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What I wish I'd known before giving birth

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

Every new parent worries. About a lot of things. Unless you're lucky enough to have grown up in a large extended family with lots of little ones around you, most likely you'll only have a vague understanding of what's to come. Even if you read all those books - you know the ones - so many of them contradict each other and you'll probably be left with just as many questions as you had when you started reading.

I read up on schedules, sleeping, behaviour, what to buy, how to survive the first months. I felt prepared. And yet, as soon as I was handed my baby, the one I had felt moving around inside me, which had literally been a part of me for over nine months, I had no idea what to do. So these are the things I wish I'd known, that in hindsight I wish I'd looked into more.

1. Get trained breastfeeding help

My midwife during delivery was amazing. My midwife after birth, not so much. She was young and eager, but she clearly had no experience with breastfeeding. And if there was one thing I had my mind set on, it was that I was going to breastfeed my child. Not all medical professionals are fully trained in what is normal when it comes to breastfeeding.

I didn't know, for example, that new born babies don't always cry when they're hungry. They make little sucking noises, they purse their lips, and smack their tongue off the roof of their mouth. By the time they cry for milk they're really hungry. I would have fed my son much more often in the early days if I'd known this.

I also didn't know that some babies can breastfeed literally all day, while others are content having a 20 minute feed every three hours.

I didn't know that most babies know instinctively how to latch themselves on and that if you lie reclined, with your baby lying on your chest, they will root around (a cute little bobbing-chicken-head movement) and find the nipple themselves.

I didn't know how common tongue ties are, and how they can stop babies from feeding efficiently and effectively.

I didn't know that there are days at around day three, day 21, and periodically throughout the first year, that babies will breastfeed non-stop for a day or more in order to stimulate your milk production and bring in the next phase of milk, the best milk for helping them grow through the next stage.

I should definitely have got in contact with somebody from the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) or La Leche League (LLL), for support and information. Maybe it would have given me more confidence, maybe it would have just reassured me, but either way it would have helped.

2. The Fourth Trimester

It's OK to hibernate for a few weeks while you and your baby get over the trauma that is birth. Your body has gone through something new and extreme, and your baby is getting used to life outside the womb. She is going to want to be held and cuddled and fed a lot of the time, and THAT IS OK. Touch your baby, cuddle your baby, have a lot of skin-to-skin time together. You are both getting used to this new life.

Human babies are born early. Other mammals are born ready to survive: they can walk within hours, or even minutes, of birth and instinctively know how to feed themselves (i.e. find mama's nipples). Human babies are completely and utterly dependent on their adult carers for their survival and so they need held as much as they want. They need reassured.

Most babies don't want to be passed around too much, but it can help if you get them used to a few other close people early. Although I wish I'd been able to ask early visitors to stay away, to let our new little family connect and establish some kind of routine, I would have encouraged my parents and sister to be there more. Partners are not always able to stay home and we all need a little extra support in the early weeks, even if it's only to help with the housework.

In fact, I'd go one further and say: 'Get help with the housework!!' You can't do it all, and you are allowed to focus on recovering your body and soul, while navigating this new realm - motherhood - that can at times be overwhelming. Relax, and focus on you and your baby. The rest can wait.

3. You don't need so much stuff

I bought all the usual baby paraphernalia: pram, moby wrap, cot, moses basket, a thousand blankets, baby monitor, bouncy chair, play mat, toys. By about four weeks it had become clear that my son hated the pram, loathed the baby carrier and resented the cot. He had just been carried around by me for nine months; why would he want to lie flat on his back when there was a soft, familiar-smelling walking heartbeat nearby who should still be carrying him around?

You don't need baby lotions or shampoos. Washing babies too much can cause dry skin; let the good bacteria work on your baby to maintain a healthy ph balance.

On the same topic, buy good quality, natural nappies to minimise nappy rash and the need for nappy creams. You don't have to slather them in products; just let their bodies do the work.

A changing table is, in my opinion, one of the most useless products. Although changing your baby at hip level is very useful in the early days, especially if you have a C-section, within a few months your baby will start to roll and then it's not safe to change them on a table. Just buy a cheap mat you can use anywhere; soon you'll be wrestling them into a nappy as they try to roll/crawl/run away and you'll need something light and mobile.

As for toys, babies don't need dozens of stimulating products; a wooden spoon and some containers will keep them just as amused as the latest gadget.

And at the end of the day, all they want is you.

4. What is my baby telling me?

I wish someone had handed me a manual in baby communication. It would have saved me a lot of time and effort trying to get an over-stimulated baby to sleep or trying to feed a gassy baby.

There are a bunch of cues to look out for that communicate meaning, even from babies as young as a few hours old. I've written a separate blog on this, as there is a lot of information I wish I'd known.

5. It IS OK to bedshare

In the first few months I was so tired. Bone weary. Exhausted. Absolutely done in. My son would wake very often, sometimes every hour. I listened to all those people who said, 'You need to put them down in their own cot'. I was too scared to bring baby into bed with me; I had been told not to. I follow the rules.

After about three months of no sleep, attempting to get up out of bed six or more times a night to feed and rock a baby back to sleep, often taking over half an hour to help him drift back off, only for him to wake every time his back hit the mattress, I had had enough. I fell asleep with my baby in the armchair. Luckily I woke quickly but I knew that this was not safe.

I had been told it was categorically NOT SAFE to bedshare. However, once I started looking into it, I realised there were ways to do it safely.

Indeed, that I needed to sleep with my baby in this way in order for it to be safe! I followed the rules, creating a safe sleeping space, and it really saved my sanity. Instead of fully waking up, I could latch baby on and go straight back to sleep. I slept very lightly and woke at the smallest movement, but I DID SLEEP. It was a revelation.

6. Find friends

When our grandmothers were having their children, community was a much more tangible concept. You could name everyone on your street, the postman, the local shopkeepers; it was a smaller world. Families didn't always move very far from each other and most new mums could rely on sisters, parents or neighbours to watch the kids for a while. Raising children was seen as a community effort.

Now we are separated by distance from our families, by a sense of privacy from our neighbours and by an increasingly impersonal world. We do not always have a support network in place for when we need it.

It really does take a village to raise a child. And not just for the child.

When I had my kids, I didn't have very many friends who also had children, and those who did parented in very different ways to me and I felt like we naturally drifted apart. I went to baby groups but never really clicked because they already seemed to know each other.

Then I joined a facebook group for like-minded parents and found a great friend. We lived in the same area, we're raising our babies in similar ways, and our babies were born only six weeks apart. We met at the local cafe and have been here for each other ever since.

We all need someone who we can be honest with, who can identify and empathise with us. She was this friend.

7. Partners can get PND too

Because of the lack of sleep, the deep uncertainty and the feelings of isolation, I found it difficult to control my emotions. I was up and down, I was angry and resentful, and the smallest things being out of place or not going 'my way' sent me into a depression. I felt both helpless and the cause of all my worries. It was a very negative time.

I reached out to my Health Visitor and was referred to a therapist. Just talking through what I was thinking and feeling was such a release. I let out all the negative thoughts; I trusted my therapist.

My husband was silently struggling.

He felt overwhelmed by the responsibility being placed solely on him: to earn enough to support us; to try and modify his behaviour to minimise my criticism; to get through the day, the week.

Once he admitted how he was feeling he also signed up for therapy, and this helped a lot. We often talk about mental health in mothers, but rarely in fathers. It's so important to recognise the signs and to get help.

I had postnatal depression. And so did my husband.

8. Mummy guilt

We all feel it. We feel like we should go to work, or we should stay at home. We should only feed them from the breast, we should supplement. We should babywear, sleep train, go organic, organise constant activities, not watch too much TV, lose weight, choose the right childcare. It's exhausting, all this advice and information. And so much of it contradicts other advice we get elsewhere.

We can only do what feels right for us. Each family is different and each person has their own beliefs and backgrounds, which will affect how they raise their children.

Thinking about and weighing up the odds of everything all the time is exhausting, and it rarely does any good. The best mummy is a happy mummy, and sometimes that means letting it go, just for today.

And try not to worry - you'll get it right next time!

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