By Lynsey Hansford
This is a sheet of paper kept from the time of it’s owner’s birth in 1981, showing the daily schedule for new mothers and their babies at a maternity hospital in Guernsey (courtesy of my local birth group!)
I am a special kind of geeky and could read such things with fascination all day but documents like these and the practises they prescribe for the mums and babies of the past have an impact on the experiences of mums and babies today.
We have moved from living in a society where most mums breastfeed, to a society where most mums formula feed, in a relatively short period of time. It is all too common for mums to begin breastfeeding their babies only to run into problems which often come down to a lack of good information and support. I believe that some of these problems have their roots in the practises of the recent parenting past persisting in our culture today.
You can see that the babies in this Guernsey hospital were kept in the nursery and returned to their mothers only for feeding and bathing, reinforcing the notion that all babies should manage to last a certain amount of time between feeds. Although it’s now widely acknowledged that demand feeding is best, for both breast and formula fed babies, many mums report pressure from health professionals, family or friends to make their baby wait an arbitrary amount of time between feeds or to stretch out the time between feeds.
When you consider that some of these people may have had their own babies or trained in baby care at a time when the medical profession was sure that the above schedule was a great way to treat mums and babies, this makes more sense.
The separation of mums and babies after birth, with the babies being left in a crib in a hospital nursery, is one practise I’m glad has been completely left behind. One can only imagine the heartbreak this caused mums who wanted to hold their precious new babies and were told they weren’t ‘allowed’.
Even this practise lingers to a lesser extent when separation between mums and babies is encouraged for fear of the baby becoming too clingy, being spoiled by too much of his mother’s love or for the mother to have a break (whether she wants it or not!).
If you look closely at the babies day you’ll see there are 5 timed feeds included during the day and none during the night, we are talking about brand new babies here! I can’t imagine a situation where this is sufficient to get breastfeeding off to a good start or which doesn’t result in a disappointed mother lamenting that she didn’t have enough milk for her baby.
You know where I’m going with this, right? The fear of not making enough milk for your baby hasn’t gone away, it is alive and well in breastfeeding mums today. Is it any wonder so many mums are concerned with low milk supply when generations of women before them have experienced this issue as a result of practises such as separation and timed feeding that actively undermine the breastfeeding relationship?
At one time it was thought to be absolutely essential to ‘air’ babies which led to surreal inventions like the baby cage pictured below, it suspended babies outside the windows of high-rise flats where parents weren’t able to leave the baby outside as recommended. These ideas don’t just disappear and I’m sure there are a few of you reading this who have been told to put your baby in the garden in a pram and leave them!
My point is that not all advice mums are given is based on correct information, not that they’re being purposefully misinformed but it can take a while for some ideas that are based on old opinions or practises to die out. It makes sense to carefully consider if any advice given to you seems right for your family, ask for more information or find out more for yourself.
I have noticed a common thread through all of the instructions for baby feeding and care practises that have appeared in the last 150 years or so, since the first types of artificial baby milk became available. They all show a fundamental mistrust of the baby’s mother to care for the baby in the ‘right’ way without explicit instructions, from books written by ‘experts’, doctors or medical institutions.
I believe in women’s ability to care for their babies and to make good decisions for them. Science is starting to prove it too, with research showing the benefits of skin to skin cuddles after birth (the best place for a new baby is his mother’s body!) and demand feeding (relying on mum’s ability to recognise when her baby needs to be fed). Mums don’t need to be told what to do; they need support, access to good information and to be trusted to follow their instincts.