This post is the second in a series about my experiences of motherhood and what I wish I’d known before I had a baby. You can see the original post here.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Before I had my daughter, I was totally grossed out by the idea of breastfeeding. I was quite apprehensive about it, too, because I found the whole idea of sustaining a person from my actual physical body totally and utterly weird. I realise now, looking back, that, like most people in the West, I had grown up in a culture where breasts are for sex, at least primarily. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a reference to breasts, and what was the context? We live in a bizarre world where topless women on Page 3 are OK but women who breastfeed in public are openly shamed. If you feel even a little bit awkward reading this post, then you’ve succumbed to the prevailing culture too. We have lost touch with what breasts are primarily for: feeding infants.
In the days of yore, and still today in many more traditional societies around the world, people grew up seeing babies and young children being breastfed all the time. If it wasn’t several of your own siblings you saw being breastfed, it was your cousins, or your next door neighbours, sitting on the street corner, in the house, being carried out and about. Breastfeeding, or nursing, which better describes the act, was totally normalized. It was understood as an intrinsic part of mothering. When you started to have children of your own, you were surrounded by women who had done it before you, and who could share their experiences with you and help you overcome any difficulties. Of course it wasn’t utopia, and I am grateful that I have access to twenty first century medical and scientific knowledge. But what we have lost is the fact that nursing was a normal part of everyday life. Almost all mothers did it for years on end as they had child after child. The only exception was the wealthy, most of whom paid someone else to nurse their babies.
As a pregnant mum-to-be, I thought breastfeeding, as opposed to formula feeding, was another choice you made alongside other parenting choices like what kind of birth you want, where the baby should sleep, what kind of car seat you should get, that kind of thing. This was a choice about how you feed your baby. It was a no-brainer that I would breastfeed. I wish I could say it was because I wanted my baby to have the best start in life nutritionally, but it wasn’t. I was aware of the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding to both mum and baby, thanks to the NHS and other web pages on the topic, and obviously I did want the best for my baby when she arrived. But what motivated me was because I honestly thought breastfeeding sounded like much less faff than formula feeding, along with the fact that it is free. No bottle-washing and sterilizing and mixing and warming and cooling and heaven only knows what else, no worrying about how many ounces to give when and of which type of formula and so on. Plus I’d spied in my local Co-op that a tub of formula will set you back an impressive ten quid these days. No, I would breastfeed, so I could polish my halo of how I was providing the best for my baby even though secretly I was just doing it because it was easier.
I did a bit of homework, but not a lot. I had found out about the Kellymom website because it had been recommended in an online pregnancy forum, and done a bit of reading. I learnt that very little was known about breastfeeding before about 1990. I learnt that the first milk you produce is called colostrum, which is very concentrated and high in antibodies. Your milk then ‘comes in’ a few days later. I also learnt a bit about the mechanics of breastfeeding, how it works on a supply and demand basis. Essentially, the more often and effectively milk is removed from the breast, the more milk is made. I learnt that the first couple of weeks is crucial in establishing the supply needed to feed your baby. That was as far as my reading took me.
What surprised me was that the same online pregnancy forum mentioned above also taught me that many women struggle to achieve their breastfeeding goals, and this made it seem like breastfeeding was really hard. When my midwife asked me if I’d thought about how I would want to feed my baby, I voiced my concern. She looked at me sadly and said it could be tough at the beginning, but got a lot easier. It shocked me to discover that despite the recommendation by the Department of Health and the World Health Organization that a baby should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months, only 1% of British mothers achieved this in 2010. But the number of women in the UK that initiated breastfeeding was 81%. What goes wrong?
There are many, many things I wish I’d known about breastfeeding before I had a baby. I wish I’d known that engorgement is really, really painful, but only lasts a few days. I wish I’d known that newborns frequently nurse for hours on end and that this is normal (my daughter’s personal best was 12 hours straight with only the odd break here and there for nappy changes). I wish I’d known that babies feed to sleep and that far from this being a ‘bad habit’ it is one of the most useful mothering tools at one’s disposal. I wish I’d known that the anthropologically normal age to wean from breastfeeding is between 2 and a half and seven years of age. I wish I’d known that the type of birth you have statistically affects the likelihood of successful breastfeeding. I wish I’d known that breast milk has amazing medicinal properties – baby got nappy rash? Put some breast milk on it. Baby got a blocked nose? Squirt some breast milk up it to clear it (no, really!)
But there are two things I really wish I’d known before having a baby about breastfeeding. The first is that it is about so much more than keeping your baby fed and hydrated. It’s not even about bonding, though that is also one of the main benefits of nursing. No, it’s that breastfeeding is a kind of mothering. An infant’s needs basically boil down to being kept warm, having their tummies full, and feeling safe. Breastfeeding satisfies all of these needs, all in one go. When my baby cries, the first thing I have always done is offer her the breast. 99% of the time she takes it. Most of the time I still don’t really know what the source of her discomfort is when she’s upset, but I know the cure. That is of great solace to me!
And it’s not all about her. When I nurse her, I calm down. My ten month old explorer baby doesn’t really ‘do’ down time. She doesn’t believe in napping for more than 25 minutes a day. Every day, numerous times, I really *really* need a break from her pulling herself up on anything, crawling frantically everywhere, pulling the books off the bookshelves, throwing her food around the room, and so on. And so we go upstairs, I get comfy on the bed, and we nurse, sometimes for half an hour or more. It is a wonderful thing.
This quote from the seventh edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (now in its eighth edition) beautifully sums up the joy of the nursing relationship which so often gets overlooked in the ‘choice’ mothers are given about how they feed their babies:
The natural power of breastfeeding is one of the greatest wonders of the world. It is about real love. It is about caring and celebrating the wondrous joy of nurturing a new life. It is about enjoying being a woman. In a world too often dominated by materialism and greed, every act of the natural power of breastfeeding reminds us that there is another way, the natural way, the breastfeeding way. Breastfeeding is about the power of peace, the power of goodness, and the power of responsibility. (Source)
It makes me so sad knowing that so many women fail to experience this joy of breastfeeding their baby for as long as they had wanted to. But perhaps many of them, like me, didn’t know that there is so much help available, especially here in Oxfordshire. This brings me on to the second thing I wish I’d known about breastfeeding: getting help antenatally is really smart. The truth is that many women fail to reach their breastfeeding goals because for whatever reason they did not have access to adequate skilled support. There are very few women who are unable to breastfeed. But there are many, many women who need skilled help when they come up against common breastfeeding problems, especially in the early weeks. By ‘help’ I mean much more help than just your midwife or Health Visitor observing another feed. Some midwives and HVs are really knowledgeable, others less so. Most of them have only had a few days’ training when it comes to breastfeeding, at best.
In Oxfordshire, we are blessed with (among other groups) a local La Leche League branch, breastfeeding clinics in the JR, and numerous Baby Cafes all around town. LLL is a group that exists to promote breastfeeding and enable women to do it. There are no ‘experts’ at LLL, the emphasis is very much on mother-to-mother sharing, and I’ve found the local branch to be tremendously supportive so far in my breastfeeding journey. The breastfeeding clinics and Baby Cafes are usually run by someone with the qualification IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant), which means they have undergone intensive training and are highly specialist practitioners when it comes to breastfeeding. All of this support is free. Both LLL and Baby Cafe Oxford have (closed) Facebook groups in which women can post questions. These online forums have been of tremendous help to me. In fact, it was rather by accident that I found out about Baby Cafes in the first place. A friend of mine had recently had a baby and I was looking through the parenting groups she was a member of on Facebook. I noticed one of them, Baby Cafe, and was intrigued, as I had never heard of it before (at this stage I didn’t know it was a breastfeeding support group). I clicked on what I thought was the group but accidentally clicked ‘join’, and, when an admin had approved it, I found myself in the group by mistake. I am so glad of this mistake! Just reading other people’s posts and comments taught me pretty much everything I needed to know about breastfeeding. Though it has to be said, face to face breastfeeding support is even better! We are blessed to have such incredible professional and free support available: in former times, it was not so. I have recently become involved with ministry to the elderly through my church and a few months ago I was at a bible study group made up of six ladies in their 80s and 90s. We got chatting about motherhood and one asked whether I was feeding her myself. I said yes and she said ‘you’re so lucky. I never managed to feed any of my five children.’ It transpired that not one of them had managed to breastfeed any of their children past the first couple of weeks. They told me how official advice was very different then (I guess it was the height of formula feeding), and there was no breastfeeding support like we have today. But what I took away from it was that, despite official advice, ALL of them wanted to feed their babies, ALL of them felt like it was the natural and right thing to do, and ALL of them still felt strongly about it 60-70 years later! They were all so encouraged to hear about things like breastfeeding clinics, Baby Cafés, LLL, and children’s centres and I suddenly realised how very blessed we are having all this wonderful support. A lot of older people seem to bemoan how things are changing for the worse in ‘modern society’ but here were six old ladies all agreeing that things are so much better now with regards to infant feeding.
I was lucky – after my wonderful birth experience, I was given good advice by the midwives that attended me and, despite a few hiccoughs in the first three weeks, I made it through the tough patch. Next time, I know where to find the support, and I’ll be accessing it well before I ‘need’ it. I’ll leave you with a lovely story about a friend’s experience of Baby Cafe. She has allowed me to share it here.
It was about this time last year, on a Friday, that my OH and I walked down to the Florence Park baby cafe. I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my first baby and I fully intended to breastfeed. But I had not actually seen anyone breastfeed in the flesh for over 30 years. All of my friends had failed in their breastfeeding attempts, which made it seem like an elusive and difficult skill. I had no idea how to acquire this skill, as I had no mum friends or sisters to ask. I’d bought a book and read a few articles on the net, but I was still very confused about the whole thing, partly because I’d read very contradictory information. I was having a planned caesarean, which I had been told would make breastfeeding more difficult. I felt that I needed face-to-face information, and I thought that I should do my fact-finding BEFORE the birth and not whilst I was tired, emotional, recovering from surgery and on strong pain killers. When we turned up, my OH was the only man there that day, all the other women already had babies and were busy feeding. I had never seen so many babies in one room together in my life. It was terribly daunting. But Lisa [the Baby Cafe facilitator] was there and once she’d helped the other mums, she talked to us. In the next 30 minutes I learned more or less everything I needed to know to breastfeed successfully. I cannot overstate the difference which this one ante-natal face-to-face encounter made to me. It is, without a doubt, the reason why I am still feeding my baby girl, almost a year later, and the reason why she has never had any formula. Lisa clarified things I was confused about (is it normal for it to hurt, or are you doing it wrong if it hurts?), and she dismissed misinformation, for example by being utterly adamant that a caesarean is no obstacle to BFing. Being given the pretend-baby doll to pretend-feed it was really helpful. Previously, I had had no real sense of how heavy a newborn was, and it hadn’t occurred to me that their little hands and arms might get in the way. Lisa showed me how to position the baby, and handle the arms. She showed me a number of ways to hold the baby, including caesarean-friendly ones. The practical advice she gave me is very simple really, but I repeated it to myself like a mantra in hospital every time I tried to get the baby to latch. Tummy to tummy, nose to nipple, head tilted back, and baby’s back and head in a straight line (rather than the head twisted to the side, which is how I’d somehow imagined it). She explained about supply and demand, and although I’d read about it before, she boiled it down to one simple notion: Trust the baby. Baby knows. Follow the baby’s cues, and it’ll all be fine. She mentioned babies crawling to find the nipple, which I’d never heard of, so I was able to read up on it later. Instead of seeing babies as helpless little lumps, I came away from that visit with a real sense of admiration for how clever and well adapted babies are. She also explained the actual procedure in hospital, and how to get help if you needed it (I had no idea there was an infant feeding specialist in the hospital, or that you could ask for them!) When I left the Baby Cafe that day, I knew everything I needed to. I had the practical knowledge for how to feed my baby. I knew how to access support. I was given almost total certainty that my body would be able to do what it needed to do, and that my baby would know what to do, too. I knew how to identify bad advice so I could dismiss it. She also told me how to identify and deal with the most common problems people have, and told OH how he could be supportive. Lisa’s number was saved in my phone when I went into hospital, but I never had to call her in the end. When I was in theatre, holding my baby girl, she bobbed her head up and down. Despite having no clue about babies I actually knew what this meant, as Lisa had shown me how babies ‘peck’ like a chicken to try and find the nipple. I noticed the baby doing it before the midwife did, so I was able to ask for her help. My daughter latched on in theatre, only a few minutes after being born, whilst I was still being stitched up, and she has successfully fed ever since. We have had no engorgement, mastitis, or thrush. Whatever problems we encountered (bleeding nipple, blisters on nipple) we knew how to overcome them, too. I truly believe that it was the information and support that I received on that day that empowered us to feed successfully from day one. And ‘trust the baby’ has become the corner stone of my parenting in all matters.