New Baby, New Parents


Runtime - 8:21

Baby steps – becoming a first-time parent

By Sally Blundell of Frank Film

Cot, wahakura, bassinet, nappies, baby clothes. In two different homes in two different parts of Christchurch, first-time mothers-to-be Jadah Aramoana Coffin (Tūhoe/Ngāti Awa, 20) and Hannah Baker (25) have worked through the required checklist in preparation for their new baby.

But what comes next cannot be bought or borrowed.

“I don’t think it’s that complicated really,” says parenting expert and educator Nathan Wallis (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangāroa). “In that first year of life, your baby is the centre of the entire universe, and you are their slave.”

But it takes a village, he says, to support that one person, that “slave”, so they can provide that vital intimate relationship with this tiny, yawning, sleeping, feeding bundle of humanity.

Where in the past, parenting advice tended to focus on sleep, feeding and bowel movements – a hangover from a time when infant mortality was high – now, he says, the most pressing issue is “probably attachment disorders”.

“Especially in that first year of life, the more often your baby feels they’re in partnership with you, probably the brainier they’ll be, the more resilient they’ll be, the more fun they’ll be, the better their quality of life will be.

“If you’re raised without that intimacy you tend to be more prone to fear, to be more reactive, you’ve got to look after yourself and you don’t get the opportunity to develop the reciprocal, loving, caring, empathetic stuff that you get in the context of a high quality relationship. There’s probably nothing in your life that has a profound a difference as whether you experience that intimacy as a baby or not.”

The village notion is largely gone – only about 20% of New Zealanders live in the same place as our parents and grandparents – but in supporting young mothers, says Wallis, “I think we now have more a family of affiliations.”

Coffin will be raising her first born within a three-generation household.

“Everyone’s involved and want to be around to help with the pēpi – and looking after the mama,” says Coffin’s mother, Karla.

On the other side of Christchurch, Baker will be sharing the care of her firstborn with her partner Elliot Dowie.

“Even as a little kid I wanted to make sure that whoever I marry and have children with, he’s very hands on. It’s a 50/50 game now.”

Related or not, that “family of affiliations” allows the mother to focus on that vital one on one relationship with the baby.

“Because you’re not necessarily born with all those skills to know how to look after a baby, how to attach to a baby, how to respond to a baby, how to meet their needs,” says Wallis.

That foundational relationship also gives the baby a sense of predictability.

“When you can predict what’s going to happen, that calms the lower brain, the survival parts of the brain. When you calm the survival brain, then you're bringing to light the front cortex, all the good stuff in human development – language, literacy, numeracy but also empathy, to understand consequences, to understand the impact of your actions on others. But if a baby’s fearful, then you're not evolving that.”

It is not until about nine months old, that a baby will recognise themselves as a separate person. With that, says Wallis, comes the fear that the parent is going to leave. “And then they cling and you get this separation anxiety for a few weeks. Parents will notice it – it’s when you can’t go to the toilet without leaving the toilet door open.”

Wallis’ advice – just go with it.

“Take them to the bloody toilet with you. If you go, oh no, I don’t want a wussy kid, let’s harden him up, then you just confirm to them that you are going to abandon them. So it makes it way worse.”

Now, just days after giving birth, two new first-time mothers are absorbed in the everyday wonder of a new life.

Baker strokes the downy cheek of her new son, Arthur. “Milk’s flowing,” says Dowie. “He’s happy, she’s happy.”

Coffin gazes at her new son Te Awanuiārangi. That’s why she’s so tired, says her mother. “When he sleeps, she just sits there and stares at him.”

Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Writer/Researcher: Sally Blundell
Editor: Tracey Jury
Online Editor: Oliver Dawe
Second Camera/Researcher: Ellie Adams
Line Producer: Erina Ellis
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair

Sylvia Stewart
Tumanako Stone-Howard
Jadah Aramoana Tahi Coffin
Karla Coffin
Hannah Baxter
Elliot Dowie
Nathan Wallis