This week, as part of the Maternity Coalition’s Choices for Childbirth classes, I am talking to soon-to-be parents on the topic of life with a newborn. Writing up powerpoint slides, finding photos to include, going through books, journals, my own notes, I’m flung right back into those bright and blurry days. Those first six weeks or so could have been one day or a hundred days, so full but so quickly gone.
The more I write and read and ponder, the more I think that newborn babies have a damn tough gig.
They’re a mysterious entity really, the newborn. Unless you’ve had your own or you work in the industry, you may not have had more than a cursory glance at a very new baby. You’re pretty unlikely to have had to take responsibility for one for more than a few minutes and you’re certainly not likely to have spent a night in one’s company. So-called ‘newborns’ that appear during so-called ‘births’ in movies or on TV are usually about three months old. Babies featured in advertising are generally about this age or even older, able to cutely sit up unassisted and smile beatifically. Even if you have a close friend or family member with kids, you may not have seen a lot of them in the first few weeks of their baby’s life. Mostly, new babies are home with their new parents, getting acquainted with a wholly new way of life.
So, when you do find yourself the proud new parent of a tiny, soft bundle of baby, how are you meant to know what to do with it? Mainly, you have two sources of baby-wrangling information – your family and books. Family can be useful, but listening to them can also be like playing baby-advice-roulette. Any piece of advice that ends in “….and you turned out just fine” should be regarded with suspicion. It’s not that they don’t mean well, it can just be that their own baby-raising days are too distant for accurate recall, leading to some ludicrous expectations. Small’s Great Granny has come out with some corkers over the past couple of years (pregnancy included). My favourites go something along the lines of “Well, I don’t know much about breastfeeding, but I don’t think you should give it to him whenever he wants it. He’ll grow up to be one of those children who want a glass of water every five minutes”. This, from the woman who raised her three babies on formula, carnation milk and ribena, respectively. She was also surprised to hear that, at three months, he didn’t know that his bath toys were actually boats.
As for books, there are about forty billion promising you the magic answer to happily raising happy, adjusted, confident, genius children. There is a lot of advice out there on how to train your baby to fit in with your life. There is not, however, a lot of advice on how to do the opposite. We are a culture that prizes independence almost as highly as our right to buy things, so independence – specifically how to train your baby to be so – is the overwhelming message of current parenting literature. You don’t even have to go out and buy this stuff, it will worm its way into your lives readily enough. As early as about eight weeks of age, the assess-your-own-baby’s-development booklet from the Maternal and Child Health Nurse poses the questions ‘Do you have any concerns about your child’s ability to do things for himself?’ and ‘Do you have any concerns about how your child is developing pre-school skills?’. Hmmm. Well, obviously my two month old baby could tie his own shoelaces and recite his emergency contact phone number. Why can’t yours?
All this talk of independence is fine, when your kids are realistically able to achieve it. Newborn babies can not. Newborn humans are about as dependent as a being can be. They are needy, noisy, hungry, lovely little people. While they have grown through pregnancy, they have never been alone, never known silence, never been cold or hungry. New to the world, if they are put in a cot in a room on their own, they don’t think ‘Hey ho, bit hungry. Oh and my pants are wet. Ah well, mum’ll be back in a minute’. They just know that they’re alone and they don’t know that anyone will be back ever. Developmentally, they’re just not there yet. Likewise, if they need to eat, they can’t just get up, walk to the fridge and microwave a plate of leftovers for lunch.
So forget about independence. Luxuriate in those blurry, early weeks with your babies. Cuddle them a lot. Pick them up when they cry. Rock them. Dance with them. Talk to them. Sing to them. Carry them. Hold them while they drift blissfully into sleep. You won’t spoil them. You won’t set up bad habits. You won’t ‘create a rod for your own back’. They will grow up and want to do things for themselves soon enough. In the blink of an eye really.