Do we understand our baby?
In this series of articles (‘Do we understand our child?’) Diana Radeva, child and adolescent psychotherapist sets out to consider the emotional life of children from birth onwards; and how relationships between children and parents evolve over time. It is a view of human growth, which recognises the importance of strong feelings experienced at each stage of development; thus offering ways that parents might find helpful when wanting to better understand their children’s growth.
This is the extraordinary story of the ‘ordinary development’ as seen and experienced by a parent and a child psychotherapist.
The first year of life is such a key time. Adults know that babies need the physical essentials of warmth, food and good care. But more and more we are starting to see that babies do not just need that. They have an intense emotional life and can only grow in mutual relationship with their parents. As parents, we are deeply affected by our babies’ strong feelings, sometimes filled with pleasure and delight, and sometimes frightened or anxious.
A baby has a powerful need to be understood. At times we will find that task easy. But it is inevitable at other times to feel that is has gone wrong. Like any other relationship, relationships between parents and babies cannot just be easy and straightforward. Recovering from the difficulties and misunderstanding is an essential part of getting to know and love each other.
Perhaps we all enter parenthood filled with a strong, almost instinctive wish to satisfy the needs of our growing baby and to offer the best start in life. Often we feel the need to get things ‘right’ for the new baby – from eating the right things during pregnancy (or feeling tranquil or playing classical music) through to having a ‘natural’ birth followed by immediate skin-to-skin contact in the loving arms of two calm and happy parents.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with aiming for this kind of ideal. However we need to be wary of feeling that any kind of deviation from this means that we have failed our baby or ourselves. ‘Bonding’ takes many forms and does not only happen when things are going smoothly. The process of bonding involves enjoying the good moments as well as facing painful experiences and finding ways through them together.
A wanted pregnancy can bring strong pleasure and joy. Sometimes if there have been earlier miscarriages, medical interventions or anxieties, parents can feel overwhelming gratitude towards the unborn baby. But even when there were no complications parents often feel that the baby is a gift and this can increase the warmth and the tenderness.
However, it is also natural that the anxieties about the wellbeing of the baby are at their height, a woman can be feeling half-dead with sickness and exhaustion. The needs of the new baby are intense and seem to overshadow everything else. And while the baby is completely looked after inside the womb; the mother and father might be feeling much more drained from their own resources, worried and vulnerable.
It is important to bear in mind that such feelings are normal and might appear from time to time, both before and after birth. Looking after the needs of someone else is a challenging prospect.
Turning to the baby’s experience: common view is that life in the womb is idyllic – no frustration, no unmet needs, just peace and tranquillity. At the same time that is no easy for the pregnant woman: Lugging extra weight around, unable to sleep, sick, exhausted, hungry.
Towards the end of pregnancy, we tend to assume that life has become pretty uncomfortable for the baby, as it certainly has for the mother. Whatever we might imagine about life inside, we can be sure that the baby has become accustomed to the their own little world. As far as the baby is concerned, this is the world. Approaching the moment of birth is a massive shock. The baby’s little world is not only about to be turned upside down and changed beyond recognition, but actually lost forever and replaced by something altogether different.
So much importance is ascribed to the way in which a baby enters the world. Perhaps this is because birth is the first dramatic separation – mother from baby and baby from mother. Even though most parents will be counting the weeks and the days until they finally meet their baby, anticipating that first moment of separation can stir up all sorts of anxieties. Attitudes towards childbirth – pain relief or not, medical versus natural, hospital versus home – are all linked to our fantasies about what that first moment of separation. Some parents project their fears onto the medical profession, seeing doctors as interfering presence threatening the fulfilling experience they long for. Others see the dangers more inside their own bodies: the physical pain and the medical risks fill them with dread and they are glad to place themselves in the hands of experienced professionals to get them safely through. Many parents find it reassuring to try to claim back some control for themselves through detailed birth plans and child classes.
However much we prepare ourselves for childbirth, finding ourselves in completely unknown and unpredictable territory is something we all have to deal with, both during the birth and afterwards with our newborn baby. The experience of childbirth challenges many of our assumptions about ourselves, at the deepest level. There is no way to predict how we will feel or react. We just have to accept that both baby and parents are entering one of the most demanding transitions of their lives. We can only try to manage what is thrown at us, appreciating that we, like the baby, may need plenty of time and space to find our bearings afterwards.
Next Month…Do we understand our baby (continued)