About Martha Sears
Martha Sears is the mother of eight children, a registered nurse, a childbirth educator, a La Leche League leader, and a lactation consultant. Martha is the co-author of 24 parenting books and is a popular lecturer and media guest drawing on her eighteen years of breastfeeding experience with her eight children (including Stephen with Down Syndrome and Lauren, her adopted daughter).
We are grateful to Martha for contributing the foreword to the new edition ofGifts, and for sharing this article about how Attachment Parenting strengthened her relationship with her son Stephen.
WHAT NOW? ENJOY YOUR BABY!
By Martha Sears, RN
When parents first meet their baby with Down syndrome, they may feel lost—even if this is not their first child. How should they go about caring for this “different” baby? The answer is simple: just like any other baby. A baby with Down syndrome may have medical issues that need attention, but the basic needs of any baby remain the same, no matter now many chromosomes he or she has. This is what we learned from our seventh child, Stephen, born in 1989. We enjoyed a rich, rewarding relationship with Baby Stephen because of our determination to parent him using the same principles we’d learned from the first six. For us to give Stephen the very best from us, we knew we would stick to the Five Baby Bs of Attachment Parenting: Birth bonding, Breastfeeding, Bed sharing, Baby wearing, and Believing his cry/communication. It was intensely reassuring to have a ready answer when our brains were screaming out: WHAT NOW?
Of course, our first hurdle in the bonding process was the fear that gripped us. At Stephen’s birth, my husband Bill was the first to recognize the Down syndrome, when he saw Stephen’s crooked pinkie finger on the hand that emerged alongside his head. I was next, when I saw, in his freshly-born face, a distinct difference. But right then we were both unwilling to acknowledge it. Even when the midwife asked me if Stephen looked like the other babies, all I would say was “A bit different around his eyes”. I knew that as long as the words were not in the air we could focus on welcoming our son, and I led the family in the singing of “Alleluia”, our traditional song at the birth of a child. It was not until twelve hours later, when we finally had time to ourselves, just the two of us and our new baby, that we talked of the “special kind of parenting” we’d be doing, and this is when our bonding truly began.
Breastfeeding helped bring the connection I needed, and right along with it came the first of many challenges. Stephen’s very first latch-on went so well, however, that I was able to tell myself the difference I was seeing was mistaken. He sucked long and strong that first time, just minutes after his birth. But that’s when “normal” stopped and “different” came back. He didn’t wake up on his own to feed for many weeks. And he didn’t open his eyes until his actual due date, two weeks later. (It is very hard to bond with a baby who won’t give you his eyes. When he finally did open his eyes, we had another praise celebration!) His “lousy latch-on” was the bigger part of the breastfeeding challenge, and it went on for a month. As a lactation consultant, I expected Stephen to have a low-tone latch and suck, but what I got was badly bruised nipples from his very tight, small mouth, and he eventually lost almost a pound from his birth weight. My learning curve was beginning, and so was Stephen’s. We did turn the corner eventually though, and he went on to breastfeed like a champ (that’s “champ”, not “chomp”) for 3 ½ years, adding, I’m sure, a good number of IQ points available to babies getting human milk.
Bedsharing! That was a no-brainer for us and required no special skill from Stephen either. We simply bedded down together gratefully at the end of each day and enjoyed each other’s presence all through the night. That time was healing for me and helpful for Stephen’s “early intervention, Sears style”. More body contact and physical closeness meant more brain stimulation. It was also very important for those times when he was sick with URIs and was up struggling to breathe – and then we spent many long nights in the steam-filled bathroom until he could get back to sleep. Once he graduated from our bed at age three, he joined his two older siblings in various sleeping arrangements, until he could enjoy sleeping separately. All of this closeness paid off in amazing sibling relationships, encouraging and enabling a lot of empathy and patience from everyone.
Babywearing is another form of closeness and stimulation that came easily for us. The early intervention program in our area was difficult for me to attend, requiring long car rides with an unhappy baby, so we chose to enhance Stephen’s development with our own program of continuous physical contact and movement, holding and carrying him in the baby sling for most of his waking hours and for many of his naps as well. If I wasn’t “wearing” him, Bill or one of the older ones were. He hung out with us, watching the world from his perch, for hours and hours every day, meeting people and learning. We also hired physical and occupational therapists to come to our home to work with us and Stephen. He got his stimulation in, and the family got their bonding in.
Believing in and responding to Stephen’s cues and cries (his ability to communicate his needs) was easy for the first year, once he learned how to ask to be fed. Responding to his cries was sheer joy because for so many weeks he couldn’t let us know he was hungry, even with non-cry cues like nuzzling. But by 18 months he was stuck at one way to let us know he needed something – a non-discriminating cross between a howl and a grunt. He got even more frustrated than we did. This went on for over a year, until I stumbled onto the concept of signing. His biggest flare-ups usually involved asking for more of something, and his howl/grunt style just sounded to us like full-blown tantrums. But when I came up with a hand gesture for “more”, and said the word at the same time, he got it quickly and stopped the shrieking in favor of something more useful – the hand signal! Within two weeks he had the word itself verbalized. Yet, sadly, that was as far as I went with signing. This is the one thing about our early intervention program I would change: we would start signing early and learn the whole vocabulary.
Our parents’ intuition, formed so strongly through the style of parenting we have chosen, served us well in those early years of Stephen’s life. Whether you’ve practiced Attachment Parenting with other children, or whether this is your very first, your intuition can also help you answer your own “What Nows.” Not only that, but Attachment Parenting will forge an invaluable connection with your child that will make you the expert in his care and, even more importantly, in all the decisions waiting in the future. Enjoy your baby!
Links for more information:
AskDrSears.com, which offers an online parenting community, and information about childcare and health.
AskDrSears.com Online Store, which offers The Sears Parenting Library, the collection of over 40 books written by Martha and Dr. Bill Sears on almost every aspect of childcare and health. Other products are also offered, including Dr. Sears Original Babysling, modeled after slings invented by moms centuries ago. Martha and Bill helped popularize Babywearing through their Attachment Parenting awareness efforts.