I thank you in advance for your patience as I am about to put some pieces of my recent experiences together and share some thoughts I have for new moms and the professionals that serve them. I recently read some research on texting and driving that immediately made me flash to the reactions when I asked a group of new moms what it looks like when they are nursing or feeding their babies. Almost all of them mimicked holding the baby in one hand and frantic thumb movements on an imaginary phone in the other. That image has stuck with me over the past week as I try to sort out the buzzing in my head about these two seemingly different vignettes—driving and breastfeeding. Somewhere under the day-to-day of caring for moms and babies in the midwifery practice I have been putting the pieces together.
I met this week with a woman who has been working with moms and babies for a couple decades longer than I have—she is a lovely source of compassion, strength, and wisdom. As I was listening to her talk I realized why these two images were connecting for me. She was talking about how mothers and babies now have a third party in their relationship—technology. This is not new news. It’s just that there tends to be a pretty rigid opinion from many professionals that moms who allow the third party to enter are neglecting the needs of the primary relationship between mother and baby. I’ve never been one to judge from a super rigid stance, and have spent countless hours introducing the world of babies to mothers who have a hard time finding a balance. I’ve never told anyone to turn off the computer or the phone permanently—in today’s world, and the woman I was talking with was saying just this, we have to know that this is just how it is. And then we have to work with it. It’s terrifically difficult for a woman who has spent her adult life in the work force tracking progress and time-to-target goals, explaining her work to others through the use of spread sheets, presentations, and lectures with sources cited, graphs and charts to not bring that into her new life as a mother.
It is not unusual to show up for a postpartum visit and be handed a notebook full of information about a baby from a mother who is very skilled at tracking and recording. It’s easy to look at this and point out everything wrong in this approach. But guess what? This mother is just bringing what has worked for her really well in the past forward with her into this new relationship. And that’s why we are here—midwives, doulas, postpartum help, support group leaders—all of us. We are here to allow her to shine *and* to introduce different ways to be with baby. It is an un-plugging that is as much a learned, and learn-able skill, as how to use Excel. But we know that a mother who has learned to do everything she has to be successful in the workplace, can learn everything she needs to know to be successful with her baby. It can be hard, and confusing, and there’s no ?Help? button in the upper left corner of the baby. But she will find her way, and it will be her own way, and it will not always look like some of the pundits think it should. There’s no one prescription that works for everyone. It really helps to sit with other mothers and hear their stories, and it really helps to have a professional in the room who does little more than nod and affirm a mother’s experience of her baby and her new life. And hopefully she finds what works for her and her baby, and hopefully she is surrounded by people who celebrate and have awareness of just how enormous an accomplishment that is.
Now back to the frantic thumbs and feeding the baby. Here’s what new research is showing—that as we humans text a few interesting things happen. Our breathing becomes rapid, shallow, or non-existent (we hold our breaths until we must breathe). Our pulse increases. Our temperature goes up. Sound familiar? Many of us will recognize the physical symptoms of “fight or flight”, or the human body in the sympathetic state. To be super basic about it, there is a massive release of several hormones in our body that prepare us to act to save ourselves. And it’s contagious. We share our hormonal responses, breathing and heart rate with others who are near us. You see where I am heading…in all of the research and work I have done with kangaroo care with preterm babies and skin-to-skin with healthy babies, science and observation have taught us that this principle holds true. A mother will help regulate her baby’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing just by being close to him. One of my favorite moments in my professional life was the first time I placed a pulse-oxymeter on a newborn and took him out of the incubator and put him on his mother’s bare chest, then wrapped them up together in a sheet. I got to watch as the little machine confirmed what so many others had discovered before. The system works. Moms work. Babies work. Moms and babies work really well when they are together. It was thrilling.
By this point it is clear that the connection I am making between texting and breastfeeding and driving is all about the physiological consequences of both. We all know that if we are catching up on facebook we are not eye-gazing with our babies or talking to them, which is important emotional tending-to that babies need. And now we know there is something just as powerful happening in the mechanics of our bodies when we use feeding time to get things done online. But as any mother in the first year of mothering will pointedly tell you—there’s not very much time other than those times to catch up. And socializing—even social media socializing—is critically important to many mothers so that they can maintain a sense of connection with people who speak in full sentences. This is the world we live in. Do many of us wish it wasn’t so? Yes. Do many of us wish mothers had the time and resources to unplug totally and just *be* with their babies? Of course we do. But we have what we have. The real question is how to work with it—how to create a balance that works for mom, baby, and the mother/baby relationship. So here’s my simple proposal. If you’re a mom and you’re catching up while you are feeding your baby, take intentional, slow, deep belly breaths while you do it. Keep yourself out of “fight or flight”, and in the state so appropriately dubbed “feed and breed” or “rest and digest”. Your body can actually only be in one or the other at any given time. Simple deep breathing will keep your heart rate and temperature down, and your baby will reap the benefits of your biologically soothing presence. If your baby is awake for the feeding, take a chunk of the time—maybe it’s even 3 or 5 minutes, to eye gaze, to talk gently, to tell your baby the story of your day so far, or a funny story from your childhood. Then take a deep breath, tell your baby you are going to catch up on some work or social stuff while she continues to nourish herself and then hit the facebook, email, or spread sheets (while continuing to breathe well). Babies are really understanding people. And just like everyone, they do best when we communicate with them and help them make sense of their stories.
If you are a professional—just teach the mothers you work with, in prenatal visits, private sessions, groups, or classes, this simple lesson: that humans breathe too fast and shallow, and that our temperatures, pulses, and breathing rates rise when we are texting or using technology while trying to do something else that shifts frequently and requires a lot of attention. Teach them to intentionally take slow cleansing breaths while nursing. Talk about taking some of the time while nursing to tend to their emotional health and connection with each other. Tell them it is not about right or wrong, this way or that way, my way or the highway. It is about balance. Finding the right balance for them, their family, their baby, and their relationship with those they love. And oh, of course, no texting while driving, please.
And as a ps, if you are a mom or dad interested in (or struggling with) finding balance and transitioning into life with baby, and would like to spend some time in the presence of this incredible woman I was conversing with, just check out Buela’s website. She does home visits and will be at Essential Birth & Family Center once a month providing low-cost CranioSacral therapy for local families.