I am privileged to know a wonderful lady who is often called an angel, because of what she gives to babies who need fostering. I wanted to share with you a little of the magic she does, and how baby carriers help her to make such a difference in these wee babies’ lives… And she is also a fellow babywearing consultant. Introducing the wonderful Shelley Docking Du Plessis from Up A Bubba in Hamilton, New Zealand.
SnugLove: A bit of background first – how long have you been a foster mum and what inspired or motivated you to do it?
I have been a foster mum for nearly 5 years now. We started fostering children just after our youngest turned one. It has been something I had wanted to do for a long time, and my husband and I had looked into it initially after my eldest was born, when we had just moved to New Zealand. However, we decided that we were not quite done with trying for our own family and wanted to complete that first. That took longer than expected, another 8 years of IVF and donors later, it was easier said than done! I myself had been adopted, and put that together with needing donor IVF help with all my children, it was important to me to be able to “pay it forward” and do something for others. Also playing its part is the fact that when I was a tiny baby, I don’t know where I actually was and how well I was taken care of, in the weeks leading up to my own adoption. I want these babies that come through my care to know that they are loved and were given all that I could give them, to help them thrive whilst they were in my care. The first 1000 days of a baby’s life is such an important time in building the foundation of who you are.
What aged children do you tend to care for, or does it vary a lot?
I mainly care for newborns and babies under the age of one. In the beginning, we did take a couple of older children, but we made sure that they were always younger than my own children, making sure the we kept the natural pecking order right, so to speak. I work part time from home, as well as being a babywearing consultant, so I needed to be able to work around this while I care for these foster babies. So now I specialise in younger babies. Just as well I don’t mind living in a forever state of newborn madness and sleepless nights!
What has been the toughest learning experience since becoming a foster mum? What has been your greatest source of happiness on your journey so far?
I think the toughest thing I have had to experience with being a foster mum, is learning to say no, or having to put my family first and say, sorry I can’t cope with taking a baby right now. This became very clear when one of my foster babies ended up in ICU for a week. It was very stressful, your natural instinct is to be with the baby whilst they go through their medical needs, but your family has to take a back seat while you do this, and of course they need you at home too. I made it work that time with the love and support of my husband, and friends who rallied around to help. But it did make us have a talk about when the needs of the foster baby would be too much.
It is always tough to say goodbye. It’s like having a loss in the family. We all go through a mourning process, and I also need to be there for my kids and help them process their feelings. They are very compassionate people and get just as attached to the babies as I do. Some foster babies stay for just a weekend, but others have stayed for over 6 months. It’s hard to let go when all you want to do is love and protect them, and you know that you probably won’t see them again.
It is also very hard to have to go through and support a baby with the trauma of being uplifted from their mother, not matter how young. I have had a newborn baby arrive to me, at just 3 hours old. Imagine being ripped from everything you have ever known, everything that is familiar at only 3 hours old! I have had a baby come to me who had been co-sleeping, and breastfeeding with their mother, but yet also detoxing from drugs. Other babies have come to me who have been emotionally and physically abused, it can be so heartbreaking to know that.
But it can also be heartwarming. To see the little changes that happen. To have a 4 week old who had never opened their eyes, had never even cried, because they were completely internalising everything as no one was meeting their needs. And then, after a week in your care, to suddenly see them respond, to look at you and to hear their first cry a whole week later. Or to have a baby who just clings to you all the time and is terrified to to let you go, but then over time, to see them begin to feel that they are safe and that it’s ok to go and play 3m away from you, that they can just look at you and smile, and no longer feel they have to keep calling for you or that they have to always keep you in their line of sight.
I have also been lucky enough to witness and be part of the adoption process for some babies. This is such a special time, being able to teach a new mum how to care for her baby, and to help support a family who have made the decision to give a baby a better life than that child might otherwise have had.
I have also seen a family pull themselves together, and over time, get back all of their children who had been fostered out. And not only that, but to become role models to other families having a hard time in life. And I am blessed to still be a part of their lives and to be able to watch their baby grow into a beautiful little girl.
You are a very experienced babywearer and use carriers with your charges. Why do you do this?
I don’t think I could do what I do without carriers. What better way is there for a baby to bond with me? To get to know me, their new number one, their new carer. To let them feel safe and secure, and to let them explore their new environment in their time. Some babies I have had, were not even at full term yet when I received them, straight from NICU. What better way to let them get to know me, my smell, my heart beat? We all know that babies benefit from skin to skin contact, and from being regularly carried during the first trimester at least. It’s only natural for me to do the same with a foster newborn. I have seen it work first-hand to help a baby who had very erratic breathing and had turned blue on occasion. Having them on my chest would help bring their breathing in sync with me, help them relax and learn to regulate themselves.
Bigger babies, it’s a chance to get to know me, in a safe way. It’s pretty scary being dropped off into a strange house with a strange family. My kids love the babies as much as I do, and sometimes in their excitement they forget to give them space and can get right in a baby’s face. So being able to carry them on me gives them a chance to settle in, look around and take it in slowly from the safe space bubble of me and them. They also learn very quickly that it is a place of comfort, and some children will come looking for it, time in a carrier. Not all babies, don’t get me wrong. Some babies can’t cope with being held, particularly if they have never had that love and attention before. These ones need space to start with, and you have to work hard to slowly let yourself into their bubble, and to help them realise that it’s okay to be held and hugged and kissed.
Of course, don’t forget the practicality of carriers! I have often sat on my exercise ball, working away at my desk with a baby bouncing on my back as I try and get them to sleep. And they are so handy for doing the school run, sports days, shopping trips, with a baby in tow! I don’t actually own a stroller, although this is about to change as at the moment, not only have I got a 6 month old in my care, I will also have a newborn once they are born in the next couple of weeks, who could appear anytime from now on. So they will compliment each other as chaos descends on the house!
What types of carrier do you tend to use, and why? Is your choice based mainly on your own preferences, or is it more based on their needs?
I am a wrapper, I love to use woven and stretchy wraps, I am lucky enough to have a beautiful collection of wraps woven by some very talented NZ weavers that I know personally. Each wrap is very sentimental to me and each has a story behind it. But I don’t always reach for one of my wraps.
I do tend to choose a carrier depending on the baby I am carrying and what age they are. I am lucky enough to have a wide range of carriers, I love using my Vija skin to skin clothing on very fresh squishes, as well as ringslings with newborns, particularly while doing the school run. I will also use a soft structure carrier with an older baby who may have not have been carried before. I have had a 7 month old baby who when wrapped to me with a woven wrap, pretty much just looked like a starfish with their limbs sticking out straight in all directions! In those situations, it is so much easier just to pop them into a soft structured carrier for the first couple of times, until they become more sure of what is expected from them, and after that, they will be able to relax whilst I take the extra time to wrap them to me with a woven wrap.
In desperate times, I have also used that close to hand hospital sheet or towel, which has worked just as well when I have forgotten a carrier!
I also get to try some of the new carriers on the market, because I am also a babywearing consultant. This has the extra advantage of providing personal experience with new carriers, which really helps when having a consult, as that inside knowledge does help shape what recommendations I may be making for my consultant clients.
Do you think using baby carriers would be of value to other foster parents? Would you recommend it be used more widely, or would it be fair to say that you use carriers because of personal preference and there’s no particular advantage to other foster parents to use carriers?
I totally think that more foster parents would benefit from using slings and carriers. In fact, I personally give a carrier to the family that any of my babies are moving on to. What an awesome tool for them! Not only is it a way for them to bond with the baby, but it is something familiar for the baby, something they know. All my babies go with a carrier, a blanket, a comforter, and a photo album. All things that will ground them and help them as they face their next step in their life journey. When the family has finished with the carrier, I ask either that they return it to me or pass it on to someone else who may benefit from it.
I have a friend who also fosters, an older mum, who has been doing this for 40 years. She always used to laugh and shake her head at me, and tease me about my gypsy ways. But with her last foster premmie, I finally convinced her to try a carrier. She is now my biggest advocate and I love seeing her with her foster baby snuggled in her ringsling, and talking about the benefits she has found since using it. She has some of my business cards and recommends carriers to all the mums that cross her path.
I have also been speaking with my social worker, about getting carriers more available to other foster mums and making other social workers aware of the benefits and options available. This is something I hope I can help make happen in the Waikato region.
Shelley runs Up-a-Bubba Babywearing Consultancy, from Edenpark Drive, Hamilton, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org