New Respect for Motherhood Born with Infant

For almost a decade, my work at The Urban Child Institute has involved extensive research on early childhood development, from the importance of prenatal care to the benefits of shared book reading for kindergarten readiness, and just about everything in between. After years of collecting and analyzing data on child well-being and reading hundreds of studies on early development, I had begun to feel like something of an authority on children.

And then, in January, I gave birth to a baby of my own — Jane. No amount of research could have prepared me for the weeks ahead. I learned that the warnings people give new mothers about being tired are true — more true than I ever could have fathomed. By week five, there had not been a single night when I slept more than two hours in a row or got more than a total of five hours sleep.

It was around this point that I realized that lack of sleep had reduced me to a robot. I lost my sense of humor completely, along with most of my cognitive functions. Basically, I fed, changed and soothed Jane, rotated laundry, and felt lucky if I managed to eat and shower in the rare moments in between.

In my work, I’ve praised the benefits of breastfeeding to audiences for years. I admit that I’ve sometimes felt a little judgmental about women who give up nursing early. Now I understand why so many women stop — it hurts! It hurts a lot, and it hurts all the time. But despite the pain, Jane still needs to eat. And study after study has confirmed that breast milk is the best food for babies. It’s nutritionally superior to formula, and it’s also been shown to promote health and cognitive development.

Research suggests that breastfeeding may also promote attachment. In early childhood research, attachment refers to the sense of safety and security a baby feels in relation to her primary caregiver (usually a parent). It is a crucial part of early development: The quality of a baby’s attachment relationship with her parent has long-term consequences for social and emotional development. Breastfeeding involves the kind of calm, quiet interaction and physical closeness that support healthy attachment.

Attachment was a particular concern for me because Jane was born preterm, and some studies have linked premature birth with the risk for attachment problems. In reality, I probably had little reason to worry. She was born five weeks before her due date, which places her in the “late preterm” category — a relatively low-risk group. Her birth weight was solidly in the normal range.

Jane and I are lucky: despite a complicated delivery, we are both in good health. But it hasn’t been easy. For her first five weeks, she was calm only when she was close enough to recognize my scent and hear my heartbeat. She would cry, then scream, whenever I put her down; I carried her all the time.

She would fall asleep only after prolonged skin-to-skin contact, usually waking up immediately once the contact was broken. Not until a few days after her official due date — about five weeks after her birth — did she begin to tolerate any separation at all.

I’ve come to realize that a new mother’s social support network is incredibly important for reducing stress. I appreciate my friends and family on a whole new level now. They have brought me food and listened to my incoherent, sleep-deprived attempts at conversation. They’ve held Jane so I could take a shower or get some fresh air. They’ve spent the night helping me get some extra rest by rocking Jane back to sleep after our 1 a.m., 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. feedings. In other words, they’ve kept me sane — or at least pretty close.

Jane has taught me a lot. She’s certainly taught me about patience. More important, she has taught me that my heart is now outside my body and that all along I’ve had a higher capacity for love and self-sacrifice than I ever realized. At the same time, I’ve learned how to ask for help and how to be thankful when it is offered.

These nine weeks have been the most difficult and most rewarding of my life. The past few months have given me an entirely new appreciation of the role of motherhood — its awesome responsibilities as well as its incredible rewards — and of the importance of supporting mothers in our community as they struggle to help their children reach their potential.

Cate Joyce is Director of Data at The Urban Child Institute.

This article was originally published by the Commercial Appeal.