OPINION: Is There A Lack Of Professional Support For New Mums in This Country?
5 lbs 13 ozs. Those figures went around and around in my head as we drove home from the hospital with my first baby. 5 lbs 13 ozs. Surely it wasn’t right that she’d be allowed out at that tiny weight, with two clueless first-time parents in charge?
Maybe it would feel better at home. But it didn’t – I burst into tears when we arrived in the house and spent the next few hours in a ball of stress.
I finally acknowledged that having not slept for more than an hour here or there for days, that going to bed was the appropriate balm for my anxious mind. I warned my husband to wake me after a couple of hours, so I could feed the baby, but he, kind and sensible man that he is, let me sleep. When he eventually did wake me hours later, I broke down in floods of horrified tears, panicking because I hadn’t fed the baby. I literally thought we were going to kill her through unintentional neglect. It should be almost funny thinking back, but eight years later, I’m still not ready to smile.
Sometime in the blur of the subsequent days, our Public Health Nurse called to meet us and to do the heel prick test. She told me that I could come down to the clinic after that – between 10 – 11 on Wednesday mornings. The idea of getting out of the house at all seemed impossible at that stage, though in hindsight, I’m sure it was a healthier option than staying indoors.
So yes, looking back on those early, fraught days, I’d be inclined to agree with the 42% of HerFamily.ie survey respondents who feel they didn’t get enough postpartum support after they came home from hospital with their babies.
In a country that is only just putting paternity leave in place, even support from partners is curtailed. Depending on circumstances, men may need to go back to work after just a few days, leaving women at home, sometimes feeling isolated and overwhelmed.
My own husband was off for two weeks, which was wonderful, but once he went back, I felt very lost and alone. My wider family were absolutely wonderful at evenings and weekends but were at work all day during the week, when I desperately wanted someone to talk to or even hold the baby for five minutes, so I could make a cup of tea.
Mum-of-one Fiona had good family support but felt she needed more than that. “My baby was born at 35 weeks and was 4.9lbs. She spent two weeks is SCBU and then she came home. I was shocked at how little the PHN came to visit. She was my first baby – premature and emergency section – and although I had a lot of family support, I feel I needed more independent help. My PHN only came to my house twice, and although there was snow and frost outside, she asked me to visit her in the clinic for anything else. On the first visit, she saw my husband bring in shopping and told me ‘That’s a great help, you’re very lucky.’ I was lucky – to have my husband and family and despite being tiny, a healthy baby – but I was scared and could have done with more support from the HSE.”
Of course, public health nurses are also under pressure, and there has been an embargo on hiring. Weighing clinics can be counterproductive too – if a public health nurse makes a comment about a baby’s weight, mothers can feel at best frustrated, and at worst, like failures.
Breastfeeding is another area where support is lacking. I remember asking my public health nurse for help, and she suggested that I go to a local Cuidiú coffee morning. I still remember looking at the leaflet she handed me – the coffee morning was in somebody’s house, and I just couldn’t imagine myself turning up at a stranger’s home and walking in to talk to people I didn’t know. Eight years later, I’ve done it dozens and dozens of times in different areas of life, and I would now talk to anyone who has a child – babies are a wonderful common ground for conversation. But back then, I had yet to discover that, so I never went to the coffee morning.
Mum-of-one, Lisa, also felt there was a lack of breastfeeding support. “Topping up with formula was suggested constantly, my baby was tiny and not gaining weight, and despite a very supportive GP, everyone else I dealt with – public health nurse and paediatric doctor – kept just telling me ‘keep feeding him’ (as if I had plans to stop!) and to top up every single feed with a formula feed. It definitely fell short in support meaning I (very guiltily) felt I had just to stop trying at nine weeks.”
So what’s the solution – what would we put in place if we had the proverbial magic wand? Catherine Wells, president of Cuidiú feels we need more education about mental health and what to expect, and more on the ground support. “Women think they should be feeling so happy after having a baby and then feel guilty if they’re not. But having a baby isn’t Utopia – it can be, but it’s OK to have different feelings.”
Understandably, there’s a reluctance at antenatal classes to focus on the potential negatives, but if it’s not mentioned at all, women will continue to think they’re the only ones feeling overwhelmed instead of overjoyed. Cuidiú run antenatal classes and one-day birth preparation classes, but they also hold Bump to Babe coffee mornings where expectant and new mothers meet to have a cup of tea and a chat, meaning mums-to-be can get a sense of what’s ahead, but in a warm, friendly atmosphere. “Women need peer support,” says Wells. “They need to be around other mums to see that whatever they’re going through is normal. It can be difficult to explain all of it to family. But at mother and baby groups, there’s companionship and personal support. They can go along and realise their feelings are normal – or that perhaps they do need an extra bit of help, from an expert.”
One person who did benefit from good support was mum-of-one, Tracey. “I did a six-week course which was sponsored by Barnardos, and I think every mother should get it as it was amazing. A professional came into the class once a week to do a talk. One week it was baby massage, another time speech therapy, then a dentist, and so on. It was genuinely the most amazing support and got me out of the house.”
Another person who had a very good experience is Nicola, who used the Domino Scheme. “I was so happy with the care I received. The midwives were fantastic. I was home with my daughter 17 hours after she was born and we had a visit from the midwife the next morning. She was great and really put me at ease – she advised on breastfeeding, weighed the baby and checked that she was OK. In the first five days, we had three visits from the midwife and a visit from the public health nurse. I highly recommend the scheme. I don't think I could have had a better experience.”
What’s clear is that each person’s experience is determined by a variety of factors – and these are often impossible to predict. But two things can help – advance education on what to expect, and good quality on-the-ground support including peer support, after a baby is born. Because just knowing you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed can be enough to help.
If you need support, contact your GP, or Nurture – a support and counselling service focusing on pregnancy and childbirth.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.