'All your baby needs is you': back to basics for new parents

New ‘back to basics’ HSE booklets aim to empower and reassure new parents

Lisa Dunne, from Swords, in Dublin, and her eight-day-old baby Sadie, with Fiona Pyne, public health nurse, receives the HSE book, ‘Caring for your Baby’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Lisa Dunne, from Swords, in Dublin, and her eight-day-old baby Sadie, with Fiona Pyne, public health nurse, receives the HSE book, ‘Caring for your Baby’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


We humans in the “First World” love to overcomplicate life with layer upon layer of choice – in how we live, what we buy, what we eat and what we wear – and then fret about whether we are making the right decisions.

There is always somebody ready to capitalise on our insecurity with a product, a service, an “experience”; none more so than in the lucrative baby and parenting industry.

But in an age of product proliferation and information overload, there’s a lot to be said for getting back to basics as far as babies are concerned. In the majority of cases, their needs are quite simple: food, warmth and love.

It’s parents who tend to complicate matters, especially when outside pressures detract from the job in hand. It doesn’t help that high-achievers and celebrity mothers are put on a pedestal for speedily reverting to business as usual post-baby: at work, in social networking, fitness and fashion.

It’s who can get there quickest and slimmest, agrees clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune.

“Back in your size 10 skinnies by the time your baby goes to creche . . . That is not in the baby’s interest but is driven by something entirely different.”

Important message

She believes “back to basics” is a really important message to promote to parents. “Rather than all the latest gadgets and gizmos, an app for this and an app for that, all your baby needs is you.”

Parents can get “absolutely addled” by the huge pressure from what is a profitable industry, she points out, “but really hands-on parenting and eye contact and very rhythmic movements [are what] babies need and that is done with your physical self”: holding, rocking and singing.

“You can literally not spoil a newborn baby,” says Fortune, who is director of Solamh, the parent-child relationship clinic. The “don’t respond” approach advocated by some is a real bugbear of hers.

“The absolute opposite is what I am talking about. Touch them and hold them and respond to them as much as you can to reduce any stress and cortisone levels. If you can do that in the first year of life, you’ve got a baby who is less likely to develop stress reactions later on.”

All the research into attachment shows that babies are born neurologically wired to attach primarily, and in the first instance, to their mothers but then to other attachment figures. However, while attachment is the buzzword, that is often the end of the process, she explains.

“The first stage is getting there and that is around bonding and attunement; they happen from the very first stages with both parents.

“Parents really learn to attune to their babies’ signs and cues: that is much more important to brain development than any structured learning activity or stimulus toy,” she explains. “You can do that only by spending time with them and learning, ‘that’s a hungry cry’, ‘that’s a dirty nappy cry’, ‘that’s a tired cry’ . . .”

While crawling and standing are often regarded as the first big milestones, she says the first milestone for any baby is learning to trust.

“That is the aim and task of the first year of life. If babies learn to trust during that period, their brains are wired to trust throughout life after that.”

This trust develops when a baby can count on their needs being met in a consistent and predictable way, and they know that a parent is emotionally available and has soothing routines.

“You don’t need anything other than yourself to achieve that,” she adds, “and that is going to get you from zero to 12 months.”

The early weeks and months are a crucial time for the bond between the baby and parents to develop, ideally in a very relaxed environment, says Dr Phil Jennings, director of public health and the child health lead in the Health and Wellbeing division of the Health Service Executive (HSE).

Enjoying physical and emotional contact with the child is so important, which in turn will make the child feel more secure and so is likely to sleep and feed better.

There is plenty of time to get back to “normal” life, she says; “These are such precious moments in the early years” not only for parents but for the baby.

“Evidence shows that the most important time in a child’s life is the early years so we really want to get that message out to parents, and the services, that the role they are playing is really important. Any help we can give to parents to help them on that journey will pay dividends into the future.”

Parenting manuals

One such aid is a new set of attractive, free parenting manuals, the first of which, Caring for Your Baby – Birth to Six Months, public health nurses (PHNs) will bring on their first post-birth visit to a baby’s home, which is usually within 48 hours of discharge from hospital. The booklets are updated, more user-friendly versions of previous ones and are available online for the first time as well.

Parents consulted in the planning of these publications said they wanted common-sense information and tips about general care, growth and development; advice about what to do if their child has a problem; and details of who to contact for more help and support.

“Because we have information overload and so many sources, parents are confused about what is the right thing,” says Jennings. “It is very reassuring for parents of young children to be able to access information that they know is approved by the HSE.”

The approach is to go “back to the basics and to empower parents”, she says. “We live in a society where there has to be an expert in everything, yet parents are the experts: parents know their child.”

All three booklets in the series – the second deals from six months to two years and the third from two to five years – open with a chapter about taking care of yourself as a parent.

“That is absolutely key,” says Jennings. “We know that stress can spread to the child and have a totally negative impact on development.

“Baby years are so short and they fly by so fast, you would want every parent to enjoy them,” she adds. “This is our package to them to help them enjoy the experience more.”

PHNs are “delighted” with the booklets, says Vivienne Goodwin, a public health nurse manager in north Dublin.

“Some of the stuff in them would seem quite basic but, for a new mother who may not have family support around her, who may not have experience with children, I think it is excellent. Even if you do, sometimes you forget and have to be reassured.”

On the first home visit that every mother gets, PHNs have so much to discuss, she says. “The parents are reeling with this new baby arriving and there are visitors coming in on top of them, so sometimes the information we give goes in one ear and out the other.” But this booklet of “really good snippets of good tips” can be consulted afterwards.

“It’s basic information and it’s from the health professionals rather than just trawling the internet,” says Goodwin, who also welcomes that they are accessible online, on an HSE-based site, “rather than being sponsored by somebody who is getting you to buy their product”.

Eye contact

The one thing that Fortune wants to encourage technology-using parents to stop doing is looking at their babies through the lens of a phone or a camera and actually make eye contact.

“So many of our kids are growing up only seeing themselves reflected through a lens,” she laments. Yet eye contact is so important through that early stage of “codependency” when babies don’t yet know they are separate beings to their mothers.

“When they’re in the nook of the arm and they look up and their mum looks at them with what we hope is love, they don’t see Mum; they see themselves reflected back. They gradually learn that ‘you look at me that way because I am lovable and when I begin to separate out I will seek other people who will look at me in the same way and reinforce that’.”

Fortune says she can’t believe people are taking and posting videos of their babies on the internet. “Be in the moment with them,” she urges. It is in these “moments of meeting” with parents that babies really grow and develop.

See hse.ie/caringforyourbaby

Pearls of wisdom

Parents share advice or observations about parenting that has stuck with them

Aisling O’Meara, mother of a four-year-old girl and two-year-old boy, and coordinator of the Dublin North West branch of Cuidiú, the parent-to-parent support group

“Having one is like having a pet monkey, having two is like owning the entire zoo” – our friend Pat, already a father of two, on hearing I was pregnant with our second child. “The days are long, but the years are short” – a second piece of parenting wisdom that has been borne home since my eldest started Junior Infants this month.

Ciara O’Toole, lecturer in speech and language therapy at UCC, and mother of a three-year-old girl and a 20-month-old boy

“Visitors after 2pm” – when you have a newborn. That way if you have a bad night you can have some sleep and there might be some possibility of you being dressed, or even showered, by the time people call.

“Don’t expect to achieve very much in the early days but try to get out of the house even once a day for 10 minutes”: you do feel a bit more human. And “to put a mirror by the front door” so you can quickly check if you are actually dressed or if you have some baby spit all over you!

“It is just a phase” really helped me get through some difficult times, and it is true. Sometimes you wonder if they will ever stop waking at night/ refusing fruit/ wetting the bed, or whatever, and they eventually do.

With my professional hat on . . . the advice to read/share a book every day from when they are small babies really does pay off for their speech.

Daniel Oakes, director of Neighbourhood Midwives and father of three boys aged nine, six and three

“Parenting should always happen ‘in relationship’ ” was one of the most valuable nuggets I took away from a parenting course a couple of years ago. Showing empathy and patience is a better way to react to upsetting events such as toddler tantrums, instead of getting caught up in the drama yourself. It helps to calm the situation more quickly and shows a better example to the child (who will be modelling their future behaviour on how you react).

The secret is to parent yourself first, then parenting toddlers is much easier.

The institution of the family meeting is another valuable piece of fathering advice that I took from my own childhood. Every so often, we sit at the table after dinner and take turns holding an old Irish step-dancing trophy of mine. Only the person holding the trophy is allowed to speak. We write the minutes from the meetings in a special book. We have resolved many issues in this way, such as the fair distribution of chores.

Hungarian-born Petronella Burján who runs dublinfox.com, a guide to family-friendly places in the capital, has two sons, aged five and 18 months

“Forget about perfectionism and do not even try to give the maximum in each and every aspect of life when having a new baby, because it is just impossible and your child needs a ‘good enough mum’ instead of a perfect (and maybe secretly slightly neurotic) one”: I think that was the most important piece of advice I got when my first son was born. “Do not try to live up to everyone’s expectations” – if you try to follow all the advice you get from friends or read on the internet, you will soon go crazy. Try to use (or find) your parental instincts and believe in yourself and your baby.

After the first few weeks, try to find like-minded and honest(!) parents and/or friends, because motherhood can be a very lonesome experience otherwise.

Krysia Lynch, chairwoman of the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services Ireland, is mother of three children aged 14, 10 and seven

“Realise that when your child cries or behaves in a way that you find uncomfortable, it’s not because they want to annoy you, it’s because they are trying to communicate something that they may not have words for”: this is one bit of advice I offer from my own experience. Also: “Be prepared to make mistakes. Be prepared to say sorry to your kids, and to forgive yourself, and move on.” Most important of all, “nurture yourself and follow your inner instincts and you will grow with your child.”

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