Firstly, I want to apologise to any readers out there who literally couldn’t give two hoots (ha!) about breastfeeding. I’m sorry. Since having Ellie I’ve tried quite hard to write about a variety of things that aren’t all baby-related, and for the most part, I’ve succeeded.
But breastfeeding? It is a minefield. It really is. It’s the thorniest mothering issue of them all. And, as such, I can’t not write about it. I need to write down what I wish I’d known before I had a baby, and the ammunition I wish I’d had to face the Breastfeeding Evangelists.
It’s really hard to find a sensible conversation online, one that doesn’t polarise, or engender guilt, or serve to confuse. Something that tells it how it is, and takes all of the hidden meaning and subliminal messaging out of it. I felt like I approached breastfeeding quite casually, thinking I’d figure it out. I just sort of sauntered up to this unidentifiable thing, picked it up, and it turns out it was a fully loaded shotgun.
If this post helps just one person navigate the insanity (and the joy) that is feeding their baby, then readers, my job here is done.
Breastfeeding is not the Messiah
This could be a whole post in itself. Pregnant women and new mothers will come up against the breastfeeding propaganda machine time and time again. It makes me rage. From before your baby is born, to weeks and months afterwards. From the media, from nurses and midwives, from other mothers, from sanctimonious blogs. You will hear ”breast is best” and “give your baby the best start with breastmilk!” (accompanied by a poster of a smug, serene-looking woman breastfeeding a thriving baby) on repeat until it is tattooed behind your eyes.
Now. I’m not one to bash the NHS. Nurses and midwives do an incredible job, and I understand that they have a line to take. But. The message they promote just isn’t consistent with reality. There are many, many women who cannot or do not breastfeed, and there are endless reasons why that is the case. Some women have poor milk flow and there is nothing they can do about it. Some women have had breast surgery. Some women have been ill, or are on medication. Some babies will not latch, however hard their mothers try. Some women feel like a cow, constantly feeding twins, triplets, or a particularly hungry baby and decide it’s not for them. Some women had a chronic lack of support when their babies were born and couldn’t start breastfeeding, or it tailed off, even though they desperately wanted to.
There are so many reasons, far more than I’ve listed here, why breastfeeding doesn’t work out. It is not a case of “just not trying hard enough” and this zealotry around breastfeeding puts babies at risk and mothers under inordinate pressure and misery to feed their babies in a way that simply isn’t working out for them.
Every mother is trying her hardest. Sod off with your evangelism and your bloody posters.
Find the solution that works best for you and your baby. It may not be the one you imagined, but find it. Do not let anyone else pressure you. Do not let anyone else judge you for how you feed your baby. It is not, and has never been, any of their business. They don’t know your story, your reasoning, your choices.
It is not like on Animal Planet
You know when you see animals born in the wild and, half-blind and totally confused they start nursing straightaway and the exhausted mother lies back and relaxes, safe in the knowledge that she’s nourishing her brood? Yeah….no. No, it’s not like that. There’s a technique to breastfeeding, and everyone’s technique is different, because guess what, all babies are different and boobs don’t come out of a Boob Mould. You have to master positioning, latch and milk flow at a very bare minimum. Added to that is the stress of being the sole food source that is sustaining another human being, and the fact that you’re doing it all on minimal sleep and with a rather sore vagina/stomach [delete as appropriate]. I say this not to put you off, but just to point out that with breastfeeding, the learning curve is incredibly steep, and the stakes are incredibly high. You can prepare all you want by reading books and going to prenatal classes and waving around knitted boobs and looking at diagrams, but the only way you really learn is by trying, putting your baby on, getting it wrong, getting it right.
And it’s ok to find it hard. Many, many women struggle. It’s a skill. You’re learning that skill, and so is your baby. I found it unexpectedly hard at first and I had to dig into reserves of patience I did not know I possessed. Breastfeeding is an imperfect science. You can’t measure how much milk your baby is taking, and essentially you’re trusting someone who is only a few hours old to tell you when they’ve eaten enough. Ultimately, you’re groping around in the dark with something impossibly important. Those first few days when you don’t know if your baby is eating enough and whether they are thriving can be a dark, dark time and I can fully understand why some mothers choose the security of formula feeding, with bottles and numbers, ozs and mls.
Help is out there. Ask for it.
I would not be breastfeeding today if it weren’t for one of my midwives, Marina. One hour after Ellie was born, Marina took the time to explain to me how it all worked – because guess what, the diagrams and the books and the knitted boobs were a poor imitation of actually holding a human being. And in the days afterwards, at 4am feeds that weren’t going so well, I remembered that hour with Marina, and the encouraging words she said, and it gave me the belief I needed to know Ellie and I could do it.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a midwife as patient as Marina, I know. But ask. If you need it, ask for help until you are hoarse. You deserve to make the most informed decision that you can about how you feed your baby. There are people in hospital, and at the other end of the phone, and groups, and other mothers who have been there, right where you are now. They will help. Ask them. You aren’t expected to do it all on your own. If you want to try to breastfeed, then those hours and days after birth are critical to get your milk supply up and running, and if you don’t ask for help right then, you risk making it much harder for yourself.
Oh, the guilt
This, right here, is the most loaded parenting topic that I know. Guilt and feeding seem inextricably linked. Chances are, if you breastfeed easily, you’ll feel guilty about when and if you decide to stop. If you combination feed, you’ll feel guilty that you aren’t “giving it your all”. If you formula feed, you’ll feel like your baby is missing out on essential nutrients. Food is what keeps your baby alive, and the subject taps into base instincts in a mother. We are all wired to want to give the babies the best we possibly can and ohhh, the sickness, that feeling of despair that comes with feeling you’ve given your baby anything less.
And that, my friends, is where The Breastfeeding Evangelists come in. They see a weakness in a vulnerable, tired new mother and they swoop in and they pounce and they do not let go. They feed misinformation and they do not show any flexibility and they will tell you that formula is the Devil. I think that playing on anyone in this way is despicable, which is why I’ve no time for anyone who tries to push their feeding ideals onto anyone else. As long as that baby is being fed, and is loved and cared for, then you can take your judgey face and your propaganda and shove it up your Dementor-like behind.
Get used to getting them out [warning; features breasts]
Establishing breastfeeding takes time. Get a good box set. Sit on the sofa. You will remain there, with your boobs out, for a good portion of the first few weeks. You will answer the door to the delivery man with one out and a baby attached. You will choose your clothes based on how easily accessible your bits are. You will forget what the point of dignity was.
Breastfeeding in public at first can be tricky. These days, I’m an old pro and really don’t care where I do it. But at the beginning I felt like I needed to ask permission (I believe it was Aisling who told me that if anyone says no, squirt breastmilk in their eye). When I went out, I’d express milk and feed Ellie from a bottle, just so I didn’t offend Other People by baring an appendage.
And then I realised how ridiculous, and how much extra effort and faff that was. Other People have, no doubt, seen boobs before. Other People and their views pale into insignificance when it comes to feeding my hungry kid.
At the beginning, get used to waving your boobs around trying to get a baby to latch. It’s going to happen. Those around you are going to see nipple. They will not die. The world will keep turning. When you nail being confident breastfeeding in public, you will feel like there is nothing that can stop you. You feel like Earth Mother. You will wear your “Breasts Face” which basically says “do you have a problem? Do you? No, I didn’t think so”.
I have fed Ellie on trains, in planes, in a church, doing lunges in an exercise class, in restaurants, in a queue of 200 people boarding a boat from Ellis Island with an Italian couple taking pictures OF ME (Gemma was there, she will verify). No one has ever commented, or been disparaging, or looked disapproving or judgemental in the way that I’d originally feared. (I could have done without the photo shoot, though).
And if they did say something offensive? Well, I have a baby now. I have an example to set. My God, I’d give them hell.