Waking Up Your Primal Instincts

I’m a bit of a heavy sleeper.  When Hurricane Opal whipped through North Georgia in 1995, felling numerous trees on our property and leaving us penned in for a few days as a result, I woke up late that morning having no idea what had happened until my mother told me.  I’ve slept through a mild earthquake (which is still more major than Georgia is supposed to get), a few tornadoes, and countless intense thunder storms.  I’ve only slept through an alarm a couple of times in my life, but I also set third and fourth redundant alarms to make sure of this.

I was terrified that I would find myself watching Morgan by myself at some point and sleep through her crying – especially since I have tended to sleep through any time she wakes Jen up for a feeding.  This morning, I was given one of the greatest reliefs of my young life as a parent.  Jen had gotten up to use the restroom, and I assume that either Morgan was waking up anyway or the jostling must have woken her (it was not long before I normally get up for work).  Morgan made a sound and I woke up out of a dead sleep to check on her.  I was able to get her up and ready for Jen to feed her with no trouble.

It’s such a minor thing, but knowing just how much I am capable of sleeping through, it is a huge relief to know that evolution did not fail me.  Of course we know that there are certain behaviors that have selected over the course of our evolution, and that awareness of one’s children is among the simplest of our animal instincts to have been selected (since, after all, being unaware would typically lead to fewer surviving offspring), but until you’ve had that awareness confirmed, there are always niggling doubts.  It is a huge load off my shoulders to have this doubt removed!

Reflecting on Christmas with a baby

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I hope that everyone had a happy Christmas spent with the people they love most.  We had a very low-key holiday this year, which was absolutely perfect.  There will be plenty of time in years to come for Morgan to have the excitement and wonder we all remember from our own childhoods – this year was all about enjoying the calm and quiet joy of family.

I admit, I’m already looking forward to those years that Morgan will run shouting and laughing into our room as early as her little body can get out of bed, but just fawning on her while enjoying time with family this year was wonderful.

No matter what your beliefs are, I hope that this holiday season has been kind to you and your family, and that the value of your family was always first on your mind this year.

Baby’s First Christmas

All our love to you and yours!

All our love to you and yours!

We had our first Christmas get-together of Morgan’s life last night, getting together with my side of the family.  This was Morgan’s first time meeting her aunt and one of her cousins (my niece), as they were both sick when she was born.  Her uncle and my nephew both came by the hospital the day she was born.

The family gathering went off smooth as butter.  She ate right as we got there and was contentedly asleep for most of the time we were there.  She was just starting to get fussy as we left.

My nephew absolutely melted our hearts with how sweet he was to Morgan.  As my young stepbrother continually tried to get him to leave the family to go play, he would say things like, “But, the baby is here!

Toward the end of the evening, as we were packing Morgan up, a disappointed nephew said that he had hoped to hold her, too.  He had been so sweet all evening, and Jen had said that he could hold her a little earlier in the evening – how could we say no?  Back out of the carrier came Morgan and into her cousin’s arms she went, giving us one of the sweetest holiday pictures ever.

My nephew doting on his beautiful new cousin.

My nephew doting on his beautiful new cousin.

Morgan is a very lucky girl.  She has an extended family that loves her almost as much as Jen and I do.  She may not have any memories of this first Christmas, but I’m proud of the memories that we made and are still making to one day share with her.

Sick days? What are sick days?

Jen has been dealing with a sinus infection all week long.  Yesterday, I gave her a sick day.

The thing about parenting is that, unlike any other full-time job out there, there is no such thing as a vacation day or a sick day.  If one parent is a stay-at-home parent, they are responsible for the child(ren) no matter what.  If the other parent is working, the parent at home has no choice but to take care of everything else.  Yeah, yeah, “No kidding!”  Even if the other parent is at home, a crying child can make it difficult for most parents to rest.  You know, because evolution.

When I started a full-time job that actually obeys the law and gives employees sick leave and vacation days, I found out something that was a little surprising for some reason: taking time off to care for a sick family member other than yourself is not a sick day – it’s a vacation.  Giving Jen the sick day she so desperately needed means taking away from non-sick family time at some point in the next year, but that’s not a problem, just something to consider when we plan our family time next year.

But more to the point of Jen’s sick day: for most of the day, I handled the majority of Morgan’s care.  Jen fed her for most feedings, but I held her, carried her, changed her, etc.  Jen tells me that this really did allow her to rest, and she was feeling better last night than she had in a while.  I even got the Christmas tree put up and finished some housework that one of our helpers had promised to do and never done.

The housework really drove home just how much the parent at home has to do.  In my mind, just taking care of Morgan was more than enough to qualify Jen as the harder-working parent of the two of us, and my 10-1/2 hour workday (counting driving time) still leaves me feeling so tired when I get home that I want nothing to do with things like a sink full of dishes or a house in need of vacuuming, especially when the sink and vacuum are “normal person” height, which leaves my 6’4″ frame with plenty of back pain.  Even with an infant in a sling, a stay-at-home parent has to juggle precariously to do housework while they’re home alone, and if baby wakes up fussy, the housework stops until she can be comforted.  I accomplished what domestic chores I accomplished by letting Jen watch Morgan while I was doing them.

I know it goes without saying, but housework is nearly impossible when a child is first born.  Even ignoring the fact that the mother often has a pretty serious tear/surgery to heal from (which, by the way, you should never ignore), newborns, at least OUR newborn, have this interesting habit of waking up as soon as they are laid down.  While some may stay asleep for a while, it is virtually guaranteed that they will wake up as soon as any real housework is commenced – especially housework involving loud appliances.

I think every dad should have to spend at least one day every year taking care of running the house (including the kids), and they should do it using a list left by their partner detailing everything that has to get done that day.  I have heard all my life of men who think their wives do nothing at home, and I always thought this was an insane notion, perhaps in part because my mom homeschooled me and my brother – her laziest day was as busy as my worst day at work.  It’s a lot harder to think a stay-at-home spouse is shiftless when you actually take over their responsibilities for a day.

Seriously, guys – just because we might spend all day playing games if we were at home doesn’t mean that our partners do.  I’m amazed at the job that Jen does every day, and I’m even more amazed that she’s done it with a nasty sinus infection this week!

The things nobody tells you

Going into parenthood for the first time, Jen and I researched, talked to people, and tried to do everything we could to get ready.  Jen was 10 and 15 when her younger sisters were born, so she thought she had a decent idea what to expect.  All the same, there were simple and apparently common things that totally blindsided us.  We found plenty of information once we started searching, but, strangely enough, it all started with someone saying, “Help, I don’t know what to do!”

Fussy Time:
Of all the things you’d think you might get warned about, this one’s a biggie.  Apparently, at some point between 1-6 months, almost every baby has a fussy time where they cry for no apparent reason for a couple of hours each day.  This is not colic.  It’s not gas.  It’s not hunger.  It MIGHT be fighting sleep.  The first time this happens, you spend hours searching online in worried parent mode, only to find out two things: it’s normal, and experts have no idea what causes it.  Seriously, fussiness with no cause that starts and stops on its own, and nobody thinks to warn the new parents?  We heard plenty of glowing comments about how we would soon be able to understand Morgan’s every cry, but never a mention that there’s one cry that just means, “Nope, nothing you can do about it, I’m just gonna cry.”

Clusterfeeding:
Oh dear god, clusterfeeding!  Neither Jen nor I had ever heard of clusterfeeding before Morgan started doing it.  It often coincides with “fussy time,” and it is absolute hell on the mother while it happens, because the baby is essentially grumpily snacking almost constantly for anywhere from several hours to the entire day.  Even in non-fussy babies, clusterfeeding is very common during growth spurts.  To give you an idea of how rough this is, I’ve also heard it called “Little Devil Syndrome.”  If a mom doesn’t know it’s coming, it can be devastating to her confidence.  Even if she does know it’s coming, the first thought is that she must be doing something wrong or her body must not be producing enough milk.  Nothing is further from the truth, and this is perfectly normal.  It goes away in a few days and things get back to normal, but the stress on mama in the middle of a clusterfeed time is incredible, and it can be terribly frustrating for women who are used to being independent, because clusterfeed days become almost exclusively devoted to feeding and comforting.

The difference between formulae:
You may be planning to breastfeed, and if you are, that’s awesome. If you can feed and pump and do everything that way, by all means, do so.  But you may find you have trouble with your milk supply, or maybe you have trouble producing for a breast pump, so you may find yourself supplementing formula.  Or you may decide not to breast feed at all, in which case you are going to rely solely on formula.  Then you go into the baby formula aisle at the grocery story.  That’s right: formula aisle.  You may have a baby with a stomach of steel who doesn’t care if you buy the cheapest crap in the aisle, or you may have a baby that suffers from reflux or, god forbid, GERD.  The good news is that babies with reflux and GERD get over it.  The bad news is that, until they do, trying to find the right formula is going to feel a lot like something out of The Exorcist.  Similac and other high-end companies make formula specifically designed for spit-up and GERD.  Not surprisingly, it’s a lot more expensive.  A quart of Similac’s alimentum (supposedly the best formula for GERD and reflux) is usually about $3-4 more than a quart of standard formula.  That adds up fast.

The thing is, though, your baby may not need the most expensive formula if they are spitting up badly.  The first thing you should try is simply switching from powdered formula to ready-to-drink formula.  Ready-to-drink is thicker, and that thickness is often enough by itself to fix the problem.  Even if it’s not, get small packs of several types of ready-to-drink formula to test.  Morgan spits up frequently with alimentum, but she handles the cheap Gerber Good Start formula just fine.  

Parenting Advice:
This is a weird one, but Jen and I both noticed that the parenting advice given to us post-partum, especially the written advice, quickly turned from the happy, joking advice we had received leading up to Morgan’s birth to a very dark place.  The pamphlet the hospital sent home with us suggested in all seriousness that, on those days you feel like throwing your baby against the wall, you should lay her down in another room, leave her crying, close the door on her, and retreat a few rooms away so that you can’t hear.  Jen saw similar advice from several more post-partum advice sources.  Besides being somewhat scary that parenting advice has to mention feeling like you want to throw your baby against the wall, it seems like this advice (likely designed to help mothers who are dealing with post-partum depression cope with some of the issues above) goes to an even darker place than a PPD mother already occupies, to say nothing of the fact that this could start parents trying to force their kids to “cry it out” way too early (most research shows that the “cry it out” approach simply teaches a child that her parents do not care about her and will not listen to her – especially when that child is still learning how to differentiate her cries enough to communicate.  Essentially the body of research now thinks that making a baby “cry it out” does not teach them independence, it simply demolishes their spirit).

There are plenty more things that blindsided us, and I’m sure even more will come in the future, but these were some of the big ones that may just help someone else be that much more prepared when their own son or daughter gets here.

Slapstick has nothing on a baby

You have no idea what I'm planning, do you?

You have no idea what I’m planning, do you?

Seriously.  Larry, Curly, and Moe?  Eat your hearts out.  Babies have the greatest sense of comedic timing in the world, and all their jokes are scatalogical.  You hear what sounds like the poop from Elm Street, you SMELL what smells like the poop from the Bog of Eternal Stench, so you go open that bad-boy of a diaper up and what do you see?  Not a thing.  No poop, not even a little pee.  You shake your head and chuckle that she got you so good with that one and then, only as you are preparing to close that clean diaper back up, does the poop come.

And buddy, when your baby poops free of the diaper, she poops!  Out comes a diaper-filling poo, so you pick her legs up and get to work cleaning up that messy movement.  Right as you get her clean, she poops again, only this time, her legs are in the air, so you have to catch the poop or it’s going to run down her back.  Fortunately, you still had a wipe on hand, so you catch the poop in the wipe, set that wipe down in a diaper that is full of wipes and poop, and grab another one.  You get her clean again, and she poops again.  At this point, the diaper is so full that you are imagining what kind of blowout this would have been if she hadn’t already been out of the diaper.  As soon as she stops pooping, you swap a clean diaper underneath her, because Scotty is screaming, “Captain, I’m givin’ it all I’ve got, but she cannae take much more ‘a this!”  You finish cleaning her up, and just as you do, she pees.

You only ever hear pee stories about baby boys, and, yeah, they’ve definitely got more range and aim, but when a baby girl decides to pee while you’re holding her legs up in the air, that pee goes everywhere.  It gets on the changing pad (yeah, that nice cloth pad that keeps her tush warm while she’s being changed); it goes down her back; if her legs are high enough from cleaning all that poop, it may even go up her tummy and get in her belly button, sending you scrambling for alcohol swabs in a blind panic as you worry about the risk of infection to her umbilical nub.

So you strip off her now-soaked onesie, throw that second diaper away, pick her up off the changing pad and yank it off the changing area, replacing it with the not-nearly-as-warm-or-cushy travel pad, lay her back down on a fresh diaper, clean the pee off of her, and then, right as everything is finished and you are about to close up the diaper….  Yep, you guessed it.  She poops.

Morgan has done this to me twice now, and she’s done it to Jen several times, too.  The first time, we were freshly home from the hospital, so the poop had no smell, but had the consistency of chocolate taffy.  The second time was a couple of days ago.  The picture below was taken after the third poop.

Actual picture of the diaper. True story.

Say the breast is best or die like the rest!

One month and one day old.  I wonder if they make Jedi robe towels kind of like that ducky towel?

I’ll admit, the title is a little dramatic, but Jen’s experiences with the heartache of trying to overcome breastfeeding hurdle after breastfeeding hurdle for the past month, coupled with my own experiences with the quality of some of the “advice” you can get online, makes me feel justified.

Let me say this up front: breastfeeding is amazing.  The bonding experience is wonderful; the nutrition is (slightly) better; the fact that your body produces a few antibodies that your child needs is fantastic.  If you can breastfeed, by all means do it.

Let me also say this up front: breastfeeding is hard work.  It removes dad from the all-important feeding aspect of the caregiving equation entirely unless you are pumping and regularly using the pumped milk; it requires a constant commitment or else some talented baby-juggling, because it takes longer to breastfeed and breast milk metabolizes faster, meaning mommy may be stuck unable to get anything done.  “But Tim,” you opine, “shouldn’t mom only be focused on the baby?  Other people can come help with the housework and the cooking.  Mom SHOULD be devoting her full time to the baby.”

Even one month in, that view just seems so naive.  The number of people willing to come help a new mom MIGHT be greater than zero the first week.  It might even be greater than zero the second week, but as time goes by, the number of people willing to come help a new mom rapidly declines until it reaches zero.  Even when people are willing to come help, that’s on their schedule, not yours.  If dad is working, there are 8.5-10 hours (depending on commute) every day where mom is on her own, and there’s only so much that dad can do between when he gets home from work and when it’s time for everyone to go down for the night.  Chances are good that those 8.5-10 hours that dad is gone are the same 8.5-10 hours that the people willing to help are otherwise engaged.  There are also about 4-8 hours every night where a breastfeeding mom is, by default, on her own.  Say what you will about how the breast is best, but I’m willing to bet that moms who bottle feed kind of like being able to roll over at 3 AM and say, “No, honey, it’s your turn.”

That’s a lot to get out of the way up front, eh?  As Jen and I have found out in the past month, breastfeeding is hard, and it is frequently hard for reasons besides the possibly-selfish-sounding reasons above.

When Morgan was born, an overzealous lactation nurse decided she had gone too long between feedings, so she had us try to feed her.  When Morgan resisted and started to fuss, the nurse waited until Morgan opened her mouth to cry and then grabbed the back of her head and shoved her face into Jen’s breast.  That was the last time that Morgan breastfed unassisted for three weeks.  She would scream, thrash, and pull away every time Jen offered her breast.  We had a little bit of luck using a nipple shield to help her latch on, but even with the shield, she would only latch on for a suck or two and then come off to cry.  At first, Jen was able to pump to meet most of Morgan’s feeding needs (she came up a few ml shy at each feeding), but then, about a week after we came home from the hospital, pumping quit working.  She went from producing 40 ml per breast to producing a total of less than 20 ml.  Suddenly, we weren’t making up the difference with formula, we were primarily feeding Morgan formula, and she still would not latch on and take the breast.

Like any concerned dad with a modicum of tech-savvy would, I went digging online.  I found breast-feeding communities online and asked for advice. We received a lot of good advice, although some of it wasn’t quite practical for our purposes (for example: “Have your wife just walk around topless so the baby always has access to her breast!” Thanks to the layout of our house, that would have either meant constantly flashing the neighbors or staying in the bedroom all day long, but the intention behind the idea was good).  We received a lot of support and concern with this first issue, but we also received some very bad advice.  Specifically, we had people telling us that, if we were really serious about breastfeeding, we would stop offering Morgan a bottle right away and only give her the breast.  I’ll get back to this piece of horrendous advice in a moment.

After about 2 weeks, Morgan started latching better, but only with the nipple shield, and she was always hungry after she “finished” with the breast (still rooting and crying), so back to the internet I went to praise her progress and ask for help making more progress.  As before, there was a fair amount of support and good advice, but the bad advice really came out this time around.  I had people telling me that I was messing up my daughter’s ability to breastfeed by trying to figure out whether or not she was full (to the point that I was even told that the only reason she wouldn’t breastfeed was because of my “misplaced anxiety” over whether she was getting enough), and I was told that we were too reliant on the nipple shield, so we needed to just throw it away, because if Morgan could latch WITH it, then obviously she could latch without it.  I was told the only reason Morgan wasn’t happily latching without the shield was that we offered the shield too much; I was told that Jen must just be holding her wrong, and that if she would just go to a La Leche League meeting and have other mothers show her how it’s done, that would fix everything, because our problems were probably just coming from not understanding the “mechanics” of breastfeeding.

Out of all the replies I received to my concerns that second time around, the only sound piece of advice was to be patient and keep offering her the breast without the nipple shield.

And that’s the only piece of advice I heeded.  That’s the only piece of advice I even passed on to Jen.  The rest I ignored as obstinately as I’ve ever ignored anything in my life, because it was, quite simply, ignorant crap given from a (well-meaning or not) stance of ignorance.

Among the breastfeeding community, there is this idea that if you CAN breastfeed but don’t, you must be a horrible parent.  Maybe it’s the husband’s fault for overthinking things, or maybe it’s the mother’s fault for not being willing to be a glorified milk carton 24/7, but clearly, something is wrong with you.  The community is very sympathetic when someone CAN’T breastfeed, whether because there is no milk supply or because of insurmountable issues, but even there you occasionally see the community ganging up on the wrong people.  I saw a post from a mother whose infant had been classed as “failure to thrive.”  Her pediatrician wanted her to start supplementing with a little formula, and she was looking for advice because she didn’t want to feed her baby formula and he was “only a little” below where he should be.  Almost to a person, every single reply told her to find a new pediatrician because hers obviously had no idea what he was talking about.

So with this in mind, I wanted to actually address some of the advice I received and explain why it was so horribly bad.

Stop offering your baby a bottle right now and only give her the breast: 
At the time we received this advice, Morgan literally would not take the breast (with nipple shield) for more than 60 seconds at a time.  I think Jen may have gotten her to stay latched for 5 minutes once.  Jen could sit there with her for an hour and she would cycle through sucking, thrashing, and screaming the entire time.  Or, we could get a bottle ready, feed her, burp her, and have a mostly content baby (she gets gassy sometimes).

Babies cry.  It is known.  There is a difference, however, between crying and screaming. Morgan screamed when we tried to breastfeed those first few weeks.  It’s all well and good for someone who has never had a serious problem breastfeeding to say, “just stop giving your baby a bottle right now,” but they aren’t the ones who have to have that dagger plunged into their hearts over and over again for hours on end when the baby won’t stop screaming because she’s hungry and, for whatever reason, won’t take the breast.  If we had taken this advice, would Morgan eventually have taken the breast?  I’m sure she would have.  Eventually, if there’s only one option, anyone will take it, but it would have required starving her and traumatizing her to make it happen, and it would have made every single feeding a battle.  We weren’t willing to do that.  It was breaking Jen’s heart every time Morgan screamed at her breast.  I would have had to have been some kind of monster to say, “Well, you’ll just have to deal with that until she gives in and takes your breast.  I’ll be off at work while you listen to her scream all day.”

Don’t overthink things! The only indicators you should use to see if your child is getting enough milk are the number of wet/dirty diapers per day and whether she’s gaining 3 ounces per week:

That second sentence is the rest of what people said when they told me that my over-analyzing was messing up Morgan’s ability to breastfeed.  Now, I do realize that bottle-feeding can provide a greater sense of fullness than breastfeeding, but there is a difference between a cry that says, “Hey, I’m not quite full yet,” and rooting that turns into crying that turns into screaming because your baby is still hungry but won’t suckle anymore at the breast.

There’s a great indicator as to whether or not your baby is done eating: when they’re done, they don’t scream at the fact that they’re not getting more milk.  As a corollary to that, there’s a great indicator that you are overfeeding your child: projectile vomit.  The first time she suckled for a long time at the breast and still wanted more, I gave her too much “extra” formula.  She vomited almost as soon as I pulled the bottle away the last time.  After that, I was more careful, and only fed her until she was content.  One Linda Blair moment was enough for daddy to learn his lesson, believe me!

You’re too reliant on the nipple shield/you offer it too much.  If your baby can latch with it, she can latch without it:
How can you tell you’re receiving advice from someone who has no idea what you’re going through?  They speak in absolutes.  “Throw it away.”  “If she can do X, she can do Y.”  If we had thrown away the nipple shield, Morgan would have been exclusively bottle-fed in less than a week.  Any mother giving advice should know that it’s never a question of if a baby can do something.  Of course a baby can latch.  It’s an evolutionary instinct, for crying out loud!  If a baby won’t do it, however, you can’t force them to.  We kept offering Morgan the bare breast first and the shield second, and just a few days after receiving this horrible advice, she started latching on to the breast.  Now she only needs the nipple shield if she’s tired or cranky, and we only supplement her with bottles when I’m giving Jen a break.  Patience and perseverance did the trick.  This advice would have destroyed any chance we had at breastfeeding.

You’re holding her wrong.  Get another mother to show you how it’s done so you can “learn the mechanics”:
This was one of the most innocent bits of bad advice we received, but that doesn’t make it any less bad.  We were shown how to do things at the hospital, and we were shown several variations.  Jen had the mechanics down pat.  That didn’t change the fact that Morgan hated doing things “the right way.”  It took a lot of time and patience for us to find a way that worked for us, and it didn’t look very much like “the mechanics” at first.  If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, changing the way you hold your child is not likely to be a magic bullet.  No, it takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes sitting up near tears yourself as your child screams.  When you find the “right” position, there’s every chance that it won’t be very similar at all to what you were shown in the hospital.  As Strongbad says, “Everyone is different.”

This first month has been an amazing experience, and Jen and I are learning new things each and every day, but the biggest thing we’ve learned is that there will never again be such a thing as “normal,” nor is there any one “right way” to raise Morgan.  What works for someone else may not work for us.  What works for us may not work for other people.  As we progress, we are learning to trust our instincts and to trust Morgan.  Even if she can’t talk, she can tell us what she needs better than I would have imagined.  Jen can understand her better than I can, but I can still figure out ways to calm her and care for her far better than I could a month ago.

And that’s my advice to other new parents about breastfeeding and about raising your own geekling in general: listen to the advice, sort the wheat from the chaff, and then trust your instincts.  Evolution has given you an amazing set of instincts and tools when it comes to taking care of your child, and you should trust your instincts.  You are the only person who is with your child as much as you are.  You are the only person who sees your child as much as you do.  You know what to do much better than you may think you do.