Saturday, January 23, 2010
Confessions of a Failed Babywiser
by Alexandra Bush
I cradled my six month old son in my arms. J* was peacefully sleeping. Tears were streaming down my face, and anxious thoughts raced through my mind. For the first time since he was born, I was watching the video my sister had taken of his birth. I was reliving the joy of a new life coming into this world. But at the same time I was so fearful this miracle would be taken from me. Something was wrong with my baby. I cried more. The doctor had not yet determined if it was something that could be treated easily, or if my precious first born was facing a terminal illness.
That morning I had taken J* in for a routine six-month well-baby visit. My pediatrician asked at each visit, "And are you still breastfeeding? Good job, Mom!" I glowed at her praise each time we were in the office. Of course I was breastfeeding-my Mom had modeled it for me when she nursed my younger siblings and I just assumed that's what was done. Only later did I realize there was any "controversy" over breastfeeding or formula feeding. From birth, J* nursed like a champ. We teasingly called him "Baby Sumo" and could count the chubby wrinkles on his legs. At a well-baby appointment at 3 ½ months he weighed a hefty 16 lbs--the 95% percentile on the baby charts.
That is why the drastic drop to 14 lb 2 oz, caused red flags to go up at the pediatrician's office. I could see the concern on our doctor's face throughout the visit, but she remained calm as she talked to me. Before we left the office, the doctor had scheduled an appointment for us with a specialist in Tampa for the following Monday. We had firm instructions to call her immediately if J* had certain symptoms before then.
Waiting through that weekend for our appointment was agony. They were some of the longest days of my life. Waiting, worrying, not knowing--scared I was going to lose my baby, my firstborn.
On Monday my husband took off work so we could go see the specialist together. We drove the two hours to All Children's Hospital in Tampa. The specialist was laid back and tried to calm our fears. He reviewed the very serious possibilities we were facing. Likely suspects included a gastrointestinal birth defect, missing enzymes needed for metabolism, and other possibilities that ranged from the more minor to life-threatening. Our doctor recommended we take a conservative diagnostic approach, rather than bombard our son with tests right away. The first step in finding the root of the problem was to measure the calories he was taking in, observe him, and do weight checks. I saw the doctor notate on the medical forms that the diagnosis was Failure to Thrive.
The doctor suggested that I could pump my breastmilk and notate the amount the baby ate through the bottle, and follow up with super-concentrated formula. Whenever I had tried pumping before, I couldn't get more than an ounce. I was so worried about knowing the exact amount my son was eating that we decided that I would just stop nursing cold-turkey. My baby had his very first bottle of formula on the way home from Tampa. I kept a journal and wrote down exactly how much he ate and when.
J* was weighed every other day that first week, and then once a week for several months. Follow up appointments with my pediatrician and phone consultations with the specialist led us to forgo further testing. It was determined that J*'s FTT was due to insufficient caloric intake.
I had starved my baby.
"Whatever happened to common sense?"
Often people defend Gary Ezzo's parenting materials with "The materials are great! As long as you use common sense and don't follow the books legalistically. . ." The assumption is that there is no inherent problem with Babywise -- just in parents not using common sense.
All I wanted to be when I grew up was a wife and mother. I remember telling people, in part truthfully and in part for shock value, "I want six boys!" From the time I was in high school, I read everything I could get my hands on about educational theories, child development, pregnancy and childbirth, and parenting. In college I volunteered at a Pregnancy Care Center. I read all I could about reproduction, birth, child care. I checked out nursing texts from the library to read the sections related to this, and even considered getting a specialized degree in reproductive studies. Much of it was from libraries, with dated collections of books from the '70s and hippies-flavored natural parenting. I planned on home birthing of course--my mother had home birthed and so would I. Breastfeeding, homeschooling, healthy eating--all of these things might be considered part of 'Attachment Parenting' today, but at the time had no real name. It seemed right. It was in line with what my mother had modeled for me and it was full of love.
So how did a well-educated, widely-read woman disregard previous information in favor of Ezzo's parenting books?! How did the 30+ documented medical misstatements in Babywise fail to raise yellow flags for me?!
Within just a few months of marriage, I found out I was pregnant with our first child. From the beginning I had a feeling it was a boy. I tried to be careful what I ate, a la Dr. Brewer and his emphasis on good nutrition in pregnancy. I wanted to do everything right. I contacted a midwife as soon as I could, and began reviewing the books I had collected along the way about pregnancy. It wasn't just something in books anymore! Here I was living it for real.
Then I received a couple of books in the mail from a dear friend of mine. I had been her mother's helper when she was working at home and had two small boys. One of those books was Gary Ezzo's "Babywise." It was interesting, a bit strange--nothing like the other books I had read about infant parenting. But the way in which it was written was persuasive and I found myself skimming over it again.
When another friend, a nurse who had worked in NICU units, called me to congratulate me on my pregnancy, she raved about a parenting program she took at her church. We had known each other during our college activism days. "I'll send you the philosophy section of Preparation for Parenting," she promised. When I read the photocopies she sent comparing the Biblical worldview as it relates to parenting vs. the secular humanist philosophers, I was convinced that I needed to look into this more. After all, I was a Christian. I knew I wanted to do the right thing for our child--no humanistic philosophies for us.
So I read the turquoise-colored Babywise book carefully before my son was born. Right before he was due, I discovered that Ezzo's Preparation for Parenting classes were being sponsored by our church! We began taking them the week after he was born.
In his Preparation for Parenting books and videos Gary Ezzo characterizes attachment parenting as in line with the philosophies of Secular Humanism and extreme permissiveness. He then asserts that his parenting ideas are derived from Biblical principles. With our society filled moral ambiguity and relativism, I wanted to teach my children right from wrong and help them develop the character to make good choices in life. The desire to give my children the best start made me willing to accept what Ezzo taught.
"It seemed to work great! I was well rested. My baby slept well."
I remember my husband and I looking at what Ezzo was teaching, and looking at the Bible. We could see the principles, but just didn't see how they connected to the Bible. It raised yellow flags, but we didn't look too closely at the time because everything "worked" and seemed to make sense.
And so my pre-parenting theories made a 180 degree turn--from natural parenting ideas to Babywise schedules. Every family we knew at our church was in a Prep or Growing Kids God's Way class.
Everything seemed to be working great! J* fell into a schedule, for the most part. He latched on right after he was born, and nursed like a champ from the beginning. I was thrilled with the program and encouraged everyone I knew to read the book or go to the class. I would even hand out our church's name and phone number to pregnant women I met at the grocery store! I was a confident mother, as Gary Ezzo said I would be. I was well rested. My baby slept well. We were doing the right thing and I felt so sorry for all the frazzled mothers out there who didn't have their babies on a Babywise schedule.
A whole video session in the Prep class was devoted to breastfeeding. I still remember Anne Marie using a teddy bear to illustrate how a baby should be correctly aligned, stomach to stomach, when breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was covered just enough with just enough facts thrown in to make it all seem accurate. And yet, much of the information is faulty, especially in the context of Ezzo's eat-wake-sleep cycle.
One of the things that influenced me was their explanation of the "demand/supply cycle" of breastfeeding. They emphasized that it was a combination of frequency/duration/intensity of the nursing sessions. Thus, the less frequent feedings that result from an Ezzo schedule seem reasonable because of course the babies would be eating more at that time. Babies "snacking" at the breast was belittled and the emphasis was on encouraging babies to eat full meals at each nursing session. All of this information seemed reasonable, and enough seemed accurate that the things that were contrary to what I had read before in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding seemed to make them all fit together okay.
However, Ezzo neglected to give a thorough explanation of the physiology of breastfeeding. He neglected to factor in that each mother's capacity for milk storage varies, as does babies' stomach sizes. Those things in conjunction can make for breastfeeding problems.
Add into this that the friend who endorsed Prep was a NICU nurse with children slightly older than mine. With her endorsement and experience, I never imagined that it wouldn't be medically sound. Also, this was mid-1996 when the outrage over Ezzo's teachings were still in their infancy. I was not aware of any legitimate problems with Ezzo's teachings-I was under the impression that the only ones who would oppose what he taught were those with a "humanistic" philosophy of life.
So here I was, still sold on the Ezzo materials even after my firstborn was diagnosed FTT. I quit breastfeeding cold-turkey when the doctor recommend switching to a calorie-dense formula. My fertility returned and our second child was soon on his way. We moved to another state. There were no churches in our area offering Prep classes, so we approached the pastor of the the church we were attending and told him how great the materials were. It was a "seeker" church and wanted to offer more resources to the community, and so was willing for us to facilitate the Prep classes.
Looking back, I wonder how my husband and I had the gall to lead a parenting class! Our oldest child was barely a year and a half old-definitely not the voices of experience! But we were thrilled with our experience with Ezzo (we thought) and wanted to help other young parents.
Modifying the schedule as needed?
But because of J*'s FTT, we did caution during the two classes we led that it was VERY important to continue to use the "healthy baby growth charts" and to modify the schedule as needed. With our second, we decided to stick to a 2 ½-3 hour schedule religiously-and not go longer than three hours between feedings during the day. I didn't want to have the milk supply problems I had before, and thought this would help.
It was during this time that I was first hearing of objections to the Ezzo materials. I dismissed them pretty easily--they just don't understand the materials, I thought. They must be permissive parents feeling defensive about their parenting. Even though we experienced major problems ourselves, we were blind to the fact that the fault lay with the philosophy of the materials. We thought the problems we had with the materials were because of us, not the basic ideas Ezzo taught.
I thought T*, our second child, had started sleeping through the night early--as Babywise promised and as J* had done. It was only because my sister was staying with us for a few months that I found out I had become immune to his nighttime cries. I just didn't hear and register them--she occasionally woke me up to take care of the baby or would ask "Didn't you hear him crying last night?"
Preparation for the Toddler Years (Babywise II)
Meanwhile, with J* we began implementing the "Preparation for the Toddler Years" program. In essence, it led to me controlling his actions and activities throughout the day. While child development experts agree that routine and rhythm is healthy for young children, the Ezzo material schedule tends to be rooted in control. My parenting at this point was influenced not only by the Ezzo printed materials, but by contact moms both in real life and on the internet. Room time, playpen time, highchair time, blanket time. . . These were to teach the child self-control, but were really a way for me as a parent to control my child. I remember teaching "Come to Mommy" as suggested by Ezzo mothers, and "chastising" him (Ezzo-speak for spanking) when he didn't. My sister was watching and I remember her flinching. Looking back, I see I set up false conflict to teach him this through spanking. We could have taught that same concept in another way, a way that was not setting my child and me up to be adversaries.
Many things were taught this way, and all of it it was me, as a parent, controlling my child in a way that set up an antagonistic relationship.
Still it didn't "click" that something was wrong with Ezzo's programs.
Low supply & early weaning in spite of a modified schedule
T* didn't have the weight gain problems J* had, but my breast milk supply was always precarious. Getting the flu led to my sister giving him a few bottles, less nursing, and again and early return of fertility. When I becamed pregnant, it further affected my milk supply and T* was not satisfied while nursing. I remember him latching on and then crying because he wasn't getting much. Except for those few bottles while I was sick, he hadn't had any formula or solids-we were trying to exclusively breastfeed. When I found out I was pregnant and that was influencing my supply, I began supplementing with formula. He soon completely weaned. He was only 7 1/2 months old.
Still, I thought a schedule was good. With this third baby, though, I was determined to breastfeed successfully. I was (and still am) convinced that our bodies are designed to breastfeed. If what I had been doing with the schedule was undermining that, then it must not really be what we are intended to do. That was the first chink in the armor of my closed mind. For R*, I thought I would try a eat-wake-eat-sleep cycle. With a move and an extended vacation with relatives, the cycle became less defined.
I felt guilty about not being "on schedule" and still didn't subscribe to cue-feeding. I was worried that I was feeding "on demand" and that would lead to a demanding child. I was afraid I wouldn't get good sleep, that the baby wouldn't get good sleep, and that that would be bad for us. All of these things were fears planted in my mind by Ezzo's false dichotomy set up by his manufactured "biblical" philosophy of parenting vs. the "secular mystics" of parenting.
Ezzo vs. Science, Ezzo vs. Doctrine of Grace
So what made me see the light?
Online resources, primarily. I read articles that explained more fully the physiology of breastfeeding, including researching on La Leche League's website about hormones and breastmilk production. Funny, in a way, that it was the dry and scientific that helped me cut through the philosophical bullcrap of Ezzo. Also the Evidence for Cue-Feeding article.
I visited the Parent's Place Ezzo Debate Board as a closet Ezzo supporter. I realized that the critics of Ezzo were intelligent Christian mothers and fathers--not the permissive parents of whiny children Ezzo portrayed them to be. I read the theological concerns on Rebecca Prewett's page, and that made a big impression on me.
My husband has told me the reason he left politics to work in the ministry is that one day he woke up and realized that even if he elected all the godly officials he supported, and they passed the most wonderful legislation, and the citizens of the land all obeyed the laws, his work would have only created better behaved pagans. That is a lot of what I see in Ezzo's materials. In the name of Christianity, parents are taught to have better behaved children. But only God changes the heart.
Concurrent with this, was some spiritual struggles of my own, especially in the area of truly understanding God's grace. I like legalism, I like following the rules and being a good girl. Yet, there is sin in my life that rears its ugly head on a daily basis. How does God deal with me and the sin in my life? I realized that I was not relating to my children the way that God relates to me. I was expecting my children to "Obey, right away, all the way with a happy heart!" I realized that I do not do that. I procrastinate. I complain. I do jobs halfway. I argue with God. Are these good things? No--and I want better for my children. Yet God has dealt with me, an adult, with more understanding and gentleness than I have with my children. God is often described as being "Slow to anger, abounding in love, full of compassion..."
When I tried to make my children obey the Ezzo way, I wasn't responding the way I see God respond to me. Of course I loved my children! And some days I was slow to anger. But I wasn't full of compassion and often anger was just under the surface. God allowed me to starkly see my sin, my disobedience, my need for Jesus every day, my need for His grace--and that was really the key for me to see that what Gary Ezzo teaches is not what I see as being in line with Biblical parenting.
Cue-feeding brings breastfeeding success at last
So where am I now?
My third I began to cuddle and nurse in the morning. We cue-fed and I was able to breastfeed him until he was about 19 months old. At that point, I was pretty "touched out" and expecting #4, and we were in the middle of another move.
With our fourth, from the beginning I wanted to focus more on nurturing and less on controlling. He has been cue fed. I got a wonderful mayawrap pouch and dh and I jokingly referred to myself as a "marsupial mom." That title was derisively applied by Gary Ezzo to mothers who use slings frequently, but now it's a badge of honor. I haven't struggled with my milk supply at all and he's still nursing strong at 26 months. He does wake to nurse at night or I rouse him before I go to bed. I am not losing any sleep with it. We co slept-with him in a pack 'n' play in our room or cuddling in our bed until he was about a year. Now he sleeps in his brothers' room.
Our boys co-sleep--piled together like puppies. Some of them come to crawl in bed with me in the middle of the night, and sometimes I welcome that and sometimes I groggily tell them to make a bed on the floor. I'm still wary of the label "Attachment Parenting" because of the negative connotations it was given by Gary Ezzo. It's hard to change those early impressions. But if you were to look at how I parent now it would probably look like "Attachment Parenting."
God has been working in my life in many areas, and I am still not the mother I want to be. Yet I am thankful for His grace and that He has used my mistakes and failures in parenting to teach me more about Himself. I trust that even my failures with my children He will use to make them who He wants them to be.
contact Alexandra Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org