The pain is unbearable as I sit perched on the edge of our couch, shaking as tears stream down my cheeks. I can’t do this every two hours, I think. How can this possibly be normal? But, looking down at my five-day-old baby as he nurses I’m in awe of how my body is able to nourish him.
His little blue eyes lock with mine and I recall a parenting gem I read while I was pregnant. A newborn’s range of vision is eight-15 inches, which happens to be the distance between a mother and baby’s face while breastfeeding. It’s thought this distance most likely evolved because of breastfeeding. It brings me comfort and helps me dig a little deeper, knowing not only am I feeding my baby but also nurturing his evolving vision.
Contemplating little known miracles like these have helped me find strength through many a sleepless night and long nap-less days. I hope sharing a few of them may help you too, no matter where you find yourself on this adventure called parenting.
A newborn’s smell is scientifically proven to be addictive to new mothers. A University of Montreal study looked at the brains of 15 new mothers using MRI technology and revealed the smell of a newborn triggered a pleasurable physiological response similar to food cravings.
Johannes Frasnelli, of the University of Montreal says, “The olfactory – thus non-verbal and non-visual – chemical signals for communication between mother and child are intense. The mother-child bond that is part of the feeling of maternal love is a product of evolution through natural selection in an environment where such a bond is essential for the newborn’s survival.”
In addition the response is beneficial to mothers. “For those first few months babies are mostly just needing to be cared for and we don’t get much positive feedback from them,” said maternal health psychologist Diane Sanford, “So the fact that the pleasure centers are activated makes it more rewarding at a time when parenthood is very intensive and depleting,” she added.
When you hold your baby, especially skin-to-skin, her body temperature depends on you. The warmth of a mother's breasts are naturally modulated to keep your baby at the perfect temperature promoting restful sleep, optimal oxygen saturation and saving your baby the energy it takes to stay warm. This redirects valuable calories into more critical things like growth.
Breast temperature can rise and fall rapidly as your baby is warmed. As your baby starts to cool, your breasts heat up again – as much as 2 degrees celsius in two minutes. So, cuddle your baby if she has a fever to cool her down, wear your baby rather than using a stroller and keep her at the perfect temperature when it’s cold outside. And sleep with your baby keeping her warm in the wee small hours of the morning.
It’s NORMAL that your baby (or toddler) isn’t sleeping through the night. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s going to be like this for a while. Having realistic expectations around night time parenting makes it easier to accept the realities of infant sleep and to resist dangerous techniques like cry it out.
One reason babies don’t sleep through the night is because humans are naturally biphasic sleepers, experiencing a “first sleep” (from sunset until midnight-ish) and a “second sleep” (from 1 or 2 a.m. until dawn). With the invention of electricity our natural pattern changed, enabling us to stay up later meaning adults began consolidating sleep into one eight-hour stretch.
Eventually, your baby’s sleep patterns will consolidate, too. Until then, try turning off your lights early and crawl into bed with your baby, so waking up at midnight doesn’t feel so exhausting. And remember there are myriad benefits of waking through the night: It protects against SIDS, promotes healthy feeding and growth, and encourages milk supply in mothers.
By simply looking and smiling at each other, mothers and babies can synchronize their heartbeats to within milliseconds. Researchers at Bar-Ilan University in Israel observed visible affection from mothers caused discernible physiological effects on their three-month-old babies.
Writing in Infant Behavior and Development, researchers explain, “Mothers and their three-month-old infants were observed during face-to-face interactions while cardiac output was collected from mother and child. Time-series analysis showed that mother and infant coordinate heart rhythms within lags of less than one second.” While other animals are dependent upon physical contact for synchronization to occur, a mother need only look at her baby with warmth and tenderness for their heartbeats to harmonize.
A mother's voice preferentially activates the parts of the brain responsible for language development, say researchers from the University of Montreal and the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre. The research team made the discovery after performing electrical recordings on infants within 24 hours of birth.
"This research proves newborn's brains responds strongly to the mother's voice and shows, scientifically speaking, that the mother's voice is special to babies," said lead researcher Dr. Maryse Lassonde. "We applied electrodes to the heads of 16 babies while they were sleeping and we asked the mother to make the short 'A' vowel sound. We then repeated the exercise with the female nurse who brought the baby to the lab. When the mother spoke, the scans very clearly show reactions in the left-hemisphere of the brain, and in particular the language processing and motor skills circuit. Conversely, when the stranger spoke, the right-hemisphere of the brain reacted. The right-hemisphere is associated with voice recognition.”
No matter what parenting style you choose to follow, the truth is the blur of new parenthood drains us on every level. Nobody can prepare us for the torture of sleep deprivation, the unbelievable level of self-sacrifice nor the tests our personal relationships may face.
Mother nature combats these seemingly insurmountable challenges with the potent spell of unconditional love. It compels us to dig deeper when we feel we have nothing left to give and drives us to be the best parents, and people, we can be.
I clearly remember sitting on our couch nearly three years ago crying through the pain. And ironically, it makes me smile, because it takes me to a place in my life where my prevailing emotion was one of intense joy. I was exceptionally happy as a new mother, in spite of the challenges it threw my way, and I’m convinced it was because I understood the growing pains of new parenthood always had a deeper meaning. I hope these silver linings help you find gratitude in your dark moments.
This piece originally appeared on the author's blog, Raised Good.