The fact that becoming a parent changes one’s life is so obvious and cliché’d that it barely warrants repeating. However, repeat it we shall. Because regardless of all the ways you expect a baby to change your life, it will be more. More in all the challenging ways—more work, more crying, more fatigue, more compromise—but more in all the rewarding ways, too—more richness, more love, more adventure, more precious moments of connection.
In this winter issue, we delve into a few of the life changes that having a baby entails. Our Question of the Quarter addresses navigating the monotony of early parenthood; Kerry Longia discusses how to cope with never having enough hands; Dr Stephanie Bonn shares a few tips for babywearing; Alison Holland lays out some strategies for preserving relationships postpartum; and Stephanie Ondrack talks about some of the physiological ways in which parenthood actually changes us.
Most of us embark on this journey without any real sense of its scope or magnitude. Most of us begin unprepared, fumbling our way through the very steep learning curve that never seems to end. If we knew then what we know now, would we still do it? My own answer is a resounding yes, because despite all the unpredictability and upheaval that propels us into the unknown, it is the wildest ride I could ever have imagined. The downs may be profound, but the ups are exquisite. Despite its many mundane moments, parenthood is ultimately an unparalleled adventure.
Q: I am going stir crazy at home with my new baby. I find myself pacing in front of the window for an hour before my partner gets home from work. What can I do to alleviate this terrible monotony?
A: Oh I know how that feels! I remember those days myself—feeling marooned at home and disconnected from real life. It is a very isolating feeling.
Luckily, even though you feel utterly alone in those moments, you are far from alone in that experience. Many new parents find themselves feeling stuck, bored, and trapped during the first few weeks or months with their newborns. Here are some tips from the trenches:
There are many, many groups for new parents in Vancouver
La Leche League has free monthly meetings, wonderfully supportive and a great place to connect with other new parents
The Childbearing Society’s Postpartum Classes are informative and social—every Monday 12:30 – 2pm right here at 3569 Commercial Street. Only $5, and the first one is free
Local Health Units host free parent/baby groups weekly, led by community health nurses
Neighbourhood Houses & Family Centres have free daily or weekly play groups for parents and babies
Libraries have weekly or bi-weekly story/song time for parents & babies
Mother Goose hosts mama/baby play & song-time; Man in the Moon does the same for fathers
Community Centres almost all have parent/baby groups that cost a small amount and require registration
Other organizations, such as Gymboree, some art/dance companies, offer “classes” for parents & babies
There are many postpartum fitness groups that include bringing your baby (stroller fitness, mom/baby yoga, kanga-training, mom/baby dance, zumba…)
There are events for you geared towards bringing your baby (Movies for Mommies, Mom’s the Word, etc)
Connect with other new parents
Contact the other graduates from your prenatal classes. Chances are they are feeling the same way and would love to get together for a late morning coffee. Arrange a weekly meeting time.
Go for walks with your pre-baby friends. Load baby into a sling or carrier and walk briskly with a friend or two. It’s a great way to get endorphins, get energized, and get fit again
Don’t be afraid to take baby places
It is relatively easy to take baby to restaurants & cafes when they are too young to crawl
You can go to art galleries, museums, movies, and even some plays or concerts (depends on the venue) with a baby in a sling or carrier
You can go hiking or snow-shoeing while wearing your baby
As soon as baby is old enough, try wearing baby on your back in a mai-tai, ergo, baby back-pack, or equivalent
Once baby is 4 – 5 months old and be safely carried on your back, a whole new world of hands-free possibilities opens up
Beyond this list, be creative!
Talk to other parents and see what worked for them. The first step, is getting out of house and connecting with other people who understand what its like. The second step is figuring out how to incorporate baby into your new life—discovering what you can still do with baby in tow, and new activities that you can enjoy together. Soon, this will all seem easy. And eventually, your baby will be running off to enjoy his or her own independent activities, and you’ll be wondering what to do with so much free time.
One thing I wasn’t expecting before having a baby was how much I would be using my hands and arms. The arms were a shelf for nursing, a cradle for rocking. The hands were swiping newborn poop and fiddling with tiny snappers. At some point, maybe around six months postpartum, I noticed I was getting pretty buff in the arm area.
Babies are fond of being carried. This was one thing we discovered early on; pick the baby up, and he’s calm. He might even smile. Put him down, and he’ll soon make it clear that he’d like to be picked up again. And, having heard about keeping infants close in order to foster attachment[i], I decided that I would just not really put him down for six weeks. For a short while, I did okay with just my arms. I decided that to attempt anything other than to nurse baby, change diapers, read, feed myself one-handed and watch movies was just too optimistic. However, there did come a day when I felt like checking my email. Or maybe it was the day I felt the need to spread the butter on my toast rather than just slice it and leave it to melt in chunks. I needed two hands, not one, as well as two arms, and baby needed me.
In the early days we used a sling, a wrap and a soft structured front carrier. We practiced first with a teddy, and used each one according to the weather and baby’s stage of development[ii]; newborn was always on the front, and if he was facing in, either with feet tucked under or with the baby’s bottom below the knees, in a W shape. To ensure we were wearing him at the right height on our body while in a front carrier, we always made sure we could kiss the top of baby’s head. During the winter, the wrap was great for providing extra coverage and cosiness. In summer, the sling provided a cooler cocoon.
The carriers took some getting used to, but the payoff was worth every second of practice and/or frustration. I took my first tentative steps at food prep while babywearing (I still remember the sense of triumph over a very basic but longed-for freshly made lunch). Over winter, I’d often zip up a large rain coat or hoodie over the baby and go walking while he slept or nursed. It was easy to get around town on the bus and skytrain, and we weren’t disturbing baby by having to go in and out of a carseat or stroller. When he woke, the baby could see the world from a safe and comfortable position, getting a good look at what happened in our world. Sometimes he would make eyes at people on the bus, and they would coo back. Whatever he was watching or doing whilst awake, he was connected to me and I could tell instantly when he was troubled, scared, hungry or tired.
I could feel myself getting stronger again, too. As biomechanist Katy Bowman points out[iii], our body essentially begins its training for carrying babies while we’re pregnant. Since I began babywearing in 2006, I have received comments about my perceived strength; usually while carrying a baby plus backpack, or a toddler plus groceries. People often seem surprised that I can manage, but as Bowman points out: if suddenly decide one day that you want to carry a wriggling 35lb backpack around for 3 hours, your body will probably rebel. If you instead have a gradually growing load (baby) who you carry regularly from birth, then your muscles will grow along with that load. Bowman also makes a case for in-arms carrying; this theory makes sense to me, though I also know that in practice, using a carrier meant, and still means, that I can accomplish tasks that would remain undone otherwise, or that I can get places I wouldn’t otherwise manage to reach.
More carriers joined the collection as time went by; over the years we have also used a Trekker, an Ergo, a Mei Tai and another Ergo when the first one wore out. We have no particular favourite – each has served a useful purpose for specific reasons. But for every reason, both baby’s wellbeing and parent’s, and for practical reasons, babywearing has been a very important part of life with young children, and we know we will all reap the rewards for years to come.
There are many benefits of wearing our infants while we perform our daily activities especially the positive impact it has on the baby’s physical, emotional, social and neurological development. Car seats and their frequent misuse as carriers are known to cause postural strain to both the mother and the baby. Strollers have restricted postural options for the baby’s developing cranium and spine which affects all aspects of their health and well-being. This article outlines the importance of wearing your baby as well as specific carrier considerations.
A proper carrier is integral for the mother’s recovering spine from nine months of pregnancy and the birth of her infant. The perinatal hormones relaxin and oxytocin cause ligaments to be less supportive and can increase your chance of injury. Along with choosing the right carrier, you will benefit from postnatal ergonomic awareness such as using a nursing pillow, using your legs to bend and lift as well as avoiding the “car seat carrier”. A fitness program should incorporate strengthening the core muscles in your tummy and the paraspinals in your back as well stretching the pectorals/chest muscles on a regular basis. Just by sitting on an exercise ball, the abdominals will get stronger after being stretched to their max.
The right carrier will distribute your baby’s weight more evenly to avoid repetitive strain injuries such as neck tension and headaches, back strain and wrist tendonitis. Wearing your baby is a form of weight-bearing exercise itself as well as the increase in walking you will do just by wearing a carrier. With your baby close, your milk production will become more efficient and you will have an increase in “happy” hormones which will decrease the chance of postpartum depression. You can be hands-free and easily multitask through your daily activities with your baby along for the ride. And don’t forget the environmental benefits (who needs a car? and one less stroller to manufacture!) for a greener earth for our future generations.
Because babies should sleep on their back, it is important to have them upright or on their tummy during the day to develop their cervical spine and avoid cranial flattening. Not many infants enjoy lying on their tummies so a carrier is an optimal way to strengthen their neck and back. Other benefits include a decrease in separation anxiety, more efficient daytime naps, a better latch for nursing and it can minimize colic.
Here are a few considerations when choosing a carrier:
does the carrier offer various positions: front, side, back?
are there numerous positions for the baby: chest facing, vertical, horizontal, legs folded or straight?
how long will the carrier accommodate the child’s growth and postural development?
is it difficult to transfer the baby in and out of the carrier?
can your baby breastfeed in the carrier?
are you hands-free?
is the weight of the baby evenly distributed or does the carrier cause repetitive stress and postural compensations to one area of your spine?
does the carrier optimally support your baby’s developing spine?
You may find that one carrier does not do it all. My favourites are a sling for shorter excursions and activities and a carrier with balanced weight distribution (where the baby can be carried on your front or back) for longer outings. Baby wearing will optimize your health and wellness and support the growth and development of your baby so do it as long as you can!
The quality of a relationship and the quality of parenting go hand in hand. As a therapist, wife, and mother of three young children I am often asked for advice from couples about to embark upon the journey of becoming parents or those adding to their families. I usually begin with, “In all honesty, I was completely unprepared for how difficult being married and parenting children would be. I underestimated how all-consuming parenting is and how little energy I would have to think about my own needs, let alone someone else’s.”
Likely not what they are hoping to hear.
My husband and I had been married less than one year when our first child was born. Our beautiful daughter bounded into the world, bringing with her excitement and opportunity and at the same time challenging us beyond measure. The transition was a difficult one and our marriage faced its share of challenges. In speaking with many women in my circle, mostly first-time moms, I learned our struggles were not unique and that we certainly were not alone.
Research shows that within three years after the birth of a child, approximately two-thirds of couples will experience a significant dropin their relationship quality and will have a dramatic increasein conflict and hostility. (The Gottman Institute, Inc., 2014). Findings of a study of 159 families showed shifts within couples when they became parents, including:
4 Common Trends Among Couples When They Become Parents
Profound Philosophical Shifts. This includes changes in identity, time takes on a different meaning, roles may become more traditional and values may change.
Relationship Changes. An increase in conflict and a decrease in sex and intimacy.
Some Partners Withdraw. Coping with changes in responsibility and financial stress may mean more time at work or out of the home.
Physical and Psychological Changes. Sleep deprivation, an increase in stress and physical adjustments following childbirth and the adjustment to breastfeeding.
What I wish I had known then, along with all the nursing tips and sleep training methods, was that changes to a relationship are normal and to be expected andthat there are effective things you can do to enhance your relationship satisfaction after the birth of a baby. The question then becomes, “How can we maintain the quality of our relationship and also build a strong and healthy family?” The following are three research-based ingredients necessary to cope with the changes brought about by the birth of a child.
Three Ingredients For A Successful Relationship
1.Strengthen and Maintain Your Friendship
The first step in strengthening and maintaining your friendship is assessinghow well you know each other. This is often one of the first things people do when they start dating. Over candlelitdinners, uninterrupted conversations go on for hours with each partner taking turns asking all sorts of questions and being truly curious about the answers. This is also one of the first things people stop doing once they have been together for a while. We can become complacent, believing we know one another so well that there really isn’t anything to ask. However, people change over time and it is common for couples to lose track of what is meaningful to one another.
Making it a priority to show interest in your partner and givingthe necessarytime and energy to really know one another is an important step towards building a strong foundation for your family. Returning to a place of curiosity can be fun and it can remind you of the reasons you wanted to be together in the first place. It involves getting back in touch with each other and honouring the history that you have created in making a life together. It can be as simple as a “10 Minute Time Out”. This involves ten minutes in the day where all screens are put away and each partner is given five minutes to ask the other some open-ended questions. This exercise can go a long way towards restoring and rebuilding a connection with your partner.
2. Develop an Effective Way to Handle Conflict
Conflict is an inevitable part of all relationships. It is a signal and if managed well it can lead to greater understanding and connection. During the transition to parenthood it is natural that there are major changes to each partner’s self-concept. For most couples, this results in relationship challenges and can make conflict increase dramatically. A requirement for all stages of problem-solving to be effective is physiological soothing. Meaning, the capacity for both partners to be emotionally calm enough to stay present, think, and work through the issue at hand. Developing this skill while dealing with conflict can help ensure that learning and increased understanding are the outcomes rather than an automatic response to fight aggressively or run away.
One strategy to enhance emotional regulation is developing a mutually agreed upon signal for a break. This signal would be used when one partner is feeling flooded or overwhelmed by emotion. The20-minute breakallows the partner to return to amore relaxed state of mind. Some find it useful to engage in a self-soothing exercise during the break such as deep–breathing, muscle relaxation or meditation. Once the break is over, the conversation resumes.
3. Adopt the Relationship Motto: Small Things Often
Research conducted on thousandsof couples found that if you make small changes in your daily life they will result in larger changes over time whichincrease satisfaction, build awareness, and help to increase communication. This is so important because new parents are tired! Their ability to manage frustration is often low and even the idea of going on a date or engaging in conflict can feel so overwhelming. The fact that small gestures, done often, can have the greatest impact should give hope to those invested in strengthening their relationship but worried they may simply be too exhausted to do so.
One of my favourite strategies for adopting thismotto is “The Six Second Kiss“. The SixSecond Kiss is also referred toas “A Kiss With Potential”. Kissing for sixseconds is just long enough to create the opportunity for greater intimacy and connection without placing any expectation on it occurring. It’s hard to kiss for sixseconds and not feel a little bit lighter even if it’s just because you are laughing at how long sixseconds actually feels when lips are touching! This is the strategy that I strongly encourage you to try. What’s the worst that could happen? After all, it’s only six seconds.
Alison Holland is a Registered Social Worker who provides counselling services in Vancouver, BC. Her expertise as a Gottman Bringing Baby Home Educator complementsher passion for providing research-based training and therapy that helps families improve relationships, better manage stress and successfully navigate life transitions.
There is no question that becoming a mother changes us. It is a fundamental shift in identity that alters our former perception of self. Whether we welcome this or resist it, there is no escaping it: we are no longer the same person we were before having kids. It is a constitutional and axiological change, affecting our bodies, as well as our plans, values, priorities, and even our personalities. In fact, it alters our very brain chemistry. And in the case of gestational mothers, it actually changes our cellular composition.
We are all familiar with the fact that pregnancy entails physical changes: our growing body, our slowed digestion, our increased blood volume, our aching ankles, our compromised bladder. Our body becomes, in a very real sense, no longer just our own. We have to endure these inconveniences, ranging from mild discomforts to debilitating afflictions, for the sake of our growing progeny. We share not just our belly, but our food, our oxygen, our calcium stores. Every system in our body participates.
We know, too, that pregnancy affects our moods and mind. We forget words, we have vivid dreams, we have aversions and cravings. Our emotions swing unpredictably, and our thoughts get blurred around the edges. “Pregnancy brain”, a very real aspect of gestation, is caused by a myriad of hormones flooding the maternal brain, as our body is buffeted by such rapid physiological change. Our mental state, our cognitive functions, are affected by our growing tenant.
Although pregnancy is commonly associated with a mental state that’s muddled, distracted, forgetful, and emotional, these qualities are equally applicable to other developmental phases that involve major brain re-wiring, such as toddler-hood and adolescence. Indeed, the process is similar. The temporary confusion in the brain is a symptom of a rewiring process, fueled by hormones, that ultimately leads to major neurological growth. Pregnancy may have a dumbing down effect, but it is merely the passageway towards significant brain development. The bridge, as it were, to motherhood.
The brain changes that are endemic to motherhood are not, in a manner of speaking, all in your head. Brain scans of women before and after they had children reveal significant growth in certain areas: circuitry related to mental sharpness, multi-tasking, memory for details, empathy, and emotional connectivity. In other words, parts of the brain that might enhance or contribute to our role as mothers. We may be foggy for a while, but the net result is one of brain enhancement. Motherhood makes us smarter.
Women experience a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding that primes the brain for dramatic change in regions thought to make up the maternal circuit. Affected brain regions include those that enable a mother to multitask to meet her baby’s needs, help her to empathize with her infant’s pain and emotions, and regulate how she responds to positive stimuli (such as baby’s coo) or to perceived threats. In the newborn months, a mother’s interaction with her infant serves as further stimulus to link her brain quite tangibly to her baby’s.
Some of these brain changes peak during the months immediately following the birth, which might inform certain aspects of the postpartum experience, including postpartum anxiety. For example, extreme concern over baby’s welfare, a sense of hyper-vigilance that prevents the mom from resting, feelings of helplessness and vulnerability in the face of this new responsibility… Many of these strong emotions and reactions, common to some degree amongst most mothers, are sparked by the hormones targeting specific areas of the brain. They are most pronounced for the first few months after the birth, but fade over time. Although extreme for some and mild for others, the road to motherhood is often rocky. It can be fraught with narrow paths and perilous peaks before we find even ground again. But these particular shifts are transitory.
Other brain changes, however, seem to be there to stay. The increased capacity for empathy and the ability to hold onto many details, for example, are still detectable in scans of a mother’s brain decades later, affecting how she might interact with possible grandchildren. Some of these enhanced brain functions are gifts we can keep for life, affecting the way we relate to the world and its inhabitants forever more. In other words, once a mother, always a mother.
Many of us recognize these shifts in ourselves. My own brain felt cloudy and indistinct during the infant/toddler years, my attention narrowed down to baby basics. I had little interest or energy for much else. I shunned world news, politics, literature, even adult social activities, entirely consumed by the gentle rhythms of family life. But eventually I felt my mind and focus sharpening to be able to hold long lists, complicated activity schedules, and all the minutiae of my three kids’ needs and preferences. And the empathy! My sense of concern and compassion have been forever altered, strengthened and amplified by the passage into parenthood. My desire to support other families through this journey, to care globally about birth and babies, began only when I had my own.
If becoming a mother launches these changes, being a mother reifies them. The very act of looking after our children, loving them and nurturing them, also effects major changes in our brain, equally profound and equally permanent. As we look at or touch our babies, we produce love and pleasure hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin, dopamine, and serotonin, that collectively serve to make us slow down, inhabit the moment, bond with our babies. These hormones boost our nurturing feelings and spontaneous attachment behaviours, and light up our brain’s reward centres when we do them.
These lifestyle brain changes are equally present in non-gestational parents, so adoptive mothers and partners alike experience a neurological shift from becoming parents as well. Even fathers produce prolactin, a hormone most commonly associated with lactation, when they cuddle and hold their babies. The quiet acts of caring for our children, as humdrum as they seem, cause our brains to expand. No matter how we got there, the very act of parenting transforms us. Empathy begets empathy. Parenting is a self-fulfilling process.
If the hardwiring from gestation, bolstered by the programming from simply being a parent, were not enough to turn us into super-parents, another effect of pregnancy might be: microchimerism.
Growing a human being in our body is no small feat: any gestational mother can tell you that. But one of the lesser known effects of pregnancy is that each foetus shares some cells with their mother. After giving birth, we end up with a bunch of foetal cells in various parts of our bodies. These behave like stem cells, able to become part of any of our systems; they travel to assorted places and take up residence there. We might have our baby’s cells in our kidneys, brains, toes, shoulders, or our heart. The baby’s cells actually become part of the mother’s body, and reside there indefinitely. The term ‘microchimera’ comes from the hodgepodge, hybrid animal of Greek mythology.
Researchers speculate that these foetal cells might be beneficial to the mother’s health, increasing her (and the baby’s by proxy) chance of survival. There is some evidence that the foetal cells provide partial protection from certain conditions, such as tumours and blockages. Some researchers speculate that they might even extend longevity, explaining why women tend to live longer than men.
What it is that fetal microchimeric cells do in the mother’s body is unclear, although there are some intriguing possibilities. For example, fetal microchimeric cells are similar to stem cells in that they are able to become a variety of different tissues and may aid in tissue repair. One research group investigating this possibility followed the activity of fetal microchimeric cells in a mother rat after the maternal heart was injured: they discovered that the fetal cells migrated to the maternal heart and differentiated into heart cells helping to repair the damage.
Like stem cells, fetal cells are pluripotent, which means they can grow into many kinds of tissue. Once in the mother’s blood, these cells circulate in the body and lodge themselves in tissue. They then use chemical cues from neighboring cells to grow into the same stuff as the surrounding tissue. Although the mother’s immune system typically removes unchanged fetal cells from the blood after pregnancy, the ones that have already integrated with maternal tissues escape detection and can remain in mom’s body indefinitely.
In contrast, much of our philosophical canon posits personhood as a state of individuality and autonomy. We like to think of ourselves as unique, self-made, one-of-a-kind, defined by our distinct thoughts, sovereign actions, and exclusive essence. But microchimerism calls this view into question. We mothers are not limited to our own selves. Our minds and bodies are not only affected by motherhood, but actually broadened beyond the boundaries of self. We are no longer individual—we are family, community. Our “I” now includes our children. Mothers are a true royal ‘we’.
It would seem, then, that mothers are an amalgam of sorts, subject to influence, incursion, and inclusion from hormones and cells alike, and further honed by the performative functions of parenthood. As Katherine Rowland ponders in Aeon Magazine,
The self emerging from microchimeric research appears to be of a different order: porous, unbounded, rendered constituently. This suggests that each human being is not so much an isolated island as a dynamic ecosystem. And if this is the case, the question follows as to how this state of collectivity changes our conscious and unconscious motivations. If I am both my children and my mother, if I carry traces of my sibling and remnants of pregnancies that never resulted in birth, does that change who I am and the way I behave in the world? If we are to take to heart Whitman’s multitudes, we encounter an I composed of shared identity, collective affiliations and motivations that emerge not from a mean and solitary struggle, but a group investment in greater survival.
To some, this notion might be alarming, raising concerns about identity, individuality and personal liberty. We now have ontological ambiguity about how mothers inhabit personhood, perhaps aligning us more with a small-scale colony mentality: are we the borg, the flayed, the hive? Who am I if neither my thoughts nor my cells are strictly my own?
We might also balk at the cliché’d notion of the selfless mother, plural as her essence extends beyond the confines of the individual; “selfless” as her ‘self’ is amorphous and eternally open to further incorporation. We might reject the notion that mothers are thus denied the singular subject position. How are we to express our unique selves, identify our ambitions, own our personal successes, if we are aggregate beings? The collective consciousness of motherhood, at least as far as it’s mythologized, does not leave much room for self-determination or drive. The opposite of selfless is selfish, after all. The familiar tension between the individual and the common good is an ongoing battle within the landscape of motherhood.
But whether because of or despite hormonal influence or symbiotic cells, many of us feel that having children leaves us essentially and permanently altered in every possible sense: new body, new values, new emotions, new thoughts—a whole different modus operandi as we navigate our existence, and our place in society. I am not the same person I was before I had children.
No matter how we choose to frame it, many of us experience motherhood as a gestalt experience, in which we are more than the sum of our parts. Our children—growing them, birthing them, and parenting them—become part of who we are. Parenthood is a bridge that once crossed, we can never return. Although I sometimes look back at my former life and self with fondness, I would never go back, even if I could. Parenthood, with all its challenges, frustrations, and trade-offs, no matter how we define it, is a potent place to be.
Stephanie Ondrack is a homeschooling mother of three kids (currently 18, 14, 11), a longtime instructor with the Childbearing Society, and a very reticent blogger. Follow her at www.thesmallsteph.comto read her rare and infrequent posts on topics related to parenting.
When preparing for the birth of a new baby, many mothers-to-be focus very intensely on what it will be like to labour and give birth. It is important to learn pain management techniques, what happens when an epidural is administered, specific breathing techniques, labour and pushing positions, but there’s often a big hazy unknown when it comes to the moments immediately after the baby is born. Those first moments then extend into the postpartum period and beyond.
It can feel difficult to plan for the moments immediately following the birth since they will be different depending on whether or not any interventions or medical assistance is required. However, thinking through what you’d like to see happen in several different situations and planning for mom and baby staying together as much as possible is a good way to prepare for the uncertainty of birth and increase your chances of a positive bonding experience.
Why should you keep your baby with you after birth?
There are several important reasons to keep your baby close immediately after birth, all of which work together to keep baby and mom safe, healthy and bonded with one another. Placing baby on mom’s belly or chest for skin-to-skin contact helps regulate baby’s temperature and breathing. If mom is unable to hold baby skin-to-skin immediately after birth, this can be an opportunity for dad or partner to take off his or her shirt and get involved in the bonding process.
Hormones from delivery also prime mom and baby to bond with each other, beginning the foundation of emotional attachment. These hormones are at their peak immediately following the birth and for an hour or so afterwards, which usually coincides with the newborn’s window of quiet alertness. During this time a newborn will look around with wide eyes, searching for faces. This is when the magic of bonding happens, and it’s important for mom or dad to be holding the baby during this time.
Unless there is a life and death emergency, there is no need for medical staff to take a baby away from mom after the birth. A newborn does not need to be immediately weighed, measured, bathed, dressed, immunized or have eye drops administered, at least not within the first hour or so. All these things can wait while mom and baby recover from the birth and get to know each other.
Bonding is powerful
When I was pregnant with my first child I learned about natural birth and decided to have my baby at home in order to have the best chance at having a natural birth. I read about the importance of early bonding during the window of quiet alertness after birth and the natural rush of oxytocin, and I knew I wanted to start breastfeeding straight away. Even with all that knowledge under my belt, I was still surprised when I looked up from where I was lying on the bed, resting after giving birth to my new baby to discover that my husband, midwife and her assistant were all in the kitchen having tea together. I had been lying there, busy gazing at and falling in love with my new baby and I hadn’t even noticed them leave. I don’t even know how long they were gone for. I remember a brief moment of, “I wonder what they’re talking about?” and “I wonder if they’ve forgotten about me?” but I was very thankful for the quiet, peaceful space they gave me to enjoy simply being with my new baby.
Reforming birth practices in countries where birth has become a highly medicalized event means recognizing birth as a multi-dimensional, life-changing event for all members of the family. When birth is recognized and honoured as an emotional, spiritual, transformational AND biological process, then the importance of keeping a new baby and mother together will become more apparent. It may be easier, faster or more efficient for medical staff to perform their routine examinations immediately after birth, but a new baby’s bonding window won’t wait for the nursing staff’s schedule. Having a birth plan can help make it clear to your doctor and nurses that it is important that baby stays with mom after birth, and hiring a doula can help too. For women with low-risk pregnancies, consider hiring a midwife and giving birth at home.
Michelle Carchrae is a former homebirther, homeschooler and freelance writer. She is currently studying to become a counsellor at City University and lives with her family on Bowen Island.
The use of acupressure in labour has been gaining popularity in the west as a natural means to help women during labour with pain management as well as relaxation. It is easy to learn and in fact, a birth partner who knows even a few effective pressure points can really help during the three stages of labor and even post partum. I have included a link to a lovely free handbook for those interested in learning about Acupressure in birth that was generously provided by a colleague in New Zealand named Debra Betts which I encourage you to read.
Birth is a miracle! The hour immediately after the birth is considered the “golden hour” where parents and baby meet each other on the outside for the first time. This is a time of major physiological transition for mom and baby and includes a cascade of hormones vital to bonding and breastfeeding. This hour also encompasses the third stage of labour where the placenta is birthed. It’s easy to forget about this part even though it is really crucial.
Normally, the placenta is delivered relatively quickly after birth, from a few minutes to a half hour. It is important that this stage of birth be uncomplicated and timely. Did you know that applying a firm bilateral pressure to the tops of the shoulders can help? The specific point I would like to highlight today is GB 21, an empirical point used to help with the delivery of the placenta (among other things). It is so easy and accessible that everyone should know it.
GB21 is on the top of the shoulder halfway between the tip of the shoulder and the spine. The most precise point location is actually what feels best to the birthing mother. She may like it massaged, rubbed or firmly pressed, but acupressure is most effective with bilateral pressure. The point can be pressed for one minute (sometimes two or three) and released for a break. Repeat for as long as mom likes it and it seems useful. Let her guide the strength of the pressure.
GB21 is considered one of the forbidden points in pregnancy (before thirty-seven weeks) as it has a strong action to direct energy flow downward. It is this strong action that can help babies descend, helps the placental stage, helps facilitate the let down reflex of breast milk. If you must know just one point this one is extremely versatile and it feels really good.
In my experience, aside from the benefits I have outlined, I have found it to be very grounding. For example, the birth partner or doula can stand behind the birthing woman and press both shoulders at the same time during contractions. This will guide all the energy that comes with intense waves to move downward thus facilitating the birth and helping with relaxation. Moms have reported loving it. I have used it a lot in both my acupuncture practice and as a doula. It is amazing. After the birth, don’t forget to use it if there is a delay in the third placental stage, and try it during breastfeeding to help with promoting let down.
After becoming a mother in 2007, Renee’s passion for pregnancy and childbirth led her to shift the focus of her Acupuncture practice to begin serving the childbearing families of Vancouver as both an Acupuncturist for pregnancy and Doula/acupuncturist for birth. She has had the honor in attending over a hundred births and has treated thousands of pregnant women. It is a great joy for Renee to witness the incredible transformations her clients go through during their pregnancies and is deeply honored each and every time she shares in the miracle of childbirth.
Placentophagy is the act of mammals eating the placenta of their young after birth. The practice of eating placenta is not new. In fact, all mammals, with the exception of marine mammals and camels eat their placenta. Humans eating placenta started during the 1970s and has become more popular in the past 15 years or so. This is due to increased publicity about it, recent well known celebrities sharing about their experience taking placenta pills, and personal accounts found on social media such as Facebook. For many it’s considered a fad, but there are also many who claim that they benefited from eating their placenta. For more info on placentophagy go to: https://placentabenefits.info/placentophagys-biological-purpose/
There has been animal research done on ingestion of placenta, but human trials have been few and with small numbers. Yet they do show encouraging results, such as those related to iron levels in placenta. Research shows fatigue to be a contributing factor for postpartum depression. By taking one’s own placenta, the increased iron stores can lead to having more energy, therefore lowering risk for PPD (postpartum depression). Replenishing depleted iron is good news also for women who have experienced anemia during pregnancy, or had heavy blood loss during the birth.
Also for thousands of years Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctors have used placenta as an ingredient in certain remedies to treat patients with lowered energy (chi), blood disorders, infertility and other conditions. TCM uses placenta to aid in good lactation. https://placentabenefits.info/placenta-for-healing/
Placenta Encapsulation is the process of preparing human placenta into capsules for ingestion. The placenta is dehydrated from either a raw state or after being warmed by steaming, then ground down and put into capsules.
Summary from research article: Placental tissue is a source of natural hormones, trace elements and essential amino acids – the ingestion of raw or dehydrated placenta could influence postpartum convalescence, lactation, mood and recovery.
The risk of intoxication from individual intake appears to be low in terms of microbiological contamination and the content of potentially toxic trace elements. However, the mother should be advised that the processing and use of the placenta is her responsibility and that the transmission of infections cannot be ruled out.
Further studies focusing on the bioavailability of the hormones after oral ingestion and their potential physiological effect are necessary to evaluate the use of placental preparations. Patients with an interest in placentophagy should be informed about the potential risks and effects.
Recently in a news report Canadian obstetricians warned mothers about the danger of ingesting their placenta, and stated that there are no proven benefits.
The warning stemmed from a case in the USA in 2017 when a baby became sick from GBS and it was thought to be caused by the mother taking her placenta pills. GBS was found in the pills. Yet the baby was ill from GBS prior to the mother ingesting her placenta. The baby became sick a second time after the mother began taking her pills.
Another question concerning placenta ingestion was posed by a Lactation Consultant concerned that the hormones in placenta, specifically progesterone and estrogen would cause low milk supply. A response was presented in this article.
Despite concerns new mothers continue to have their placenta encapsulated. There are numerous positive anecdotal stories that lead to other mothers following suit. Many claim that it’s helped them with having great energy, maintained a good mood, and others believe it’s helped with an abundant milk supply. Mothers who didn’t encapsulate after a first birth and then for a second, swear it made a huge difference with their postpartum recovery.
It is wise to research who prepares placenta, and if, for example, they have completed a certified training course and know how to handle and prepare it properly. Training includes learning about and following OSHA guidelines (handling blood borne pathogens), as well as Food Safe requirements. Here is a list of three organizations that offer trainings.
Vancouver hospitals such as BC Women’s require that a form be signed allowing patients to take home their placenta. If there were complications during a pregnancy or with labour, or baby, the placenta may be sent to the Pathology Lab for testing. Placentas are disposed of in the hospital’s incinerator. If you want your placenta to be encapsulated, it needs to be kept on ice, or in your own cooler until it can be picked up by an encapsulator. Hospitals do not store placenta in their fridges.
Google to find local placenta encapsulators. There are many located within the Greater Vancouver area.
Debra Woods is a seasoned birth & postpartum doula who’s cared for more than 750 childbearing families. She has been practicing since 1989. She is also a certified childbirth educator and placenta encapsulation specialist. Mother to one son, who was born at home, she is passionate about women becoming fully informed about birth in order to make the best decisions for themselves. She loves helping families with their newborns so they can experience a smooth adjustment into parenthood.
What are my options with regard to the timing of cutting the umbilical cord?
There are four main approaches to cord cutting.
Immediate cord clamping (now sometimes called ‘premature’ cord clamping): This entails clamping and cutting the cord immediately after the baby is born, before the cord has stopped pulsing. This practice became popular in the 1940’s and has remained standard amongst many physicians, sometimes out of concern that delaying cord clamping might increase the risk of newborn jaundice, and sometimes simply out of habit. This approach is now falling out of favour amongst many practitioners, since it has been discovered that it puts babies at increased risk for anaemia, and prevents the absorption of approximately one third of baby’s total blood volume, reducing baby’s alertness and muscle tone, and dulling baby’s newborn instincts and reflexes.
Delayed cord cutting (now sometimes called ‘physiological’ cord cutting): Another option is to give the cord the chance to stop pulsating before it is cut. This allows all the nutrients, blood and oxygen time to complete their transfer from the placenta to the baby. Some researchers argue that this gives the baby the opportunity to gently transition from cord to lung breathing rather than being shocked by the sudden deprivation of oxygen caused by immediate cord cutting. Allowing babies to receive their full blood transfer lowers their risk of anaemia and increases their alertness and general competence. Once the cord has stopped pulsating, the transfer of blood and oxygen to the baby is complete. This can take from 2 to about 5 minutes, depending on the baby.
Waiting for the placenta to be delivered: Yet another choice is to delay cutting the cord until after the placenta is born. This is what most other mammals do and likely what humans did once upon a time. Some people believe that cutting the cord any time prior to the birth of the placenta interferes in a natural process, while others believe that there is no reason to wait longer than when the cord stops pulsating. Waiting for the placenta to be born can take between 15 minutes and 2 hours.
Lotus birth: The final option at the far end of the spectrum of choices is to leave the cord intact until it falls off by itself. This is called a ‘Lotus Birth’ and it is by no means a common choice. It involves carrying the placenta around alongside the baby until the cord has sufficiently dried up that it falls away from the baby’s navel with no interference. This takes a week or more, and involves salting and wrapping the placenta, as well as carrying it everywhere mother & baby go.
What about cord blood banking? The BC Women’s cord blood bank can extract whatever amount remains in the umbilical cord even after it stops pulsating. If you choose delayed cord cutting, you can still donate cord blood if you wish.
As you can see, there is reason to think carefully about your choices and discuss these issues with your caregiver before the birth of your baby. No matter what you choose, we encourage you to research your options and, in consultation with your caregiver, arrive at the decision that is best for you and your baby.