As part of World Breastfeeding week(August 1-7th), the wonderful Irish Parenting Bloggers group have organised a blog march around the theme of breastfeeding with the theme 'Every Feed Counts'. I am delighted to contribute my experience of feeding my babies, and what I think could help make Ireland a more breastfeeding friendly place!
"Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world". Every expectant mother usually hears this when considering how they are going to feed their newborn baby. Most parents-to-be know the benefits of breastfeeding for mother and baby by picking up one of the many pamphlets supplied to us by midwives, doctors and hospitals. In Ireland, the government have in recent years pumped money and resources into promoting breastfeeding to improve our low rates of women who choose it over the bottle. It is policy for health professionals to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding with every expectant mother. While the number of women who initially breastfeed has slowly increased over the years, there is little research done to determine how many continue to do so once they leave the hospital, and numbers are still low in the former group.
So why aren't these public health campaigns having a stronger effect? And what else can possibly be done to encourage breastfeeding?
This breastfeeding veteran thinks there's plenty.
Firstly, this often held notion that breastfeeding is natural and therefore easy is misleading. Breastfeeding is different for every woman; some find it comes to them without difficulty , many find it incredibly challenging. I had planned on feeding my first baby for at least six months; I made it to eight weeks on both my children through a series of trials and tribulations. On my first there was a point where I was feeding constantly, pumping, taking medication to enhance lactation and still his weight was becoming a growing concern for health professionals looking after him. It was with guilt, a feeling of failure and shame that I weaned him onto formula after one nurse warned that healthy weight gain was essential for his brain development. Having twice undergone the breastfeeding experience I believe the following changes could really help parents who are considering it.
For Mammy/Daddy: For those considering breastfeeding, learning as much as you can BEFORE baby comes can be invaluable. There is plenty of written material available, but I found practical advice from fellow mothers the most useful. There are online forums and bloggers that can give vital tips on ensuring you maximise your supply and minimize discomfort in those early days. There are breastfeeding support groups happening across Ireland, and they welcome those planning to feed as well as offering a social time for breastfeeding mothers to chat and share their experiences. Contact your local Cuidiu or La Leche League members, which can be found on their sites, and they can recommend groups in your locality, and most would be happy to offer over the phone advice too!
I found that women who had been through breastfeeding were more open and honest about the difficulties that can be encountered and how to combat these bumps; they could tell you what signs to look for, and what helped them personally. They help normalize and negative feelings you may have while breastfeeding, and that can reduce any isolation you may be feeling. Learning about potential issues means you are aware that problems can happen, but also that a successful breastfeeding relationship with your baby is possible. They may also be able to recommend lactation consultants should the issues persist and interfere with your breastfeeding.
Because I wasn't aware of potential issues that arose with my first baby, I panicked because things weren't going as I had expected. This stress is not good for mother, baby or milk supply!
For Health Professionals: There is a lot of focus on encouraging breastfeeding itself, but plenty of encouragement for mothers is also needed. After giving birth, though elated, you are exhausted. It's almost unfair that instead of getting at least twenty four hours to recover, nature dictates that you must almost instantly begin the journey of breastfeeding, which is also physically demanding. It is day and night, and usually constant. It can be confusing, exhausting and painful. The easier option is to allow your partner to give baby formula and to get your well deserved rest. This brave act of soldiering on through this post labour should be highlighted and praised. A few positive words could be the difference between a mother continuing with breastfeeding or giving up entirely. When I had trouble sitting up and feeding due to pain on my first baby, a midwife responded that it was hard but I'd just have to get used to it for the time being. On my second baby, another midwife responded to my pain and taught me how to breastfeeding while lying in a comfortable position. This meant that when we returned home I could recover and feed my baby at the same time. This kindness and understanding was vital in me continuing my breastfeeding journey, and I highly advise every woman to ask to be shown a variety of feeding positions while still in hospital.
Once out of hospital, of all the general practitioners I came into contact with, none were able to give me practical advice with the issues that I had when feeding other than to supplement with formula. Though this happened to be the only solution for us, it mightn't be for many women, and so it is essential that doctors have up-to-date knowledge in this area. If we truly want to promote breastfeeding, it is not only midwives that should have this important information. When there are issues, putting effort into exploring what's happening and what could be hindering feeding will actively help women in need of it; if they feel like they are just being fobbed off their enthusiasm may dwindle because there is a sense that no one really cares either way, despite what all the posters in the doctor's clinic may declare.
For Family, Friends and Peers: Although we consider ourselves liberal, Irish society is slow to change. Breastfeeding can be still considered unusual and taboo in many places. Whenever I needed to feed my children at family or social gatherings, the room would clear within seconds, because it was perceived that I needed privacy. Once at a mother baby group no one would talk to me while I fed; I was self conscious about feeding in public from the outset, so this made me feel like a complete outcast. After that I decided to pump and feed my son with a bottle, which was so time consuming...I should have spent it sleeping! For a woman who wants to breastfeed her child for any length of time, this stigma makes leaving the house an uncomfortable and impractical notion. Some may argue that you shouldn't care what others think; but if people treat you like you are exposing yourself in public it is hard to ignore.
There is also a massive lack of understanding about the nature of breastfeeding out there. Countless times those near me reacted with incredulation that after a certain amount of feeding that my son would be want another feed straight away. Cluster feeding is almost universal in young infants, but because so few Irish people are used to feeding they assumed my sons were being greedy/wanting to be pacified. Because the babies didn't stick to the three/four hour rule that they had previously heard of, their actions warranted comment and surprise. Not in the least bit helpful to the exhausted, emotional mother who may be unsure herself of what is going on, and why this little one has been feeding all evening.
If a woman is breastfeeding near you and she isn't hiding herself away, do her a favour and treat her like a normal person who is simply feeding her child. And unless she is actively seeking advice, there is no need to comment about the length or frequency of feeds; trust that she understands her baby more than you do. Only when we, as a society, make women feel comfortable breastfeeding whenever and wherever their child is hungry, will breastfeeding become a prominent part of our culture again.
Finally, if you, like me, did not reach the breastfeeding goal that you had previously set out for yourself, I implore you; please do not feel guilty. I spent so much time on my first born carrying this burden of guilt over something that I had tried my best ot rectify, instead of just accepting the situation. I had made the decision to ultimately do what was best of the both of us, and this is the job of a parent. Not martyrdom. Only you know your limits, and that is different for every parent. There are a million other ways to show your love and devotion to your children. Although mine did not receive the minimum six month exclusive breastfeeding(as is the official guideline), they are happy, thriving babes, and they remind me that my best is enough for them.
PS For a full rundown of the Irish Parenting Bloggers involved in this week's breastfeeding blog march head on over to our fearless leader's blog! She's amazing! mama.ie