The problematic message targeting new parents

A disturbing study, published last month in The BMJ, found few (less than 30 per cent) infant formula products had any evidence to support the health claims they made. Ninety per cent of those that did were industry-funded.

A separate paper also published last month, in The Lancet, accused the multibillion-dollar formula industry of preying on parents’ worries about their child’s health and development and misleading them into thinking that formula is superior to breast milk.

There is an industry that pathologises normal baby behaviour.Credit:Getty

The authors added that normal behaviour like fussiness, crying or sleep troubles are being pathologised by the industry.

Some women choose not to breastfeed, or are unable to. But there is a big problem when parents are making decisions based on false information and natural parts of the parenting ride are made out to be problematic.

The experience of childbirth and having a newborn is arguably one of the most transformative life experiences there is. It is often as messy emotionally as it is in bodily fluids.

In that mess, we inevitably change as humans and, with any luck, grow into better parents and better people.

Yet, there is an economy to smooth out all the lumps and bumps of new parenting. And there is a tacit message, created by this economy, that we aren’t meant to skip a beat when we become parents (which about 85 per cent of women will) and that we ought to behave and appear as though nothing has changed.

To keep our lives a change-free, discomfort-free zone, we are sold formula, breast pumps, “bounce back your body” programs, infant sleeping programs; dummies; and beds that mechanically rock a baby to sleep, so we don’t have to.

Some of these products can make life easier, give us choice and, for some, are essential. None of this is to be discounted. But, they can also make us feel like something is wrong with us when becoming a parent is not a smooth operation – it never is – or when we are not immediately socialising, exercising, working or living as we once did.

There is a product to solve every problem as though becoming a parent is a problem to be solved.

We try to control the uncontrollable, yet change is inevitable. “We kind of think: ‘I’ll have a baby and I’ll carry on. I won’t change’,” says neuroscientist, mum of two sons and author of Baby Brain, Dr Sarah McKay. “But our brain has changed, our body has changed, everything about us has changed.”

In fact, McKay explains, during the latter part of pregnancy and after new parenthood, the brain is in an “exquisite phase of plasticity” that makes it sensitive to learning.

Lots of different brain networks change and start to respond differently including the default mode network, which relates to our sense of self and our place in the world, she says.

Jen Dugard

“Your sense of self does change. I think if we understand that, it normalises that loss of self. It’s a process, not a going back to who you were, but moving towards who you are now.”

Pregnancy hormones can also make us hyper-vigilant, which can manifest in feeling anxiety or sensitivity, but also prepare us to learn about our baby’s cues.

Brain volume loss also occurs, which sounds scary McKay says, but is just the brain streamlining its function mostly relating to empathy and reading the signals of others.

The good news, she says, is these changes prime us for parenthood and a different phase of life. They also settle down meaning those more uncomfortable feelings don’t last. It also means we are typically more relaxed if we have another child.

When Jen Dugard became a mum for the first time 14 years ago, she was determined that she could keep the status quo of her body and her life.

“I was on a mission to ‘get my body back’. I wanted to have it all, and I wanted to appear that I could do all of the things that I was doing pre-babies after I became a mum,” says the 41-year-old.

This worked “pretty well” – if you don’t count the body image issues and wrapping her self-worth up in the size of her body – she says, until the birth of her second child two years later when she experienced post-natal depression.

“My perspective began to shift, but it has taken a long time for me to truly understand the pressure I put on myself and to be able to clearly see the pressure so many other new mums put on themselves,” says Dugard, who is a pre- and post-natal exercise expert and who says she is on a mission to remove “get your pre-baby body back” from the new parent discourse.

Instead, she encourages women to listen to their bodies and learn about the internal changes, so they can rebuild strength safely.

Genevieve Muir, an obstetrics social worker and parenting educator who runs online and in-person courses, suspects parents are more “sellable” because they are navigating a different world: one with more pressures and influences but less support.

“They’re not parenting in the world our parents parented in,” says the mother of four boys. “We were never meant to parent without the village and yet that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Genevieve Muir with her sons.Credit:Tess Donohue Photography

It is as important as ever, then, to allow ourselves time to adjust and to learn to be parents.

Muir says that part of her courses involve educating new parents about the importance of the fourth trimester (the 12 weeks after birth) and of proactively planning self-care (which might be as simple as a shower to start and, later, exercise or a night out with friends). The three key things a baby needs in the first year, she says, are connection, welcoming their feelings, and talking to them.

“Hearing that can help parents realise they don’t need an answer, they don’t need a solution.”

”Babies are meant to cry, and it’s really healthy,” she says, noting that we are wired to feel distressed by the sound, so it is natural to find it uncomfortable.

She adds that, in many ways, newborns aren’t ready to be out in the world, which is why patting (mimicking the heartbeat) and shushing (the sound of the blood run through your organs) can soothe them: “We’re essentially making the transition from the womb to the room more smooth.”

It doesn’t mean suffering without support – Muir encourages any parent who is worried, not sleeping when their child sleeps or not eating to seek help – and we all need moments of relief from the inferno of new parenthood.

But, understanding why it can be so hard and the parts that are completely normal can help arm us against damaging messages that we ought to sanitise the experience or try and rush back to the lives we had before. Perhaps then we might just take the pressure off ourselves and reset our expectations.

It might help us realise, as Muir says: “I don’t need a product to try and solve it, I can just accept it.”

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