Sunday, January 10, 2010

Unsolicited Advice: Babies

Last week on ABC's Modern Family, Mitchell and Cameron had an episode-long battle about whether or not to "Ferberize" their baby, Lily. In the age of chat rooms, blogs, and pervasive social media (woot woot), people feel pressure to choose a side. Not aware of the sides I'm talking about? I'm guessing you don't have kids. It's just the newest incarnation of the infant-rearing debate: the Ferber method (or some version of that, AKA "cry it out", letting the kid self-soothe) or Attachment Parenting (AKA letting the kid sleep in your bed, responding to cries, etc). There's also Breastfeeding vs. Bottle feeding, Vaccinations vs. not vaccinating, being awesome vs. acting like a total nerd. Oh wait, that last one's not real.

I got a good laugh out of the show--if you can watch the whole episode, it's called "Up All Night"--here's a clip of the guys trying to decide what to do at nap time:



What I won't do is tell you which theory of parenting needs to be yours. In fact, the best piece of advice I got as a new (and about to be new) parent was to do what worked for us: to trust ourselves, and to do what felt right to us. Once you're behind closed doors, I believe, if you treat your baby with love and listen to your instincts you will do the right thing. Actually, I hesitate to even use the word "right" because there isn't a right or a wrong thing. There's just your thing. I can't overstate the importance of that. I believe that the best approach is to do what feels natural to you and your spouse and to not beat yourself up when you a) don't measure up to what you think someone else is doing or wants you to do, or b) what you try doesn't work. Parenting is above all a learning experience.

For example: I was dead-set on breastfeeding Addie. I knew about the health benefits and I knew it was the best thing for her. I'd gotten this message from chat rooms, books, and our birth coach and a nursing class at Kaiser; unfortunately sometimes it came in the form of information that vilified bottle-feeding. Addie was born and nursed well at first, but she lost weight rapidly in the week after she was born. Twenty-six hours of butt-kicking labor and a C-section meant a delay in the time it took for me to produce what she needed. I was scared that my baby was sick and so I did as instructed by doctors and gave her formula as a supplement.

I felt guilty though. Every bottle I gave her felt like I was doing something wrong. She decidedly preferred the bottle, which meant that for the rest of the time I nursed her, every feeding was a battle. She never learned to like it. She wanted a bottle and she wanted to lay there and have somebody hold it for her, thank you very much. (She never even learned to hold her bottle. She was content to have the food fed to her and put forth the minimum level of effort.) I cried and cried because I couldn't make nursing work; since it's a supply and demand situation, the less you nurse, the less you have, and then the less the kid is interested in it. It can be a vicious cycle. Breastfeeding is hard enough when it's going well (don't let anyone tell you differently--it hurts like a beast for at least a month, but if you can get through that then you're golden) and with Addie there was such an emotional struggle that I just felt like I'd failed my first test of motherhood.

I thought I was damaging her brain cells. I'd read so many books about how breastfed babies are smarter, how breastfed babies are better bonded to their parents, and how breastfed babies have super-duper Popeye strength immunities to battle infections. I felt like a failure. I was already out of my head crazy from the post-baby hormones, and I felt like I ruined my child's chances to go to college. You know what? THAT WAS CRAP. Addie is already so smart. I'm not going to go into the minutiae of her brilliance because you don't need to hear that, but she does so well in school and she's such an avid reader and loves to talk and learn, and she's just... great. She's bonded to me like white on rice. No problems there. What we did worked for us. She just wasn't going to breastfeed, and when I finally gave in and weaned her we were all much happier. I'm thankful I had that time with her, but it wasn't going to work for her, so we let it be. Henry on the other hand was a pro (as was I, by that time) and I enjoyed nursing him for a long time. It doesn't mean I love him more than I love Roo or vice versa and they each appear to have their own strengths and weaknesses and they're a completely normal set of kids.

Another example of how this has played out for us is with the "Back to Sleep" campaign. Now this is a serious one and I am not advising you to do what I did with my babies, because SIDS is a real thing and a real concern. I have people close to me who have lost babies to SIDS and I know I can't even imagine what that pain is like. But here's a big secret: Henry didn't sleep on his back. Almost never, especially during the day. He couldn't sleep that way and eventually we moved him to his tummy, and guess what: he slept like a happy lil' log. The point is that even some of the mega campaigns that are around are something that you're going to want to take a look at as parents and make a choice for you. At first (when he was really teeny) we didn't put him to sleep on his tummy at night, and definitely not out of sight during the day, but eventually we decided that it was just what worked best for us, and especially for Henry. His startle reflex was too strong, and he either had to be "burrito-ed" on his back (more on that in a sec) or on on his tummy or he'd scare himself awake. Poor dude. We had to look at his sleep troubles (more than just the startle thing) and our lives in light of what the doctor said and make a decision. In the end we decided that we both slept on our tummies as babies (the norm until 1992), as did every other person we knew who was born before then, and we made our decision based on that. You have to choose for yourself.

Addie was a good sleeper and slept through the night from 5 weeks on. She still sleeps like a sweaty rock. Henry didn't sleep through the night until he was almost 3. Kids are just different. Not only do you have to do what works for you as a family, you have to do what works for that kid. As a new mom I was consumed by guilt with almost every decision I made; I didn't enjoy things as much as I should because I was so worried about all the "what-ifs"--what if I put them in my bed to sleep occasionally and they never leave? What if I let them cry it out and they never love me? What if I don't feed them green beans and they never learn to eat vegetables? There's a what-if for every situation, but no decision is so horrid as to be permanent. With Henry I let go of that and I was much happier. If you look hard enough, you could find an internet debate for every single topic about parenting. People get so angry. They're so militant about the choices they've made--it astounds me that people can't just be happy with their choices, that they want you to do exactly what they did. How is that going to work? My two kids weren't even the same as each other, let alone anyone else's? There are negative stereotypes for both sides of the debates, and neither looks like our family. I believe that the truth of what works lies somewhere in the middle, but that's just me.

My advice to you is to do whatever you want. Love your kids with all of your heart; act accordingly. Ignore people who give you advice that you don't want to hear--or don't ignore, smile and then promptly forget it. Don't be afraid to make your own choices as parents. As long as you're both okay with things, then that's it. You don't have to stand in front of anyone and justify your decisions. E's mom was instrumental in how I approached motherhood--she told me when I was pregnant with Addie that if I had to bring the baby into my bed and nurse her laying down and we both fell asleep, then that was okay. If that was the only way we were going to get any sleep, then I didn't need to feel guilty. I reminded myself of that very thing many times in Addie's first year. You can find all kinds of things that tell you that you have to let your kid sleep in your bed, or that you should never let your kid sleep in your bed, but what it comes down to is that you need to make the decision that's going to work for your family and not go around beating yourself up about it because that doesn't help anybody.

What I mentioned before about Henry needing to be a burrito to sleep--by the time he came around, we had this one thing down. This isn't a "have to," it's just an awesome thing. One of the best books I got as a new parent was The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, which had TONS of information about what to do with a screaming lump of kid. Very helpful, and we used all of the stuff with both kids. It wasn't until Henry that we perfected the art of the burrito, AKA swaddling. The book gives good directions, but I have to say it was watching my brother-in-law, Darin, strap Lucas (who was born 2 months before Hank) into his tight-as-can-be burrito that gave us the final bits of know-how. E and I became expert baby-wrappers, and it did a lot for Henry when he was an infant. That startle reflex really would disrupt his sleep (when he was on his back) and the swaddling (for back sleeping only--not front) was a godsend. Oh, and one of the major things I learned was that normal "receiving blankets" are not for swaddling. It takes a larger blanket like this one to make things happen. Expensive, but worth it. Small blankets are too difficult because you can't get a good wrap. Eventually as our boys outgrew even these, Melissa and I just went and bought large pieces of fabric and wrapped the boys in those. We were so 1st century. You know why Jesus was "laying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths?" Because Mary knew what was up. Luke and Hank spent the better parts of their first years wrapped. Get someone to show you who knows how to wrap them and make it stay. It's life-changing.

One more thing that I love for babies is a good sling. This one also took me two kids to get right, but by the time I got it with Hank I didn't ever want to stop carrying him in that thing. He was a snuggle bug too, and he spent most of his un-swaddled time in there with Mom. My sling was a garage-sale find, but it was a lot like this one, a basic two-ring sling. There are a billion (cute) baby wraps and carriers out there now. With Addie I could only get the hang of a front-pack style carrier, but the sling was a much more natural fit so I used it more. It took some doing but once I got it right, it was amazing. You can find all sorts of resources on the net about slings--just do a search for "baby wearing." This would also be the kind of thing you could learn from a mom who does it well. It would probably take 5 minutes to show you how it goes.

My final piece of advice is that you not read that horrible book that every new mom thinks she needs to read, What to Expect When You're Expecting. Okay, I know you're going to ignore that piece of advice and read it cover to cover anyway because you're a normal new mom (just like I was) but I hope you're at least listening (reading?) when I tell you this: read it with a grain of salt. It should be called What To Be Afraid of When You're Expecting. There's a lot of SCARY information in there about what can go wrong with your pregnancy and/or baby. Not fun if you're excited and happy about the new life that's growing in your belly. I know you're going to read it, but read some other things too. I liked Babycenter's weekly emails about the baby's development and there are a plethora of other books out there that aren't hell-bent on scaring the crap out of you before you give birth. Just a suggestion: broaden your pre-baby reading horizons a bit and I think you'll learn some good stuff too.

Okay, I just thought of another thing. Not advice, so much as just my personal experience with things. I felt really weird after both kids were born. Like, not myself weird. Your hormones are going to be so amazingly strange during that time, expect to not feel like yourself for like a month. I was out. of. it. Expect not to sleep, and to not feel like yourself, which means you will feel like a zombie troll who doesn't even recognize yourself in the mirror. It's okay. That's just part of the deal.

This has been your regularly scheduled post of Unsolicited Advice. Peace out.

5 comments:

  1. Love it. Best advice ever, and the same advice I've given pregnant women since having a few of my own babies. That, and the fact that you will probably poop while pushing the baby out. Good to know...

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  2. Completely agree with everything here. Especially NOT reading What to Expect (I kept wanting to scream "Get the point already!" Not well written to say the least) and not feeling like yourself after delivery. Hello, hormones.
    I didn't scrunch my hair while blow drying today...I know, different post, but resisting the urge to scrunch resulted in better curls!! Whoo hoo good advice!

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  3. Ya, I second the What to Expect..blah blah blah thing! I know I don't have kids yet, but when I was pregnant for that short amount of time, I read that book and I shouldn't have! I worried myself sick and crazy and maybe, just maybe if I hadn't have had that book I wouldn't have caused unnecessary stress on my body. Maybe there would have been a baby Reed, but that's in the past. All I'm saying is it's a horrible book and no one should take it completely seriously! Also, the internet (ie. WebMD) can be your frenemy when you're worried about things.....I became obsessed with trying to figure things out that I did go crazy too! Heather, you're such an honest person/writer! You really are terrific! Thanks for the unsolicited advise and keep it comin'!

    Love, Sarah

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  4. Hey! I love this post! I don't have kids yet but I love the do what feels right to you! My husband and I have been married for 4 years and I keep hearing the "when are you having babies" and I LOVE that you kept saying that...do what feels right to you...and that includes having kids! Love it..thanks for the "unsolicited" advice!

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  5. Ahem...
    Do you have babies on the brain???

    I would have to agree with you on the Happiest Baby on the Block book- love it! Also- that first month after having a baby is ROUGH!

    Isn't funny how each kid is so different? I do feel that I am getting better with each one. I think it is mostly me- I don't get as stresssed or worked up over things.

    It sounds like you are a great mom. Maybe someday I can meet your kids.

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