This belongs to a series of 5 articles dealing with child birth and the medical system in Sweden – from both a man’s perspective but also from a woman’s perspective, thanks to direct input from my wife. The reasons for writing the series are presented on the start/summary page^ where all 5 articles are linked.
The drive home was gentle and Rune slept throughout. We got out of the car, entered the building and took the elevator up towards our apartment. The same emotional cocktail that we experienced when we had left the hospital overcame us again.
We went in our bedroom and placed him on our bed. He was so perfect, all dressed up for winter in a thick overall, a small face surrounded from all sides. And, as if to bless the moment, we saw his very first smile! It lasted only a couple of seconds, but it was as if he was saying: “I approve of your nest”.
Important: for parents that don’t want or can’t get support from their families: it’s good to have some frozen or refrigerated food prepared for the first days. The baby’s “feeding frenzy” can last about a week and it’s good to not have to worry about cooking. Even assuming you’re feeding formula to your baby, the first days can be a bit chaotic (not necessarily difficult, but random).
I wish I could write that “our first night at home was magical”. It was not. It was one of the toughest nights we ever had with Rune. He wanted to feed almost non-stop, he became very fussy and cried for the first time since his “birth cry”. This probably happened because we were tired and, on top of that, stressed out regarding the remnants of his umbilical cord.
In Sweden, after they clamp the umbilical cord, they leave a small bit of it in place, so that it can naturally fall off. Until it falls off, it rots and dries. It’s not the most pleasant of smells, but what’s worse is that Crina had a friend who said one of her children had had a small infection there. Nothing serious, but due to that story we started to get worried.
Things were made worse because the top of Rune’s diaper was always touching the plastic clamping the umbilical cord’s stump, shaking the piece of flesh down to its root, inside Rune’s bellybutton. The remnants also started to ooze a bit, which we interpreted as the start of an infection.
While we were changing his diaper, we were debating what to do in a worried and stressed-out voice. Perhaps Rune felt the tension and that’s why he started to cry. Anyway, I called the national health line number where they assured us that we just had to wait it out. Besides, the next day we were already due back to the hospital for a test for some rare diseases.
The test sounded innocent enough at first. They said they will just get a little bit of blood from Rune. I thought they’re going to be satisfied with some sort of pinprick. But no no. The nurse gave us a little plastic vial containing a sweet mixture, saying that this will calm him while she gets the blood. Oh-kay? Then, she produced a needle, which she proceeded to slide into the back of his little hand, which she had forced into a fist. Then, calmly, she started to move it around, under the skin, looking for little veins. I wanted to strangle her.
I know, I know, the common view is still that babies forget everything, that they don’t associate pain and whatnot. Even though memory retention is not the same as for adults, I don’t buy for a single second the fact that early experiences don’t affect infants. Actually, I think it’s the exact opposite. I think early experiences set the foundation for a person’s development. This is why I advocate as little intervention as possible.
This was a rare diseases test. The chances of Rune having such a disease were extremely low. It’s true that an early discovery could make some difference, but these diseases still are incurable.
As I was cursing myself for allowing this to happen (it was optional, but the hospital strongly recommended we do it), the nurse continued to “hunt” for Rune’s veins. It was horrible. I grimaced as some blood finally started to come out. She thought I have a sensitivity to blood. No, dear, I have no problem watching blood, my problem is with you tormenting my kid (he started to whine a little bit by now).
And then it was over. These were the longest 5 minutes I have ever lived I think, and definitely the longest since Rune was born. I hereby swear that if I ever have another kid, I won’t subject the creature to such cruel tests unless there is a solid reason to do so (for example, a proven genetic predisposition to such diseases in one of the parents, confirmed by testing ourselves).
But onwards to happier times. I have a very fond memory from our second evening back home. It was dark, quiet, warm and cozy. I cooked for us and we ate while looking at Rune sleep. Then he woke and, while he ate, I fed Crina. Unlike the baby hotel, this was food cooked by us. I loved serving the little pieces I was cutting and observing the expression of raw satisfaction on my wife’s face.
Because we were trying to get Rune used to the fact that he doesn’t need to start crying in order to receive food or attention, Crina was always on standby for him. I was “on call” as well. I often gave her water from a cup with a straw, day and night. I cooked a lot and fed her when she wasn’t able to (Rune got used to breastfeed while lying in bed, which made things very easy when it came to co-sleeping).
The following days and nights became easier and easier as we got used to Rune’s rhythm. Over here, they give dads two weeks of holiday after the child is born. I took two extra weeks, one immediately after the first two and another one, a week later. I organized it this way so that I can go to work for one week – to allow Crina to get used to being alone with the baby – and then come back home another week, so she can have a breather before I return to work 100%.
Swedes enjoy some of the world’s best social coverage. We get a pot of 480 days (roughly 16 months) that can be distributed among both parents. 90 of those days must be taken by the father, otherwise they are lost. I think it’s great that fathers are encouraged (ahem, forced) to take paternity leave.
From the 480 days I mentioned, 90 are paid at a very low level so, really, we’re talking about 13 months of 80% salary. In any case, Sweden is definitely in the worldwide top 10 when it comes to parental benefits. However, check Lithuania^ (probably number 1).
Kindergarten can start as early as 1 year and costs about 60 Euro per month for taking care of your child during the entire workweek. I’ve heard that in the Netherlands they ask for about 10 times as much for three days a week.
Another great thing in Sweden is the VAB system (the translated acronym means “care of child”). If you have sick children, you can get quite a lot of days off from work (at a lower pay) on account of being home and taking care of them.
I also appreciated the fact that they paid attention to Crina’s post-birth moods. After the psychologist that visited us at the baby hotel, Crina had a couple of follow-ups with midwives.
I’ll end here with the praise for Sweden’s excellent child-care system. Now it’s time for the less pleasant stuff, which reared its head as soon as we started with the regular checkups. As I said in the first part of the article, Swedes love their procedures. Sometimes they love them a bit too much I think.
But before I start ranting, let me make one thing abundantly clear: there is no perfect country on this planet and we love Sweden. We have found a home here, coming from Romania 9 years ago. We respect this society and participate to it body and soul, heart and mind. I know this is one of the best places on Earth to raise a family. I feel truly lucky to be here. I am truly lucky to be here. That being said, let’s see what’s not perfect when it comes to childcare Sweden. And I write this for future parents and decision makers worldwide.
So, as I said, Sweden is a bit too fond of procedures. Everything has to be done according to some standard or workflow. I assume this is mostly motivated by keeping costs under control, but it’s also a bit cultural I think. Otherwise, at least you’d find some help for “special needs” in the private sector, which you don’t (for example water birthing).
The cultural aspect has to do with their rather blind faith in their own systems. “We’re so good with infant mortality, so don’t tell us how birth should be handled”. They shut down a water-birthing clinic on account of one death for example, probably because they feared it might tarnish their precious stats, not because there were solid grounds to do so. None of the midwives we met supported alternative birthing methods. There was one who had “heard about” hypnobirthing, but that’s about it.
Next. Mothers are advised to quit breastfeeding when the infant is around 8 months of age (despite the World Health Organization recommendation to breast feed until at least 12 months). Solids are to be introduced at 4 months of age (WHO recommends no sooner than at 6 months). Swedes are quite unimaginative in regards to how solids are introduced. They assume that all babies should be spoon-fed purees. We met almost nobody who even had a clue about alternative methods such as baby-led weaning^.
We used baby-led weaning with mostly positive results so far. We are very happy that Rune doesn’t need to be spoon-fed. He can, and has been eating by himself ever since he was 6 months old. Of course, back then, food was merely a curiosity. But other than providing us with countless moments of fun and laughter, his exploration of food has fueled his intelligence, curiosity and willingness to try new things.
Sleeping recommendations are a mixed bag. To start with, they suggest co-sleeping until the baby is 3 months old. Good! Afterwards, however, they almost recommend leaving the baby to sleep in some other room. I have colleagues who are proud they applied the “cry it out” method^.
Is there any mammal who does this to its cubs? I understand that perhaps sleeping the child in another room is the only solution in some cases (let’s not forget that the happiness of the parents is also important!), but there are other, more humane methods^ than “cry it out”.
Co-sleeping can actually work without much loss of intimacy and can create wonderful memories and experiences. I know this because we’re doing it. There are many ways to practice co-sleeping, even with the baby sleeping in a separate bed, close to the parents. However, we chose to opt for the closest we can be to our child.
Rune sleeps between us and never, ever in 15 months so far did we accidentally harm or wake him. My sleep quality is perfect even though my brain is always aware of his position in bed. And in the mornings, waking up with or being woken up by Rune’s smiling face is a priceless gift, even when I went to sleep late. And yes, he’s always smiling when he wakes up in the morning. No exception. And why wouldn’t he? Mom and dad are there!
Sending a vulnerable baby in another room just because it’s the current cultural norm is yet another, sorry but there’s no other way of saying it, dumb (as proven by psychology)^, “industrialized parenting” solution. By “industrial parenting” I mean all the range of parenting solutions that were developed in order to get parents back to work as quickly as possible. And Sweden really pushes these methods.
It starts with encouraging moms to drop breastfeeding as soon as possible on the (completely wrong) pretext that breast milk loses its nutritional value after 8 months. Breast milk changes, yes, but this change is based on the baby’s needs (depending on how much the baby gets from solids).
- doesn’t “lose” nutritional value,
- doesn’t cause cavities or tooth decay^,
- it doesn’t lose its quality of helping the baby’s immune system and
- it definitely doesn’t lose its emotional support value, which is probably the most important thing precisely from 8 months onwards).
Depriving the baby of this source of nourishment is nothing short of a crime against the baby’s rights.
Swedes also are very keen on pacifiers, which Crina has studied about intensely. Despite pacifiers having a couple of pros, they have hell-of-a-lot more cons^. Unfortunately, other than interfering with the stimulation of lactation pacifiers may, among others, even end up causing sore nipples^ for the mother (probably) because the baby is becoming more desperate for the real thing.
Another issue with the healthcare system here is incompetence. Unfortunately, we have met quite a few nurses and doctors which were blatantly incompetent. I’m not going into specifics here. You can find incompetence in any country, but to our surprise, there seems to be a lot of it here. I would say that 1 in 3 people in healthcare has disappointed us. When this happens, we change (ask for a second, third, fourth opinion).
Last but not least, Swedes have a rather… rushed vaccination program. Probably in order to save costs, there are a couple of occasions in a baby’s first year of life when they administer not one, but two simultaneous cocktail vaccines: one injection in each leg.
This sounded completely crazy to me from the moment I heard it (from a Swedish dad who told me, with amusement (?!), how his daughter cried when they did this to her). It’s not enough that we’re talking here about cocktail vaccines (containing multiple strains), they also want to do two during the same visit. Oh, by the way, the first time it’s actually in combination with a newly developed oral vaccine as well, so that’s three vaccines in the same day.
I immediately shot that down when we went to the health center. You’re giving our child one shot today. Not two. They argued that if we do this, the baby will feel side effects from the vaccines (fever, etc.) on two separate occasions. Did they bother to research this statement? First of all, Rune had almost no side effects. Could that be perhaps because we didn’t assault his immune system with two cocktail vaccines at once? Secondly, even if there are side affects two times in a row, it’s better to have lighter side effects than stronger side effects, is it not?
Last but not least, I don’t think it’s fair for him to have pain in both legs in the same day. I wouldn’t do it as an adult, so I don’t recommend it for a baby either. These are unfair cost-cutting measures that they’ve been taught to sell (if they even believe what they’re saying).
We did give Rune all his vaccines, but we separated the double-shot in two sessions, a week apart. Fortunately, the health center has accommodated our needs for free, and I respect that. What I don’t respect is that in a country where I’m paying a huge amount in taxes^, they still resort to such measures. What’s even worse is that we’re talking about he most fragile members of society.
Important: sometimes the healthcare system needs a push in the right direction. Doctors are there to help, and will gladly do so. If you don’t trust the healthcare professional taking care of you, change. When you feel uncomfortable, communicate politely, but stand your ground. Whatever interventions doctors propose, think about what it feels like to be your baby. Because you can’t speak with your baby, try an educated guess. What option would likely lead to less discomfort for him or her? Keep in mind that two minor discomforts are not as traumatic as one major discomfort. Two minor discomforts are more likely to be forgotten than a major one.
During the coming months, we went with Rune to various baby-related activities, such as baby massage and baby swim. As per the culture here, we started taking him outdoors regularly ever since he was about a week old (air quality in Stockholm is excellent, and even more so in our area, surrounded by forests and lakes). We did buy a pram, but in his first year of life he definitely spent more hours strapped to us, in the baby carrier.
Swedes are very keen on having their children outside as much time as possible, something that I greatly approve of. There are kindergartens where they actually sleep children outside, in their pram, even in (single-digit) sub-zero temperatures.
Many parents speak about their life before children as if it was something they lost. I’d say that this is almost a cultural flaw, a toxic trend that we just can’t seem to get rid of for some reason. Life changes. That’s what it does for a living. If you truly think you’d miss your previous life then, for society’s sake, don’t make children. If you think one’s enough, stop there. Unhappy parents produce unhappy children.
Listen to your instinct and do what would create the most joy for those around you. The children of the world need you to be happy because they learn by example.
This concludes the story of our son’s birth and our first few months in the arms of Swedish society. And I do really see it as arms. Despite some imperfections, Sweden is an amazing country to have a family.
I’m happy that Rune was born here and that he bears a name with a strong Nordic legacy. I wish that his Latin blood will form a wonderful synergy with the Nordic culture and way of life.