By Jodilyn Owen, CPM, LM
Earlier this week, I had the honor of attending a full day workshop on breastfeeding, presented by regular Sceince & Sensibility contributor, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. In one of her presentations, Kathleen discussed how breastfeeding is a right brain activity and when we give mothers lots of instruction and detailed information, rather than supporting the dyad in laid back breastfeeding, (thanks Suzanne Colson for this concept) we may interfere in the normal and natural process. Then, the very next day, I read this post written by author and midwife, Jodilyn Owen, CPM, LM and I knew wanted to share it here. Both topics are about keeping infant feeding as a right brain activity. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility
I recently read some research on texting and driving that immediately made me flash to the reactions of a group of new moms, when I asked them 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 connection between these two seemingly different vignettes—driving and breastfeeding.
The fact is that 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 this third party to enter are neglecting the needs of the primary relationship between mother and baby.
In today’s world we have to know that technology is ever-present. And then we have to work with it. It’s terrifically difficult for a woman who may have spent her entire adult life in the work force tracking progress and time-to-target goals, explaining her work to others through the use of spreadsheets, presentations, and lectures with sources cited, and full color 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 recording data. 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 really well for her in the past forward with her into this new relationship. And that’s why we are here—midwives, doulas, nurses, childbirth educators, doctors, lactation consultants, 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. 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.
Each mother 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 a new mother 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. 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 research is showing—that as we humans text, a few interesting things happen physiologically 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.
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-oximeter 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.
The connection between texting and infant feeding and driving is all about the physiological consequences of these activities. We all know that if mothers are catching up on Facebook, they are not eye-gazing with their babies or talking to them, important emotional tending-to that babies need. Now we know there is something just as powerful happening in the mechanics of mothers’ bodies when they 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.
Suggest to the mothers you work with the following:
Mothers, if you find yourself 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 state 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 spent feeding or nursing— even if it is only 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.When you are ready, 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 spreadsheets (while continuing to breathe well). Babies are really understanding people. Just like everyone, babies do best when we communicate with them and help them make sense of their stories.”
If you are a professional—take a moment to 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.
Lin, I. M., & Peper, E. (2009). Psychophysiological patterns during cell phone text messaging: A preliminary study. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 34(1), 53-57.
McLeod, K. (2011, August 04). Texting while driving: targeted for extinction. Retrieved from http://www.edmunds.com/car-safety/texting-while-driving-targeted-for-extinction.html
Park, A., Salsbury, J., Corbett, K., & Aiello, J. (2013). The Effects of Text Messaging During Dual-Task Driving Simulation on Cardiovascular and Respiratory Responses and Reaction Time.
About Jodilyn Owen
Jodilyn is co-author of The Essential Homebirth Guide, a guide for families planning or considering a homebirth. She is a practicing midwife at Essential Birth & Family Center in Seattle, WA and is a wife and mother. Jodilyn is passionate about bringing babies into the arms of healthy mothers. She is a co-founder of Girl Sense, lectures for midwifery students, and gives talks to high school students about midwifery, birth, and babies. She enjoys hiking, camping, boxing, and watching her kids on the basketball court. Jodilyn welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached through her website.