First, a little of my own story. As newlyweds who weren't trying to conceive, my husband and I weren't expecting to become pregnant only six months into our marriage, but I was thrilled. I recall announcing my pregnancy to my employer and being scolded for breaking the unspoken rule (of which I was unaware!) that you shouldn't tell people you're pregnant until you have passed the somehow magical twelve-week point of pregnancy. (The truth is pregnancies do end after twelve weeks -- and unannounced earlier losses aren't necessarily any easier to live through...alone.)
Just a few weeks after my pregnancy announcement, I noticed I was bleeding. Immediately seeking medical care, I was devastated when I was informed that the embryo had not formed after implantation. Sadly, our tiny first baby had died very early in development. We were the first of our friends to get married and certainly the first to lose a baby, and I felt quite alone during that loss. Thankfully, I received support from our midwife and a local organization that still supports families going through pregnancy loss.
When someone you know has announced their pregnancy, only to find out at some future time that their baby's life (or babies' lives) have ended before or during birth, it can be a confusing situation for loved ones. You might wonder what to say or do, and what not to say and do. Every bereaved parent grieves differently and has different needs, so the best practice is simply to ask, "What can I do for you?" However, in the midst of the fog and pain of grief, it can be difficult for bereaved parents to come up with any concrete answers to this question, so here are some general principles that are a good place to start. You can remember these tips with the acronym: SUPPORT.
SPIRITUAL SUPPORT. Parents who have lost a child or baby have a real need for their spiritual community to encircle them with heartfelt prayers of blessing, sorrow, and hope; practical service; reflective listening; and genuine caring. As I was before my first pregnancy, many new parents may be blissfully unaware that pregnancies don't always result in gender reveal parties, glamorous baby bump photos, and picture-perfect nurseries, but instead end in physical pain, uncomfortable procedures, and a grave. Such a shock can be a significant challenge to their faith. Are they being punished for something they did in the past? How could a loving God allow them to live through such pain? Does God even care about what they are going through? The bereaved family has a right to experience their spiritual community (or even a loving friend of faith, if the family is not a member of a faith community) to accompany them through their grief. To assure them they are not being punished for past sins or mistakes. That God is with them in their grief. That He weeps with them. And please, unless you are truly a prophet with some extraordinary revelation, do not make the mistake of falsely promising that God will give them a baby in the future. Such false promises only ease your own discomfort at walking with this family's grief and can be a future source of pain and even loss of faith if the "prophecy" fails to come true.
USE THE BABY'S NAME. While not all bereaved parents may choose a name for the baby who has passed away, it can be healing to do so. If they do choose a name, it is healing to their hearts to hear you use the baby's name. For example, "Can I see Talia's ultrasound photos?" or "Where is Easton's grave? I'd like to visit." Losing a baby is a unique pain because there may be very few or even no physical reminders of his or her existence once the loss is complete. There may be no birth certificate, no gravesite if the loss was early, no birth photos, perhaps not even any clothes or diapers left behind. Using the child's name assures the parents that their child did exist, although his or her life was brief. Using the baby's name is a way to demonstrate that you are bearing the burden of grief with the parent; he or she doesn't have to be the only person to bear witness to the unique value of the child's life. And if the parents do not choose a name, I suggest you refer to their child as "your baby" rather than clinical or dehumanizing terms such as "the fetus," "the product of conception," "the embryo," or "it."
PHYSICAL SUPPORT. In the early days, weeks, or months, the trauma of loss may be very intense. Help the family with physical needs such as providing water bottles, food and meals, gift cards for food (or gas cards if the mother is hospitalized for an extended time), doing laundry, or cleaning house. However, do not try to be "helpful" by cleaning out the baby's nursery or putting away the baby's things, unless specifically asked to do so by the parents. While it will likely be painful for them to see the nursery or baby's clothes, toys, or other gear, it can be an important part of the healing process to live with these things for awhile as it helps assure them that the baby did live for a short while, even though he or she is no longer alive. When they are emotionally ready, it can be an important step in the parents' healing to personally be the ones to decide to put baby's items away or let them go. Don't try to hurry this step along without being asked by them, and thus rob them of what could be important steps in their healing journey.
PATIENCE AND LISTENING. Be sensitive that grief for a baby may last a long time, longer than you expect. Avoid platitudes or cliches such as "you can have another;" "time heals all wounds;" or false beliefs such as "God took the baby because He needed another angel." Instead, listen, hand out tissues to catch tears, and offer a hug. Affirm the parents' feelings. "You sound really mad; that would make me mad, too." "You really needed someone to be there for you; I'm sorry I couldn't be there. I'm here now." "It sounds like you really miss not only the baby, but all the things you wanted to do with him / her." "You sound like you feel guilty about ..." Do your best to not judge the parents' feelings. Encourage them to get help from a trained mental health professional or spiritual counselor if they begin to seem overwhelmed by their grief. Offer to drive them to appointments as it can be difficult to do things like driving or finding new places when you are in the midst of deep grief and possibly a mental health crisis.
ORGANIZE HELP. In coordination with your faith community, school community, neighborhood, workplace, or social club, organize help for the family with things like childcare for any older children, meals / meal trains and household help. If organizing things is not your strength, recruit someone who is good at it! Little by little, with healing and good support, the family will be able to resume these activities, but in the meantime, you can make a huge difference for this family.
TALK ABOUT THE BABY. A common myth is that you shouldn't talk about the baby because it will remind the parents about their child and make them sad. Trust me; they won't forget their child. Early in the grieving process, the bereaved parent will frequently be consumed by thoughts of their baby and the loss. As the grief journey matures, thoughts of the child will gradually become less frequent, but hearing that you still remember him or her will likely be very comforting to them. Bereaved parents need to know that their baby's life mattered and that they do not hold the sole burden of remembering this tiny, and very important, life.
It has been many years since my first loss, and since then, I have had the blessing of seven living children, and the sorrow of several other losses. Thankfully, compared to my first loss of Kate Leilani in 1998, I experienced so much more awareness and support by my friends and community when I suffered the loss of my baby, Anais Zelie, in 2016. Hopefully, this list of practical ways to SUPPORT your loved one will help you so you can accompany your loved one through the loss of their precious baby. Comment below and let me know if this list was helpful to you! What would you add?
RESOURCES FOR FAMILIES EXPERIENCING PREGNANCY OR INFANT LOSS
Halos of the St. Croix Valley. For St. Croix Valley residents in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Twin Cities area residents, Halos provides emotional and financial support for families experiencing the loss of a child at any point from pregnancy through age 20.
Catholic Miscarriage Support. A website with practical resources for Catholics about miscarriage and links to sources of support, for miscarriage and stillbirth, throughout the USA.
Parents are often the ones who take baby sign language classes so they can communicate with their baby before baby can talk. But learning baby sign language is helpful for anyone who spends significant time with a baby, including siblings, grandparents, daycare workers, babysitters, and other caregivers! Earlier this year, Emilie, a nanny, asked her employer if she could take the Sign, Say, and Play online Baby Signs (R) Class with her nanny charge, Emma. I asked Emilie about her experience using baby sign language with Emma.
SCBP: What reasons did you have for wanting to learn Baby Signs with your nanny baby?
Emilie: I wanted to learn baby sign language with Emma because I knew how much it would help us communicate with each other. I have used sign language in the past in my family growing up and I was interested in trying it as a caregiver.
SCBP: What age was Emma when you began to take classes with her?
Emilie: Emma was seven and a half months old when we took our first class.
SCBP: Did you ever see Emma use Baby Signs in her daily life? What signs did she use?
Emilie: Yes! Emma loved to use baby signs as she grew older. Her favorite signs were "Dog", "More", "All Done", "Book", and "Fish"!
SCBP: Is there anything you would say to parents or caregivers about using baby signs with babies?
Emilie: Using baby signs is a great way to give your little one a way to communicate early on in life. When their vocabulary is bigger than just "cry" and "smile", it will surprise you how much easier it is to care for them! You can simply give them what they tell you that they want, most of the time.
SCBP: Would you recommend SCBP Baby Signs classes?
Emilie: I would definitely recommend SCBP Baby Signs Classes. They are a fun and easy way to learn a great way of communicating with your little one.
SCBP: Thank you, Emilie, for taking the time to answer these questions about your baby sign language experience!
Emilie: I am always happy to help out! And it was so fun to take the classes.
BABY SIGN LANGUAGE RESOURCES
Sign, Say, & Play class series: six fun online classes for little ones 6-24 months old covering the main topics that you need to know to communicate with baby, including mealtime, bedtime, bath time, pets, getting dressed, and playtime
Rumble Tumble Tummy Time class series: four fun online classes for babies 2-6 months old that use signs, song, toys, and games to make tummy time fun!
Featured Freebie class: SCBP offers FREE theme-based baby sign language classes every month for children from birth to age 6! View and sign up for this month's Featured Freebie class here.
Baby Signs Too: a website with a directory of certified Baby Signs (R) instructors from around the world and lots of baby signs resources for sale, too!
August was a busy month for SCBP! The month got rolling with the August 4 session of the Catholic Nursing Mothers' Group, a group co-sponsored by the Catholic Nursing Mothers' League. We discussed "Comfort Nursing." We welcomed nine mothers and their children to this online session.
The next day, August 5, I talked about "The Works of Mercy and Perinatal Loss" at Peace House right here in Stillwater, Minnesota. I was blessed to spend a lovely evening with several of the members of the Catholic Worker movement, who help women and mothers and their children in need of transitional housing, support, and life coaching. I was able to share with the group about our affiliated ministry, Tiny Treasures Perinatal Support. Team Tiny Treasures ships clothing and care packages to families facing or experiencing perinatal loss. It was an honor to discuss how this ministry is a way to "clothe the naked," "comfort the mourning" and "bury the dead".
The following day, August 6, my daughter, Emilie, joined me at the 12th Annual Memorial Walk for Halos of the St. Croix Valley, in New Richmond, Wisconsin. It was an honor to provide support (and demonstrate the resources our affiliated ministry, Tiny Treasures, provides) for the individuals and families who came out to walk to support this wonderful organization that support grieving parents and families.
In mid-August, BeeBo Bear and I had the joy of providing the August Featured Freebie Class, "A, B, C, Sign with Me," online for several mothers and their children. In this class, we had a blast learning all of the manual alphabet signs, while signing songs, and reading the classic alphabet book, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom!
Some of these mothers and kids told their friends about the fun they had in the class and just a week later, BeeBo Bear and I repeated the August Featured Freebie Class, "Under the Sea" Baby Signs Class for a larger group of mamas and littles. In this online class, designed for toddlers and preschoolers 2-5 years old, we created an octopus, sang songs, and told a story to help little ones grow in the virtue of self-control.
Progressive Relaxation 1 is a progressive relaxation session focusing on tensing and releasing the muscles under your conscious control so that you can learn how your muscles feel when they are tense and relaxed. This will help you release the tension in your muscles to conserve energy for the work of birthing your baby and activate the relaxation response.
8 minutes, 46 seconds.
Note: there is no background music during this video so that you can use any music you find relaxing, if you choose. If you use the same music during your relaxation sessions, you will condition yourself to respond to the music with relaxation. If you then choose to play the same music during your birth, you are more likely to be relaxed!
I had the opportunity to answer questions and answers about Bonding with Baby yesterday at the free online SuperMoms-in-Training Summit. It was a great experience! Since the actual recording is reserved for summit participants, here's a recap of what I discussed.
To bond with baby (as well as older children!) I suggest new parents look into attachment parenting (AP). I would argue that AP is simply instinctive parenting that has been practiced since the beginning of the human race, but it has been promoted in recent decades by Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha Sears, RN. In their book, Attachment Parenting,* the Searses promote the "Seven B's" of AP:
In my Summit Q & A, I discussed a little bit about each of these practices. One reason I encourage mothers to work toward a natural, unmedicated birth without routine interventions is because such a birth usually provides the best conditions for normal breastfeeding, and breastfeeding is an important factor in bonding. Another important part of Birth Bonding is skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby -- and also dad and baby! And skin-to-skin is something you can do with your baby anytime, not just at birth.
Research suggests that Breastfeeding is an important factor in mother-baby bonding. It's important to add that breastfeeding doesn't guarantee bonding, and other feeding choices certainly don't prevent bonding! However, breastfeeding releases bonding hormones in baby and mother, and is known as an important factor in bonding.
There was a question about what can be done to prepare for breastfeeding during pregnancy. Make sure to get a lactation consultant lined up before you have a need! If needed, it is much easier to make a call for help to someone with whom you have already established a relationship than cold calling in what might feel like a very emergent situation. A second suggestion I have is to make sure you take a good breastfeeding preparation class!
The third B is Babywearing. Babies who are "worn" (carried in a sling or infant carrier) cry less and are perceived as "easier" / happier babies. This can make bonding easier. In addition to babywearing, I also recommend Infant Massage! Infant massage is a wonderful way to promote your baby's physical and emotional health while growing in your bond.
I spoke the longest about the fourth B: Bed Sharing because many have concerns about bedsharing safety. It is important to follow safe bed sharing guidelines! If bedsharing isn't something that you are interested in doing, it can be beneficial to sleep close to baby, for example, with baby in a "sidecar" arrangement or with bassinette in your room.
I add Baby Sign language to the fifth B: Belief in the signal value of a Baby's Cries. The parent or caregiver recognizes that babies want to communicate their needs and it is our job to observe our babies and learn what their signals mean. Baby Sign language facilitates this process by giving babies a way to communicate their needs, thoughts, and emotions before they are able to speak!
A mom asked how many signs to start with. I responded to say that in my Baby Signs classes (designed for babies 6-24 months), I teach about 6 signs per week and that seems to be enough variety without overwhelm. I also recommend starting with the mealtime signs because this is such an important area where parents and babies need to communicate every day!
Similar to the Bedsharing B, I recognize that "Beware of Baby Trainers" is one of the more controversial AP practices. To make this less confrontational, I like to explain this one as avoiding those practices that force you to be less responsive to your baby. For example, there are some methods that are designed to "train" a baby not to cry...ever. This is the kind of practice that should be avoided if you want to practice AP, because it interferes with the previous B: recognizing the signal value of a baby's cries. (This B does not mean using gentle methods of weaning or helping your toddler learn to sleep through the night at an appropriate age. Of course all children should wean from the breast and sleep through the night!)
The final B, which in my opinion is the most important, is Balance and Boundaries. Parents who gravitate to AP tend to be (like me haha) Type A perfectionists. It is important to be gentle with yourself and make sure your own needs are met: physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. AP can be intense and it is something that requires a lot of energy and commitment for the long-haul. You absolutely need to meet your own needs to be a long-term AP parent. You matter! And your baby does, too! Blessings to you and your baby.
One of my most popular posts in this blog is about ecological breastfeeding. Earlier this year, I was asked by Natural Family Planning International to produce a short video about ecological breastfeeding. I wrote the video, filmed it, acted in it, and edited it. This was a fun experience and I hope to produce more parenting videos in the future! Contact me or comment below if you have ideas for parenting videos, or questions I can answer with a video!
Because they go by kind of fast, here are the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding:
Do you have comments or questions about ecological breastfeeding (sometimes called eco-breastfeeding)? Do you have eco-bfing experiences to share? Comment below!
Once a month, Gina Peterson, IBCLC, and Lexy Backstrom, BfNA (two Catholic Nursing Mothers' League leaders) work with me to support Catholic breastfeeding mothers in two online breastfeeding support groups. We launched these groups in March of 2021, and just celebrated our first anniversary of providing free online breastfeeding education and support. This month's topic is "Working with Your Baby's Natural Instincts to Breastfeed."
In preparing for our meeting, I took some time to refresh and expand my knowledge of the many instinctual reflexes newborns have at birth that help them to locate, attach, and breastfeed successfully -- when new mothers are given the freedom to hold their healthy, full-term babies skin-to-skin in laid-back, tummy to tummy positions.
My interest was piqued by a 2015 research study, "Intrapartum Synthetic Oxytocin Reduce (sic) the Expression of Primitive Reflexes Associated with Breastfeeding." In this study, the researchers observed that those babies exposed to synthetic oxytocin (i.e., "Pitocin") during birth exhibited fewer primitive neonatal reflexes that are favorable to getting started with breastfeeding as compared to the group of babies with no exposure to synthetic oxytocin.
The reflexes that appear to be most affected by exposure to Pitocin include all of the rhythmic reflexes that were studied (suck, jaw jerk, and swallowing). As a group, all the primitive neonatal reflexes that were studied were observed less in the group of newborns exposed to synthetic oxytocin as compared to the newborns who were not exposed.
The researchers suggested that it may be possible that synthetic oxytocin could cross through both the placenta (which protects the baby from some harmful substances) as well as the barrier that protects the fetus from substances that could damage his or her developing brain.
There were several limitations to the study. The group without synthetic oxytocin exposure included more experienced mothers, and the group with exposure had much higher epidural anesthesia rates. However the researchers did not observe any differences in the rates of newborns exhibiting primitive neonatal reflexes based on these two variables.
My intention in sharing this information is to encourage healthy mothers to make it a goal to have a natural, unmedicated birth whenever possible -- with a supportive birth team (including a birth doula if possible), in a birthplace that has a track record of good support for natural birth experiences.
For healthy moms and babies, a natural birth is the usually the best foundation for breastfeeding. Assuming mother and baby are healthy, mothers can help baby to get started breastfeeding by laying back, supporting her body in a semi-reclined ("laid-back") position and place baby skin-to-skin and tummy to tummy, allowing baby to self-attach.
Of course, even if Pitocin is necessary during a particular mother's birth, this does not mean she and her baby will be unable to breastfeed! My first birth was augmented with Pitocin and my fifth birth was induced with Pitocin, yet both of these babies successfully breastfed into early childhood. In any birth requiring the use of medications, (as well as all natural births!) make sure to get some of each of the four components that help you to succeed when you breastfeed:
As I know from my own experiences, breastfeeding is NOT always easy. And despite doing everything "right", it can be frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes just plain hard work that seems impossible. Your breastfeeding journey is unique to you and your baby; and as always, what works for both of you is what's best for you. Contact me if you need a listening ear or another perspective!
Chris Hagen gave another donation this month and became a Gold Community Sponsor. SCBP is a nonprofit registered in the state of Minnesota. A very large portion of our income is made of financial gifts from individuals like you! Chris's gift will help us keep our doors open so we can continue to provide free and low-cost birth, breastfeeding, and parenting services to growing families and families of loss throughout the USA. Thanks, Chris!
Chris Hagen became St. Croix Birth & Parenting's newest Crystal Community Sponsor. SCBP is a nonprofit registered in the state of Minnesota. A very large portion of our income is made of financial gifts from individuals like you! Chris's gift will help us keep our doors open so we can continue to provide free and low-cost birth, breastfeeding, and parenting services to growing families and families of loss throughout the USA. Thanks, Chris!
The coronavirus pandemic has changed life as most of us once experienced it. Many areas of the world are in lockdown, and even in areas where things have opened up, as the number of COVID-19 cases spikes again, we will likely face more social distancing measures or quarantines to try to slow the spread (if we aren't already).
For some new mothers, this slower, more home-based pace of life has been a good thing. These moms report that being quarantined with their babies has helped them breastfeed, since - just to mention one thing - being separated from a nursing baby tends to make maintaining a milk supply more challenging and if nothing else, lockdown gives us lots and lots of time with our immediate family members. But in other and important ways, social isolation is not great for new mothers. Many important services that mothers need, including lactation help, have been more difficult or impossible to access during lockdown. Aside from access to healthcare, all mothers need other mothers, friends, sisters, cousins, grandmothers, aunts...we need our sisters and our sage femmes to let us know we're not alone; we're loved; we're doing a good-enough job; our kids are normal (usually); and, if they're not, to have faith that eventually, this too shall pass. Lockdowns put a lock on these face-to-face and side-by-side moments...natural social interactions which normally serve to lower our stress levels and restore us - "enhope" us. And all this goes quadruple for new mothers.
Dealing with lochia, sore nipples, night feeds, blow outs, the constant guessing games that a newborn brings (a/k/a no instruction manual), keeping a brand new non-verbal human thriving and growing, and caring for everything "down there" is just a lot. In some idealized past, we imagine our ancestral mothers got to lie around while their loving, supportive kin waited on them hand and foot. Sure, maybe that happened sometime, somewhere, but envying our long-departed great-great-grandmother's "lying in" is not really going to help you get through this painful feed, on this lonely day, at this ungodly hour.
So let's break this down. New mothers have physical needs. Food, water, monster sized maternity pads (in the beginning), menstrual pads later on, baths or showers, and (eventually) clean clothes. If you love her, ask about these things. If she needs something, help or ask someone else to help. Leave things on her porch, in her mailbox, send it unaccompanied up the elevator, or throw it through her window if you have to! (Or you could just give to the baby's dad, but that's not as fun.)
If she's good with her physical needs, I guarantee she has emotional needs. Call and ask about her birth. Listen. Bite your tongue if you find yourself starting any sentence with the words "at least." Listen. Celebrate the good stuff with her. Mourn with her anything she found sad. Share her anger if anything made her mad. Don't tell her what she should have done differently. Listen. Are you listening? Keep listening. No matter what, make sure to let her know how amazing she is. No one in the history of the world had her birth. It was her adventure and she is a heroine for having done it!
Call another time and ask how things are going with the baby. Celebrate the joys. Mourn the things that aren't going so well with her. Did I mention don't tell her she should have done anything differently? She is probably already beating herself up about something. If her baby is growing and developing, she's doing a great job. Tell her.
If her baby is struggling, offer to help. If she's got other kids, depending on your local situation, you might be able to have someone in mom's social bubble bring the baby's older siblings somewhere outside for a socially distanced / masked playdate so she can visit (whether in-person or virtual) with the doctor, or the chiropractor, or the lactation consultant, or whoever it is she thinks can help. Moms grow in confidence and feel capable when the people around them support their decisions about their baby's care. Be that person (even if you secretly disagree). Being a great friend / sister / mother / mother-in-law, etc., means supporting the new mom's efforts to become a mother, a big part of which is taking responsibility for her baby. And chances are very good that if the baby continues to struggle, even after that visit with [insert name here] she will try something else, and something else, and something else, and maybe, when she's tried everything else, she may even ask you for your advice! Now is your moment.
A few days or a week later, call her again. And then again. And yet again. And pretty soon she will blossom and her tiny baby will become a chunky monkey, roll over and crawl and take his first steps, and life will settle and she will never forget that you were there, on the sidelines, cheering her on the whole time. Maybe you never carried a meal to her bedside on a solid-gold tray, but you were there. And maybe she'll tell her great-great-granddaughters about you and how you were there for her when great-grandpa was born, during the time of the world coronavirus pandemic.
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