Tuesday
Aug232011

Baby carriers. Face in or out? 

A report in today's Daily Mail on baby carriers confirms a long held opinion that the trend for carrying baby facing away from the parent is not good for the baby.

When my eldest daughter was a baby we bought a sling to carry her in. At that time they were very unusual and on a holiday to Germany, bemused strangers would take pictures of my husband with our baby strapped to his chest and concerned old ladies would reprimand us saying it was bad for her back. We were a bit rattled by all this but my husband was from South Africa and he knew that many generations of babies had been carried in this way, without coming to any harm.

We also knew the other great advantage of our sling. Rachel had colic night after night and one of the few things that helped was to put her in the sling and walk up and down crooning to her. She was soothed by the physical closeness, comforted by his heartbeat and warmth and his soft singing.

Baby carriers are great. They are convenient for parents and give babies what they want, - physical closeness and the security that comes from being curled up against a warm loving human being. Why then do mums hang their children from their slings looking out? Is it because they think that a baby will be stimulated by all that is going on around them? If so they are wrong. The baby can't make sense of the hustle and bustle of everyday street life. They need things to be close to them, to see and to focus on them for some time and most important they need a responsive adult to help them interpret the world around them, by pointing things out, by naming things, by sharing the baby's reaction to what is out there.  

Today I saw a baby in a pram staring at its mother with such intensity and delight that it made me smile. I don't know if it feels scarey for a small baby in a carrier to face out into the world, unable to turn to mum or dad for comfort but when I see a baby dangling like this, I feel uncomfortable. It just feels wrong.

Tuesday
Jul262011

Sometimes, no one is to blame

I met a woman some years ago who had gone out for a Sunday drive with her husband and baby. They drove to a local beauty spot, parked and got out, leaving the baby asleep in the car. They walked a little way to get a good view from a bridge, still with their car in view.  Glancing back they saw the car roll towards the edge of a cliff and then as they watched in horror it went over the edge. Miraculously, though the car had extensive damage, the baby was uninjured.

This is literally my nightmare. It’s a recurrent dream I have had throughout my life. I dream I am driving a car, there are children inside it and somehow I lose control. I try to gain control, to stop the car from moving but I can't. I am full of fear and foreboding that the children will be harmed and paralysed by an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand what this dream is about. When children are in danger, as parents our instinctive urge is to move heaven and earth to save them. If we can't, we feel we've failed; after all, what is our primary responsibility but to keep our children safe? I've been thinking about the parents of Amy Winehouse, both of whom have said they expected her early death by suicide or drug overdose. They saw the car moving towards the edge of the cliff but were powerless to stop it.

We love the blame game. With Amy we blame the industry (“too much too soon’), or her ‘fragile personality’ or her ex-husband for his role in introducing her to hard drugs. As yet no one has speculated about the role her background may have played in her downfall. Just the contrary; the normality of her North London Jewish background has been a counterpoint to her drug induced excess.    

As parents we often blame ourselves for the way our children turn out. I used to say jokingly ‘A mother’s place is in the wrong.’ And it is true. Sooner or later you will look at your children and wish you had done something different: not chosen that school; not had another baby so quickly; not suffered from post natal depression; taken a stronger stand on an issue: given more freedom; given less freedom, etc etc. The list is endless. And for most parents it’s a waste of time.  

There is no one right way to parent a child beyond the basics of love and boundaries.  Children are born with different temperaments and ways of responding to the world and what works for one child is wrong for another.  Most children are resilient and will bounce back but there are a few who are particularly vulnerable to addictions, psychological disorders and extreme behaviour. When this happens parents may do their best but sometimes sadly it's not enough. Parents cannot control everything and protect their children from all dangers. Sometimes the car goes over the cliff and there was nothing anyone could have done to stop it.  

 

Wednesday
Jul202011

Childless parenting gurus

I don't like Supernanny. I don't believe that any naughty child worth their salt would stay on the 'naughty step'. I hate the hug, (mixed messages are always a bad idea)  and the 'saying sorry' shtick. Are we supposed to believe that after a spell on the naughty step, the child has had time to reflect on his naughtiness and is filled with regret. If not, what's the point of saying 'Sorry', it's just a get out of goal free card. As anyone with a teenager knows, it's shorthand for 'now get off my back'.

I auditioned for Supernany many years ago. the production team explained the concept as a return to old fashioned values in parenting. They asked me how I would deal with a misbehaving teenager. My answer involved listening, understanding the problem, negotiating, - while still having it clear in my mind where the boundaries where. Wrong answer!  They wanted telling, lecturing, threatening and laying down the law. A no-nonsense, nanny-knows-best, bossy boots approach, a kind of parenting dominatrix. The first series played up that element with Jo Frost, hair dragged into a bun, severe in a dark suit with a purposeful walk and a stern expression.

Have you noticed it is the parenting gurus who don't have children who are the strictest? The ones who recommend letting a hungry baby cry because the schedule says it's not time to feed or teaching baby that his cries will go unheeded, because he has to get into a routine. I know that most of these gurus have been nannies, even if they don't have children of their own. There may be a view that being less emotionally involved they are able to do a better job but I don't think so. 'Emotionally involved' is what the parent child relationship is all about. 

The hormone oxytocin is sometimes called the 'love hormone' or the cuddle hormone. It's released during labour, during breast feeding, from skin to skin contact and it makes us feel calm and relaxed. Distress - when for example you listen to your baby howl and are not allowed soothe him, produces the stress hormone cortisol in both mother and baby. (For anyone who wants to know how we know baby is stressed, a swab of saliva shows the presence of the hormone).

Evolution gave humans helpless infants to nurture. That infant has one main way to survive, to get a caring adult to tend to his needs and nature gave that caring adult (aka mother) the hormones to make sure it happens. Our bodies tell us what to do. We do what comes naturally. We relieve our cortisol-induced feelings of stress by responding to our baby's cries. Breast feeding mothers will lactate on hearing their child cry. Breast feeding itself releases oxytocin, as does skin to skin contact. It seems to me that to ignore these basic facts in the interests of managing or training the baby defies biology. Trust your instincts seems to be far better parenting advice, especially in the first few months.  

I wouldn't take lessons in cooking from someone who didn't love food. I feel the same way about parenting advice from someone who has never emotionally bonded with a child; the most essential element in getting it right is missing.  

There's an old joke that goes 'What's the difference between involved and committed? In a bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken was involved, the pig was committed. When it comes to bringing up children, parenting gurus are involved but parents are committed. 

 

Monday
Jul182011

In laws, who'd have 'em?

Future queen Kate Middleton is spending her hols with the present queen at Balmoral. The Queen it is said, wants to get to know her better, now that she's officially part of the family. Good for Her Majesty, smoothing the way on what can be a difficult path - getting on with the in-laws.

Future mother in law Carolyn Bourne made the news recently when she emailed her daughter-in-law to be, Heidi Withers her thoughts on a recent visit she made to the Bourne household. She criticised her for getting up much later than the rest of the house, her fussiness about what she would eat, her table manners and her choice of wedding venue. 

Big mistake Mrs Bourne! The golden rule of being an in law is to keep on the right side of the daughter in law. The old saying 'A son's a son, 'til he takes a wife, but a daughter's a daughter all her life.' says it all. However devoted a 'mummy's boy' a man is, once he gets married he shifts his allegiance. In fact I suspect that the more a man is a mummy's boy the more likely he is to transfer all that feeling to his wife. 

It's not a good idea to ask a son to choose between his mother and his wife or to take sides in any disagreements they may have. It's no choice for him; wife first, every time - if he knows what's good for him!

When the children come along then the odds are even more in daughter-in-law's favour. A mother-in-law may not like her daughter-in-law very much, but she will probably dote on her grandchildren. How much she sees them and under what circumstances will be controlled by her daughter-in-law, especially if there is a divorce and the mother has custody of the children.

Of course it's not always mothers in laws who are to blame. There are women who are so possessive of their husbands they resent the relationship with his parents, especially 'the other woman' -his mother.  In my own family, a daughter-in-law drove a wedge between her husband and his parents when they were married. When they divorced she made it almost impossible for them to have a relationship with their grandchildren. 

So in-laws,- like puppies, are not just for Christmas. Like it or lump it, they're here to stay and (note to Mrs Bourne) unlike puppies they won't respond well to attempts at house training. 

 

 

Tuesday
Jul122011

What's in a name?

The Beckhams have a baby girl and named her Harper Seven. Apart from the fact that it sounds like 'half past seven', or a well known brand of lavatory cleaner, does it really matter? After all 'a rose by any other name will smell as sweet'.

A name is a brand. It's not the whole story but a name gives us some indication of the child's background, ethnicity, religion, parental aspirations and current fashion. According to the book Freakanomics, a 'unique' made up name like Ataraisha or B'lela or Taranique (I made all these up) is indicative of someone from a certain background. In the US this is usually poor and black, they are ghetto names. In an experiment, social psychologists sent off job applications with identical CVs except for the applicant's name; half had conventional names and the others had unique made up names. Employers made assumptions about the brand name (or name brand) and the made up names were less likely to be called for interview. At the other end of the scale the aspirational Middleton family gave two of their three children 'royal' names, Catherine and James. (Pippa is not a 'royal' name but it is posh)

In 2005, Government research showed that girls named Katherine had the best GCSE results, with Madeleines coming second. The worst results came from boys named, Wayne, Dwaine, Lance, Jermaine and Duane. 

Think about how names are shortened, so however much you love Arsenal Football club, do not name your child after it. The annual list of most popular names shows an increasing tendency towards diminutives. Once boys would be given the names Charles, Edward, John etc., but be known as Charlie, Eddie/Teddy or Jack. Now these names appear in their own right. Girls names interestingly have gone in the other direction to less feminine abbreviations. Once a Nicola or Jennifer would be known as Nicky or Jenny. Now it's Nic or Jen.

Don't give your child a name they can be teased about. John Wayne's real name was Marion Morrison. Asked 'How come a tough guy like you has a sissy name like that?" he is said to have replied, 'That's how I got tough.' I don't think there is evidence that being constantly teased toughens up a child as Johnnie Cash's song 'A boy named Sue.' suggests. Much more likely in my opinion to make them permanently miserable.  

Back to the Beckhams. Why give a child a number instead of a name?  There has been lots of speculation, time of birth (no, apparently) or his shirt number (dunno) but personally I don't like it. People are given numbers instead of names in places where their humanity is downplayed or ignored; in concentration camps, in prison, in the military.

Will they start a trend? I hope not. Let's hope that jokers who want to go one better than the Beckhams don't start naming their children Eight.