When I first met Eileen, she was 10 weeks pregnant and distressed. She couldn’t understand why she found it impossible to swallow her own saliva and why it was so copious.
She was horrified at the thought of sitting through her lectures at the university with a small container to keep spitting into. Not cool at all!
The 24-year-old who is now awaiting graduation, learnt to accept this as a pregnancy symptom she would have to deal with, and learnt a whole lot more about the changes and adjustments the body was making to accommodate the little being inside her.
She learnt to eat better than she usually did, drink lots of water, and faithfully take her supplements.
During her mid-trimester ultrasound, she was so excited on finding out that she was going to have a baby girl, that she almost forgot to celebrate that the baby’s organs appeared normal, a much more important reason for the scan. Her pregnancy is progressing well and she already has a roomful of baby items, most of which she is unlikely to ever use!
The excitement of new mums is fresh, unadulterated and exhilarating. They are curious and willing to learn anything and everything about the developing baby and the process of pregnancy. Then they get to the third trimester where we start firming up the birth plan and the doubts and hesitations come to the fore.
Questions about the process of labour and childbirth abound and as a doctor, one must patiently dispel the myths as they come, and they are many! There is nothing more satisfying to an obstetrician or a midwife, than a woman going into labour with confidence and a positive attitude. It makes the journey smoother.
But the question that I still find amusing is when mothers ask what newborns are supposed to look like. This innocent question opens the door to how the changing times and lifestyles have impacted on family support and motherhood.
Growing up in the last century was communal. Families were extended and where uncles and aunts and cousins were not close enough, neighbours filled the gap.
A newborn was celebrated by the entire neighbourhood. We would spend all our after-school hours at home with the baby and fight over whose turn it was to hold the baby.
We were so proud when we were allowed to help change a nappy or give the baby a bottle. It gave us a sense of maturity. We all baby-sat our siblings, cousins and neighbours’ babies.
The new mums were supported by the entire community. Their job was to eat well, rest and breastfeed. Neighbours took turns to help with housework, cooking and minding older children where there was no nanny.
They brought home remedies where needed and constantly admonished the new mum for trying to bend as it was believed to harm the delicate back. In our urbanised, modernised lives, much of this has been lost in silos of nuclear families and solitary living.
Children are born years apart and may even be gone from home to boarding school by the time their siblings are born.
Many young women have never changed a diaper and even when their own friends become mums, their active involvement may end with the baby shower.
Many new mums have read so much online that they have fixed mindsets on how to raise their babies. This makes it difficult to allow anyone else to participate in the baby’s care hence there are no more shared experiences.
It is therefore not a surprise that few women know how a newborn baby is actually supposed to look. Or that they get shocked when they meet their own babies who don’t match up to the social media images of newborns.
A newborn is the most amazing little being one is ever going to see. They grow up quickly and change so much that some look totally different just six months into life. But at birth, an open mind is necessary.
For instance, a baby born prematurely is going to be lacking fat padding on the body, hence they appear to have a disproportionately big head and skinny limbs.
A baby born well beyond their due date is likely to have wrinkly skin and long nails; one born after a difficult labour, having passed stool in the womb, will come out covered in green that may take more than one bath to clear off. Some babies are born hairless, with smooth round heads while others are covered in hair up to the ears and face.
Some may have a swelling on the head caused by the pressure of contractions on the head inside the bony pelvis of the mother that will subside over the next few days.
All these are normal variants that should not worry the mother. The World Health Organisation recommends that as part of initiating early bonding between mother and baby, the baby should be delivered onto the mother’s abdomen.
This is well practised in public hospitals but sometimes we forget to prepare the mum and she is startled by a slimy, wet, yelling little one in a green towel lying on her tummy, umbilical cord still attached!
All these different newborns bring us so much joy and in a few days to weeks, will reveal their feisty little personalities that transcend their looks.
Newborns are all beautiful; let us celebrate them on their actual birthdays as they begin life!