Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Why Breastfeeding Matters

This week I am pleased to be reviewing Why Breastfeeding Matters, by Charlotte Young. I have been a fan of Charlotte's website The Analytical Armadillo for years, and I'm a big fan of this concise series of guides, but I have read so many books on breastfeeding that I was initially skeptical that this would have anything new to offer this market.


I'm sure it won't come as a surprise to you that I was completely won over by this book. What Charlotte really conveys is not just why we should care about breastfeeding, but also why we should talk about breastfeeding. She points out that we lie in a society where midwives trained thirty years ago are featured as "experts" in the media, where misinformation is rife, where GPs are the first port of call for new mothers but aren't interested in understanding breastfeeding, and where formula companies have managed to flip the dialogue so that we talk about the "benefits" of breastfeeding rather than the risks of feeding artificial milks. As a result many people genuinely don't understand that formula can be harmful, that it has negative long term health implications, and that nearly all women can breastfeed, if they get the appropriate information and support. We have no general understanding of normal infant behaviour, and so many mothers look to artificial milk to solve their "problems." When obesity is in the news as a public health crisis, nobody mentions that breastfeeding rates have a strong negative correlation. The gut microbiome is also emerging as a public health concern, but few know that the gut of a breastfed baby is more acidic than that of an artificially fed baby, and as a result cannot sustain the same microbiome even if it received the same seeding. Not breastfeeding is also a major risk factor for SIDS. At the same time the NHS, local and national government are cutting breastfeeding support funding.

 This short book manages to provide great information on why we should care and talk about breastfeeding, as well as how we can support breastfeeding mothers, and ends with a handy guide to where mothers can find more information and support, because those are the true factors determining breastfeeding rates and longevity. This is a great little guide for expectant parents looking to make informed choices, and for those supporting them, especially those in a position of trust and responsibility. Yet another great guide from the Why It Matters series.


Monday, 23 July 2018

Growing Up Pregnant

This week I have been reading something a bit different: Growing Up Pregnant, by Deirdre Curley.


This book is an account of Ms Curley's experience of unplanned pregnancy at eighteen, and her journey into motherhood and adulthood simultaneously. At a time when birth culture is endeavoring to be more representative, it's good to hear the voice of young mothers.

The book alternates between Deirdre's own account and some factual information about pregnancy. I found the information to be very selective and sometimes dubious, and I think it could be entirely cut out of the book, because it is in the autobiographical sections that the book's value lies. If I were gifting this book, I would also give something more informative, such as The Positive Birth Book, alongside it. Ms Curley is not afraid to tell her own embarrassing experiences and to be honest about her own feelings. She benefited from very supportive family on both sides, and a secure financial situation, which I know is not the case for many teenage parents, but it is always beneficial to hear the experience of someone who has come out the other side of your situation, and I think many people going through unplanned pregnancy could benefit from this book. In particular, Deirdre's frank discussion of relationships, and adjusting mentally to your changing body, are open and reassuring.


I am keen to regift this book somewhere young mothers can read it, so if you can make this happen please do get in touch and I will send it to you.


Friday, 13 July 2018

Your No Guilt Pregnancy Plan

If you've been around long enough to remember my review of Why Human Rights in Childbirth Matter, you'll know I absolutely adore the work of Rebecca Schiller. As a former postgraduate student of human rights, and considering myself a birth activist in a small way, I am in awe of her work with Birthrights, as well as her excellent writing. Her ability to take a charged and emotive subject and explain it clearly and coolly is second to none. If you think that's hyperbole, I suggest you follow her Instagram stories (follow me too! I like making friends!). I was absolutely delighted to receive a copy of her latest book Your No Guilt Pregnancy Plan to review.


I have spend a long time reading this book. My copy is full of margin notes and post its marking important and interesting points. There are so many, I just can't share them all with you, but here are some of the features that I feel make this book stand out.

The tone of this book is rather unique. It's like having a supportive, caring, knowledgeable Doula walk you through your journey. Rebecca has the softest, calmest way of speaking, and I can hear it coming through in her writing. All the facts you  might need to know about birth, pregnancy, and early parenting, are presented clearly, but in addition to the discussion of your physical health and the choices you might have to make about your care, there are sections on subjects that you might never have considered in this context. When addressing each stage of your journey as a parent, this book prompts you to think about your mental health, your career, your relationships with those around you, and your personal identity. In an age when mothers are struggling to maintain their careers and increasingly suffering from mental health challenges, these additions to your preparation are crucial, but so often neglected. Rebecca is unafraid to tackle these difficult issues, and provides plenty of additional resources for those who need them through her website and links to other helpful organisations. These are helpfully placed within the book where discussion of the relevant topic takes place, rather than collected in an appendix, where they might not be read. There is a lot of outside input in the book, both in terms of the real life experiences of parents, and specific input from professionals such as psychologists.

The subtitle of this book describes it as a "revolutionary guide," and I really agree with that. It has all of the basic biological facts, but so much more. This book truly sees women as whole persons, in the way that we might wish society would. If you are prepared to be open to this approach this is a fabulous preparation for parenthood. It is definitely the book for the modern liberal, and the beautiful product of feminist progress.

I'd love to hear what you think of this book, do drop me a line!

Elizabeth

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Why Home Birth Matters

I am a big fan of the Why It Matters series of detailed and concise guides to pregnancy, birth, and early parenting subjects, so I was quite excited to get my hands on the latest volume: Why Home Birth Matters, by Natalie Meddings.


I have given birth in hospital once and at home twice, and many of my friends and family have also given birth at home. Having been exposed first hand to a range of experiences, I was very interested to see what Natalie had chosen to include in her book. Birth is such an emotive subject, and home birth arguments often become polarised between those who only see the risks and those who refuse to see the risks. What I found was a delightful and realistic guide to home birth. As well as going through the practicalities and advantages of birthing at home (mostly focused on the set up in the UK), Natalie discusses why a home birth might not be appropriate for all mothers and babies, and why a home birth might become a hospital birth. Discussing how these transfers are not usually the life-and-death emergencies man suppose them to be gives a clearer idea of how home birth works: we are so lucky in this country to have access to very highly skilled midwives, who are able to observe that things may not be following the best course early on, long before an emergency occurs, and preventing it. Natalie reminds us that midwives have the same monitoring and resuscitation equipment at a home birth that they have in hospital. By going through the physiological processes of birth, Natalie highlights how "terrifying television portrayals...have about as much to do with real birth as porn does with real sex." I love this! But because most of us are only exposed to those media portrayals, many mothers may find that they are immediately criticised for considering a home birth. This book arms expectant parents with the facts that they will need to address any concerns from people they care about (top tip: if you don't care about a person, don't be bothered by their opinion on your birth. It's presumptuous of them to offer one). Natalie also shows beautifully how the processes of birth are supported in the home environment in a way they cannot be in a hospital, and how birthing at home stacks the odds of an intervention-free birth in the birthing parent's favour.

Bob and I on the sofa, seconds after his birth

There is only one thing in this book which caused me to hesitate. Natalie describes labour beautifully, abandoning the language of "stages" in favour of describing the process as a series of rooms the birthing person passes through. She describes the build up to labour as a time when you can still return to normal and speak between contractions, and labour as the time when you enter yourself and can no longer do this. This was not my experience, so I asked around, and found that it was not the case for many of my friends either. In fact, we hear time and time again of mothers being disbelieved when they tell their carers that they are in labour and close to birth, because they can still converse. I think this is something that i highly subjective, and should be applied with extreme caution.

Sausages and Bob coming down in the morning to find Baby 3 had arrived while they slept

I think this book will be very helpful for expectant parents considering their place of birth to make informed decisions, and to withstand pressure from others to capitulate and go to a hospital, where as Natalie points out, their chances of a physiologically normal birth are greatly reduced. Home birth is not the best option for every family, but it is a safe and enjoyable experience for many, and I hope this book will help them to see that!

Hospital was the best place to birth my premature baby

If you would like to learn more on this subject, I highly recommend Tell Me A Good Birth Story, your local Positive Birth Movement group, and Becky Reed's account of her work with the Albany group, Birth in Focus.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

A Midwife's Story

Last year I had a wee hunger to hear about different birth cultures around the world. I think it was fuelled by Sheila Kitzinger's accounts in her autobiography of the different birth cultures she encountered around the world. I read quite a few things that took me to various different parts of the world, including this little gem:


A Midwife's Story, by Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman. I notice that it has recently been republished, so I thought I would share it with you. If you are interested in birth or the lives of women then this is a book for you. It is a beautiful, moving account of the lives not only of the midwife, but of the women of the Amish community which she served. Told with humour and without criticism, these stories give insight into the joys and challenges faced by Amish women giving birth. The writing style is easy to read, and I'd chose it over an airport paperback any day. If you enjoy Call the Midwife you'll love this one too.


I'm looking forward to reading A Wise Birth by the same authors. I hope some of you enjoy this book too! It really is a delight!

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Review: Trust Your Body Trust Your Baby

I was asked to review this book recently, and it's been a lovely read: Trust Your Body Trust Your Baby, by Rosie Newman. This book contains a broad span of parenting, including pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, safe sleep, toileting, and attachment. Because it is a small book, and the range of topics is large, there is plenty of opportunity to follow up Rosie's copious references and look deeper into any particular topic. I would say that the subject is similar to Mayim Bialik's Beyond the Sling, but perhaps more accessible to those who find that work too "hippy." Trust your body is a holistic discussion, encouraging parents to listen to their instincts and to their baby, and to follow these two to find their own parenting style. In this respect it offers a healthy alternative to the artificially regimented baby books that have become so popular in the mainstream, written by people who have never had children of their own, and seem to have no knowledge at all of the beautiful dance that takes place between a parent and their baby.


This book is very well researched, and most of it is reinforced with reference to scientific evidence supporting a more instinctive parenting style. Because of this the reader is easily able to look up the author's references and cover a subject in more detail. For me, however, this was a bit off-putting: in many cases the author simply includes large passages of direct quotation from other books which I have already read, such as Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth, and Ruth Kamnitzer's account of raising her son in Mongolia. Because of this I would not recommend this book for people who have already read around this area, but as a good gentle introduction to those new to the subjects. The tone is kind and informative, and contains such beautiful insights into the author's own parenting journey. Definitely a good read for expectant parents looking for something to help them form their own ideas about how they would like to shape their journey in parenthood.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Birth of Homo, the Marine Chimpanzee

I recently read the latest work by the French obstetrician Michel Odent, famous for popularising the use of water in childbirth in the UK.


This is a very complicated work, and I am not ashamed to say that some of it is beyond my level of understanding, as a person without a background in biology.

In this book Odent puts forward his contribution to the hypothesis that homo sapiens in descended from an aquatic ape. Further to the established features such as our hairlessness, fat layer under the skin, the height of our larynx etc, Odent explores more unusual features such as the fact that we share menopause with certain species of cetacean; that we have a layer of vernix at birth in common with seals; and our crucial need for nutrients such as iodine and omega three, that come readily from seafood. He also points to the fact that newborn humans can swim automatically if placed in water, and the relaxing effect of water, both through sight and touch, on our minds and bodies.

As well as discussing this theory about how homo sapiens have evolved to be the way they are, Odent points to our own time as a turning point in human evolution. We know that there are many events surrounding birth that can result in changes in our epigenetics, that are then passed down to future generations. The study of the microbial nature of birth has become very fashionable, and has been shown to affect our health for the rest of our lives. While many who are concerned with the birth microbiota focus on the difference between vaginal and caesarean birth, Odent states that we should be more concerned about the difference between home and out of home (hospital, birth centre) birth. He illustrates this fundamental separation by pointing to the fact that the human placenta transfers vast quantites of maternal antibodies to the foetus as the pregnancy approaches term, such that at 38 weeks gestation the concentrations are the same between mother and foetus, and the foetal levels continue to rise, meaning that a baby born at term has higher concentrations of maternal antibodies than the mother herself. This means that the immune system of the baby is already prepared to deal with the microbiome with which the mother's immune system is familiar: crucially that of the home,a and not the hospital. Odent also wishes us to focus on the differences resulting from in-labour and pre-labour birth, again rather than between vaginal and caesarean birth. It is thought currently that labour is triggered by the production of surfectants in the baby's lungs. This is a feature of the baby's development, and so labour starts when the baby is developmentally ready to be born. We know that babies born by pre-labour caesareans are at greater risk of various health problems. babies born by pre-labour caesarean go through a very different hormonal experience, and there are repercussions of this for the development of their brain and hormonal system. There are also repercussions for the mother, who is more likely to experience placenta praevia in future pregnancies, and who has experienced an altered operation of her own hormonal system.

This is a richly detailed and referenced book, and I am keen to find out what more knowledgeable experts than I have to say about it! Odent's perspective on our time as a turning point in our own evolution is both fascinating and terrifying. I look forward to seeing what he produces next!