I had a fairly run-of-the-mill first delivery — sixteen hour labour, overnight of course, episiotomy, forceps. Then I was rewarded with my baby, a purple bundle in my arms. Obviously we’d never met before, yet she was so familiar. And when I spoke, she turned her head towards me, slow-motion-like, searching for me, as if she recognised my voice after hearing it for nine months from the inside.
She spent the first night beside me and slept for 12 hours. I, of course, barely slept at all. I stirred at every gurgle – I had no idea babies were so noisy. And, as the euphoria subsided — or maybe it was just the Pethidine wearing off — my anxiety grew. The enormity of what I’d done started to hit: a real, living baby was now in my care, 24/7. Never again would my life be mine alone.
Sometime around five o’clock in the morning, she woke. In the pre-dawn light, I lifted her out, sat on the side of my bed and put her to my breast. She took my nipple and fed. There wasn’t much, only colostrum, but she didn’t seem to mind. She sucked for thirty to forty minutes, then fell asleep, and I lay her back in the bassinette.
A short while later, a nurse came in to check on us.
‘Call me when she wakes,’ she said as she was leaving, ‘and I’ll help you feed her.’
‘Oh, I’ve just fed her,’ I said.
She spun around. ‘Was someone with you?’
‘Don’t feed her on your own. We need to show you how, to make sure you’re doing it properly. Bad attachment can cause all sorts of problems.’ Which she then listed. ‘Call me next time she wakes.’
She left and my eyes filled. I sat on the side of the bed, gazing down at my sleeping baby, worrying that I’d done the wrong thing and fed her the wrong way.
My daughter woke a few hours later and I buzzed the nurse. In she came, and propped me up on pillows. I undid my buttons and she positioned the baby on my arm, then took my nipple between her fingers and pinched it. With her other hand, she held my daughter’s head and pushed it towards my breast. My daughter opened her mouth and in went my nipple.
‘No, I don’t think she’s attached right,’ she said, and broke the baby’s suction.
My daughter began to cry.
She repeated this manoeuvre a few times, as she talked about redheads and pale nipples and how they’re much more susceptible to cracking. I sat watching my nipple thrust in and out of my baby’s mouth, feeling detached and disconnected, as if I was a bystander.
My daughter wailed each time the nipple was extracted—she just wanted to be fed.
And I wanted the nurse to go. To leave us alone and let us work it out together, all by ourselves.
Later, a phone call from my mother. ‘What times has she fed?’
‘Five, then nine.’
‘Four-hourly — that’s good. You just need to shift her forward an hour, to six and ten o’clock.’
We left hospital and at home, my daughter didn’t want to sleep. She cried when I put her down, then woke after forty-five minutes. Exactly forty-five minutes—I could have used her as a cake timer. And she didn’t settle for the night until eleven o’clock.
‘Babies should sleep longer than 45 minutes at a time.’
‘It’s abnormal for a baby to be awake at that hour.’
‘You should only be feeding her four-hourly.’
‘There’s something wrong with her. Maybe she has reflux?’
‘Maybe it’s something you’re eating. I couldn’t eat cauliflower when I was breastfeeding.’
‘It’s the chocolate. You shouldn’t eat chocolate.’
‘It’s your stress. Babies pick up on that, you know …’
The Parenting Centre came to help me with my daughter’s sleep problem.
‘They need to sleep,’ the nurse reminded me. ‘That’s their growing time.’
‘Isn’t she growing fine?’ I wanted to say. ‘She’s on the 97th percentile.’
I was told not to pick my daughter up and feed her when she woke, but to keep her in her bassinette and rock her back to sleep, to ‘train’ her into sleeping longer. So I stood there, rocking and rocking, trying to get her back to sleep. Eventually she would, sometimes after an hour-and-a-half of rocking. Twenty minutes later, she’d wake and back in I’d go. I tell you, sometimes that bassinette was ‘shaken’ rather than rocked.
After weeks of this, and my daughter still not sleeping longer, I decided I’d had enough. I was sick of spending hours a day rocking a bassinette. I couldn’t do it any longer. When she woke after her forty-five minute speed-sleep, instead of rocking her, I picked her up and sat and fed her. She fell asleep and I stayed sitting in the chair, holding her. She slept for a couple of hours in my arms.
And that is what I did from then on. Every day, I had a couple of hours just sitting holding her while she slept. Meanwhile, I did nothing but read a book or watch her.
‘You’re creating a rod for your own back,’ I was told. And, yes, maybe I was. But it was worth it.
With the next baby, I didn’t bother with the advice. I was a lot more confident and I knew better how to listen to my baby and my instincts. I hid how often I was feeding her or how short her sleeps were from people who I knew would judge.
At the time, my babies’ sleeping habits were a big worry to me. Am I doing the right thing? What if they’re not getting enough sleep? What if their brains aren’t forming properly? But here we are now, more than seventeen years down the track and my non-sleeping babies have all turned out fine. All that fretting and angst, and they were ‘normal’ after all.
The thing is, I eventually learned to go with my maternal instinct. But it’s hard to hear sometimes, that instinct. Mine was buried. Buried under the way I was parented; buried under the talk of experts; buried, even, by my own desire to do the right thing. I was trying so hard to follow the experts’ advice.
In the end, it felt wrong for us, and I went with what I felt was right for me and my child.
As time went on and with our subsequent children, I’ve learned to follow my maternal instinct more, and it’s worked. The more I’ve been able to tune in to it, the louder and clearer it’s come, and the easier it’s been to hear. I just had to stop letting the other ‘noise’ interfere, so that I could hear it. It was there, latent, but it was there.
I know there are exceptions but I believe that most times, maternal instinct is the best compass. After all, it’s had millennia after millennia to evolve.
I look back to feeding my baby that first time after she was born, alone together in the hospital room, and somehow, without help, I knew instinctively what to do. We both knew. I wonder if the two of us had been allowed to find our own way, without advice or direction from others, how much easier it might have been.
The thing is, we need to listen to ourselves and our babies, and trust our maternal instincts.
Wow in that picture of you & your husband in the hospital, you look about 15!
I once read an interesting book named Blink by Malcolm Gladwell about decision-making and the (surprising) effectiveness of instinctual decisions. I don’t know that it would be totally on point with your essay but you may want to give it a look.
Haha, Jeff! If I had been fifteen, I would have told everyone where to go with their advice! And, I will have a look at that book. I love the idea of instincts. Nature is very clever.
Lovely! And don’t we all have different experiences. My first little boy was only 5 pounds, 10 ounces and the “experts” wanted to start feeding him before my milk came in. So he was a bottle baby from the “gitgo.” By the time the third little boy came along new products such as Similac were on the market and recommended and none of which agreed with my little one’s digestive system. In a fit of temper, mom’s instinct took over and swept away all the additive products–all ending in “lac”– and fed the poor little thing whole milk diluted with sterile water. He thrived. The doctor asked me how I dared to feed him like that. My answer (and I feel yours would be the same) was: “Doctor, I have already had two. No problem.”
I know it was the fashion back then, Betty, but it’s such a shame you were advised AGAINST breastfeeding. Imagine, without the experts telling you what to do, you probably would have fed him yourself.
Yeah, I’m with Jeff…you look like a teenager in the first photo. The second photo looks more like you. You’re all very cute, the lot of you, in all three ‘back then’ shots. And all that time spent feeding and not sleeping has clearly given your daughter an oral fixation – these days she chooses a clarinet to put in her mouth…:)
Good story about the first-baby blues, and I’m glad you managed to sort it all out. Cate Kennedy has a story in Like A House On Fire about a new mother who can’t lactate. I’ll bring it along tomorrow…
I have that book here. I’ll go and read the story now. I looove Cate Kennedy!
It’s the one called ‘Five-Dollar Family.’
I will check it out.
Jeff and Glen, I think I look young because I was very bloated. I lost five kilos on Day 4 post-delivery, all fluid, and by the end of the day, I could see my ankle bones again!
It’s nice to be reminded that my husband once had hair. And that it was brown. It’s been quite a few years.
I had a feeling that your uncharacteristic looks had something to do with the rigours of it all. And I must confess to looking back at the Denmark photo of your hubby for a comparison. It’s a little habit of mine – I find it fascinating to track how peoples’ appearances change over time.
I read ‘Five Dollar Family’ last night. Similar theme to this post — except my husband is much nicer than Des!
Louise was a marvelous blog you have created. Whenever I see that you’ve posted something new I turn to it immediately ignoring my other emails. Well done!
Though I had no children of my own, I identify with ignoring my feelings and listening instead to the experts of the world, whether that is a how-to book or someone who appears to know more than I. It must go back to my childhood. Back then grown-ups seemed to know everything. I was raised to look outside of myself for the answers (look it up in a book; go ask your mother). To this day I still struggle with this mindset; it is only when it is quiet when I’m alone that I can piece together what is right for me.
I suspect you are right, Penny — ignoring our maternal instincts probably comes from a lifetime of being taught to ignore our instincts and listen to those that know better. And I couldn’t agree with you more about needing quiet and solitude to work out what is right to do. For me, it is only then that I can really hear my ‘instinct’ speak.
Thanks, once again, for commenting. Just as you look forward to the blog posts, I look forward to reading your comments!