Clinical psychologist Dr Natalie Flynn cuts through the 'BS' to explain what the science says about caring for babies in her new book Smart Mothering.
1 After appearing on The Project, you were accused of being 'anti-breastfeeding'. Is that the case?
I'm not anti-breast feeding. I breast-fed all of my babies. What the research shows is that the benefits of breast milk in developed countries have been overstated. In fact, there are no long term differences between breast and bottle feeding in obesity, IQ or behaviour. Breast fed babies do have one or two less low-level tummy bugs in the short term. So we need to get some balance around the issue.
2 How much research did you read through to write this book?
I've spent the last two years reviewing literally thousands of studies on a whole range of claims. I decided to put aside any preconceived opinions, look at the research afresh and publish whatever I found. I was really surprised to find there was no difference in bonding and attachment as long as mothers know how to bottle feed in a sensitive and responsive way. About 40 per cent of babies have had a bottle by the time they're six weeks old. I think it's a travesty that mothers aren't taught how to bottle feed properly.
3 What business has a clinical psychologist got advising mothers on breastfeeding?
Having worked in maternal mental health for many years, I see the fallout from women who have been pressured into breastfeeding who can't for various reasons, such as they don't have enough milk, they're prone to mastitis, they've had chemotherapy or they've been sexually abused and feel re-traumatised by breast feeding. I'm all for women being encouraged to breast feed, but not when it's getting in the way of bonding and attachment because it's upsetting for the mother.
4 Your findings on controlled crying have also sparked controversy – what does the research say?
I never said you should leave a baby to cry. What I said was that controlled crying can work for some babies, once they're about four to six months. It's useful to think of the first three months as a 'fourth trimester'. Babies are born too early and they can't self-settle so they need someone to be with them when they cry. The only time people shouldn't go to a crying baby is if they're too angry and it's unsafe. Then you need to step out and wait until you're calm enough.
5 What about when the baby can't be soothed?
The most important thing for parents to do is sooth themselves. There are going to be times when your baby is inconsolable. Then it's just about finding ways to sit there with the baby and remain calm. The research shows that babies all around the world, regardless of parenting style, have the same susceptibility to colic; even babies in traditional tribes who are carried full-time. So firstly, the crying isn't your fault and secondly the crying isn't going to hurt the baby in the short or long term. That doesn't mean you leave a baby to cry. It just means you don't need to feel distressed or buy into myths that you're doing it wrong.
6 Why did you coin the term BS or Bombardment Stress?
I had all these women coming to see me who didn't have clinical depression or anxiety - they were just stressed to the max by the overload of contradictory information on parenting. I'd say, "Ah, you have BS – Bombardment Stress" and every time they'd laugh and they say, "Yes, that's it!" It's reassuring to find that almost any parenting style can work so long as you tune into your baby's cues, respond in a warm and sensitive way and get to know and love them for who they are.
7 Will this book help mothers with mild to moderate depression and anxiety?
Yes, sadly when I worked at the Maternal Mental Health Service we could only treat mothers at the moderate to severe end of the scale, so I'd have to turn away mothers I knew needed qualified help. I've written this book to help mothers who are feeling emotionally well to stay well; for mothers who are feeling flat to begin self-care early; and for mothers who should be getting professional help to identify when they need it.
8 Why hasn't anyone else reviewed all the literature on mothers and babies before?
Because it takes an enormous amount of time. I kept looking for a book like this and I couldn't find it. I knew I could write it so I felt like I had to. I no longer have tiny babies so I have the energy. I have a supportive partner so I could cut down my private practice to make time. I have a doctorate in social sciences so I know how to interpret the research. I'm experienced in perinatal health and I no longer work in the public sector so I'm not bound by rules on what I can and can't say.
9 Growing up in Dunedin, when did you become interested in psychology?
I've always known I was going to be a psychologist since I was 12. I went on a ski strip where we shared a hut for a week with a group of people who all had mental health difficulties. I found that I was really drawn to them. They were vulnerable and fun and interesting; I wanted to figure out what had led them to this place. I've always been motivated to help people because I was raised by social activists who met on a picket line.
10 What does the 'Dr' in your title stand for?
My doctoral thesis was in neuro-psychology, looking at the ways ADD can affect youth offending. Through all my years working in emotional and mental health services I was drawn to mothers and babies because like all psychologists I believe in early intervention and there's no earlier time than when someone's pregnant or with a new baby. My interest only grew when I had my own children.
11 Knowing what you do now, would you have parented your own three children differently?
It was reassuring to find that it's about being good fit for each baby. I parented my babies very differently. With my eldest I was quite parent-led because he cried a lot and it gave me a sense of control to have some routine. My next child fell into easy and regular sleep eat patterns so I was able to be baby-led. My youngest was a sensitive baby and I was tired from having the other two so I carried him more. If I could do one thing differently I would have thrown away the breast pump and allowed my husband to give a night feed to allow him to have that lovely chance to bond and so that I could have been more rested. I would also have felt confident to use a day care instead of nannies.
12 So is day care okay?
What the research points towards is that it doesn't really matter if alternative care is provided by a nanny or a day care; what's important is the quality. People need to look for good ratios and also the child needs someone who can delight in them, tune into them and respond to them with warmth, so a good day care can be much better than a disengaged nanny.
• Smart Mothering by Dr Natalie Flynn, Allen & Unwin, RRP $39.99