Howard Chilton has probably cradled a small percentage of Sydney's locally born population in his arms. The specialist in newborn babies has devoted his career to the pointy end of medicine, keeping alive infants the size of a matchbox and inventing medical devices to help his work.
But after three decades, two of which he was director of pediatrics at the Royal Hospital for Women, the respected doctor has turned his attention to their often-anxious parents, risking facing the ire of many women in the heated debate on mothercraft.
... "I desperately want parents to enjoy their babies," he says. "Mostly I call myself a reassurologist."
... "If you want to have an independent baby, love-bomb them," he declares. Feed them, cuddle them, let them rule your world. For the first six months of their lives at least....
... new interests have replaced old ones. He wants to convince health authorities to fund human milk banks across Australia for infants who need breast milk. Despite the fact that such services are common in other developed countries, he seems remarkably patient with the slow progress here. "They will move at their own speed," he says.
... Perhaps more engrossing is his passion for educating parents against trying to create order in their new life with a tiny baby. Still a visiting medical officer at the Royal and in private practice, he wants to ensure such ideas for infants aged younger than six months are banished for good.
Every Thursday morning he meets new parents at the Royal to deliver his message. His group talk started because he found he was being asked the same questions again and again. The most pressing being how to settle a crying, distressed baby.
"I enjoy one-on-ones but one on 30 is a more efficient way of helping parents, reassuring parents that they are capable of looking after their baby."
His introduction to parenthood has blossomed into an hour-long guided tour that begins with evolution. Humans are born premature, with brains that are only 25 per cent formed. Because humans walk on two feet, the birth canal in women is too narrow to allow a large, more fully developed brain to fit through the pelvis.
Because babies are therefore not fully formed at birth, parents should replicate the baby's experience in the womb by providing a secure, quiet and well-fed environment for the first months after birth. He tells mothers to ignore age-old rules of mothercraft, urging them not to bother burping their babies, to breastfeed them (if possible) as much the baby wants, to sleep with them (under correct conditions) and not to let them get distressed if avoidable.
Chilton has been known to urge his audience to throw out any copies of the likes of best-selling author Gina Ford ...
"I think the [likes of] Gina Ford are attractive to a small section of the population, usually career women who want their babies to fit into a template ... teachers and accountants, people who really like things to be timetabled," he says.
In reality, only about 15 per cent of babies conform to sleeping and eating at the whim of the parent. The rest pay no heed to day and night and end up crying to be held or fed. "I know a lot of people who sob over Gina Ford because it just doesn't work for them or their baby."
Chilton also has a book, Baby On Board, in which he warns of the effects of repeatedly leaving babies less than six months old to cry: "Without therapy or a change in their life, these babies can grow up into people who panic and fly off the handle when things aren't going well, who are prone to depression and anxiety, and may use alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to blunt the way they feel about themselves and their world. The seeds of such life are sown in the nursery."
Chilton bases this claim on neurobiological research. Evidence collected ... shows it is during the early months after birth that crucial connections are established in the brain between the limbic system, where emotions are experienced and the neocortex, the part of the brain that rationalises experience. Babies can feel emotions but not rationalise them. If they are left to feel fear or stress, their brain releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. If it happens in a sustained way, perhaps by parents trying to make them sleep on demand, their brains anticipate further stress as a matter of course.
Chilton acknowledges that his views may make parents even more anxious about such an enormous responsibility. It might sound sweet to "love-bomb" your baby but could you bear the guilt if you don't? And what if your child grows up to experience depression or anxiety? Even though you tried, could you have loved him that little bit more?
At the same time he admits that the brain is highly "plastic". "Just because you have a problem in your first year doesn't mean you will have a problem later," he says, the reassurologist in him returning ...