By Cassidy Swanson
For many women who choose natural childbirth, it connects to how they live their lives and plan to raise their children. Many of the trends we see today in “natural” parenting in the first year of baby’s life are, like natural birth, the way babies were traditionally raised for millennia. Breastfeeding, cloth diapering, babywearing, co-sleeping, and baby-led weaning are just a few of the many ways that modern moms and dads are bringing up baby naturally.
Breast is Best
Breastfeeding is universally accepted as the best and healthiest way for babies to receive nourishment for at least the first six months of life. Breast milk is loaded with antibodies that can help build the baby’s immunity. Breastfeeding has also shown to have enormous benefit for the mother, from helping with weight loss after pregnancy and possibly reducing her risk of developing breast cancer. But since the introduction of baby formula, many women choose to feed their baby that way instead. For some, it’s about convenience, but mom and baby can face some challenges that make nursing difficult.
“People feel a lot of shame if they’re not able to breastfeed or if they’re having difficulty with it,” said Divya Kumar, of Jamaica Plain, who works as a lactation counselor at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center. “Most of the time it doesn’t work out, it’s because somebody wasn’t able to access the support they needed in time. With the proper support, it’s very, very unlikely that it just doesn’t work out.”
“Both mom and baby need to learn how to do it,” she added. “When [our ancestors] lived together, there would always be grandma or auntie helping you learn how to breastfeed. You’ve watched women breastfeed your whole life. But we don’t do that anymore…so it’s really about the barriers to support that can interfere with good breastfeeding.”
Lauren Austrian-Parke, of JP, is a new mom to a 7-month-old son. While breastfeeding has been mostly successful for her, it hasn’t been perfect.
“I have not known anyone to whom breastfeeding was not painful,” she said, herself included. “I feel like mine was painful for longer than most people’s…[my breasts have] been sore for six months.”
Cloth diapers have reemerged in popularity due to their economic and ecological benefits. The Real Diaper Association, an organization which advocates for the use of cloth diapers, reports that about 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used annually in the U.S., and 92 percent of them end up in landfills. Because they contain plastic, it could take hundreds of years for a single diaper to biodegrade. Disposable diapers can also be expensive. The average baby goes through approximately 6,000 diapers in the first two years of life, and it can be a lot cheaper to buy several dozen cloth diapers and a few diaper covers that can be reused 50 to 200 times, rather than a disposable that is thrown out after one use.
Gena Mavuli, 35, of Hyde Park, diapered both of her children, now 2 and 4, with cloth. She and her husband chose cloth diapers mainly for the savings.
“Yes, it’s an up-front investment,” she said. “The first kid, you start saving money after about a year. With your second kid, it’s just all savings, because you’re reusing the same diapers.”
Mavuli said she and her husband do use disposable diapers at night, but only 300 a year as opposed to 3,000, as is the case for many two-child families who use disposable diapers. They use a variety of cloth diaper that has a cover with snaps and a pocket in which the cloth is inserted.
“You just wash them in the washing machine,” she said. She doesn’t use a diaper sprayer – a pressurized nozzle that attaches to the toilet and is used to spray solid waste out of the diaper and into the toilet – which many cloth diaperers use.
“That’s just extra crap that they sell you,” she said. With her son, she and her husband used what they called a “poo spoon” – a large plastic scoop she kept in a bucket next to the toilet to scrape off the waste – and it worked fine.
“Wearing” Your Baby
Another trend that was common throughout history and is making a comeback, especially in crowded cities like Boston, is babywearing, which is exactly what it sounds like. Mom or dad is able to use a baby carrier on their chest or back, and it leaves their hands free. There are a variety of choices, from the Moby Wrap to the Baby Bjorn, and some parents will even make their own fabric slings.
Katharine Cooney, of Jamaica Plain, wears her baby both for convenience and closeness.
“I’m a very physical person – I like to have affection, and I’ve always been that way,” she said. “For me, I was like, I want to hold my baby all the time.”
Cooney has about six different carriers that she uses. Her favorite carrier to use when her son, now 18 months old, was born was the Moby.
“It’s a nice, tight, stretchy wrap that really keeps them close and wraps them all around, so they feel super snug,” she said. “[My son] would just fall asleep in it right away.”
Cooney and her husband also started their son on solid foods using a method called baby-led weaning, when babies are started on finger foods of all kinds – usually whatever the parents are eating — rather than purees. The theory behind this is that it supports motor skill development as well as learning how to chew and swallow.
“He enjoyed it, and we didn’t have to make special meals,” she said. “It was stress-free. I didn’t have to prepare huge batches of purees and stuff like that. It just was less time consuming and easy and fun, because he got to try all these new different textures and hold things, and his motor skills, I think, probably developed a little better because of that.”
Sleeping with Baby
Parents sleeping with their baby in their bed, called “co-sleeping” or “bed-sharing,” is standard practice in much of the world and is gaining in popularity in the U.S., but is still controversial here. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages co-sleeping because of the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) caused by accidental suffocation or strangulation, but many breastfeeding advocates, pediatricians, and parents disagree – it just needs to be done under the right conditions.
“Breastfeeding is one of the biggest things that makes it okay to bed-share with your baby, because you see the mom and baby as a dyad – they’re sort of sleeping and waking together, and their circadian rhythms are kind of linked up, and that’s because of breastfeeding,” Kumar said.
Kumar said that there are countries where it is common for breastfeeding women to sleep with their babies, and their SIDS rates are actually better than in the U.S.
“The SIDS risk is peaking around four months or so,” she said. “Once you’re talking about an older baby, it’s less of a risk, because the baby is much more strong and is going to be able to bat a comforter away from their face. You still have to be careful – you don’t want a big, fluffy pillow near a baby’s face. You don’t want a big comforter. But it’s not like you’re bed-sharing with a two-week-old.”
Toni Golen, M.D., an ob-gyn at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, acknowledged that while there are potential risks to co-sleeping, there is a modified approach a breastfeeding mom can take to safely sleep with her baby.
“There are co-sleepers to make it that the baby is not actually in the bed with the pillows, but actually on a platform that’s contiguous with the bed, and that seems to be a safe option,” she said. “In terms of promoting breastfeeding success, one of the things that’s key is to make the separation between mom and baby as minimal as we possibly can, and so having the baby sleep in close proximity is one of the things that can make that happen.”
Shannon Pope, owner of Mama & Me in Jamaica Plain, talks about her business’ role in the community for new parents: