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Can you cuddle your baby too much?

If you want the shortest blog ever, the answer is no. However, in the interests of actually giving some hopefully useful information to frazzled new mothers who are desperate for even a bit of order and sanity in their lives, let’s explore the myths and facts behind my answer.

Babies do not ‘learn’ to be alone if you leave them to cry. They will eventually stop crying without attention, but this is a shutdown reaction, not a learning one. The only lesson learned is that when they need you, you may not come.

Crying is to begin with the most evident communication tool that your baby has, and a signal that they need something that you might not have picked up on with their more subtle cues. It might be food, a nappy change, comfort, company, sometimes they don’t know either… at the beginning, neither of you does really. With your newborn you are learning to get to know a brand new person, who is an individual from the start, and as with any new person in your life, it takes time, observation and patience, and with a baby close, loving contact. Granted, most new people that you meet are able to communicate with you a bit better, don’t keep you up all night, fall asleep when you’re talking to them, vomit on you or need holding all the time, but they’re grownups and actually won’t have many friends if they behave like that. Neither though do they have that chemistry, know your heartbeat inside and out, and respond so instinctively to your smell, touch and voice. No one is more content to be with you than your baby; it feels right to mothers too, it’s just that so many people keep telling them that they shouldn’t do it too much or they’ll ‘spoil’ the baby.

Science fact: when you are cuddling your baby, you both release more of a hormone called oxytocin, the love hormone. This helps you to make milk, strengthens the bond with your baby and makes you happier and more relaxed. Your baby gets huge benefits – they too will be more content, more secure and it is good for brain development and growth. There’s a ton of good evidence to show that babies whose physical and emotional needs were fully met by their mothers or main carer when they were very small have a more highly developed brain even 10 years later, and were more sociable and confident.

So far then, on every level, cuddling your baby lots and lots (with lots of skin to skin in the early days) seems to be the way forward for a more contented family in which everyone in it does less crying, and yet social media platforms, many of the most popular baby ‘how to’ books and large groups of friends and family seem hell bent on instructing you how to ‘train’ your baby not to need to be cuddled so much and to instil a ‘routine’ AS SOON AS POSSIBLE! Why is this?

I don’t have science facts for this, I have only many midwife years of observation, personal experience of motherhood and a lot of hours contemplating the issue to offer you.

Instinct v civilisation; newborn mammals are designed to have close bodily contact with their mothers while they grow, feed and learn to be independent. For brain and body, heart and mind, this is essential. Our instincts lead us very strongly to keep our babies close, to touch them, smell them and communicate with them.

Modern life has become ever more complicated, busy and pressured as we live our lives via rigid timetables, meetings and planners. Adjusting to the mostly unpredictable, often nocturnal lifestyle of a tiny baby is a gargantuan leap that can leave you with a constant feeling of slight apprehension as you don’t know what is going to be needed next and when. Managing is even harder if you are someone who thrives and feels safest in our mad-busy world with routine and order to stop you from drowning.

Priority luxury item for brand new mothers – SLEEP! It was probably very important to cave-dwelling mothers too, and is to all other mammals, the difference is that a dog for example doesn’t have a supermarket run, 25 vomitty outfits to wash (and that’s just yours), emails to attend to, Mr Dog who has to get some shut eye in as he has a 7.30 meeting, the washing machine repair man coming round or the need to try and be dressed before lunchtime just to feel normal. Watch a new dog mumma; she’ll nap in and out equally through the day and night, waking to feed her babies and herself and taking a food/wee break, but the majority of the time she will be with them, touching them, snuggling them. No pressure, she just responds to her instincts.

Yes we have more highly developed brains but we still too have those instincts, and fight them every step of the way whilst we try to carry on as we are used to doing. Something has to give.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all new mothers turn into feral mammals and live with the baby in a nesting box of questionable hygiene for several weeks- that would be weird- but there are some adjustments that you can make that will make for a calmer, happier household.

Let’s look at the ‘routine’ word; this suggests doing set things at set times, which your brain patterning feels comfortable with, it makes things feel normal at a time when everything else feels so different – being a parent, having a tiny baby to take care of, becoming a family instead of just being you or the two of you. It’s an odd feeling, coming back to your home for the first time with a baby, and however much preparation you might have tried to do, it’s still really strange, as though you’re in a play about someone else’s life. You will look for things to do that feel familiar, and having a routine feels comforting.

Part of your usual routine pattern is being awake during the day, going to sleep at night (unless you’re a shift worker) and eating food at fairly regular intervals. So, you quite reasonably think that this should work for the baby too.

Your priority as the days go by will become the getting and having of sleep, in one uninterrupted lump, at night. You will crave it like an addict craves a fix. Now here’s the thing; when you know you definitely will not get it i.e. if you work at night, you adjust your expectations. Hoping that you will get it but not being sure if or when that will happen or how long it will be for is a different ball game. The actual sleep deprivation plus the uncertainty plus trying to have some kind of daytime life and responsibility as an adult human being is a potent mix, and thus you become fixated on any way of trying to coax the baby to sleep at night. This is usually closely tied up with feeding, as that is what the baby seems to want most at night. In your fuddled postnatal brain, you may think that if you can regulate the daytime feeds and get sufficient milk into your baby during the day there is an outside chance he or she won’t need so much at night, right? Unfortunately this is not how a tiny baby’s system works.

Baby’s stomachs are really tiny compared to ours, and can only hold a small amount of milk at one time. They need small, frequent feeds and it isn’t until they are much bigger, usually a few months old, that they will be able to have enough milk during the day to give you a reasonable stretch (hopefully) of four, five hours at night.

Here’s another curve ball – some babies will do this quite early at two or three months old, and others (cared for in exactly the same way) will take much longer. So comparing babies to each other is pointless. Everyone gets bigger and more settled in the end, they just do it in a hundred different ways. This is because your baby is an individual, not a product of a generic baby-issuing machine. All babies are different – if you have siblings, ask your parents whether you all behaved the in same way as babies and the answer will be a resounding no! Trying to force a baby into a routine MAY work for some babies as that’s what they would have done anyway, but for others it will lead to a lot more crying and misery. As I said earlier, eventually you may get the routine you want, but at emotional cost.

Newborns drift in and out of being awake and asleep over day and night, often seeming to save a lot of their wake time for the darkness hours and being out like a light all day. Yep, that happens for some. Worst of all, some babies don’t even seem to want actual feeding for lots of their night time waking! These are cuddle times. Your new baby doesn’t know you have stuff to do tomorrow, or that everyone else is asleep, he or she just knows they want the reassurance of being with mum. Giving them that comfort leads only one way; to a secure baby and a happier mother. That oxytocin flow between you both when you hold your baby close is a natural, purposeful thing.

So, the way forward while they are very tiny and learning to live in the world is try to work out what they seem to need and give it to them. They do not know how to manipulate you, they only know what they need – and you’re it.

This means other stuff needs adjusting. It means jettisoning every task you can and delegating it to someone else while you daytime nap. Tidying, shopping, cooking, washing, ironing – if you’re going to get really antsy if your house is untidy and won’t be able to sleep until it’s done, ask someone to help you. If you’re lucky enough to have an army of family who are desperate to get involved, divvy up the necessary tasks, but be very exact about what would help; most people are really keen to help but don’t know how to. It’s much more satisfying and helpful to both parties if you say ‘Please can you take the washing away and do it at 30 degrees and please don’t tumble dry my tshirts/hoover the floor/make us some dinner and bring it round/tidy up the bombsite that is my kitchen’ or whatever you need. If you’re not specific, you may get some dinner, but something you don’t like, and then you’ll cry (again). Your friends and family will find a given suggestion really helpful too. If you don’t have any helpers, cut corners for a bit, get as organised as you can with everything that you can, but don’t try to organise the baby, not yet.

I understand that some of us feel we ought to have everything under control, like everything. Semi-controlled chaos is a good midlevel ambition.

Another thing people try to tell you is that you must sleep during the day; this is a fairly pointless statement, as there will come a time when you will go to sleep at any possible given opportunity and couldn’t care less what time it is.

You will get your sleep back, it may be in a few weeks, months or sometimes longer, there may be patches of disturbed sleep during minor illnesses, teething, or holiday disruption, but in the main it will settle, and the more responsive you are to your baby’s needs from the beginning, the more easily they will transition from a night to a daytime being. Be confident that you are doing the right thing as a mother by responding to your instinctive need to have your baby close, and fit the other stuff around that as much as you can; you’ll have a much happier journey, and a happier, more confident baby, and quite frankly who cares what anyone else’s baby is doing?

Read; building a happy baby (online), or Penelope Leach’s excellent baby manuals, if you really want a book that helps you to see the world through your baby’s eyes.