The Great British Sewing Bee

I’ve had it on Series Link since I first heard about it. The Great British Bake off had me stuck to the tv from the first episode (big kisses to my exceptionally talented friend Edd) and I had a feeling that the Great British Sew Off would be the same. I wasn’t disappointed!

I’m a longtime fan of Tilly Walnes’ blog Tilly and The Buttons and thought her Tana Lawn pockets in her a-line skirt were super cute. If you want to learn to sew, her photo tutorials are fabulous. She hasn’t been sewing as long as Ann, the contestant with 75 years of experience (!) but you can see from her blog she knows her stuff. So it’s interesting to see the pressure that the show’s time limits exerts.

Only one contestant, Sandra, got a lining done for the skirt and I imagine her grace in the firing line comes from having three daughters standing over her going ‘Is it done yet Mum?’ on repeat. I found myself picking up tips from May Martin, one of the show’s judges along with the fabulously dapper Patrick Grant. We love a neat pocket square in this house. The lovely soft light cotton that Sandra chose had to have a lining because its inclination is to fall in toward the body so that won’t maintain the shape of the a-line they’d been directed to make. Doh.

Scottish Lauren with the fabulous lilting accent is half of the duo behind this rather marvellous looking bricks-and-mortar and online store, Guthrie and Ghani. Anywhere that stocks Denyse Schmidt’s Flea Market Fancy gets my seal of approval. Mark the HGV mechanic totally pulled off the surprise of the evening with his perfectly fitted two-tone dress, with his perfectly fitted fourth-ever zip. Git. Although wouldn’t he have practised that dress at home?

All the contestants seem charming and supportive of each other. Having followed the Bake Off, which is made by the same production company, I have a feeling that everything could change next week as they’re tricksy with editing and playing with who they focus on, to keep you guessing as to who wins. Here’s more about the participants. I’m not going to lay any bets just yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if Patrick has a great week next week, and what will happen to Jane? Either way I know I’ll be glued to it. I may also have to dig out my sewing machine…

What are your favourite patterns for beginners and rusty crafters like me?

PS my one bugbear – can we please encourage the use of “sewist” rather than the other word they’ve been using for the contestants? While it sounds fine when spoken, nobody wants to be described in print as a home sewer, honestly now.

In Praise of the Humble Nap

I optimistically read a bit about sleep training before we had Sproggett but then he actually arrived, and a sleep routine went the way of cloth nappies, frankly.

Only recently I’ve become better at reading the cues and naps are getting to be more of a fixture in our day. I know they’re good for him, to help him get towards his daily quota of sleep and all that. I just never realised how fantastic they’d be for me.

I’m not talking about that parenting myth of “sleep while he sleeps” (because that’s when the laundry fairies and the house elves come in, when everyone is gently snoring, right?) Rather, that his daytime nap is when I get to do stuff.

I dictate emails while sterilising bottles.

I prepare client proposals at light speed, turns out I can type about 150wpm if I think I’m about to have to rescue a squally baby.

I can unload a dishwasher, load a washing machine and fold a load of tumbled laundry in the time it used to take me to have a shower.

And then, miraculously, he is still asleep. Yesterday he slept for two hours in the day. That’s fairly rare for us but is just about the best present I could wish for.

I barely knew what to do with myself.

I made myself a cup of proper coffee and drank it while it was still hot. I tidied up blogging stuff, actually read a little for pleasure. My non-parent brain switched itself back on, because I wasn’t in Mama Bear mode any more, with one eye and more than half my attention on a bub who’s not yet crawling, but spins like a top on the floor and is never where you left him for long. I could take more of an interest in the world outside for a bit (via the interflubs) and come back recharged and refreshed.

I’m far from a domestic goddess. But chaos takes over far too quickly around here. Retaining a small amount of freelance work makes me feel like I’m still contributing, without impinging on being able to spend almost all of my time with Sproggett. It also pays for the cleaner, to be honest.

After lunch I got to spend the afternoon playing with a giggling, cheery, energetic bub. Everyone was happier. Praise be to the nap.

Can you sleep when your baby sleeps?

Eat Your Books

There are times when eating books might be the only option left in this house. While Sproggett’s food requirements are pretty well taken care of – as long as you consider having bought food in stock ok – I still default sometimes to the “Oh well I’ll just run out and pick something up” mentality which isn’t quite so practical when that involved wrestling a tiny human into his coat and setting off for the supermarket while hoping he’ll maintain a decent humour throughout…

I have struggled, like many new mums do, with getting everything done. However at seven months, he’s not really a new baby. i guess what I’m saying is, I thought I’d have my shit a little more together by now.

I guess there’s buying ready meals if I’m only bothered about putting something on the table for us to eat, but as recent developments have shown that we have no idea what goes into most of those, then perhaps not. Also, they mostly taste like cardboard covered in silly string and garnished with sawdust.

So it’s time to get a bit more organised. First weapon in the arsenal? Eat Your Books.

To stem the clutter in the house, most book purchases now are for Kindle apart from my weakness which is cookbooks. But who really uses any of their cookbooks? You tend to have favourites, probably from a chef you trust (coughNigellacough) and ones which are just full of pretty pictures. I remember a stat from when I worked in publishing saying most people never cook more than five recipes from a book.

Where EYB is genius is that it recognises all of your books (as it’s been around a little while now, it had 95% of the books in my collection already indexed) and allows you to search them by occasion, ingredient or cuisine. The 50 books I’ve added to my library give me almost 8,000 recipes, which actually aren’t all for cupcakes and baked goods, hurrah! It then tells you that there are recipes for, say fish pie, in five of your books, and you get a list of the main ingredients to grab a snapshot to add to your shopping list.

Where we’ve found it useful is not only for inspiration, but for rediscovering chefs and certain books. This week we did one huge online shop based around four of Thomasina Miers’ Mexican Made Simple recipes and cooked hearty Mexican meals all week. I’ve missed cooking as much as I’ve missed eating well.

You can add five books free of charge, or $2.50 per month, $25 per year. It will also index personal recipes, blogs and food magazines. Use it to rediscover your collection and perhaps some hidden gems – and, ahem, perhaps to research those books that are missing from your shelves?!

Does your child need the NHS?

It’s been quiet around these parts lately, quieter than at any other time in my blogging life. I don’t mind admitting, I’m knackered. Ah right, you say – baby not sleeping? Well, he is and he isn’t (more on that later) but actually most of the time it’s me keeping myself awake.

I’ve had a cough since Sproggett was two weeks old. He’s had it too, in varying degrees, and it’s been heartening but heart-breaking to see the tiny man cough so violently that his whole head turns red, and leaves him startled, followed by a brave determined assertion of ‘I’m alright Mum! I am I am!’. He was diagnosed with reflux, we administered Gaviscon, things got a bit better or we got more accustomed to it, whooping cough was suspected but thankfully discounted. We headed into winter and once breastfeeding finished, expected the odd cold which indeed was the case. We try not to fret. Ok, I fret but I try not to talk about it too much.

Me, I’ve been sounding like punctured bagpipes for seven months. There have been numerous trips to the GP, for both of us, to a soundtrack of wheezing like a fifty-a-day girl. Depending on who we saw, varying amounts of support. Prescribed inhalers didn’t help much although the steroid tablets made a difference for a few days. The GP we like best referred me to the chest clinic at the local hospital. Sproggett, she couldn’t actually find anything wrong with: His chest is clear. There’s no real explanation but as long as he seems well enough in himself… well, let’s just see what happens. That sort of thing, said in a kindly way, with an exhortation to return if there’s no improvement or a marked downturn.

At the chest clinic, after my allergy testing testing (negative) and a lung function test (all fine) the next step was a histamine challenge test, the next vacancy six weeks hence. Yesterday a kindly technician guided me through the peak flow measurement and the trial run, involving inhaling a saline solution before introducing a low dose of histamine. He explained that he would be looking for my breathing capability to drop 20% over five increasing doses of histamine, if there was a problem. I aced that test, folks – my lung function dropped 40% on the first dose.

He said it was the fastest i.e. best i.e. worst result he’d seen in twenty years. Woo, go me and my “acutely sensitive airways”! Next week it’s back to the consultant to see what he says and hopefully get some sort of treatment, more testing if necessary. I also want to discuss Sprogett being referred for treatment if it’s something similar causing him to cough so much. The reason he isn’t sleeping through the night is that he is waking himself up coughing. On a rare night recently where he didn’t cough he slept 7:30 – 5:00. I’ll take that…

So how much have I paid for all of this? At least six GP visits since July, two days of testing at the hospital, prescriptions? Nothing. Zero. I am still eligible for a maternity exemption certificate for prescriptions, and thanks to the NHS nobody pays for GP visits, or costly tests. Yes some people might moan that their GP is overstretched, and around here we have some very dodgy practices when it comes to prescribing contraception (another story altogether) but we have always been able to see someone in a timely manner and for free.

I don’t believe that this will be the case for much longer. It hasn’t really made the news, but this government (following rapidly on some developments started by previous governments) seems to be intent on dismantling the NHS as we know it. The NHA party is contesting the by-election in Eastleigh because it wants to win back seats from Conservative and Lib Dems and try to change the course we seem to be set on: The Health and Social Care Bill which is currently before parliament is going to remove universal access to free healthcare. It’s that simple.

As I understand it (and in a very small nutshell), rather than being responsible for providing a national health service, the bill allows the government to only fund it and then services would be put out to tender in a free market, open to the lowest bidder. That will ultimately mean huge conglomerates overseeing services in major contracts (anyone remember G4 at the Olympics?)

If you compare it to train privatisation, I presume that if you become ill with a major mainline recognised complaint (asthma, my likely diagnosis is probably about as popular as the London-Brighton line: lots of passengers, well understood route, lots of familiarity with the destination) then you’ll probably be dealt with reasonably quickly. No big surprises. However, I had to keep pressing to be tested again and again. I wasn’t to be fobbed off but without a second revealing set of tests at the chest clinic I could have been left to chunder up a lung on a daily basis. What if it isn’t asthma? What if it’s something less well understood, less popular? Would obtaining treatment be like trying to get to Southend on a Wednesday in January? I might well find the service is reduced. Or non existent.

That may sound dramatic but this government seems intent to give over our national health service to private companies. Who work on margins and profit.

Mark Haddon, author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, wrote about it this week in the Guardian.
My worry, I suppose, is that we will end up looking at a system like in the US where if you don’t have (private) health insurance you descend into a sort of underclass with little or no safety net.

I have lived and worked in the UK for all of my adult life and I’ve come to accept free healthcare as a fact of life. I’ve had private healthcare when self employed, although it’s lapsed now, but I had been blithely expecting that Sproggett would be cared for, if needed by the NHS. Hell, without it, he literally wouldn’t be here. We’ve had one overnight in Children’s A&E in seven months, hopefully nothing more, but when we needed the care it was there.

What if you couldn’t see a doctor? Or if your child’s condition was viewed as ‘not profitable enough’ to be researched or treated? What if you had to choose between paying for one child to get treatment, or for siblings to eat or stay warm?

Here’s what the British Medical Journal says about how the government is dismantling the NHS, and the Lancet’s article on the ending of universal healthcare

If you don’t have your health, you have nothing so they say. Maybe the situation regarding the NHS isn’t as bleak as this picture (which is being painted by all of the medical colleges except one, the British Medical Association, and the nursing colleges) but what if it is? Maybe it’s time we started asking some more questions – of our GPs re their funding, of the media about why there hasn’t been more mainstream coverage, of the government of whether they personally have financial interests in the companies that will be bidding on the outsourced services and contracts.

Otherwise we may see the NHS as we know it disappear within our lifetimes, and have our children ask us in fifteen years’ time why we didn’t do anything to stop it.

Edited to add: if this situation concerns you, you might want to sign this petition

Weaning for mums

Much excitement around here at the moment, and most of it is food related. Firstly we’re getting a new kitchen. Mr D cooks burgers. I bake. We inherited a crappy oven that looked perfectly respectable but either raged like a bushfire or blew temperature raspberries at us. You can get away with overcooking meat but baking was a disaster. I eventually got really stroppy about the squandered time and the waste of ingredients and stopped baking altogether. Now there is a ginormous range cooker with a double oven in our kitchen. In the middle of the kitchen, admittedly, and not connected yet, but it’s in there. Snow and shitty plaster has slowed things down.

The youngster has started on solids and he’s eating everything like a champ. Well, except carrot. “The carrot face” is something I never really want to see again. He thought I was trying to murder him with orange mush, the poor wee fellow. Then the next day he happily scarfed down avocado, which I wouldn’t have predicted (although it seems from an informal poll that lots of people loathe carrot – really?)

Alongside I’m kind of weaning myself. I am trying to avoid eating things that I wouldn’t want him to eat. So far it’s working pretty well. There are lots of things I’d like to do in 2013 and frankly none of them revolve around me still looking six months pregnant. Rather than envisaging next summer with a wildly laughing one year old speeding off into the distance and me panting while running after him, I want to get back to a healthy weight. Without much effort, frankly. And then I will win the lottery… So here’s how I am planning to do it.

  • I think having company helps. Some of my lovely online mum friends are doing this with me, a bit like Kate’s Wobbles Wednesday. Today’s our weigh in day. We have a private Facebook group to support each other.
  • I’m working out what works for me. Personally I really miss doing some exercise. At one point in my life I ran a lot. I loved it. So I’m back on a Couch 2 5k program which has helped me lost 8lbs in three weeks. The snow has scuppered things a bit but rather than get despondent I am going to restart week 2, which I’d completed, again. I don’t think I’ll ever run long distances again but getting to 5k would be great and something that’s hopefully still achievable while looking after the youngster. It’s also some precious time to myself that ironically gives me much more energy to deal with the boy.
  • And crucially, rather than get too hung up on excluding foodstuffs (I’ve done low-carb, low-fat, Weightwatchers, LighterLife light in the past…) I am using an approach which is based on cognitive behavioural therapy. This is the year that I need to change my habits. I want to make sure that the young man doesn’t grow up with lots of hang-ups about what he eats. So I have to set a better example – everything in moderation, eh?
  • Setting goals and deadlines – I want to lose 10% of my body weight by my birthday, which is a reasonable goal and something concrete to aim for.

All this needs to be done with care – care for myself. Can’t be doing with persecuting myself. I’ve got an oven to test. Just need to make sure I don’t eat all the products myself!

Breastfeeding – the ups and downs

Ah, breastfeeding. It so nearly went the way of the cloth nappies. As in “Nice idea, but life is too short”.

After an unfortunate start in Special Care, the situation with breastfeeding went from bad to worse to a bit better to horrible to acceptable. This post has been brewing some time so it’s a long one!

A better start for breastfeeding

Our hospital only supports breastfeeding which was just fine with us. Before we actually had a baby. Unless you end up in Special Care like we did. In the midst of confusion about whether he was going to have serious problems, nobody asked us whether they could give him formula. They just did.

In hospital I repeatedly asked the midwives for help with positioning and latching. I was advised to use nipple shields for my flat nipples (they’re not) and told he was latching fine (he wasn’t). As a GP friend pointed out, most of the midwives that would have been around us are from the first generation who didn’t breastfeed – they happily filled their offspring to the neck with formula, because they were told it was ‘scientific’. I suspect that it was because we were in a private room that we never encountered the hospital breastfeeding counsellor while we were there – although friends on the ward did.

After a week in hospital, on our first morning home the Community Midwife took one look at Sproggett and diagnosed a tongue tie.
If it had been identified and treated in hospital maybe we would have had more success getting him to latch on. But again it’s not a priority for them, especially with funding shortages. The wait list to get it assessed and then treated on the NHS is 4-6 weeks in our area. We had it done privately.

By then he was ten days old and frankly our second wind hadn’t kicked in yet. You know, we were still at the stage where you might find the milk in the oven or random bits of cutlery in the fridge and everyone is just happy you haven’t absent-mindedly left the child outside the shops. Yet.

My attempts to offer him the breast before the bottle became half hearted as I lost confidence. I failed to follow up when the hospital breastfeeding counsellor didn’t come to appointments she’d made with us because in my mind that meant facing more anguish trying to feed. Instead I put effort into following an expressing schedule.

Eight times a day, I was told. Obviously those pesky baby creatures feed throughout the night too so my alarm was set for 22:00, 2:00, 6:00 and then every two and a half hours to try to get those eight sessions in. I don’t think I ever made it. But the milk supply didn’t go down which was the important thing. With well-meaning advice ringing in my ears, and making me dread missing a session: “no pump empties a breast as well as a baby”, I kept plugging away. When you add in the time involved in sterilising bottles, expressing and actually feeding the baby it’s brutal how physically and mentally draining (badum-tish) that could be. I nearly gave up.

Why persevere with breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is convenient, fast, and comforting for a squally baby as well as all the health benefits and immunity from illness. It can also sit somewhere on the pain scale from sore to agonising, it’s tiring when you’re getting used to it and sometimes downright bloody heartbreaking.

For us, things improved dramatically at ten weeks and made me think breastfeeding might actually be possible.

Nothing could have prepared me for the enveloping feeling of guilt when we were not doing well, massively fuelled by hormones. Every time we failed to achieve a latch after seeing a consultant or counsellor where we’d been fine, Mr D would come home to find me feeding Sproggett a bottle of formula with tears steaming down my face. Breastfeeding can be just as tough on your partner. He’d tell me that it was fine and that the baby’s health was the most important thing. I’d agree and then snottily wail about how breastfeeding “was the one thing I’d wanted to do for him”.

What worked for us?

Being a squeaky wheel. We kept asking for help. Endlessly. In hindsight I was kind of obsessed.!

He was born on Sunday at 6pm and we left hospital on the Friday at 5pm. We talked to

  1. The community midwife who on the Saturday detected the tongue tie and put us on to…
  2. the hospital’s breastfeeding counsellor who came around on the Monday. Mind you she didn’t actually come back to either of the follow up appointments I made to get help with positioning. However she gave us details of a…
  3. woman who could help with tongue tie privately but didn’t do any real follow up to assist with feeding. Instead she suggested we contact…
  4. Local breastfeeding support groups but most of them were closed down for the summer but we found…
  5. A great lactation consultant in town and then by September our local groups were going again.

Yeah really. Around the houses. We spent a whole bank holiday weekend on a babymoon – in bed doing skin-to-skin – which really seemed to help with making breastfeeding our default way of feeding but then it became unbearably painful. That’s when someone passed me Ann Dobson’s details.

Why work with a lactation consultant?

Ann Dobson is a lactation consultant who runs a drop in clinic on Fridays at the Welsh Centre on Grey’s Inn road. It’s busy and you’ll wait to be seen (seriously – bring lunch with you) but she was the first person who really helped us to have a breakthrough in terms of feeding. She asked me to see if he’d latch on, then said ‘try holding your breast like this.’ Boom. Baby latched, pain free. I may have cried a little at this stage. Later this led to extreme frustration, frankly. It took this woman approximately ninety seconds to get us off the starting blocks, and we’d been pissing about for ten bloody weeks?

She wasn’t judgemental about shields, and was completely practical. She also was visibly cross about the consultant who treated the tongue tie but didn’t help with breastfeeding. Her take on it? “Anyone can cut a tongue tie, that’s the easy part. Establishing breastfeeding takes work”.

We went back a number of times, both for appointments and the clinic and we also had some cranial osteopathy sessions. I would have poo-pooed them initially but they did seem to help.

Board certified lactation consultants specialise in breast-feeding and related issues, which is not the primary focus for a midwife. She also was great with support by text outside of the clinic but given how busy she is, I wouldn’t depend on this. The clinic isn’t NHS so there’s a fee payable, which could be beyond some people’s reach. But when I think about the money I wasted on nipple shields and other paraphernalia…

Why is breastfeeding so bloody hard?

I do get rather angry about the way that most hospitals seem to let women down when it comes to breastfeeding. Although I asked for help on numerous occasions, I was mainly fobbed off or told I was doing a great job when anyone who knew what they were talking about should have seen that he wasn’t latching, he couldn’t with the tongue tie. It’s an old chestnut but although breastfeeding is ‘natural’ it’s often far from simple. I truly believe that one decent lactation consultant working in each hospital really would make a difference in terms of how many women breastfeed successfully and keep breastfeeding.

In our NCT group, out of six couples only one woman took to it from the moment her boy was flopped on her chest. She is a sweetheart and bless her, actually felt bad about it and went out of her way to downplay how easy it had been for her. I did go through a period of feeling envious of anyone like her. Why didn’t it just “happen” for us too?

Stopping breastfeeding

Originally my goals were “to breastfeed” and in my mind I wanted to get to a year. Then it was getting it to happen at all. We cracked the latch at ten weeks which was fantastic. Then I developed vasospasm which wasn’t fun. So I reluctantly moved to two breastfeeds a day to allow some recovery and also to ensure that he kept getting some breast milk every day – in the entire period of breastfeeding he only got one cold which beats the average by a country mile.

Then the first teeth arrived. At nineteen weeks. Jesus, really? I know that I could have worked harder at supervising him to make sure he wasn’t going to bite but the final straw for me was when he bit me while I was breastfeeding him on a flight home to Ireland, trying to help his little ears avoid popping (oh and then he threw up everywhere too which is unusual for him) and it just seemed like a sign. Also he’d been showing such interest in food that we started weaning a few days later and that seems to be going well.

I think it was a natural end for us, even though I’d always assumed it would last longer so that makes me sad. I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-weaning depression which seems to strike so many women, but personally now that I’ve come around to it, I’ve realised I’m quite keen to ditch the nursing bras and tops and start wearing proper underwear again. When I borked my back this week, Mr D was able to take over all the night feeds without me having to express. Sproggett is desperate to try anything he sees us eating and is a rosy happy little fellah on the mixture of formula and milk he’s had so far. It feels like things have worked out the way that they were supposed to.

Still here? Blimey, well done!

Lots of pregnant friends have asked about breastfeeding, as I think there’s a natural curiosity and anxiety about it. I usually say:

  • ask for help with the latch and try to be as confident as you can before leaving the hospital
  • in hospital, ask for tongue tie to be checked if you can if you’re having problems
  • if you’re having problems with latch, focus on your milk supply
  • if you’re expressing to exclusively breast feed, consider hiring a hospital grade double pump which makes it all so much faster
  • keep asking for help

Did you have issues on your way to breastfeeding? Or did you decide it wasn’t worth persevering after a bad start? Were your midwives and hospital supportive and knowledgeable? Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Not really baking for Christmas – Winter Spice Chocolate Biscuit Cake

What with being away at my folks in Ireland, having a small baby around, and a barely functioning oven, there was little or no Christmas baking around here this year. Which is annoying because for me, Christmas is synonymous with small armies of gingerbread men, my splody pies and industrial quantities of biscotti for gifts.

However the lovely people at Lakeland sent me some of their brilliant Hemisphere Cake Pans and despite the oven issues, I was determined to try them.
So I holidayed-up my grandmother’s Chocolate Biscuit Cake recipe. That’s right, I added alcohol to it. The finished article reminds me of a snow dusted pinecone. The boozy fruit adds to the deliciously gooey texture and the chocolate and spice are perfectly wintery. We had this with huge mugs of tea but I’m thinking a glass of the spiced rum, heated, or even vin santo for next time.

Winter Spice Chocolate Biscuit Cake

  • 60g dried cranberries and raisins
  • 2 tbsp of spiced rum
  • 100g butter
  • 100g soft brown sugar
  • 225g plain biscuits, broken into 2cm pieces
  • 50g cocoa
  • 1 tsp of cinnamon
  • 1 egg

  1. Put the dried fruits in a bowl, pour over the rum and leave the fruits to plump. I left them overnight to soak it all up.
    Put the biscuits in a sturdy ziplock and break into small pieces.
  2. Melt together the butter and sugar and bring to a very gentle boil.
  3. Take off the heat, allow to cool slightly (see below).
  4. Beat the egg, then sieve the cocoa and cinnamon on top.
  5. Mix all the wet ingredients together.
  6. Place the fruits and the biscuits in a bowl, throw in the wet ingredients and mix well to coat all the biscuit pieces.
  7. Chill in the fridge for at least three hours.

Allow the butter and sugar to cool and little and stir like crazy so that you don’t end up with a scrambled mixture. Although as the egg isn’t completely cooked, and with the alcohol, it’s probably not one for pregnants or little kids.

Thank you to Lakeland for the hemisphere tins. I’m looking forward to baking actual cake in them!

2012: the highs and lows

Kate On Thin Ice started this meme and I thought it was timely to look back over what was a rather remarkable year. For the rest of the world, 2012 was all about Jubilees and sporting triumphs while in our household it was rather more personal though ultimately just as magical.

1. What was your happiest event?

I want to say the birth of our boy but his actual arrival was rather fraught. Taking him home, with the red arrows flying past in celebration, was probably the highest point, followed by many mini milestones since.

2. What was the saddest thing to happen?

One of the lovely mums in my online groups succumbed to severe post natal depression, leaving behind a bereft husband and a four month old boy who will never know his mum.

3. What was the most unlikely thing to happen that actually went ahead and did?

I gave birth! (do you see a theme here??) Never had thought that it would happen but I found a lovely man, and a couple of weeks after our wedding we unexpectedly found ourselves the possessors of a positive pregnancy test. I’d sort of given up thinking I’d be a mum.

4. Who let you down?

Some people who don’t really ‘get’ children or how unreliable they can make you. Or perhaps everyone else in the entire world is more organised than I am?

5. Who supported you?

Old friends who answered all my stupid questions about children, gadgets, what nappies to buy. Family, who continue to be awesome.

New friends, mainly NCT buddies and the local Twitter mums. They were there in the run up to the birth, hell some of them were in the hospital at the same time. They still keep me sane on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

My online group of mums. We started out as a private group on a parenting forum and we’ve formed a tight knit group. We’ve met in real life and supported each other through all sorts of trials and tribulations including poorly babies, breastfeeding nightmares, post-natal depression and ironically, tokophobia. The last day that the majority of us met, in Oxford, another of the mums represented us all at a funeral in Scotland (see question 2).

6. Tell us one thing you learned

Ask for help. And for clarification, when needed.

7. Tell us one thing that made you laugh

My husband. When really needed, usually in the middle of the night.

8. Tell us one thing that made you cry

When my husband came back into my room after going to visit our boy in special care. It was the first time we’d seen each other on our own, and everything hit at once. The enormity of our baby being here, but not with us, was hugely sobering, even for a woman with all the drugs in her system.

9. Tell us three things your child or children did to make you feel proud.

Well, he’s only been with us five months, but I’d say deciding that he was going to join us in the world after six minutes of being resuscitated; and taking to solid food like he’d been born with a soft silicon spoon in his mouth.

10. Tell us one thing that made you proud of yourself.

Going to Britmums with a massive bump and meeting some lovely people.

11. Tell us one challenge you overcame.

Breastfeeding. We had a shitty start with it and it took us until he was ten weeks to really get it established, expressing along the way, and seeing what seemed like every health professional for miles around. Then I started suffering with vasospasm, like another slap across the boobs frankly. But with pumping he was almost exclusively fed breastmilk for the first three months and had at least a couple of breastmilk feeds up until 23 weeks. Teeth at twenty weeks kind of put paid to it – bitey baby.

12. Tell us three things you would like to change about your life in 2013.

Blog more.

Lose the baby weight.

Get the boy into a sleep routine so I can get some time to myself.

I’m tagging lovely Perfectly Happy Mum and Owls and Pears should they choose to participate!

When your baby goes into Special Care

The minute Sproggett entered our world was, naturally, one of the best moments of my life. It was also absolutely the very worst, without a doubt.

I’d been having contractions since the early hours of Saturday morning. After a long day of being fully dilated all Sunday, although he was fine I was tired. It may have been nominally down to hospital protocols, but it was clear to everyone including us that time had come to move me from the birthing centre to the labour ward. I’d done diamorphine, hours in the pool, a lengthy pushing session on a birthing stool. They’d broken my waters, put in a catheter to drain three litres of wee – even the midwives were surprised at that (“We’re going to need a bigger bowl!”) My contractions had slowed to almost ten minutes apart and this baby wasn’t coming out without help.

I remember telling the consultant that by now, I didn’t care if I had to have a c-section as I just wanted him out safely. Safely being the key thing. I lay in the ward waiting to go to theatre with a Syntocinon drip reinvigorating my poor old tired uterus and just tried to focus on not biting straight through the gas and air mouthpiece – this was the most painful part of the whole process from my addled memory – and on seeing our baby very very soon.

He ultimately needed to be turned with forceps and he’d had his hand in front of his face so all the pushing in the world wouldn’t have helped. Our baby was wrangled out, and flopped on to my chest, and his blue eyes gazed up at us, for a few unfocussed seconds. Then he was gone.

I didn’t see any of this from my prone position but Mr D watched the consultants continue to ‘pull everything out’ of me, while a team worked on Sproggett in the corner. Despite displaying strong stats all the way through my thirty hours of established labour, he came out into the world without the lusty cries that Hollywood uses as shorthand for the birth of a baby. He was resuscitated for six minutes, which translated to us as hours and hours of waiting for news. I couldn’t even process that something seemed to be terribly wrong. I eventually spoke to the ceiling and asked for an update on the baby.

A rather unfeeling clinician gave us the details, and something she said prompted me to ask if there would be brain damage. Rather than contextualise the risk which was small, she was oddly almost cheery as she told us that yes, it was certainly a possibility. He was already gone to the Special Care Baby Unit by then, and Mr D went to see him. I was stitched, placed on a drip. I skyped my mother to announce that they were grandparents once more while trying to keep my tone light, as I said that he was gone to the special care unit. Minutes later our fabulous delivery midwife came to see me and saw my distress, she immediately assured me that the baby was fine but it was hard for us to believe. Why did the doctor not say as much if there was no real cause for concern? We never saw the doctor who’d worked on him again. The midwife took my phone upstairs and snapped lots of photos of him. Mr D came back, and we burst into tears together, filled with terror and tiredness. Then we waited.

We did find out after a couple of days that no other doctor had any questions or worries about Sproggett at all but that was after we spent more than 48 hours in a horrible daze wondering what tests would tell us, and when we’d get our precious son back, as we stayed across the hall on another ward. He was in SCBU for four days as they administered antibiotics and ran tests. After four days it was almost like they’d forgotten to actually articulate to us that he was not causing them any concern at all. I learned that if I wanted answers I essentially had to wait and snare a doctor rather than waiting for them to come to me. Talking to NCT friends who were also kept in with their baby revealed that the same doctor, with the same peculiar gleeful tone, told them their son might have meningitis. By then we’d all decided she’d be better off kept away from the public.

The sister on our ward was invaluable in helping us to get everything lined up for a successful discharge on the Friday, which still took from 9:00am to 5:00pm to complete. We scooped up our little man and ran! We got home on the day of the Olympics opening ceremony, and I attempted our first at-home breastfeed as the Red Arrows flew past our bedroom windows. Danny’s Boyle’s tribute to the NHS unleashed all the pent up tears from the past week – they’d brought our boy back to life. This new little family finished the night lying on our bed, watching the final fireworks light up the sky and feeling like it was Sproggett’s welcome home. We spent the next weeks relaxing together with him almost always lying on one of us if he wasn’t asleep in his basket, making up for those lost first few days.

When you do antenatal classes, the emphasis is almost exclusively on the actual birth. Sometimes you’ll cover basics like taking a nappy filled with pesto off a plastic doll, to familiarise yourself with the essentials. But for all that they arm you with knowledge on how to assert your rights and have the birth you want, and what to expect, nobody talks about what happens if things don’t go to plan after the baby arrives. Here’s what I wish I’d known before about SCBU, and as a newbie parent.

  1. Don’t ask permission to do things like visit, just present yourself there if you’re physically able. You might have to go in a wheelchair and be taken by a hospital porter soon after delivery, but you should be allowed to visit your baby as soon as you’ve recovered from any drugs administered during labour, like an epidural or spinal. The first assistant we spoke to, nighttime agency staff, obviously wanted us out from under her feet at 1:00am and suggested returning at 10:00 when the doctors would be there. We were too worn out and I was too drug-addled to argue so we turned to leave. Luckily the ward sister happened to come back then and asked if I was Sproggett’s mum, and would I like to do some skin to skin cuddling? Hell yes! Give me my damn baby! I recommend finding the ward sister and explaining that you want to be present as much as possible.

  2. SCBU is quiet orderly chaos – it’s a room full of mostly small, fragile babies who are often in great need of help. In our hospital it was run by very talented nurses, who loved babies. They’re also very very busy. Show them you want to feed, dress and change your baby like any new parent and to be present for doctors’ rounds. They taught us, by watching them with other babies, how to do all the basic care for the little man. If mums are as sparko as I was in the first forty-eight hours, dads are generally welcome too.

  3. Don’t worry about outstaying your welcome. If your ward wants you back for meds or food or tests, then they should know that you are in SCBU with your baby and so they can summon you to return (do make sure to tell them where you’re going). Some of your ward’s deadlines will be more crucial than others, as in it’s important to take painkillers at regular intervals. Then again, they wake you up at 6:30am to pop pills because it suits them as the nurses are about to go off shift. If that’s when you happen to be over in SCBU feeding your baby, maybe it can wait half an hour? Negotiate.

  4. There may be ‘rooming-in’ rooms in Special Care where you and your baby can stay together – ask. Sometimes they’re for babies that need longer stays. But if one is free, then it’s useful for you and your new baby to get some private time together, perhaps try breastfeeding without being in the midst of a sea of incubators.

  5. If you are planning to breastfeed, be aware that regardless of the hospital’s policy on supplying formula on the general wards, they may use it on SCBU and they may start your baby on it. If you really don’t want that to happen – though it may be the best thing for the baby at the time so listen to staff and doctors – then you’ve got to be there, attempting to breastfeed or expressing colostrom which you can finger feed or feed using a cup or syringe. Be clear with instructions and be prepared to politely repeat yourself.

  6. If your baby has a canula in his hand for administering drugs, a small child’s sock covers it nicely.

  7. Keep asking for things til you get them. The staff are all busy. Keep asking politely but firmly until you get the help you need and bear in mind that if you let a nurse or doctor out of your sight then they’ll probably get caught up with another patient. Explain the situation to every member of staff that you meet, if necessary.

  8. Keep a notebook and pen with you. Write down what doctors tell you because you really won’t remember it later, or possibly understand it. Tell all the staff that you want to see the doctors after rounds for an update on your baby. Be aware that this could take a couple of hours.

  9. While you probably have friends and family going up the walls waiting to hear about the arrival of your baby, they’re usually waiting to hear about the safe arrival. There’s no need to livetweet it all, don’t feel bad if people want to come visit and you’re not ready, you don’t even have to tell anyone they’ve been born until you are good and ready. Bear in mind SCBU may have an even more restrictive visitors’ policy than the rest of the wards.

If your baby has to start off in Special Care like Sproggett did, above all DON’T feel that you’re missing out on bonding with your little one. I know now that that was hanging at the back of my mind, and it was unfounded. All you need to do is to make up lost time when you are properly reunited – cuddle, cuddle and cuddle more at every opportunity!

Was your baby in special care – what advice would you offer to parents?

Photo from Tunnelbug’s Flickr stream under a Creative Commons licence

What ever have you been doing?

I turned my back away from the blog (to check on the baby) and three months pass.

What’s been happening? Well we’ve mostly been getting to know the little man, and becoming obsessed with sleep like most parents of a new small baby. It’s both a qualitative and a quantitative issue.

We’ve taken him on a ferry to Ireland, and on a plane to Italy, with alternate sets of grandparents.

0-3m clothes have already been packed away. Everything seems incredibly tiny now, although he seemed quite big enough to me when he arrived.

Halloween costumes are ready (shop bought, and gifted, not made. Are you crazy?)

Occasionally, the Socks of Punishment have been deployed when Mum’s eyes are at serious risk.

We’ve had many a very productive day when everybody in the household is “dressed to shoes” before Mr D leaves for work, and the dishwasher is emptied or a load of laundry goes through. Those are the new benchmarks for success!

We have counted our lucky stars every morning that he has proven he can sleep for more than seven hours at a stretch, if he chooses.

There was anguish, unnecessarily, about careless words from a doctor that made us very very worried, without justification, when he first arrived. More on that soon.

Hours have been spent getting breastfeeding established. It’s probably been a more arduous journey than the actual birth. Equally, more on that to come.

The pear tree in the garden has been sadly ignored this year, but we have found someone to help us with the garden, hurrah! Inside the house we’ve made plans for a new kitchen. There’s much excitement about baking starting again in earnest in this house – my current oven is just a processing plant for binnable ingredients. Nothing survives it. And dammit, breastfeeding women need cake. I’m sure one of the books said so.

We had Mr D home with us for almost three months due to unforeseen but happy circumstances which gave us a brilliant start to family life. It also reduced the number of nappies I had to change, which is never a bad thing. It also reduced the number of days I’ve had to be focussing on the ‘dressed to shoes’ thing.

I missed blogging, and then realised it was mostly going to be written a sentence or two at a time on a smartphone when doing something else – during naps, breastfeeding, waiting in line at the post office (not all at the same time). Then decided that was slow, but acceptable.

Mostly, we’ve been hanging out. Feeling very happy about being a family.