows has no beneficial outcomes for infants. In fact, some variations of this approach can at times result in negative outcomes.
So, what can you do to ensure that you are doing your best to meet your baby’s biological needs, to provide them with a loving environment that helps to achieve optimum development, bonding and attachment? Quite simply – physical contact and emotionally connecting with your baby – day and night. 24/7.
Physical contact does so many amazing things for parents and their babies. It reduces maternal anxiety and promotes involvement in their infant’s care, is great for breast feeding initiation and long-term breast feeding success, reduces stress, promotes oxytocin, beta endorphins, prolactin and sleep, conserves heat and energy, can reduce pain levels, premature babies experience less agitation and have more stable vital signs.
You only need to google ‘The still face experiment’ to see the stress inducing effect that a non-responsive caregiver has on a baby – even when in very close proximity.
Rest assured, there are no rules required to meet the biological needs for babies. As mothers, we can just remind ourselves that our babies can communicate to us what they need and through our own biological changes during pregnancy and childbirth, our brains are now primed to learn how to understand our baby’s ways of communicating - to build good two-way communication and trust.
Instead of a culture based on maintaining control and pushing independence, a culture of respect and kindness towards our babies and focusing on meeting their biological will ensure that over time the gap between what dominant western approaches to infant care advocate and what babies genuinely need will continue to narrow.
Prof. Helen Ball, Possums Conference, Brisbane 2017.
Pennie Brownlee. The only person who can do a Pikler is dead: Or why isn’t it a good idea to say ‘We do Pikler at our centre’. February 2015.
Heinrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135.
Have you ever wondered why no matter how many babies you have you never quite feel complete and ponder over the possibility of another? This is an addiction to the feel good hormone, Oxytocin. This powerful hormone has the important job of reproductive success and species survival: nature’s way of patting you on the back and telling you “Good job. Have more babies.”
Making babies, having babies and feeding babies. Oxytocin is produced during sexual activity and orgasms, its analgesic properties are helpful in labour and birth, and its release is triggered in both mother and baby when a baby suckles at the breast.
Alternatively most of us know what it feels like to experience the ‘fight of flight response’ and it’s not what you would describe as desirable – a pounding, racing heartbeat, cool sweaty skin and hyperarousal. These symptoms present through a stress response which is activated by the sympathetic nervous system with intertwined hormones adrenaline noradrenaline, such as cortisol. These responses are very much tied in with labour which can be painful and stressful. Stress hormones during childbirth can either slow down or accelerate labour depending on the stage. Historically this response was important for survival: if you were giving birth in the wild and there was a threat to your survival (such as a sabre-toothed tiger suddenly appearing!), you would have an out pouring of stress hormones and blood would be shifted away from your placenta to your vital organs. As a result labour would stop so you could run away to safety where labour could resume. However, if you were in the final stages of labour when the tiger appeared, you could not run so it makes biological sense that these hormones at this latter stage would assist with giving birth quickly, so you could scoop up your baby and run to safety.
Oxytocin in this sense is just the opposite: activating the parasympathetic nervous system encouraging relaxation and growth, a feeling of calmness safety and security which promotes bonding and attachment. After having a baby you quickly forget about the associated pain and stress and immediately begin to bond with your baby; oxytocin’s side effects present as that lovely hot flush that new mothers get and baby is wide-eyed ready to bond. Activation of the reward, pleasure and motivation centres is happening during this time. No other mammals attend antenatal classes to be told how to care for their baby so there needs to be a hormonal system in place to kick in straight after births so that mother finds contact with her baby very rewarding. Mother Nature rewards us for the dedication to caring for your baby for maximal chance of mother and baby survival and species survival. It’s not hard to see why this hormonal system has been selected for during mammalian evolution.
Breastfeeding on demand is how you can keep your baby’s sympathetic nervous system dialled down and prevent activation of the fight or flight response. This is especially important during the first 4-6 months of a baby’s life during the phase of high neurological sensitivity. Oxytocin is working its magic - mother feels an overwhelming need to protect, provide and nurture her baby making her feel good and this motivates her to keep doing what she is doing. Baby feels safe and secure and remains calm when it has all its needs have been need met, including feeling satiated with a tummy full of creamy milk and sensory nourishment through physical contact. Babies that receive plenty of physical contact with their caregiver cry less and breastfeed for a longer duration.
Many parents have a specific time frame that they think their baby should be sleeping through the night by and can find it disheartening when they continue to wake during this period. Despite eating solids well and having plenty of protein they still wake up.
But they can’t be hungry so why?
It's important to understand that babies (not just new-borns) feed for reasons other than just to satisfy their hunger and met their growth demands. Often night wakings will be for the physical contact, feelings of security, pain reduction and the calming effects of oxytocin. When we as parents have set times in our mind that baby should be sleeping and not feeding, and we stop responding to our baby’s cues, and they can become stressed. This can lead to negative effects on development as well as prolonged and unpleasant night waking, which is what we want to avoid. This can be managed by being responsive to your baby’s needs. It may not be a consistent pattern but it won’t last forever either. We have all had days and nights that have been tough and it’s amazing to think that over time our minds seem to be very clever at washing away those unhelpful feelings associated with those distant memories.
Just one more baby… it can’t be that hard right?
-Adapted from a talk given by Dr. Sarah Buckley at the Possums conference, Brisbane 2017.
Amy and Elspeth
All Bassinet Bottle Feeding Colic Cry It Out Discrimination Dr. Harvey Karp Fatherhood Goat Milk Infant Formula Mindfulness Pregnancy Routines Self Settle Sleep Regression Spacing Feeds Structure You Said Whaaaaat!