Childcare for scientists

Thomas - tired by feeding

Thomas - tired by feeding

Clearly childrearing is primarily a biology experiment but there are elements of physical sciences which are helpful.

 In my past I have done experiments at central facilities like the Rutherford Appleton neutron source, and the x-ray synchrotron sources at Warrington and Grenoble. The deal with these systems is you get a custom-built specialised instrument for a solid block of time and because it is scarce you use it 24 hours per day. Some people, technically called “lucky bastards”, have either highly automated instruments or samples which require long runtimes. I didn’t. So a small team goes off to do the experiment, tending the instrument at 2-3 hour intervals. As the experiments stretch into the small hours skills required for baby care come into play. The group needs to establish an appropriate shift pattern, novices often fall into the trap of refusing to go to bed first. Whilst more senior scientists might take the group to the pub for a couple of pints before buggering off to bed with the words “I’m too old for this”. Experiments like this require a range of tasks to be completed, and in a bleary state this is best done with a system which requires as close to zero thought as possible, make things ready again once you’ve completed a task rather than turning up at the bench to discover you left it in a complete mess. Also record clearly what you are doing so your fellow experimenters can pick it up in your absence (corporal or mental), this includes you. Advanced users have more exciting things to do, such as handling hydrofluoric acid or piranha etch at 2am, there is a clear parallel here with baby poo.

A second area of interest is in temperature-control. Haake water baths are to scientists and temperature control as Marshall amplifiers are to musicians and guitars – other brands are available but they just don’t have the cachet. These devices will maintain water (and samples) at a fixed temperature. It turns out that the description “lukewarm”, used to specify the required temperature for baby feed, has been in use in English since the 14th century, distressingly for a scientist the OED does not provide an actual temperature in SI units corresponding to “lukewarm” (or in any other units for that matter). There is a clear gap in the market here for an espresso-style baby feeding machine which takes as inputs unsterilised gear, expressed breast milk and formula milk and dispenses the required aliquots of “lukewarm” milk – a baby weighing scale could usefully be incorporated into the top of the device. In principle it may be possible to get it to carry out the feeding, although in practice robots struggle with handling soft, squishy, shrieking things.

Finally, one is pretty much forced into preparing a baby feeding spreadsheet. It pains me to be forced to this, I have a “what would chimps do?” attitude to baby-rearing. But these days babies are set feeding targets (150-200 ml per kg per 24 hours), and woebetide any parents failing to meet those targets – they are threatened with a return to hospital by a brigade of midwives whose advice on achieving the target varies greatly but waking the baby up at 3 hourly intervals for a feeding, day and night, is a fixed point. Force-feeding a baby at 3am is quite challenging, changing the nappy first is a good waker-upper for both parties but once feeding the baby gradually slips back to sleep – as illustrated at the top of this post.

The midwife seemed unimpressed by my describing this as being akin to preparing baby foie gras.


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    • Simon on February 17, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    I did 3 days’ EXAFS shifts at Daresbury 2 weeks before the BUSF 10,000 m track championships, and my only training session in that time was a bleary 3 mile run along the canal bank at 6 a.m., after my only sleep- 4 h on the second day. Because the hostel was being refurbished at the time, this was in a run-down B+B in Warrington that smelt faintly of piss- so also good practice for baby-rearing. Is there no end to public munificence to scientists? Still, I got a paper in JACS out of it. I am now senior enough to pull the ‘I’m too old for this’ lark.

    • on February 18, 2012 at 7:10 am

    I did some EXAFS at Daresbury as part of my 3rd year project when I was a student at Bristol – it’s a long time ago now!

    • Richard on February 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    I have a three and a half week old son at home and I feel your pain. The baby foie gras comment is very funny, although Dad jokes and midwives don’t seem to mix in my experience. Keeping ours awake to feed has become a bleary eyed dark art involving feet tickling and Daddy putting his hands under the cold tap to induce some thermal shock. Mind you, this situation is far better than the alternative of him keeping us awake all night to feed.

    My time at Daresbury in the mid-90s was spent at RUSTI doing surface analysis using XPS. Thankfully, it was a civilised 9-5 affair.

    • on February 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    So I see from your twitter feed, congratulations!

    Thomas seems to have got the hang of feeding over the last few days, so although he isn’t desperately keen for his overnight feeds he is getting enough through the day.

    • Richard France on February 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Glad to hear he has got the hang of it and is putting on weight. It sounds like you have placated the midwives and health visitors. I think the night feeds may be coming – good luck when/if they do! And congratulations btw on a very beautiful baby boy.

  1. I have never had a baby…. but I have done experiments into the wee small hours at Grenoble, so the first part of this post made me laugh – I hope if I ever child I can still see the funny analogy! My friend gave birth last week and I was shocked to see how organised she was with inputting times of feeds, nappy changes, etc into a little book…. I was expecting poo covered chaos! But she told me of the militant midwives too, and their threats that the baby will obviously waste away to nothing but a pile of dust if not fed every 3 hours. They sound like terrifying creatures (the midwives, not the babies).

      • on February 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm

      We met a lot of midwives, and they’ve largely been very helpful and supportive. Aside from three areas: (1) they appear to be targeted to increase breastfeeding (certainly the NHS is) and so (depending on midwife) there can be a lot of pressure in this area. (2) I got the feeling at points in labour that a bit of screaming agony was to be accepted as par for the course. (3) Post birth weight gain, this varies from midwife to midwife, I suspect with an early born (3 week before due date) lowish weight baby we fall at the bottom of charts so this leads to an enthusiasm in some midwives to try to push back towards the centre of the distribution.

    • Simon on February 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    My daughter had a baby on January 11th and she has also encountered the midwives’ current obsession with weight gain. Her baby seems to be getting longer without getting much fatter, but then I remember she was pretty similar when she was tiny, so neither of us is too worried about it. I have pointed out to my daughter that it is a distribution, so some people will be near the extremes and some people will be in the middle; that’s what a distribution means!

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