Applying a bit of Science to the art of being a Maman

CheltenhamMaman HQ interviews Elena Mills, a Cheltenham Maman with a very big brain who happens to know a bit about the science of being a Mother.

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CheltenhamMaman HQ: So Elena you’re a really special Maman who knows a lot of sciencey stuff but first things first tell us about your tiny people.

Elena Mills: Why thank you! I have two tiny humans, Ben who is 4 and starting school in September (still can’t quite get my head around the fact he’s nearly school age) and Jocelyn (Josie) who is 4 months. She’s our very special rainbow baby as we sadly lost a little girl late in my pregnancy in 2014 so we’ve waited a long time for her. I’m totally loving my maternity leave in Cheltenham and there’s a very high chance I am not going to want to go back to work.

CMHQ: I once attempted to make one of those volcanoes with my boys for their science homework. It all went wrong and I still have a significant red stain on my living room carpet. You took science a little more seriously than this. When did you first realise that you were destined to study science?

EM: I got a chemistry set for my 8th birthday and I’m pretty sure that’s what set me on the sciencey path but I don’t think I really fell in love with science until I started Uni. I applied to study psychology at Durham University as I thought it would be a good career choice but sat in my first psychology lecture and thought ‘holy fuck, I’ve made a massive mistake’. I had aced my biology A-level, so went and found the head of biology and literally begged him (there may also have been tears) to let me on to the molecular biology and biochemistry course instead. After that I really found my groove and when you find a subject you love, it doesn’t feel like work (must remember to tell my kids that when they’re older).

After Uni I did a PhD in molecular biology at Imperial College London but by then I’d actually discovered it was communicating science to others that really pressed my buttons so I ended up in medical communications (pharmaceutical marketing basically) as my career. I’m now a Business Unit Director working for healthcare communications company Watermeadow Medical in Witney. I’ve still not lost my love of science though, and really hope my kids find the same fascination with the world around us. I’m not leaving anything to chance though (God forbid they choose to study ‘the arts’, urrgh!) so I’ve recently found an awesome pre-schoolers science class in Cheltenham called ‘Mini Professors‘ (you can find anything in this town). which Ben totally loves. My kids WILL love science.

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CMHQ: I’ve always been worried about that big tunnel under the ground in Switzerland where the atoms whizz round really really fast. Can I relax about this?

EM: Do you mean the Large Hadron Collider?! Yeh that’s physics, I’m a biologist. I bunked off most of my Physics GCSE lessons (YAWN!) so I only have a very vague idea of how it works but I figure that they haven’t created a black hole into which we’ve all disappeared yet so we’re probably safe.

CMHQ: But since having your little ones you’ve started applying your science to parenting. Tell us what you know?

EM: I think I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to use my science and communications background to help me navigate the massive parenting learning curve as I’ve gone along. Like most new parents I had very little experience of babies before having my own. For example, I thought you kind of just put the baby in their moses basket and they went to sleep. How wrong I was. As soon as I tried to lay my new baby, Ben, down after a feed he’d wake up and start bawling his little eyes out. After 5 weeks of basically no sleep and out of sheer exhaustion I pulled him into bed with me not knowing what else to do, and it was the best bloody night’s sleep I’ve ever had. After that we didn’t look back and I had him in bed with me every night.

It’s kind of obvious to me now but being right next to mum is how babies have evolved to sleep and it’s how they survived in our ancestral past so of course they object when they’re put in a moses basket on their own. I started doing a load of reading on infant sleep but actually found it really difficult to get good, practical, evidence -based information about how to share a bed with your baby safely, so I wrote it myself. You can find my blog article on safer bedsharing at my blog Trust Your Baby. In fact it’s through all the reading and scientific literature I did for my blog after having Ben that I ended up as a bedsharing, babywearing, breastfeeding mama (otherwise known as ‘attachment parenting’). I arrived at this style of parenting not because I’m a hippy but through the sheer weight of scientific evidence showing that it makes for a secure bond with your baby and ultimately just proves that nature knows best.

CMHQ: But when I was in hospital with my baby girl the midwives threatened to make me do one hundred lines every time they caught me sleeping with her next to me. Why would they do this if co-sleeping was safe?

EM: There’s a lot been written about how bedsharing is unsafe. That is a very one-size-fits-all message though and it doesn’t tell the whole story. The research says that there are known risk factors than can make bedsharing unsafe, such as if you’ve been drinking heavily, you smoke, you’re formula feeding or you’re under the influence of drugs. The interesting thing for me though is that several studies have shown that a breastfed baby sharing a  bed with it’s mother is at less risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) than a formula fed baby alone in a cot. I think what you experienced probably comes down to lack of time on the part of the midwives in hospital. It’s quicker, easier and ultimately safer just to tell everyone not to share a bed with their baby. To be fair, if you’ve just given birth you may have drugs in your system or be so excessively tired that it is safer not to bedshare so I can see where they’re coming from.

CMHQ: So it’s not to be mixed with a few cheeky proseccos?

EM: No, If you’ve had a few then bedsharing is out. Alcohol alters your level of consciousness making you sleep deeper so you’re less aware of your baby.

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CMHQ: But will she still be bunking with me when she’s doing her GCSEs?

EM: Unlikely. You’d cramp her style big time by that age anyway. Just do it for as long as you’re both enjoying it. If you’re not, change it. I had my first baby, Ben, in bed with me until about 18 months at which point he just got too big for the bed. I transitioned him to a cot mattress by my bed and then to his own bed in his own room. He’s now 4 and he’s a rock solid sleeper, in his own room. He rarely comes in with us but I really don’t mind if he does. I often hear people say ‘you’ll make a rod for your own back’ but science tells us that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you create an environment in which your baby feels safe and content falling asleep then that sets up fabulous sleep associations and there’s much less likelihood of sleep problems in the long run.

Lots of parents find they have a baby that doesn’t like sleeping alone and label them ‘problem’ sleepers. I’d argue that it’s perhaps not the baby that has the problem, rather the problem is they don’t like the sleep environment you’ve set up for them. I think it really pays to be open minded and to change the sleep environment to suit your baby. They’ll tell you when you’ve arrived at something they’re OK with. It’s why I called my blog ‘Trust Your Baby’.

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CMHQ: So where can our Mamans find out more?

EM: Have a read of my blog article on safer bedsharing for a practical guide to safer bedsharing. Another fabulous resource is the Infant Sleep Information Source (ISIS) over at www.isisonline.org.uk (unfortunate name but they were there first and they refuse to change it in light of certain other organisations of the same name!). It’s written by the team over at the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab at Durham University and it aims to provide unbiased, up-to-date information on infant sleep. It’s beautifully written in a format that’s really accessible to parents (there’s also an app you can download) and importantly it’s evidence-based. It should be THE go to resource on baby sleep for every new parent.

Lastly a couple of book recommends. 1) Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime strategies for the Breastfeeding family from La Leche League which is evidence-based and really well written and 2) The Gentle Sleep Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. I love anything by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, she’s a great advocate of ‘Gentle Parenting’ and this book has something for everyone.

CMHQ: Elena thank you for your time.  Many Thanks also to Six Degrees of Separation in Regent Street, Cheltenham for providing such an amazing venue for us to discuss your scientific theories (and neck a delicious lunchtime cocktail.) Also thanks to Stephanie Nellis for photography and the loan of her beautiful daughter, Charlotte. 

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About Elena

Elena is a Maman to two lovely enfants and juggles motherhood with a full on career in healthcare communications. Elena became interested in the communication and understanding of parenting info when she had her first baby, Benjamin, in 2012. Surprised at the poor quality of much of the ‘expert’ parenting advice in mainstream books and magazines, she’s now made it her mission in life to disseminate sensible, sensitive and importantly evidence-based information to new parents and parents-to-be. She (occasionally!) has time to write articles for her blog Trust Your Baby and is also a qualified babywearing consultant. She’s helping to organise a unique parenting conference in Manchester on October 6th, 2016 where a fabulous panel of speakers, many of whom are baby and infant researchers, will be giving the (evidence-based) lowdown on babycare to new parents and parents-to-be (Growing Families for more info and tickets.)

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3 Comments

  1. July 4, 2016 / 4:45 pm

    This is really interesting! I’m off to look for those studies that show co-sleeping can reduce SIDS in breastfed babies…

    • kateandlilabug
      July 4, 2016 / 5:13 pm

      Hi New Mummy! Thanks for your comment. I’ve asked Elena to post some links directly on here. Glad you enjoyed the read. CM HQ x

      • July 12, 2016 / 6:21 am

        Hello! Some lovely links for you.

        So, we know that breastfeeding reduces SIDS, this was shown in a meta-analysis (an analysis of lots of studies together- best evidence you can get basically). See here:

        http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/06/08/peds.2010-3000

        Because of the way studies have been conducted, the small overall number of studies, the small size of them and the way researchers classify ‘cosleeping’ (a general term that includes bedsharing but also sometimes the dangerous sofa-sleeping) we can’t be sure that bedsharing AND breastfeeding reduces SIDS. Best we can say is that it ‘may’ as the evidence points that way not least because bedsharing tends to mean women breastfeed for longer. An example is a study by Carpenter et al in 2006, (Carpenter, RG. 2006. Paediatr Child Health. 11 (Suppl A): 24A-28A), and nicely summarised here:

        https://www.isisonline.org.uk/hcp/research_evidence/research_summaries/2005-2009/

        This study showed that bedsharing was associated with longer duration of breastfeeding and that full breastfeeding halved the risk of SIDS. The ISISONLINE research summaries are great if you need some more background reading, as is the website in general for info on infant sleep. http://Www.isisonline.org.uk

        Xxx

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