BRINGING BABY HOME: WHEN RAINBOWS FADE TO GREY

Disclaimer: I wrote this piece a year ago for a magazine. Sadly it never got used, so I thought I'd dig it out of the archives and publish it here instead.

Our first night at home

We would be knackered for sure. But we would be so happy. Just the three of us, back home. We’d show him each room in turn, spending longer in his little bedroom which we’d decorated in all the colours in the world. I’d sit with him on the nursing chair and drink in every millimetre of him. We’d cuddle on the sofa, bleary eyed, but filled with love. We’d put on a film and, despite not really watching it, forever associate it with the birth of our son, with the blue of his eyes, with the crinkles of his skin.

At some point our parents would arrive and there would be a flurry of activity, advice and photography. And conversations about how to turn the bloody flash off.

It would be the most magical time.

Well, it wasn’t any of that.

The day we came home from hospital with my newborn son was the greyest day of my life.

The birth itself had been straightforward. The afterbirth was a different matter. My placenta decided it quite liked the lining of my uterus and had become rather too attached to it. It’s called placenta accreta and it affects 1 in 500 pregnancies. There was a lot of blood four litres of the stuff a lifesaving transfusion, two operations and eight nights in hospital, including three nights away from my baby on the high dependency unit.

Our son, Elliott, was thankfully fine, but I really wasn’t. The physical impact of what I’d been through was one thing, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the massive emotional void that followed.

The day before I was finally discharged I was as high as a kite. I’d had a flurry of visits from all the lovely people who’d cared for us over the previous week; my midwife, consultant, high dependency unit staff, the maternity ward matron, the breastfeeding counsellor...they’d all heard my discharge was imminent and wanted to wish me well.

“I feel so good!” I told them all honestly, and off they all went with big smiles on their faces thinking they had mended me. And, there and then, I did feel mended.

But that night my final night in the hospital was rough. I was dosed up on morphine to ease the pain of the latest operation, yet unable to sleep because Elliott wouldn’t settle.

Morphine and no sleep are not a pleasant combination and, as dawn broke, I knew there had been a shift inside of me. My mind was shrouded in something dark and heavy as it struggled to process everything we’d been through, and everything that lay ahead. It had been over a week since the birth yet I still hadn’t changed a nappy, or dressed him, and breastfeeding wasn’t going brilliantly. How on earth was I going to cope? With all these hormones, fears and uncertainties rushing around my mind, my brain did what it needed to do to protect itself: it shut down.

I genuinely feared that if any of the medical professionals in the hospital had any inkling as to how horrendous I felt there was no way that they would discharge me, so I shakily filled in the forms, pretended to listen to the instructions about all the medication I needed to take, and off I went.

In a series of photos as we carried our baby over the threshold of our home for the first time I look dead behind the eyes. Clinging to my rainbow-tinted visions of what returning home would be like, I slowly climbed the stairs, gingerly perched on the nursing chair in our baby’s mockingly colourful room, and held Elliott. But I didn’t coo or stare lovingly at him, I wailed.

It wasn’t just tiredness. I felt as if my spirit had been sucked out of my body, leaving behind a grey Hayley-shaped shell. I had thoughts inside my head but they were echoey and distant, as if they didn’t belong to me. “Me”? I didn’t even know if there was a “me” anymore, or if there ever would be again.

My parents put my husband and I to bed but how could I sleep if I didn’t exist? After a couple of hours of nothingness a quiet, unrecognisable voice inside of me told me that I had to do something normal, even if I’d never felt less normal in my life. So I wrenched my bruised and swollen body out of bed and forced myself to eat something.

As I got back into bed my body did something that it hadn’t done since giving birth: it stretched. It was a long, deep, recuperative stretch that I had no control over whatsoever.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but, looking back, I now realise that this stretch was the first step on my long road to physical and emotional recovery. It showed me that the human body really is a wondrous thing and it can sort itself out without you having to tell it to do anything.

That stretch stirred my personality, which was lying dormant somewhere deep inside, (my husband later told me of his incredible relief when I finally made a humorous quip). That stretch told me that I was home, and that I’d be OK.

That evening I finally managed to get a bit of sleep, and when my slumber was disturbed by the cries of my son as my parents tried to settle him, I asked to hold him. He quickly stopped crying, falling peacefully asleep in my arms. I felt I could feel! like a mother.

Over the following days I continued to get sleep whenever I could. It often didn’t come easily I had flashbacks and nightmares to thank for that and it was often broken due to the needs of our baby, but with each additional hour of sleep I felt more like me.

There was a constant presence of at least one of our parents throughout the first couple of weeks. We needed all the help we could get, and the thought of somehow having to manage on our own was petrifying. But we did eventually manage.

Nine months later and here we are.

“We’re home!” I always exclaim after the latest battle to get the buggy over the doorstep. Elliott grins back at me, his eyes sparkling, his personality already burning in his belly. I carry him through the house, plonk him down as I tidy this and sort that. He chomps his way through a surprisingly large volume of food in the kitchen and bops along to the radio.

We pause at the hallway mirror and make faces at each other. I change his nappy in his little room we decorated in all the colours in the world. He splashes in the bath, and fiddles with the bath mat (fun toy? NO! Edge of bath mat? YES!) as I wrestle him into his nightwear. We sit on the nursing chair, read a book and have a cuddle. He gulps milk, sleepily.

Yes, that day we left hospital was truly horrible. But we are healthy and we are together. And, each day, we come home.

When it hurts to look up

Carving a path through loss
I started writing this towards the end of 2016 as a general rant about the sorry state of the world. But then some sad personal events unfolded and it took a different direction. Trigger warning: miscarriage.





Yet another friend had shared this video on social media and, once again, I scrolled passed it without pushing play.

Not through disinterest or ignorance, but as an act of self-preservation.

It all began midway through the year, just before the Brexit vote. I’d been plodding along quite contentedly up until that point. I’d started a nice new job, my lovely baby boy was happily transforming into a cheeky little toddler and, on balance, life was good.

But a week or so before the referendum, around the same time as Jo Cox was brutally murdered in her constituency, my mind started to run away with itself as I found myself imagining what would happen if the UK voted to leave the European Union. The future I foresaw wasn’t nice at all.

As the Brexit vote was confirmed and events unfolded pretty much as I’d predicted, the ground beneath me fell away ground I hadn’t even really noticed before.

I tried really hard to build it up again. To become a more active citizen and at least try to make some modicum of difference. I tried to broaden my horizons and gain alternative perspectives. I even registered a domain with a view to somehow enabling those with contrasting views to connect with each other and find common ground.

But it got too much. All the information. All the vitriol. All the question marks. The blatant incompetence on display from our government and its so-called opposition. My growing sense of disillusionment upon realising that that every single person, organisation and movement especially those who profess the loudest to know what they're doing is making it up as they go along (and things like this - which call for some kind of undefined "action" instead of justifiable despair just made me feel even worse). No strategies. No foresight. No experts.

And I realised that there really wasn’t a single damn thing I could do to alter the course that humanity seems to have set for itself beyond donating to charities, signing petitions and sending supplies to those in need.

I could see no hope.
So, eventually, instead of leaning in and trying to make my voice heard, and listen to the voices of others, I found myself doing the exact opposite: leaning out from the world and all of its uncertainties. *** "It's not a problem if you don't look up."

I never would have predicted that this line, used by the heroine in Rogue One to sum up her approach to ignoring the the rise of the Empire, would so clearly reflect my new approach to life for the second half of 2016.

I practically stopped watching and reading the news. My phone's breaking news alerts switched off for the US election remain deactivated. And I scrolled past the helpless children in the heartbreaking videos.

Instead, I hunkered down and tried to focus on the pleasant minutiae of my life in an attempt to fill my brain with nice little things so I'd be prevented from entering another whirlwind of existential anxiety by thinking about the horrible big things.

And 2016 was on track to end with a particularly nice little thing. A unique collection of cells quietly multiplied inside of me, providing me with a renewed focus and dare I say it hope. But deep down I think I always knew that the cells were behaving a little too quietly. And after 12 weeks the sonographer's screen was filled with a dark void instead of twitches of light and feet and a swooshing raisin heart. There was no baby anymore. The cells our unique mishmash of cells had gone. And only their protective bubble resolutely remained, still determined to do its job, going nowhere fast.

The blank space on that screen enveloped me in a way that somehow felt inevitable after the events of the previous six months. The plans we'd laid out for our lives for the months and years ahead crumbled away. The first feeling I felt in that sonographer’s room was stupidity, for daring to believe that things could have ever turned out differently.

And, over Christmas, it suddenly hurt just as much to look down as it did to look up. To see my tummy, swollen but empty. To see the residue of surgical tape dotted over my body. To find my hands subconsciously clutching the ‘baby on board’ badge lying unused in my coat pocket.

Constant reminders of what we’d lost.

If there was one word I had to choose to sum up 2016 it would be ‘loss’. The year was so full of it for so many people.

Sadly 2017 isn't magically going to get better. Our "leaders" will keep spewing hate. Websites will keep pumping out lies, lapped up by the hungry masses. Our cultural icons will keep dying.

Our budding baby will be lost forever.

But from loss comes experience. From experience comes strength. And from strength comes resolve. And my resolution for this year and for all years going forward is to recognise that I do already make a difference.

We all make a difference to each other. And I make a difference to my son, by holding him close. By making him feel safe, loved and fulfilled as the structures around us appear to spin out of control. By helping him to see joy, wonder and kindness in the world and its people.

I resolve to value what I have, whilst never forgetting what I've lost. To live for now, rather than dwell on what might or might not be in the future.

And, more than anything and trying to find one iota of positivity from what has undoubtedly been the most sorrowful period of my life so far I resolve to be my son’s very own unpoppable bubble.

Further reading and information
While I don’t envisage I’ll be able to write more about the experience of miscarriage, I found the following sources of information helpful during this difficult time:
The Happy Baby Project’s blog post on what she’s learned about miscarriage (with a particular nod to point 6).


LOSING BABY WEIGHT: LET'S CHEW THE FAT

"FEED YOURSELF WHAT YOU WOULD FEED YOUR BABY"

This is the best nutritional advice I have ever received. And, by following it over the last six months, I've lost two stone (over 12 kg) since Elliott was born...and counting.

And it's particularly relevant today in light of a report just published by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, which calls for a “major overhaul” of current dietary guidelines.

But let's rewind a bit. Last autumn I wrote about my post-birth wobbly bits. There were lots of them. I'd reached the point where I didn't know what changes to make to get me where I wanted to be in terms of my health, fitness and weight. Elliott was over five months old but I looked five months pregnant. I was still wearing maternity clothes, my joints ached and my knees strained, my wedding and engagement rings didn't even reach the halfway point of my ring finger and my weight had well and truly plateaued. I generally didn't feel too good about myself.

A few weeks after writing the post things still hadn't changed, so I took the plunge and approached a local nutritional coach for advice. It was the best £49 I've ever spent.

It would have been easy for me to have titled this blog post "how I lost weight by switching to full fat milk" but a) clickbait headlines annoy the hell out of me and b) this change is obviously just one part of it. But...it's totally true.

June 2015 | May 2016 (gotta love a stripy dress)

Kirsty, the coach, explained to me that your body needs fat, but it doesn't need sugar or any other chemicals which are present in processed foods, including those which have had the fat stripped out of them and replaced with rubbish. As long as the fat is coming from good, natural sources - and is balanced with plenty of vegetables and protein - you can pretty much eat as much of it as you want (with the all-important caveat that you should obviously only eat if you're truly hungry). No calorie counting, no fasting, no juices or other short-term weightloss fads which will leave you hungry and with unsustainable results. Just sensible planning, buying, portion control at mealtimes and ensuring you have "good" snacks to hand when the hunger strikes.

And this is completely in line with today's headlines.

Lots of people may recognise this approach as the paleo diet (which is based on the notion that we should only eat the types of foods presumed to have been consumed by early humans) and effectively that's what it is, though I prefer not to use the word "diet". Instead, I see my new way of eating as a sensible relationship with food which follows basic paleo principles, but without being completely obsessive about it.

Using this approach, I've completely cut out pasta (which is a huge deal given this was my go-to staple meal), got rid of most other gluten-based foods (after all, wheat and other grains weren't widely available until the 19th century), stopped eating my beloved (but nutritionless) breakfast cereals (I have porridge or Bircher muesli instead), dramatically reduced my sugar intake and, as previously mentioned, switched from low fat dairy products to their yummy - and more nutritious - full-fat equivalents. Milk chocolate is (mostly) out, but dark chocolate is very much in.

Eating out has taken on a new dimension. Previously I would naturally choose the creamiest, stodgiest option on the menu, ideally encrusted in pastry. But now I look for the gluten-free options and end up trying something completely new and different (and without the subsequent food coma).

Kirsty's advice really resonated with me, but my issue was finding the time, and inclination, for cooking and meal preparation, especially when I had a young child to feed as well. And that's when she uttered those monumental words: "feed yourself what you would feed your baby". Up until that point I'd only heard the opposite mantra - feed your baby from your own plate. But when your own plate is full of crap it quickly shines a light on how terrible your own diet is. So I switched my mindset and haven't looked back.

Over the months, and alongside one spinning class a week and lots of walking, I've lost a pound or two a week - nothing dramatic but a steady and healthy decline. My clothes gradually got looser, my knees stopped aching and, eventually, I could get my wedding ring back on again. But, more importantly than what the scales show, I feel great. I've got loads more energy, I feel strong and I have a new-found respect for my body and its ever-present wobbly bits.

Today's report into dietary guidelines is long overdue. But sadly it's not been warmly received by everyone. Crucially, though, when you look closely at where the dissenting voices originate from, you'll eventually see that that many of them, one way or another, have links with food manufacturers (just one example here), who are producing the very types of food that we should all actually be avoiding. Sadly it will probably take years and years for official guidelines to change. But I, for one, will definitely be proudly sticking to those milk bottles with the blue lids. After all, we don't give our babies semi-skimmed milk, do we?

TEN THINGS I WISH I'D LEARNED IN ANTENATAL CLASSES

MY MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE NCT

You're here! Umm, now what?

I picked up the phone and left a shaky voicemail message in a voice I barely recognised. 

It was about two weeks after giving birth and I was a mess. After a difficult birth and an eight-night stay in hospital, I had barely changed any of my baby's nappies, breastfeeding was a struggle and my mind was shrouded in something dark that I hadn't experienced before. I felt numb and was struggling to see how things would ever get better. 

After a bit of Googling I discovered the existence of the NCT shared experiences helpline, which endeavours to put women in touch someone from their roster of volunteers who have been through something similar. So, one evening, I plucked up the courage to dial the number and leave that message. I'm so glad I did. After about 24 hours I was referred to a lovely lady with whom I had a tearful chat for a couple of hours who helped me to see - and hear in her kind yet confident voice - that the fog would lift. But this support was nothing at all to do with the NCT antenatal classes I had attended whilst pregnant, and I would have had access to the same support had I not forked out to attend them.

Since having Elliott I've been asked numerous times by parents-to-be whether or not the NCT classes are worth the money. And it's a lot of money (the course we did in 2015 was around £300, though prices vary depending on the type of course you do and by region). I always say yes. But primarily for the network of almost instant friends you're likely to accumulate. Beyond this, I'm truly torn.

Founded in 1956, the NCT (the 'National Childbirth Trust' name was scrapped a few years ago) aims to support parents through what they believe to be the crucial "first 1,000 days" of a child's life after conception. Which begs the question, why do their phenomenally popular antenatal classes place so much emphasis on the birth, rather than the 700 days that follow?

Whilst thinking about this blog post I asked mums from my local Facebook parenting community - Mummy's Gin Fund - for their thoughts. The volume of responses and took me by surprise, and almost all of them centred around a few key themes which were in line with my own thinking.

It would be unfair of me to suggest that it would be possible for the NCT to encompass all of the below in their classes. After all, there will never be an ultimate instruction manual for having a baby. And I did ultimately enjoy the classes - the teacher was friendly and a group trip to the pub at the end of the final one went down a treat. However, with the benefit of sleep-deprived, poo-stained and vomit-soaked hindsight, here are the ten things that I wish I'd been told...

1. How to actually look after a baby
Learning about the biology of the birth itself is undoubtedly fascinating, but I wish we'd learned more about the realities of day-to-day parenting. I do understand the NCT's probable thinking behind this. After all, different people "parent" in very different ways and the NCT course leaders try hard not to be seen to impose a certain style or method over others. In an attempt to overcome this their classes focus on evidence-based guidance as opposed to the teachers' own experiences. But it does result in a total lack of practical advice from someone who has been there, done that. Emma, a mum from the local Facebook group, summed it up by saying: "In retrospect it seems crazy to spend hours discussing the element of becoming a parent that we had the least control over. In our group we all had wildly different birth experiences - but the unifying factor was that we all had these tiny new humans to get to grips with at the end of it. A more practical focus on first aid*, winding, feeding (breast, bottle and the almost never discussed combination feeding), after care, child development, sex after baby etc would have been infinitely more useful."

2. Accepting medical intervention doesn't mean you've failed
Above everything else in the classes, I came away from them thinking that I should strive for as natural a birth as possible. You are steered towards the belief that natural births are good and anything involving intervention is bad, and to always question medical advice whilst in labour. Emma felt the same: "I felt totally unprepared for any scenario that was not a drug-free labour, healthy baby and a smooth breastfeeding journey and it took me a while to shake off that (irrational) sense of failure of not achieving that." And I think that point about failure is a crucial one. Another woman from the Mummy's Gin Fund, Claire, hits the nail on the head, by expressing that she wished the NCT would "empower the women, so they know that they can do it, whatever the scenario. And let them know they and their babies are a success and miracle however they come into the world." Sadly I didn't feel empowered after the classes. Instead, I came away thinking there was a "right way" and a "wrong way" to have a baby. So when my birth quickly went from a very natural scenario to a highly medicalised one, I felt an enormous sense of guilt for having fallen at the first hurdle as a mum. Which is ridiculous, given that the medical intervention, which I was in no fit state to question, saved my life.

3. Your body - and your mind - will take a while to recover after the birth. Let it, and accept help.
Giving birth is bloody tough for everyone, regardless of how it ends up happening. And all women need to be given the chance to recover from that, physically and emotionally. I'm not saying that the NCT told me to crack on with things once the baby was born - I think western society as a whole has more to answer for on that front - but I really wish I'd been told that's it's OK to give yourself a break and, crucially, to accept help rather than try and be some high-achieving supermum from the outset. This blog post is a fascinating read in this regard, and makes some really strong points about the importance of mothers getting enough sleep when they return home, letting others care for them and their new baby, and not being made to feel as if they have to immediately carry on their lives as normal.

4. The realities of breastfeeding
There was an entire half-day session dedicated to breastfeeding in the NCT course I signed up to and I came away thinking my baby would climb up my chest once he was born and latch on to my boob straight away. It would also be painless and, if it did hurt, I was doing something wrong. Many women I spoke to reported that they had been told the same so, when they did experience pain, they thought they had failed (there's that word again). I've written more extensively about breastfeeding previously, but in terms of the antenatal session, a more truthful picture of some of the common obstacles you're likely to encounter to begin with - letdown pain, potential tongue tie issues, the symptoms of mastitis, cluster feeding, inevitable (and often unfounded) doubts about your milk supply - and how to overcome them would have been a more productive use of everyone's time. Instead, you are presented with a rose-tinted view of what it will be like, meaning that - as I've written before - many women probably give up breastfeeding because they believe their perfectly normal difficulties are unique to them. It's such a wasted opportunity. 

5. Formula: the basics
I think it's fair to say that most women intend to give breastfeeding a go if they can, but despite asking to find out about formula in our antenatal class we came away with no tips or insights beyond an acknowledgement of its existence. Understandably the NCT don't want to be seen to be promoting formula given their evidence-based approach, but there's a difference between talking about the practicalities of formula and promoting it. After all, some new mums don't even get the chance to try breastfeeding if they are separated from their baby in the beginning, as I was. I also think failing to discuss combination feeding as a perfectly sensible option for feeding your baby - especially if you end up having to recover from a traumatic birth - is a real shame, given that combination-fed babies still get all the advantages of breastfed babies in addition to being able to take a bottle, meaning you can share feeds. It's worth pointing out, however, that there is information about formula, bottle feeding and combination feeding on the NCT website but, in my case, this was something I had to seek out for myself. 

6. Wind
Oh those pesky bubbles of trapped air. They will cause most new parents such anguish, and their little babies such discomfort, yet the entire concept of wind wasn't, as far as I can remember, even mentioned. I do wonder if this is related to the strange myth that breastfed babies don't need burping after feeds, which isn't the case at all. 

7. *If* you have a tough birth, help is out there
It would be impossible - and pretty scary for parents-to-be - for the NCT to outline the many ways that giving birth can go awry, or how babies can get sick. I get that. But briefly touching upon the various sources of help that are out there, including the NCT's very own helpline, if you need any emotional support would have been so useful for me, and would have saved hours of Googling when I should have been sleeping. 

8. You'll never feel such extreme emotion
I think we learned more about hormones in the NCT classes than we did about anything else, but what we didn't learn was how those hormones would make you actually feel. For about a fortnight after the birth, my husband and I were flooded with oxytocin, except at the time we didn't realise that. We were in awe of everything and everyone, especially each other, and the world seemed hyper-real and about ten times as intense and beautiful as normal. Familiar songs took on deep, new meanings and average animation films were suddenly the most inspiring things we had ever seen. And, of-course, our baby was the loveliest baby in the world, without a shadow of doubt. We thought this was because of the dramatic birth and its aftermath, but looking back I think this is actually a pretty normal way to feel after having a baby. Oxytocin heightens all your emotions - good and bad - so be prepared for highs and lows like you've never experienced before, especially if you're just starting out breastfeeding, which gets the hormones whizzing around even more.

9. Love feels different for everyone
My hypnobirthing CD subconsciously gave me the expectation that I would feel a huge "rush of love" for my baby when he was given to me following the birth, and the NCT placed a big emphasis on the importance of skin-to-skin contact in the first hours to help you bond with your baby. None of this happened to me. Perhaps if I'd had a less complicated birth it would have done - I'll regrettably never know. But in the days and weeks that followed I did feel as if there must be something wrong with me because I didn't feel like I was expecting to feel, and I believed I'd never get the chance to fix it because I'd missed out on that important skin-to-skin time. I wish I'd been told that everyone feels differently after giving birth and there's no right or wrong way to feel. For me, it was simply as if Elliott had always been there (when I look back at pictures of me from a few years ago I wonder why Elliott isn't in them!), and over time that sense grew and intensified.

10. And finally...don't stress too much if there's no poo
I couldn't write this post without talking about poo. We were told in the NCT classes that as long as they are producing lots of wet and dirty nappies your baby is, in all likelihood, fine. And you are given a useful leaflet showing you what the poo will look like and when. But when our baby took days to have his first proper poo we panicked, and we continued to worry when he often went a week (or more!) between bowel movements**. These days he has many, MANY poos a day. Every baby is different, and their nappies will produce many different types of surprises as the weeks and months go on. A heads-up about this would have gone a long way. 


In fairness to the NCT, it's important to note that they do ask attendees to provide feedback after they have attended the sessions. Crucially, however, they send out these surveys before you're likely to have had your baby, so any feedback you provide at that stage is from the perspective of someone who can't even begin to grasp what being a parent is actually like, and what you wish you'd learned. 

There are numerous other antenatal options out there beyond the NCT. The NHS run free classes, though they are often very large groups, and there are also other private providers (some of my local options in London include Doctor and Daughter at £380 per couple, and Within You, cheaper at £200 for a total of eight hours). But, the reality is, unless you attend a class within your immediate vicinity, you're sadly unlikely to see your newly-acquired friends very often once you have a baby, especially if you don't have a car. And because the NCT have such a firm grasp on the market, it's simply the best class to do if making friends is your priority.

My husband and I were lucky enough to meet six other couples who all live within streets of us. Throughout our maternity leave, the six other mums and I saw each other three or four times a week on average, sometimes more, in various permutations. And over the months our friendships became about more than just babies and parenting, although that's obviously a good starting point.

We've been through loads together over the last year. There's been so much laughter, as well as many tears. Not one of us had a "straightforward" birth without some kind of intervention. Sleepless nights were made bearable by Whatsapp banter and the amount of coffee we have collectively consumed could probably fill a larger than average lake. 

As everyone in the group begins to drift back to work, and the pool of local friends and babies I can pop out to see at a moment's notice gets smaller by the day, it's made me appreciate just how lucky I've been to have these amazing people in my life. We jokingly refer to each other as "bought friends" but, for me, this ready-made local support network of amazing women, and their partners, has been life-changing and truly priceless, and, despite the many improvements that could unquestionably be made to their antenatal offering, I will always have the NCT to thank for that.

* Regarding first aid it's worth acknowledging that this is a huge, specialist subject that could never be comprehensively covered in any antenatal class. However, a pointer to take a look at the excellent British Red Cross baby and child first aid app would have been helpful.
** Always speak to a medical professional if you're worried about lack of number twos.

MAKING A MEAL OUT OF IT

COOKING FOR BABIES WHEN YOU CAN'T STAND COOKING

Chilli-ish con carne

Remember that daytime TV programme, 'Can't Cook, Won't Cook'? It suggested people avoided the kitchen for one of these two reasons only. Well I've discovered that there is a third category: HATE COOK.

I really dislike cooking. There, I said it. I can cook, I do cook (because I have to) but I really don't enjoy it at all. I find it boring, messy, and it involves way too much standing up for my liking. Yet despite my disdain for cooking, these days I seem to spend most of my day either planning it, buying stuff for it, doing it, feeding the results of it to Elliott (or myself), and tidying up after it.

I've written previously about how weaning was a stress point in my motherhood journey so far, and a few months down the line nothing really changed, and it's still the thing I've struggled with the most. We kind of found a rhythm, doing a big batch cook on the weekends and feeding the results to Elliott throughout the following week, but one afternoon I made the mistake of reading the "stage three" chapter of Annabel Karmel's baby and toddler meal planner book. It seemed to suggest my baby should be eating full-on meals by now, with freshly prepared pancakes for breakfast, lovingly crafted fish lollipops for lunch and a roast dinner with all the trimmings for tea.

Suddenly I felt stupid for still having bags of vegetable puree cubes in the freezer and for continuing to spoon-feed 75% of his food. I have to be honest, I had a bit of a moment. The moment was enhanced by my attempt that evening to bake a batch of vegetable muffins which went horribly wrong and ended up looking - and tasting - like baked, burnt vomit.

I'm well aware that there are loads of great websites and recipe books out there with some lovely meal ideas, but they all seem to presume that the person reading them enjoys cooking and baking. Not enjoying these things feels strangely risqué, especially as a "mother". But just because I now have a dependant doesn't mean I'm going to suddenly enjoy something that I've always found to be a chore.

Thankfully my wobbles over weaning have now mostly passed and I'm much more relaxed about what I feed Elliott. That's not to say I've suddenly begun to enjoy cooking, but I took a step back and realised that he does have a nutritious and varied diet, even though I do take lots of shortcuts when it comes to cooking from scratch. He also has a massive appetite and is generally a brilliant eater, and for that I'm really thankful. I also realised that just because the food I prepare for him doesn't necessarily exist as a traditional recipe, or have a name attached to it, it is still a proper "meal".

More often than not Elliott eats what my husband and I ate the night before, and by cooking just a little bit extra, minus the salt (and most of the chilli...), and putting it in the fridge overnight, the following day's meals are pretty straightforward to prepare. The current development is his wholehearted, raspberry-blowing rejection of any kind of attempt to spoon-feed him, so onto the highchair tray the food now goes. I can't even begin to describe the mess...

If you're also in the "I want my baby to eat well but without the faff" camp, here are some tricks and shortcuts I've learnt along the way that you may also find useful:

Cheese
Grated cheese is a quick and simple finger food for babies, and something they can get stuck into while you prepare the remainder of the meal. It does have a bit of salt in it, but a little cheese goes a long way and it's nice and nutritious.

Cream cheese
A dollop of full fat cream cheese is a great way to add a twist (and important calories!) to any bowl of mushed food, with the added bonus that it also cools down something that has been in the microwave for too long. Which, in my case, happens often.

Baby rice
This seems to be unpopular among some circles but in the earlier stages of weaning I actually found it really handy as a puree thickener or just to bulk up a puree if I was concerned it wouldn't be filling enough.

Full fat natural yoghurt
Baby yoghurts are all well and good, but my son loves plain natural or Greek yoghurt just as much. You can stir fruit puree into it for a bit of sweetness if you prefer. It's also good dolloped on top of meals for some creaminess. And has the same cooling benefits as cream cheese. Multiple uses!

Sweet potatoes
Most babies love them, but to save peeling and chopping before cooking, I just whack a couple of washed ones in the oven (skin pricked) for around 40 minutes whenever I'm using the oven for something else. You can keep them in the fridge for a couple of days in their skins and scoop out the soft flesh as and when needed.

Potatoes
As above really!

Frozen peas
Unlike other frozen veg, peas can be re-frozen once cooked. They make great finger food to help with pincer development and babies love the naturally sweet flavour. For a quick and easy puree in the early stages of weaning you can whizz up some cooked peas with a tin of unsalted sweetcorn and a bit of butter. It tastes lush.

Weetabix
Weetabix, whole milk and mashed banana warmed up in the microwave and all mushed together is a really simple and nutritious breakfast. Babies like it, too. Arf.

Chicken
We've got into the semi-regular habit of slow-cooking a chicken on a Sunday (bung a whole chicken in a slow cooker smeared in unsalted butter with some chopped carrots and onions dotted around on low for about six hours) and then using the juicy meat in meals - for us and Elliott - over the next couple of days. If you want to go the whole hog you could even create a baby-friendly chicken stock from the liquid leftover in the slow cooker. Or you could just buy these stock cubes from Boots.

Salmon
If you've had salmon the night before, save a chunk of it in the fridge overnight and flake it up as part of your baby's lunch or tea the next day.

Balls
I kind of stumbled across the realisation that if you combine a load of ingredients you have lying around in a bowl and roll into balls it's a simple way to enable your baby to feed themselves with slightly less mess. A quick example: If you're having rice with your own tea that night, cook a bit more than normal and prepare it a bit early. Mash in a few teaspoons of cooked rice with the flesh of half a cooked sweet potato, flaked salmon (from a tin is fine, but watch out for boney bits - they're fine to eat but maybe not for a young baby), some herbs if you're feeling fancy, and any other cooked veg bits you might have leftover from your meal the night before. Heat the mixture briefly in the microwave and roll into grabbable balls for a yummy meal they can feed themselves. This would work equally well with any other meat or fish, and I guess frying the balls off in a bit of unsalted butter might make them even tastier if you can be arsed. If your baby doesn't eat them invite your mum friends round and serve them as canapes.

Do you have any lazy arse "recipes" to share? Please do!

THE HOME PLATE

HOW WEANING CHANGES EVERYTHING

Breakfast. Help.
Oh how I dreaded sleepovers. Too much talking and giggling and not enough sleep for my liking. And how I missed my own bed at home! In fact, it was home that I missed more than anything. I literally used to get homesick on school trips and would count down the days until I'd be back in the place where I was most relaxed and comfortable. I loved being at home, loved going home, and - as I got older - always preferred a night in to a night out. I don't take for granted how lucky I was - and still am - that 'home' is a place where I enjoy spending time and feel at ease; a luxury that many people aren't fortunate enough to experience.

So when I was pregnant I imagined I'd be quite happy to spend most of my days at home with our new baby and, indeed, for the first few weeks or so I barely left the house as I recovered after an extended hospital stay, established breastfeeding, bulk-watched Homes Under The Hammer (I eventually came to terms with the sudden appearance of Dion Dublin as a third presenter) and generally got into the swing of things.

However, after a couple of months a pattern emerged. On the days we did go out, Elliott was chirpy, slept regularly and was generally easier to look after. And on the days we spent at home he was more irritable, difficult to settle after feeds and - quite evidently - bored. Going out became the new staying in. Once I worked out a system for getting everything ready in the buggy the night before, it was actually easier to go out; the day passed more quickly, Elliott would be getting lots of fresh air and seeing lots of new people and new surroundings, I'd be getting exercise and some much-needed adult company. It was win-win.

On the average weekday we'd be out of the house between around 10am and 3pm every day, hanging out with the lovely group of mums and babies we'd met through NCT antenatal classes. We'd go swimming or to a baby class (always followed by coffee and something to eat), attend the baby cinema screenings en masse, have a cheeky prosecco or two down the local pub at 3pm in the afternoon while the babies slept in their prams. Elliott and I would make the occasional trip into central London to meet non-baby friends during their lunchbreaks and he would happily sit in his buggy or on our laps while we nattered away. The days and weeks passed by in a happy blur of coffee, croissants, laughter and discussions about politics, poo and sleep (or lack thereof). Always a winning combination. There was always someone to see and somewhere to go and it was everything I'd hoped maternity leave would be, and more.

And then weaning happened. From the outset (at about five and a half months), Elliott loved solid food, which was - of-course - fantastic. Everything we gave him, albeit in puree form, he demolished, and it wasn't long until he was happily chomping his way through three mushy meals a day, and getting to grips with finger foods as well. And thus my little system for getting out of the house by a certain time pretty much went out the window.

You see, weaning's a messy and involved business. Firstly, the mess. No matter how careful you are, the food gets everywhere. On their clothes, your clothes, the floor, the walls, all over their face. Bibs, you say? Ha. Slimy purees laugh in the face of bibs. They set their sights on your baby's hidden neck creases (and freshly washed vest), and they always reach their destination. Of-course the mess is all part of it, and you just have to let it happen as your baby learns about food and how to (sort-of) feed themselves, but it also means you have a mountain of food-stained laundry to do, a never-ending pile of washing up and a very sticky and increasingly wriggly baby who hates having their face wiped.

Secondly, the cooking. Suddenly you're responsible for producing a nourishing supply of food that doesn't magically appear from your boobs. In the beginning I just couldn't get into any kind of routine for preparing it and would end up cobbling something together for each meal based on what we had in the cupboards. Which wasn't much. "Feed your baby food from your own plate!" is the advice frequently given by people with the best of intentions, but when you're having ready meals or takeaways every night it quickly brings into focus how terrible your diet is. We're in the process of getting more organised on this front in terms of batch cooking beyond steaming a pile of vegetables each weekend for Elliott, but we're still not quite there.

None of this is massively compatible with getting out and about. Not that it's stopped me - that's what Ella's Kitchen pouches are for - but trying to find somewhere for lunch that will accommodate anything up to eight adults, eight babies, eight buggies, and multiple high chairs is no mean feat. You try your best to mop up the floor, the table and the high chairs as you go along, but baby wipes will only do so much. And you somehow have to find an opportunity to feed yourself in amongst it all. Some places are great, but in others in can be a bit of an ordeal. Truth be told it's easier to feed your baby solid food in your own surroundings. Well, it is for me, anyway.

So we're gradually spending more time at home again. Elliott gets to have lots of time on the floor roaming around, just on the cusp of crawling at eight months. He's getting better at napping in his cot rather than in the pram or sling (face down, bum up), and I'm re-establishing my relationship with Homes Under the Hammer and learning how to prepare my own lunch again. None of which are negative things. I like home. I just wish all the surfaces were a bit less sticky. And that there was a nice bearded chap in the corner handing me flat whites all morning.

IN A FLAP OVER NAPS

WHY PARENTS OBSESS OVER SNOOZES

Eb in his beloved Cocoon-A-Baby, before he grew out of it (SOB!)

I'll put my hands up here. Before having a baby I couldn't for the life of me understand why parents got so worked up over their baby's naps. Granted, little Elliott has always enjoyed his sleep and early on established a bit of a reputation as the baby who always seemed to be in the land of nod, but I always figured that if a baby needed to sleep it would sleep. And if it didn't sleep, it would make up for it later on in the day.

And then it happened. About three and a half months in, Elliott missed out on what had apparently become one of his regular daytime slumbers (I hadn't been keeping track, which seems preposterous looking back on it) and, that evening, ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. What I hadn't realised until two hours into a marathon screaming session is that babies tire VERY QUICKLY. One minute they're happy as larry giggling and playing, the next there's a shift in the atmosphere, they're rubbing their eyes and they want to be asleep. Like, immediately. And if they get too tired, it's actually MORE difficult for them to fall asleep as they get themselves so worked up about it.

The worst thing? Unless you have a magical super-baby with special powers, it's incredibly unlikely that they will even be able to fall asleep without help from mum and/or dad. It's bonkers. A young baby usually needs to be moving in some way in order to fall asleep, to replicate the sensation of being in the womb; a parent's rocking arms is the optimum place, if not then the buggy or a sling will (hopefully) suffice. As long as they're moving, nice and snuggly and can constantly touch or see you, so you're the last thing they clap their eyes on before they finally succumb to the zeds.

So now I'm that person who will resort to anything to ensure their baby gets the sleep they need during the day to make the other parts of the day less screamy. The person who frantically pushes the pram back and forth in a shopping centre while their friend has nipped to the post office. The person who walks up and down the same stretch of pavement absentmindedly "shushing" in the vague direction of the buggy. The person who sways or bounces on the spot with a baby strapped to them. The person who has begun to think seriously about whether or not to leave the house if a scheduled rendezvous suddenly clashes with a new nap time. The person who hopes that every nap reaches beyond the current standard of 35 minutes so I can actually get something done that doesn't involve sterilising an ever-growing arsenal of plastic paraphernalia, or continuing on my apparent mission to turn our spare room into a fully operational laundry (though, of-course, the longest naps inevitably take place at the precise time you need to be leaving the house).

It would be easy to turn this into an epic blog post about babies and sleep. But, frankly, every baby is different and what works for us (including white noise, dummies, a sling, a touch of controlled crying and - in the earlier months - a lifesaving thing called a Cocoon-A-Baby) might not work for everyone else. 

I guess, then, that this is more an explanation for my non-parenting friends about why I'm suddenly more flakey about meeting up, why I use the word "nap" a lot and - when I do make an appearance with the baby - why I appear to be expending a disproportionate amount of my energy reserves on getting Elliott to sleep. No, it's not the end of the world if a baby misses out on one of its daytime kips, but babies are a whole lot more pleasant for everyone to be around - and tend to sleep much better at night - if they get the sleep they need during the day.

Becoming increasingly flakey is actually really hard for me to come to turns with, since my reliability is such an inherent part of my personality. But being a parent, I now realise, is about sacrificing little bits of yourself to make the little human you've created the best possible little human they can be. Weaning is the current challenge as I'm having to sacrifice the very substantial bit of me that enjoys ready meals and takeaways. But that's a blog post for another time....