Like most parents, I’ll never forget the day – or in our case, night – we took the baby home from the hospital. How small he looked, in his car seat. How I worried that the hat they had given him was too big, and might slip down. How, in the rush of my premature labour, we hadn’t thought to bring a blanket from the little pile of soft, woollen ones we had been given by friends and family, so I wrapped him in my cardigan instead. How blindsided I was by the revelation that it was now we who were tasked with keeping him warm and alive.
The house was dark – it was late. Most of all, I remember thinking that it was cold. We had worried about the cold, it being a Victorian building that is prone to damp. We were instructed to keep the temperature at 18-20C. How we were supposed to do this, we were unsure. That first, unmoored, night we sat up, together, reeling in a living room that felt, like the rest of our flat, transfigured. We did not yet know how to live peacefully alongside this new being, and so we kept a vigil. An electric oil radiator and a hot-water bottle to warm the crib were deployed (it was removed before we put the baby in). It was early March.
I tell you this because I can’t stop thinking about all the new babies that are coming this winter, not to mention the babies that are already here. Next month, energy bills will jump, as the cost of other necessities continues to rise. Already my son comes inside and his round, full cheeks are chilled against my face. When it is much colder, and parents are facing the choice between heating and eating, what will happen to all the children?
I am not one of those people who thinks that becoming a parent automatically makes you more empathic: the prime minister herself proves that assumption wrong, and she is far from being the first politician to care little for the suffering of children. I have always cared about child poverty, and yet since becoming a parent the thought of all those cold and hungry children now causes me an almost psychic pain, such is its emotional intensity. Not long ago I read an online thread about how to keep a baby warm when you couldn’t afford to keep the heating on, and found myself weeping.
What level of sociopathy we have reached, politically, that so little is being done to help families as winter approaches. It is heartless enough telling adults to “put a jumper on”. What do those who recite from such Dickensian scripts say of babies? Do they still maintain that they had grown up before central heating, when there was ice on the inside of the windows, and that they “turned out fine”? The obvious rejoinder is that they didn’t turn out fine, actually, and that something in them – that snug, kindly place where empathy resides – has gone as arctic as their childhood living rooms.
I wonder about these people – whether, if questioned thoroughly in their toasty semis, they would admit that yes, there were lots of childhood illnesses caused by cold and damp. Lots of bronchitis and asthma and pneumonia doing the rounds. And yes, some children did die, either from the effects of cold or from the more dangerous and extremely common unsafe sleeping practices. “Cold babies cry, hot babies die,” is a chilling phrase used sometimes by those in the health service, alluding to the potential consequences of bundling up babies in too many layers or having the heating running too high.
It is also dangerous to wrap them in loose blankets or put a hat on them indoors, but desperate parents will be tempted this year. “We’ve had to say ‘try not to sleep in bed with your baby’,” an expert at the Alder Hey Children’s NHS foundation trust told news outlets. “People are saying ‘well let’s all cuddle together that will keep us warm’ – again, one of the key risk factors for cot deaths.” The Lullaby Trust, which raises awareness of sudden infant death syndrome, needs to publish fuel crisis-specific advice, and there should be a public awareness campaign. Retailers could help by donating baby sleeping bags, which are far safer than blankets, but often prohibitively expensive (a reader tips me off that George at Asda is cheaper than most).
Yet with such a cruel government, there is only so much the rest of us can do. Throughout the austerity years, the callous tendency to accept the suffering of children based on political, prejudicial perceptions of their parents has grown and grown. “You chose to have them,” such people say, when a parent admits that they are struggling to feed their child, or keep them warm. No wonder I feel about this country the same way I did about my flat, that night I came back, shell-shocked, from the hospital. What is this chilly, inhospitable place? I look around for some familiar sight to reassure me, but I hardly recognise it at all.
On the subject of safe sleeping: the baby has finally outgrown his Snuzpod, a crib which sits next to the bed and allows you some of the benefits of co-sleeping without the risks. I’ll miss the ease of being able to pull him into the bed for a feed without needing to get up, and his closeness at night. Still, I’m grateful that such inventions exist, and would urge expectant parents to consider bedside cribs. Plenty are available secondhand, too.
I was annoyed to read that the women behind the ethical clothing social enterprise Bshirt, makers of my all-time favourite breastfeeding tops, were banned from advertising on Facebook for “adult content”. This, reports say, without showing so much as a nipple (to which I wanted to retort: would it be so bad if they had?) The ban was overturned, but they’ve lost business as a result, and it’s yet another example of the ridiculous prudishness about public breastfeeding. Free the nipple!
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist