Friday, 27 June 2014

Breastfeeding - there is no normal. And that's normal.

I don't know if it's because I'm a first-time mum, or particularly neurotic or a bit of both, but I seem to spend a lot of time worrying about what's 'normal'. As if there's some benchmark of child normality and if my daughter doesn't fit that, then I must be doing it all wrong.

Now that I've had a bit more practise at parenthood, I can usually quash these worries with the silent mantra, "It's normal for her." Eleanor is very much her own special person, and she's all kinds of ace, so who cares if she's not like another child her age? But when she was a baby, when that brilliant personality wasn't quite popping out yet, when all I had to go on was her weight and nappy habits, I was always anxious about whether she was 'normal', by which I mean whether I was doing it 'right'.

Breastfeeding was a particular source of anxiety, especially as most of my mum friends were formula feeding either partly or wholly so I had a skewed sense of comparison. I remember worrying about how long each feed took, and obsessively counting the number of feeds Eleanor had in a day to make sure she was getting enough. And the older she got, the woolier the guidelines got and the more I worried!

But recently I saw some interesting research carried out by Medela which I wish I'd seen in those early months with Eleanor. It showed that when it comes to breastfeeding, as with so many things in child-rearing, there is no 'normal'. Take a look at this, for instance: 

I wish I'd seen this when Eleanor was a nipper! She took aaages to feed - I remember once being late to a baby group because she had spent 70 minutes on the first side!! Some of the reactions and comments I got at the time made me feel like this was completely wrong, that she was just 'using me as a dummy'. (A bizarre phrase - what exactly did babies do before dummies existed? Oh yes, they comfort fed!!) But actually, I think those long, leisurely feeds helped me to build the strong supply I needed at the time - and that has seen me through for the last 30 months of breastfeeding!

When Eleanor was a newborn, knowing how many feeds she needed per day was easy - "8-12 times in 24 hours" was seemingly plastered on every surface of the maternity wing! But as she got older, there was very little guidance about how often she 'ought to' be feeding - aside from baby training manuals which I steered clear of due to the fact that they generally made me want to hurl them against the nearest wall. I got the vague impression that Eleanor 'ought to be' feeding less from around the age of four months, and then still less after solids were introduced at six months, so I gradually reduced the number of times I offered a feed. Looking back, I don't think it's a coincidence that it was around four months that she dropped off her centile line, never to return. I wish I'd known then what I know now - that it's perfectly fine for a non-newborn to still want regular feeds. Heck, at two and a half Eleanor still has around 7 or 8 feeds in a 24 hour period!

I think it's really encouraging that research is out there to show new mums that 'normal' just doesn't exist. Ignore the advice that says babies should be fed every four hours, or that you should limit time at the breast. Every baby is different, every mother's supply is different. Trust your baby to show you when they're hungry, and trust your body to give them what they need. Because in most cases that's all you need!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Pushchair bans - Is our society anti-child?

A few weeks ago I blogged my ire at the story of a couple who were given a discount at a restaurant for having a "well-behaved child" (note: I wasn't angry at the couple - read the post, I explain myself there!!) but recently I saw a story much closer to home that got my goat.

A cafe bar in Leeds has imposed a ban on customers bringing in pushchairs, citing health and safety reasons. But this isn't what has got me annoyed - no, it's the comments from Joe Public commending the cafe for their actions, and even saying pushchairs should be banned from buses.

Yes, you read that right. There are people who think PUSHCHAIRS SHOULD BE BANNED FROM BUSES.

I'll come back to the hideousness of that point later. But even the comments that restrained themselves to merely discussing the horrors of buggies in eating establishments also tended to rail against the noise of crying and screaming from the children. So even if the parent had used a sling, or carried baby in using a car seat, this would still not have met with the approval of these miseries. This is the revealing part of these reactions: the pushchairs aren't the problem. It's the children.

There seems to be a surprising number of people who see children as an inconvenience. Never mind the old adage about children being seen and never heard - these people don't even want to see a child. They apparently think that parents should stay at home and raise their offspring behind closed doors, so that they don't get in the way of the oh-so-important grown ups.

Back to the bus point. Imagine this - you're a mum of two small children. You don't have a car. You need to get somewhere that isn't in walking distance - perhaps you need to go to a particular shop, or you have a medical appointment. Now, it's conceivable that if you had one child you could pop them in a carrier, but if you've got two, unless you're really adept at tandem carrying then your only real option is a buggy of some kind, and to take that on the bus.

But what if that wasn't an option? What if these perpetual moaners got their way, and buses banned pushchairs? What would you do then?

Being a parent can be a very isolating experience. Suddenly just getting out of the house is tough. If you have no car, getting anywhere further than you can walk is a battle. And yet there are people in our society who want to isolate parents even more, to cut off their access to public transport. There are still more that feel aggrieved by parents who dare to try and have a nice lunch out, or even just a coffee, with their children in tow to break up the monotony of the day or to have some much-needed time with friends.

It makes me fume. Children, and by extension their parents, are increasingly treated as irritants. In one of the playgroups I go to, the version of 'Wheels on the Bus' they sing contains the line, "The children on the bus make too much noise." Yes, that's it, tell them they're noisy and annoying from infancy. That'll really help their sense of self-worth and belonging.

The trouble is, a baby who is kept indoors for fear of offending others, a toddler who is taught that they are inherently bothersome, a child who is made to feel unwelcome in public places becomes a young person who is disengaged and disrespectful. Because why should they engage in a society which has been putting them in the wrong since birth? Why should they show respect for people when they haven't been shown any themselves?

Perhaps if we all accepted children as part of our society, wholeheartedly and with open arms, then we would be able to maintain a more harmonious relationship with young adults. Just a hunch. And wouldn't that be worth walking around a buggy for?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Breastfeeding Diaries: nursing a nearly two-and-a-half year old

One thing I haven't talked about much on this blog is the fact that I'm breastfeeding my toddler. Part of me has reservations about posting about this, as I know breastfeeding can be an emotive and divisive issue - and 'extended' breastfeeding even more so! But it feels strange to gloss over it, as it is a pretty significant part of my relationship with my daughter. After all, it's something we do surprisingly regularly on a daily basis!

A few weeks ago I saw that Zena's Suitcase was starting a Breastfeeding Diaries link up and I started to wonder whether I should join in. It is such a great opportunity to share stories about nursing, and perhaps a voice from the 'extended' breastfeeding camp would add something to the mix. Also, by talking about my experience, perhaps I could go some way towards demystifying the slightly thorny issue of breastfeeding a toddler, by showing that it isn't the preserve of hippy earth mothers* - all sorts of mums breastfeed beyond infancy!

At the time of writing Eleanor is just eight days shy of being two and a half. So what is it like breastfeeding a two and a half year old? Well, it's fidgety - if she's in a restless mood she will twist and contort to alarming degrees during a feed. She also likes to have things to hold onto and play with while feeding, so I will regularly have to breastfeed her while being hit in the face with a book or while a toy car navigates its way round my chest.

But it can also be calm and snuggly - nowadays, the most sustained cuddles we have are during feeds, especially when she's a bit tired or has just woken up. Yesterday she wanted 'mummy milk in Mummy and Daddy's bed' after she'd woken from her nap so we snuggled up together for about quarter of an hour. I could practically feel the oxytocin flooding my brain as I held my still-slightly-snoozy little girl in my arms and told her how much I love her.

It's draining at times - if she's teething, or something developmental is going on, she can feed on an hourly basis during the day. Fortunately she only has one or two night feeds, but the demands of regularly producing milk throughout the waking hours can be tiring. On the flip side, if I wasn't breastfeeding I'd have to find some other way of comforting and reassuring her - at least this way I get to have regular sit-downs!

And, most importantly, it's her call. Some people say that breastfeeding beyond infancy is just about the mother's needs. It's not. Seriously. Have you tried getting a toddler to do something they don't want to? Do you really think a toddler could be persuaded to latch on and feed against their wishes? I only ever offer 'mummy milk' at nap time (to get her to sleep, because I'm too lazy to battle her to sleep through other means) and before we start the bedtime routine. The rest of the time, she asks for it - nay, INSISTS on it! The time will come when she decides to stop, and that's fine, but it's her call. I'm not forcing her to breastfeed, I'm just not forcing her to stop either.

I hope that joining in with the Breastfeeding Diaries means that more people will get to hear about 'extended' breastfeeding in a positive, down-to-earth, normal way. Because really, I'm not much different to any other mum. And Eleanor is not much different to any other toddler. We just happen to do something that, in this society, is seen as different. But it's the most ordinary thing in the world to us.

* P.S. Sorry if you're a hippy earth mother, you're great too! In fact, I'd love to be more like you but I'm a rubbish hippy. Honestly, I've tried.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Five reasons why 'Charlie and Lola' annoys me

For many years, long before Eleanor came on the scene, I'd heard a lot of praise for 'Charlie and Lola'. The premise of two siblings playing together (mostly) happily, the ever-attentive big brother, the strong female character - it seemed everyone loved it. And the first few times I saw it, I loved it too.

And Eleanor loved it. I mean really, REALLY loved it. Still does. In a 'watch-it-at-least-4-times-a-day-and-talk-about-it-non-stop-and-try-to-be-Lola' way. So, having seen it A LOT recently, I've started to notice some not-so-good points about it. Some little niggles which, with near-constant repetition either from the original source or through my daughter's imaginary play, have turned into major irritants.

So here are five of those irritants:

1. Charlie - Ahh, the lovely, attentive older brother. Or is he? Watch a few episodes and count how many times he says, "But Lola ..." He's not attentive, he's on a flipping power trip! Everything Lola wants to do, he's there pooh-poohing the idea and bossing her around. Every effort she makes, there he is, rolling his eyes and making rueful comments to his sidekick Marv. His opening gambit about Lola being, "small and very funny," is basically his way of saying, "I'm big, and very sensible." There should be a spin-off where Lola starts every episode saying, "I have this big brother Charlie. He is tall, and very patronising."

2. Lola - But don't think I'm on Lola's side either. Yes, it's great that we have a female co-lead in a children's TV show. But does she HAVE to be such a cliche of a little girl? Obsessed with pink to the point where she goes to her brother's monster party dressed as a pink rabbit, fills the party bags with pink jewellery and toys and covers up the decorations with pink ribbons. Complains about getting wet and cold when they set up camp in the garden. Yes, there is a shred of balance, particularly her interest in 'Bat Cat' which would normally would be seen as a boy's film, but still, does she have to be so very "girly"?

3. The friends - Marv is Charlie's friend. Lotta is Lola's friend. Morton is Marv's brother and occasionally comes along for the ride, but mostly, the girls talk to girls and the boys talk to boys. Lola is apparently the only girl at Charlie's birthday party. Now I don't have any primary school age children but when I was that age I'm pretty sure I played with both girls and boys. Yeah, yeah, Marv 'plays' with Lola in a 'humouring my mate's little sister' kind of a way, but I refer you to my previous comments about Charlie.

4. The parents - Seriously, where are they? They're referred to occasionally but never seen. Most responsibility seems to be delegated to Charlie (oh I bet he loves that, the little power fiend) and Lola was apparently charged with making sure Charlie had a nice birthday, presumably because the parents weren't around to make it nice. Is this actually a documentary on neglect and permissive parenting masquerading as a children's cartoon?

5. The music - not much to say here other than, flipping heck it's catchy. Gets stuck right in your head. I feel like my life is now accompanied with whimsical, plinky-plunky music.

In case you were reading this thinking I'm serious, don't worry, my tongue is so far in my cheek I look like a lopsided hamster. And really, it is a lovely little show. The first time you see an episode. But when that episode is replayed half a dozen times in one day, that's enough to drive anyone to distraction!!

Monday, 2 June 2014

Encouraging independence, balancing needs

Sometimes I feel like I'm not really cut out for this gentle parenting malarkey. Actually, not sometimes, most of the time.

This morning I put on a load of washing early because I knew it was going to rain in the afternoon. The morning flew by in a blur of breakfast, reading stories, watching the same episode of 'Charlie and Lola' three times etc, and before I knew it I could hear the washing machine was nearly done and Eleanor wasn't dressed.

I coaxed her upstairs and after the usual teeth-grinding ordeal of getting her to choose an outfit when she's busy climbing on her furniture, I tried to dress her. She refused. I tried a tactic I picked up from reading 'Playful Parenting' by Laurence Cohen - having a 'conversation' with one of her toys about whether we thought she could get dressed. This won her cooperation and between us we got her into a dress and top (top over the dress - her choice).

Then I asked her to choose some socks and she started playing again, so I turned to her monkey and said, "Oh Monkey, I don't think Eleanor can choose socks for herself. What's that Monkey? You think she can choose?" Eleanor dutifully chose some socks and - unprompted - started trying to put them on. She isn't normally bothered about trying to dress herself so I decided to follow her lead and let her have a go. I talked to Monkey about whether she was going to manage it, and reminded her that if she wanted help she could ask, but I said I wouldn't help unless she asked for it.

25 minutes elapsed. Still no joy getting the socks on. To her credit, she was amazingly calm and determined, when I had expected her to get frustrated sooner. Instead, I was the one getting frustrated. It was 10.30am, I was acutely aware of the wet laundry sitting in the machine when it needed to be hanging out while we still had nice weather.  I was getting stressed, even a bit panicky. So I told Eleanor that she'd had a really good try but if she hadn't managed to get her socks on in two minutes I would put them on for her. Two minutes passed, still bare feet. I picked Eleanor up, put her on my knee and tried to get her socks on. Predictably, she got cross, protested at me doing it, and kicked about. Then, something almost inexplicable happened.

I burst into tears.

Not a slight wetting of the eyelashes and wobble of the chin. All out, face-in-hands, sobbing and wailing. At first Eleanor thought I was playing, but then she started to hug me, then sat down and said, "Mummy put your socks on." (She refers to herself in second person.)

I still don't quite know why I started crying. In that moment, I felt like a failure. I'd tried my best to allow my daughter to grow in independence by getting her own socks on, but in the end I couldn't prioritise that over the washing in the machine. I'd got worked up over something silly, and when Eleanor wouldn't let me put her socks on, I reached breaking point - either I was going to yell at her, or I was going to cry. I went for crying.

I thought about other blogs I've read by far more chilled out parents than me. Parents who would happily let their toddlers dress themselves when they were much younger than Eleanor, no matter how long it took. I thought especially about a post on the wonderful Lulastic blog, which suggested that forcing clothes onto a child is a form of oppression and discrimination. I felt awful. Why don't I have the patience to let Eleanor dress herself? Am I oppressing my daughter by putting her socks on?

It seems silly now, but often with parenting it's the trivial things that get us thinking about the bigger things. I felt like I'd let Eleanor down - I'd given her a bit of freedom, then I'd taken away again when it no longer suited me. I started thinking about what I could have done to make things easier. If I'd kept a closer eye on the time I could have started getting her dressed sooner, then I wouldn't have felt so rushed. I could have taken her downstairs and let her carry on trying to get the socks on while I nipped out and hung the washing up. I could have forgotten about the washing and hung it inside later.

After the event, I explained to Eleanor that I'd got upset because, while I knew she really wanted to get her socks on, I needed to hang the washing out. I don't know if she took it in, but maybe if I'd had that conversation with her beforehand, it would have been easier. Retrospect is a wonderful thing, isn't it? And by wonderful, I mean infuriating.

It's made me realise that I need to be more organised to preempt these issues. I don't want to put Eleanor on a strict routine, but time does tend to run away with us in the morning and if I was a bit clearer on just how much TV we had time for her to watch, just how many stories we had time to read, maybe I could start the dressing stage quicker and take longer over it. And somehow, I don't know how, I need to learn to chill out.

But perhaps most of all I need to remember that my own needs matter too. Yes, in an ideal world, I'd be more organised, and I wouldn't get stressed over silly things. But this isn't an ideal world. And maybe it's better to gently intervene when Eleanor's attempts are dragging on than for her to see Mummy crying or, worse still, yelling. I'm not perfect, and there will be times when I need to choose which version of imperfect I want my daughter to see.

In the end, perhaps Eleanor enduring the 'oppression' of having her socks put on is preferable to her seeing her mother, her role model, stressed to the point of tears or shouts. I need to remember that.