(My) Truth about Breastfeeding

It's Breastfeeding Awareness Week  .  In the last few weeks I've read a few articles in the media which have discussed the breastapo and their 'propaganda' - aggressive pushing of the breast is best message and I'm a little disheartened. As an enthusiastic and successful breast feeder I'm completely scunnered with being labelled as a judgemental zealot, and to be honest when I heard that awareness week was coming up I was leery of the slew of negative articles which would no doubt materialise.

So in the interests of transparency I'm going to tell of my experiences and you can tell me what you think. 

Before Brodie was born I assumed breastfeeding would be straightforward enough. I knew it would be nutritionally superior and would gift us both non-negotiable health benefits. On the advice of midwives I researched formula options to see which would be the best for us should breastfeeding not work out, although to be honest at that point I was confident and determined to give breastfeeding my best shot. I began to notice how aggressively formula milk is marketed to new confused, exhausted parents as a welcoming port in the low level continuous panic storm that is new babyhood. 

You all know I love a library book and I picked this one up , and I felt as prepared as one can be marching into the complete unknown.

And then I had a baby and the world was at once the same and completely altered. Brodie didn't latch on easily and I have clear memories of being 'milked' by one midwife while another held my babies tiny lips to me to collect those tiny drops of colostrum. During our first night together in the maternity ward as my boy slept in his tiny plastic cot next to my bed I listened to other babies cry out for food and wondered when he would wake. It turns out he didn't wake, but later that night a midwife roused me and said I should try and feed the baby. He was sleepy and not at all interested in trying to feed and as I grappled with boobs and baby heads and nipples which seemed entirely the wrong shape and size to deliver milk into something the size of a drawing pin head I cried silent angry tears. I waited for 45 minutes for the midwife to return as she had promised before I gave up and put my tiny boy back in his cot, snoring merrily, as far as I knew having received no life sustaining liquid.

The next morning someone asked me if I'd fed him and I said yes. Well I might have done, I couldn't know for sure. The baby was settled so I washed him and put on a clean nappy. Meconium was successfully passed. As soon as the person in charge appeared I practically begged to be allowed to go home. I paced the end of the bed with our bags packed and ready so I could go home and get out of the bright lights, noise and breastfeeding failure that was my maternity ward experience. 

I thought that once I got home it would be easier. Greig would be there to help us, it would be warm and quiet and we'd get this feeding thing sorted. Our first day home the midwife visited and I asked her to check to see if she baby was latched on correctly, she gave a cursory glance and said something to the effect of 'probably'. The baby was working like a baby should, bowels and bladder outputting regularly so I can only presume she assumed things were fine and he was getting enough milk.  We continued for the weeks of Greig's paternity leave, each feed resulting in searing pain which made me stamp my feet and bite my lips until he was latched and the milk flowed. I never relaxed though, terrified to move in case he unlatched and I had to go through the process again. I also had to hold my breast in place as well as his wriggly body so never had a free hand for the duration of the feed and when it was over my back would be sore and the tension in my neck and shoulders ratcheting up through the day.  I pored over the literature given and watched videos on youtube to improve our technique.

As the months progressed, the pain lessened and I learned to breathe through it. I breastfed Brodie for a year. It was never easy, or comfortable or straightforward. That's not to say I didn't take pleasure in it. Hearing the suckling noises and contented sighs as you nurture your baby is surely a precious gift. Watching your tiny bird like creature grow into a Buddha like baby with rolls - oh the chubby rolls - from a food source created inside your body especially to nurture.

So why did I continue? Despite pain, embarrassment, little support (out with my husband and immediate family) and did I mention the pain? Why didn't I let Greig go out and buy formula milk during one particularly excruciating night feed? Honestly, I'm not sure. Brodie was colicky and I believe introducing cows or soya milk might have made his digestive discomfort worse and the pain of my baby being in pain was unthinkable. I wanted to succeed at something my body was made to do, something woman around the world do every minute of every day. Because I have a deeply held personal belief that feeding my baby was an important experience on this rocky journey of motherhood. Because the irrefutable scientific evidence showed me that if I could, then I should.

So that's it. I'm not smug, I don't think I'm better, smarter or love my children more because they were exclusively breastfed. I struggled with nearly every feed and almost every other breast feeder I've ever spoken to has struggled at points too. And no I don't think everyone should breastfeed, but everyone should be free to make the choice which is best for their family without judgement or reproach. 

Interestingly my experience with Grier was different. She latched straight away, I didn't have the oversupply issues I had with Brodie. She wasn't colicky, slept through the night early on and I seemed to be more coordinated second time round. It was just plain easier. The focus of this years Breastfeeding Awareness Week is Peer Support and I think I was my own peer support second time round. I was experienced, relaxed and blessed with an 'easier' baby. Had I had me to speak to, maybe I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself?

 

I'm confused when I read articles written by mothers with babies like me. Mothers who feel that they have been judged as making poor choices for feeding their babies formula, who feel they're considered inferior. By whom? No-one has ever inferred directly or indirectly to me that I'm better than the next. I certainly don't feel better and have had my fair share of negative comments about spoiling my babes feeding them on demand. Being selfish by not allowing others to feed my babies – not true, they both happily consumed bottles of breastmilk – but hey if you want to offer up your nipples for their amusement don't let me stop you – just watch out for the teeth. Others have commented that I fed my children for too long, or not long enough or yadda, yadda, yadda. I feel pangs of understanding when I read about Mums giving up on breastfeeding because they were just so unhappy they felt they were making their babies, even their whole families sad. I did too, I just made it through to the other side. What can be done? What kind of support do we need to give families to make breastfeeding a viable choice? Peer supporters would no doubt help but I think the likely solution is many faceted. I'm an educated, well supported, physcially healthy woman and I struggled. I had no financial, emotional or family pressures to compound the stress of early motherhood and I struggled.

I feel like I'm covering old ground here but if you want to breastfeed. Do it, learn about it, let others know so they can support you. Enjoy it, be ready to commit to it and be realistic about what it will entail. Listen to your instincts and try to focus on you and your baby. It doesn't have to be difficult, but sometimes it is. The truth about breastfeeding according to me.

I wrote about early breastfeeding here if you're interested