Just too much information

I used to be an expert on raising kids. I even founded a website with that name.

I was Dr. Pat, resident expert. People emailed me from all over the world with their questions about babies, toddlers and teens. I was a regular on radio and television commenting on parenting matters. I have written five books and appeared on numerous parenting videos. I was in short, a recognised expert on children and how to raise them.

That is until I became a grandmother. Last year, after years of waiting – like the proverbial buses two came along within two months of each other. Now you might have thought that my two daughters would be forever asking my opinion, soliciting my advice, referring to me over a variety of issues. No such thing. Overnight I became a granny and any expertise I might have laid claim to disappeared!

When I ran, I thought that internet experts were part of the answer, now I see that in many ways they are part of the problem.  There is simply too much information. When I had small children ignorance was bliss. Take the question of weight. I took my baby to be weighed weekly and as long the baby was gaining weight, was lively, looked healthy ate and slept ‘enough’ (what is enough we never asked), I never worried. The issue of the rate at which the baby was gaining weight, either too quickly or too slowly never arose. Now weight is plotted on a percentile chart. If your baby was in the 60th and a month later is in the 30th percentile, well that looks like baby is not keeping up.

I did a quick Google search to see if this issue was concerning parents. And it is.

Here are a few samples:

So i had lo weighed today and he is 11lb9oz at 9w 4d which i thought was quite good but the health visitor said he’s not following his line!!

I'm really worried at the moment. Up until 7 weeks he was steadily following the 75th percentile line, but has gradually slipped down at every weigh-in since. He's now in the middle of the 50th and 25th percentile and my health visitor has worried me saying they need to monitor him and he may need supplementing with formula.

She is gaining weight but not as fast as HV wants. Can a baby drop percentiles that quickly? The HV seemed really concerned & it has got me all worried.

I still have the record book of my first baby, so I thought I would see how consistent her weight gain was as a baby. Did she ‘follow her line’? No she didn’t, in the first six months of her life she moved up and down like a yo-yo between the 50th percentile and the 25th, and not just either side of the line either. Was it any indicator of her subsequent height or weight? Not at all; she is now slim and slightly taller then average,  – probably just above the 50th percentile in height and below it in weight.

 So, is ignorance bliss?  Is too much knowledge is a dangerous thing? or is it that knowledge is power -but only if we know what facts not to bother with?

Umm….I think I need an expert to tell me what ‘facts’ I can safely ignore.  






Things I Wish I'd Known About Babies

All Babies Are Premature

There are some things I wish I’d known when I had my babies. I wish I’d known about ‘the fourth trimester’. That's the way some paediatricians view the first couple of months after birth; it's a period when it is suggested the baby should ideally still be in the womb. It happens because we human beings have a narrow pelvis to help us walk upright, so we have to have babies small enough to pass through the birth canal. 

So how might it have helped knowing about the fourth trimester? I’d have been relaxed about getting my baby into a sleep routine if I’d known that a baby’s internal clock isn’t ticking like mine. Circadian rhythms which mean we sleep in the dark and are awake in the light, aren’t fully mature yet. But they will be. It takes about 12 weeks for infants to show day-night rhythms in the production of melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’. The circadian changes in cortisol—a hormone that regulates waking—may take even longer to emerge. 

On a similar theme I wish I’d known that crying peaks at 46 weeks gestational i.e. for a baby born at 40 weeks that 6weeks post birth. For a baby born at 36 weeks that would be 10 weeks post birth. So when my fully term daughter cried every evening I could have counted down the days to 6weeks watershed knowing it could only get better after that.

Truth to tell it didn’t get much better after that, - because something else was maturing. She cried nightly with colic. Dr Spock was our parenting bible, (though nobody used the word parenting then. In fact I think that most of us didn’t parent at all, we just got on with it.)  Dr Spock referred to ‘three month colic’ which he said miraculously corrects itself at three months. If I’d taken the fourth trimester view, then I would have thought her digestive system is still maturing and it will get better in its own time.

So what does it all mean? Close the 'baby training' manuals about establishing sleep routines from birth. Biology will do its job in time, with less stress to you and less distress to your child. Ditto crying and feeding.

These things are biologically programmed to kick in at a certain time, so follow you baby's lead, follow her biological timetable and forget about imposing yours until the fourth trimester is over. 





It's official. Celebrities say breast is best.

After the furore around the cover of Time magazine, showing a glamorous Californian mum breast-feeding her three year old, what a pleasure to read a news story about celebrity mums, enthusing about breast feeding their babies.  Supermodel Gisele Bundchen is so convinced of the importance of breast feeding that she has said it should be made mandatory world wide. Who else is speaking out in favour of breast-feeding? There’s Alicia Silverstone, Hilary Duff, Selma Blair and Gwen Stefani among others.  

I’m not in favour of making any laws about anything so personal as how to feed your baby. I think that it should be a matter of education not legislation, so it’s good to see celebrities speaking out about the most natural way of nourishing a baby. It’s definitely preferable to celebrities appearing three weeks post-birth, stick thin having got rid of their ‘baby weight’. They don’t say they are not breast feeding but the only way to lose that amount of weight post-birth is on a very low calorie diet, so I don't think they are eating enough to produce milk to feed their baby. 

Like it or not the views of celebrities are very influential.  (Personally I don't like it. On principle I switch off whenever I see a so-called celebrity comedian on a serious programme like Question Time.) Celebrity views on having a baby are well publicized; it is universally reported to be the most important and fulfilling thing they have ever done. Little wonder then that young ill-educated girls with few prospects, reading Madonna's view that having a child is the most fulfilling thing she has ever done, think -well I don’t have Madonna’s fame, her talent or her money but I can have one thing she says is the best thing she has, I also can have that all important baby.

Back to the question of prolonged breast feeding: I know a mother who breast-fed her boy until he was four. He’s now grown up, he's healthy and well adjusted and no different from boys who were breast fed for only a few months – or not breast fed at all.  

Breast feeding is undoubtedly best for babies and if celebrity endorsement increases the number of mothers who breast feed, so much the better. As far as I know there are no long-term consequences either positive or negative for mother or child from prolonged breast feeding but how long mothers choose to breast-feed is nobody’s business but their own.


What would be on Baby's Hour? 

I have just listened to Woman's Hour broadcasting from Sweden. The programme considered among other things, what it is about Swedish society that makes it a beacon for other societies looking to embrace more family friendly policies. What struck me listening to interviews about the wrap-around child care available to both parents in Sweden, are the unexpressed assumptions in the questions. I often get a feeling listening to Woman's Hour discussions is that 'everyone agrees' that going to work is preferable to staying at home with children. 

Well, I'm not so sure about that. Maybe if you have a very exciting creative job, you won't be very content at home with a baby all day long but that raises two other issues; what about the baby? what does he or she prefer? I think the answer to that was given by the three parents who were interviewed as they dropped their children off at a day care facility. All said that their children cried every day on separating from their parents ....but 'they soon settled'. In one case the mother said that her child cried for the first six months but now she's fine. Yes, she seems fine now but what has happened in the six months that makes that child able to settle? The mother's view is that her infant has grown to like the nursery..but maybe her child has finally realised that however much she cries her mother won't take notice of her distress? Is that a good outcome for the emotional well-being of the baby?

My second point is that research shows over and over again that what parents want is the opportunity to be at home with their child and (with good available child care) to keep one foot in the labour market. They preferred working part-time to parenting part-time. The manager of the child care centre in Swedent implicity acknowledged this when she expressed her own disquiet about children who were left at the nursery for for eight hours or more.

On the positive side, the Swedish system involves fathers to a far greater degree than in the UK. The amount of parental leave is over 400 days which can be taken by either parent, so most parents are able to be at home with their children during the first year of the child's life. I believe that few babies under the age of one year are in childcare in Sweden. The assumption of the Swedish policies seems to be primarily aimed at building family relationships, by making it easy for both parents to be involved in their child's earliest years. 

What would be the working assumptions of a programme called "Baby's Hour'? Would it be that the sooner mums get back to work the better? or, -let's advocate an increase in nurseries where babies can be looked after all day from birth onwards? or maybe, - that the stimulation provided by other under-twos is preferable to playing with a caring involved adult? 

No, I don't think so either!


The language of love

I love my children. I mean I really love them. I would step between them and a man with a gun and I think it is no exaggeration to say I would take a bullet for them. That’s my benchmark for love. When I say love, that’s the feeling I am referring to. When I say ‘I love you’ -which I don’t do very often, I mean it.

 This is a shift from previous generations. I think in my whole life I only heard my mother say once that she loved us- her children. We didn’t ask ourselves if she and my dad loved us or not, we knew they did by the way they behaved. They sacrificed things so we could have a better life, they worried about us, they supported us in the things we decided to do. They proved it in deeds. They didn’t have to say in in words. Now the word is everywhere.

When I started to study child psychology, there was a lot of talk about parent-induced guilt. The worst thing a mother could do was to manipulate her child into compliant behaviour, by saying something to the effect of ‘Mummy won’t love you if you do that’. There were slightly more nuanced versions; ‘I still love you but I don’t like you’ or a more subtle version, ‘I love you but I don’t like what you are doing.’ (Love the sinner but reject the sin). Withdrawal of love was a major parenting offence. Making a child feel bad in any sense is now verboten and has been replaced by the mission of building a child’s self esteem. (There are consequences of this but more of that another time.)

I’m not in favour of making a child insecure by making it appear that love is conditional. My point is that overuse of a word tends to devalue it. I think we should let our children know that we love them for who they are, but I really don’t think it’s necessary to tell them we love them twenty times a day. More telling doesn’t mean more feeling. In particular, I dislike the use of ‘love you’ as a substitute for ‘goodbye’. It’s hard to think it means anything special when it’s said ten times a day as throwaway parting.

I once upset a lot of people on a parenting website by telling a story in which one of my children whined, ‘Why does he (her brother) get (something really small and unimportant) and I don’t.’ I answered ‘Because I love him more than you!’  Oooohhhhh!!!! You would have thought that I was planning child sacrifice. Angry parents asked how I could even suggest that I loved one more than the other. Answer is, mostly because I didn’t love one more than another and everyone knew it. It was just a slightly brutal way of closing down a silly complaint; a way of saying your complaint has no substance and my reply is equally without substance.

 Now everyone is declaring their love, saying it loud and saying it proud. What possesses someone in an audience to yell I love you, at the performer? When a member of the audience yelled ‘I love you’ at Amy Winehouse in a concert, she more or less responded by saying isn’t there anyone else in your life. She knew the phoniness of it. She didn’t do what most American singers would have done and said I love you too! Oh give me a break! No, you don’t. You don’t know me, how can you say you love me.

The word love has become rather like the obscene swear words that are so everyday now and were taboo when I was a child. Those words have lost their shock value. Does it matter? Probably not, but what do you say now when something really angers you? when there are no taboo words to express your fury.

I feel that the word ‘love’ has lost its special power as well. How do you express a deeply personal and special emotion when the words you use have become so commonplace?