Image: Love Parenting UAE
Tiny Fry Talks to Amy Vogelaar, Co-Founder of Love Parenting UAE.
1. Tell us a little bit about your background, how you got started in healthcare, and how and why you created Parenting UAE?
I have always been interested in babies, women's health, and child development. I majored in women's studies at Vassar College and started out studying child and adolescent psychology, and then ended up focusing on women's health and sexuality.
My first "career" was as a health educator and trainer of heath educators, which I loved. I felt called to midwifery though, so I trained and qualified as a direct entry midwife and was licensed to have a private out-of-hospital birth practice.
Because I then married my husband and immediately moved to Bahrain for his job I worked for a short time there as a hospital midwife but found it just wasn't for me. So I started teaching antenatal classes and helping new mothers with breastfeeding which was a wonderful job and there was huge demand in Bahrain.
I had my own 2 little girls and we moved to Oman for a few years, where I decided to take some time off and be a full-time mum, which I also loved. When we moved to Dubai in 2010, both my girls were in school or nursery and I decided it was time to get back to work, but discovered that Dubai would not license me as a midwife because I had taken more than 2 years off. So I had to "reinvent" myself, as so many mothers returning to the workforce do.
I started teaching baby massage classes while working part-time at a nursery as baby unit manager in 2012. The nursery changed ownership in 2013 and I decided to start my own educational business: Love Parenting UAE, with Jasmine Collin, a well-respected hypnobirthing practiontioner who had recently started teaching BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm.
I traveled to the UK in 2014 to qualify as a BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm teacher and, after many years of clinical experience and coursework as a breastfeeding counselor, I qualified as an IBCLC lactation consultant in 2015.
2. What is the BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm approach? How effective is it and how or where can people learn more?
This approach is very different from most parenting books and programs, in that it is based on an understanding of infant and toddler neuroscience, child psychology and development, as opposed to behavioral conditioning (which is based on animal training techniques.)
We consider unwanted behavior (whether it is night-waking, picky eating, tantrums, or the need to held all the time, etc.) to be the tip of the iceberg, the thing you can see on the surface, but the underlying needs that the behavior is expressing lie under the surface and are the cause of the behavior.
Many parenting methods try to just stamp out the unwanted behavior, either with punishment or positive reinforcement, but they don't actually address the needs that the behavior was expressing. For example, you can possibly stop a toddler from throwing a tantrum in a grocery store by giving him time-out every time he fusses, but you won't meet the need that was triggering the tantrum (which could be any number of things, including hunger, fatigue, boredom, need for connection, etc). This means that time-out probably won't work, or if it does stop the behavior, the child can end up feeling rejected and unloved. And he or she hasn't really learned how to manage problems or big feelings in a way that will help later in life.
Similarly, you can possibly train a baby to lie quietly in bed rather than to cry out for a parent, but you won't meet the need that triggered the cry—whether that need is for breastmilk or just human company and reassurance. Those needs don't go away just because we silence them. They will either have to be met in some other way or will possibly cause damage to the relationship between parent and child, or just leave the child feeling that his or her needs are not important.
We also start with the knowledge that babies and toddlers are different from adults, their brains are immature but are growing and developing, and our parenting makes a huge difference in the people they will become. We encourage parents to care for themselves even before they care for their kids, so they are better able to meet all those important (and exhausting) needs.
We also emphasize that each child and each family is unique, so there is no one right way to parent a child. We don't consider ourselves to be experts when it comes to your kids. You are the expert and your child will teach you whatever you need to know, as long as you open yourself to listen to their communication (which includes crying and tantruming) and allow yourself to trust your heart and your instincts and find your own path through parenting.
3. You teach parents alternative techniques to help their babies sleep. Could you share a tip or two?
The first thing we make clear is that we don't offer a quick fix or a guarantee that we can provide a method that will make your baby or toddler "sleep through the night." We spend a lot of time in our sleep workshops examining the research on infant and toddler sleep and discussing what is actually normal for them. Night waking is normal. Needing a parent at night is normal. Most kids do, and all kids will need it at some point or another.
Babies and toddlers are vulnerable people and we didn't survive this long as a species by putting them in a separate cave and leaving them there for 8-12 hours at a time. Humans evolved sleeping side-by-side and waking frequently, and it is possible that this is still the safest way for young humans to sleep. There are behavioral techniques that you can use to help to encourage more independent sleep over time, and to teach healthy sleep habits for life, but getting past the basic biological need to be close to their parents, to feed frequently day and night, and to receive reassurance and love regardless of the time is really unrealistic and, for most little ones, impossible.
Parents feel that they must be doing something wrong if their child wakes at night. They feel they have created bad habits or "spoiled" the child and feel terribly guilty when they do night feed or rock the baby to sleep, or bring the toddler into their bed. Our main message is that this is normal in most parts of the world, and it certainly was normal in our human ancestors until very recently in the modern world.
Human culture has "evolved" but human babies have not. They still have the same needs that ancient babies did. And no child goes off to university still needing to be breastfed to sleep or needing to sleep in the parents bed—all kids grow up and become more independent (and it happens much faster than you think it will!)
4. How does toddler sleep differ from adult sleep, and can you share some advice on helping toddlers sleep at night?
Young toddlers between ages 1 and 2 still sleep very much like an infant—more light sleep than deep sleep and frequent night waking. After age 2 they may sleep more deeply and wake less frequently during the night, but all humans, regardless of age, wake at various times during the night. The difference for young children is that, unlike us, they need their parents' reassurance and assistance to fall back asleep again. Just like they need our assistance to feed themselves, use the toilet, and move through their world in the daytime, they need us at night and they don't yet see any reason why nighttime needs would be different from daytime needs.
Another big difference is that they tend to wake up early—nobody really knows why! Just like teen brains prefer to stay up later and wake later, toddler brains just seem primed to start the day with the sun (or even before it!) Research has shown that having predictable and consistent bedtime routines really does help toddlers settle better at night, though it certainly doesn't make it any less time consuming for the parents!
If you introduce certain sensory cues such as soothing scents or relaxing music, these can become sleep cues that help little ones eventually, over time, learn to settle themselves with less parent assistance.
Also, the use of a comfort object such as a soft toy or blanket (particularly if it smells like mum) can become a "transitional object" to help toddlers feel secure in their beds even if mum or dad is not there. Many toddlers still prefer the real thing, however, many families find they all get more sleep when they share a bed or a room.
The one guarantee anyone can offer is that as children grow, they will sleep more independently and you will sleep through the night again. And before you will know it you have to drag your kids out of bed each morning for school, so you will get your revenge!
5. Tantrums are one of the most challenging aspects of having a toddler. What advice would you give parents in this regard?
In ToddlerCalm we look at why toddlers throw tantrums (Hungry? Tired? Overwhelmed? Bored? Frustrated? Needs more connection with a parent? All behavior is a communication that is expressing a need of one kind or another!) and encourage parents to think about how they feel when a toddler is tantruming, but also think about how the toddler is feeling.
Toddler brains are not yet capable of real empathy, but our brains are! Toddlers who are throwing a tantrum aren't giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time. And when we parent with empathy and compassion, this is how we teach these skills to our little ones. This requires a lot of patience and emotional fortitude on the part of parents, so a big part of parenting calmly is actually taking care of yourself.
Parents need to make time in their day for the activities they require to relieve stress and feel happy and at peace. Whether it is going to bed earlier, feeding yourself nutritious foods, taking time to exercise or meditate or read a book or talk to a friend, to spend quality time as a couple, etc, parents can't handle a tantrum if they are stressed or exhausted or depleted. In fact, they are likely to throw their own tantrum and end up regretting the interaction with their child.
In our ToddlerCalming workshop we talk a lot about all of these issues and more and give lots of suggestions on how parents can cope with (and reduce) toddler tantrums—each child and each family is so unique, one size does not fit all. We support each parent to become the "expert" on their own child so they feel more confident in handling tantrums and other tricky behavior.
6. As a lactation consultant, what is the most common problem or issue women come to you with and what solution do you offer?
Impossible to pick just one, as there are so many challenges that mothers face.
I guess the most common problem overall is a general lack of support for new mothers and babies. Our ancient ancestors all breastfed their babies and toddler, so a new mother was always surrounded by a whole tribe of experienced, knowledgable and supportive women.
They also had total confidence that breastfeeding works—they didn't feel all the uncertainty, worry and fear that today's parents face: that perhaps mother's milk is not sufficient and formula might be "better." We live in a formula-feeding culture and that is what we see as children, teens, young adults and new parents.
Ironically, the problem is not that pregnant mothers don't want to breastfeed or that they think it will be difficult—they tend to assume they will just put the baby to the breast and nature will take it's course. What they can't anticipate is the stress and exhaustion and shear terror of finding yourself alone in a villa or flat with a brand new human, totally responsible for keeping it alive. When it is 3 am and the baby won't stop crying and mum can't stop crying and there is no one there to turn to, it is common sense to give a bottle of formula.
Unfortunately, even one bottle can start to undermine breastfeeding and milk supply and parental confidence so that breastfeeding "fails." In my antenatal breastfeeding classes and one-on-one postnatal sessions, I try to give parents the information they need to get off to a great start but also how to cope with those difficult moments. And finally, to make sure they know that help and support is available—they just need to know when and where to find it.
Often it just takes some encouraging words and reassurance that they are doing great. Other times it takes simple adjustments to position and latch, some tips for coping with challenges, some assurance that things will get easier in time. Sometimes mums and babies require medical interventions such as cutting a tongue tie or treating an infection. There is always a solution, it is just a matter of finding the help that is available.
In the UAE, no health visitor is going to show up at your door and your doctor may not even ask to see you and your baby until the 6 week postnatal check or even the 8 week vaccination appointment. All new mothers and babies NEED to be seen by someone who knows about breastfeeding at least a couple times in the early days and weeks.
At the minimum they need to be seen between days 3-5 to make sure breastfeeding is going well, the increased milk volume has "come in," and the baby's weight loss is within the range of normal. Then again between 10-14 days to make sure that breastfeeding is definitely going well and baby is back to birth weight. Babies and mums who are struggling will need to be seen more often, but I wish all new families could receive at least these 2 visits. I encourage my workshop participants to book these appointments with a midwife or lactation consultant from one of the clinics in town. Many offer office or home visits and your insurance may even cover it.
7. As you are also a parenting educator, what is the most common concern among parents and what advice do you give them?
Again, difficult to pick just one as there are so many!
I think the most common over-arching concern is "Am I doing this wrong?!" Parents are so worried that everyone else has figured out how to parent their kids "correctly" and they are the only ones muddling through with no idea of what they are doing.
The most common thing I tell parents of children of all ages is that there is no one right way, nobody really knows what they are doing 100%, and all parents muddle through with a lot of trial and error. Every child is so unique, there is no way that one way would work for all.
Each parent also brings their unique selves to the process. As long as they are listening to the needs of their child, taking care of themselves as well, and doing their best to follow their heart, then they are probably doing just fine. They will make parenting choices that they regret (we all do), they will struggle and worry (we all do), they will get conflicting advice and opinions from everyone they meet (even the housemaid and the lady at the mall, let alone the mother-in-law and the "parenting expert.")
All they can do is gather information, see what makes sense to them, and then see how it works in their unique family. I really encourage parents to find "their tribe" and meet up with other like-minded parents so they can support one another through this incredibly difficult yet rewarding journey that is parenthood.
8. How do you teach or convince doubting parents to trust their own instincts and to have confidence in their decisions?
See above! I say all of this, but one of the best ways is to get parents talking together.
In every class and workshop I teach I think one of the most valuable aspects is the sharing and commiserating between parents. And I am always careful to point out that no one way is right or best. I love to point out how unique and special each child is so they can see them as individual people, not generic babies or toddlers who should all be the same. And I model how I have muddled through parenting my own kids (and continue to do so.) I certainly don't claim to have it all figured out—I struggle just as everyone else does, but as my kids are older I can offer the perspective that the things they are worried about now will change and evolve so quickly.
Sleepless nights and breastfeeding struggles quickly turn into worries about introducing solids, potty training, starting nursery, making friends, homework, and before you know it puberty! What you are fretting about now will become a fond memory in no time and you will be worried about the next thing. The only constant is change. 🙂 I also teach parents about the concept of "good enough" mothering-we don't need to be perfect, we just need to be good enough.
9. Broadly speaking, how are maternity, birth and breastfeeding treated differently in the Middle East compared with the US?
I never really raised a child in America, so I can't say for sure.
It is probably more similar than different, but a big difference is that there are fewer birthing options in the Middle East (I went back to the states to have a homebirth with my first baby.) In general though, America doesn't have really great birthing and postpartum services for most people, which is why I wanted to be a homebirth midwife.
I would have had a private practice and could have provided consistent, comprehensive care to mothers and babies from conception right through the newborn period. This is rare in the USA, but even harder to find in the Middle East, where you also really have to seek out this kind of consistent follow-up care.
One of the advantages of living in the Middle East, I think, is that as expats we are already primed to seek each other out, we all feel we are in the same boat, even when we come from very different places. If you make an effort to find a community, on-line and in-person, you can make some wonderful mummy friends to support you through your parenting experience. We don't usually have family close by, but neither do many in the USA, so isolation isn't unique to the expat experience. Wherever you are you need to inform yourself and do some research to find your support resources AND your parenting tribe.
10. Where can people find you if they want more information?
Look for me at Love Parenting UAE, HypnoBirthing, Baby Massage, Breastfeeding for information about all our classes, our calendar, lots of resources, including a directory of professionals we love in Dubai.
We also publish a blog there with relevant posts, and we have a Facebook page with plenty of interesting, informative and inspiring posts and several supportive and informative Facebook groups parents and parents-to-be can join, including Love Parenting UAE Support Group, Baby-Led Weaning UAE, and Informed Pregnancy and Birth.