This week is World Breastfeeding Week and the Irish Parenting Bloggers group is hosting a blog march to celebrate. Today is the final day of the blog march, the theme for which is Breastfeeding Peer Support.
Over the course of the week, we’ve had stories from bloggers with a wide range of experiences. Yaz from Glitter Mama Wishes told us how she made sure that her babies got all the benefits of those early colostrum feeds, before ongoing unresolved pain led her to switch to formula. Not Maud from Awfully Chipper told us how she inadvertently ended up as an extended breastfeeder. And Sinead from Bumbles of Rice explained how she falls somewhere in the middle.
Across all of the stories that we heard, one theme was common. The type of support that you receive, not just in the early days but throughout your time breastfeeding can influence your experience.
We’ve all heard the horror stories (or been unfortunate enough to experience them) and know that the staff in our hospitals are overworked and don’t have time to provide the one-on-one care that a new mother may need to get breastfeeding off to a good start. And even if a nurse or midwife does take the time to help you, how do you know whether the information they are giving you is based on medical information or personal opinion? Because it seems to be the luck of the draw which you get. Certainly anecdotally the level of breastfeeding knowledge among Irish medical professionals seems very poor.
And in Irish society in general, there is a huge misunderstanding of breastfeeding and indeed normal newborn behaviour. Formula feeding has been the default in our culture for so long that people no longer realise that it’s not normal for young babies to go 3-4 hours between feeds, that sleeping through the night can be damaging to a breastfeeding relationship and is not even developmentally normal until 6-9 months for most babies, that the growth spurts at three and four months don’t warrant an introduction of solids – instead they are designed to increase milk supply, and worst of all, the idea that newborn babies are somehow manipulative and that a baby using her mother for comfort is a bad thing. “She’s using your breast like a soother.” Always said in a negative tone. Never “She’s using a soother like your breast.” Even though the second one is the truth. Like I said, we’ve lost sight of what normal baby behaviour looks like.
So if you’re a new mother, where can look for help and support?
Start by informing yourself. I read very little about breastfeeding during my first pregnancy and as a result I didn’t realise that when my son wouldn’t latch there were certain issues that should have been checked for such as tongue tie. I was also unaware how detrimental the advice in books like The Contented Little Baby and The Baby Whisperer can be to a breastfeeding relationship. On my second pregnancy, I read both Dr Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding and the La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. (I also read The Politics of Breastfeeding which served as a huge motivational influence, but that’s probably more suitable for discussion in a separate post.)
The difference it made was huge. I didn’t spend long in hospital second time around (16 hours total), but I had already decided which midwives and nurses weren’t informed about breastfeeding and knew not to ask them for help. For example, I overheard one midwife telling the mother in the bed beside me that her baby couldn’t have wind, sure wasn’t she breastfeeding, and breastfed babies don’t get wind. Thankfully this was a third or fourth baby and the mother receiving this little gem just smiled politely and said nothing, but she looked as though she recognised the statement for the nonsense that it was.
Likewise when I ran into difficulties, I found that I could tell when someone was giving me a rote response to a question and when they actually seemed to understand the mechanics of breastfeeding. So being informed was the best way for me to identify good support among my healthcare professionals. I also made sure to seek the help of a lactation consultant, a qualified breastfeeding professional, when I encountered a problem my public health nurse and doctor couldn’t help me with. (You can read about my experience with the lactation consultant here: A visit from the lactation consultant)
The next step is to help those around you be supportive. We don’t have a breastfeeding culture, and through multiple generations of formula feeding, we’ve lost a lot of the breastfeeding knowledge that is taken for granted in other parts of the world. So explain to those closest to you – maybe your husband or partner and your mother or mother-in-law – that it would really help you if they learned more about breastfeeding too, so that when you’re tired and finding it hard to think straight after delivery, they can help you figure out how to make breastfeeding work. Or if they’re not the type to enjoy researching a topic like that, then ask them to keep you fed and watered and look after the housework until you have breastfeeding established.
It’s not always possible to find support in your immediate family. Or even if they are supportive, they may soon have to return to work, leaving you to yourself all day. So seek out a breastfeeding support group - there are HSE-run groups all over the country, as well as groups run by La Leche League, Cuidiu, and Friends of Breastfeeding. Don’t let the media stereotype of breastfeeders put you off. I attended my local breastfeeding group for 9 months with my son, and I’m now into my fourth month with my daughter and I’ve never come across anyone who judged me for my choices or was staunchly anti-formula or anti-bottle. On my son especially I was worried about being judged because I was combination-feeding him and I ultimately weaned him to formula. But I never received anything other than support from the other members of the group. And I kept attending the group for months after I made the switch to formula and no one cared!
And over the years, that group has really helped me to see breastfeeding as something normal. That might sound odd, but other than my mother, I’d only ever seen one other woman breastfeed in my life, and I was quite uncomfortable with it. But now I’ve lost count of how many babies I’ve seen fed. And what a difference it has made to me. Watching others feed their babies taught me different holds and positions to use, it taught me what clothes are best if you wish to be discreet when out and about (and what clothes aren’t!), it taught me that breastfeeding past three months, six months, or a year or two is normal. I really wasn’t aware before attending the group that anyone nursed past six months. (Watching Channel 4’s Extreme Breastfeeding doesn’t count!) I learned that every feed counts. The woman who feeds for a month and then switches to formula may have worked much harder to ensure her baby got those four weeks of breastfeeds than the woman for whom it came easily and who continued for 12 months. You just don’t know.
If you’re too shy to attend your local group, or if you find you need support more than once a week, then look online. Again you have to be careful about the information you’re receiving. Many of the more polished looking “breastfeeding” sites are actually designed and run by formula companies, and have been carefully developed to undermine breastfeeding and help you switch to formula. (PhD in Parenting has a great article on this: Breastfeeding Advice: Nestlé Style).
But the good news is that in the intervening years since I fed my son, the online support world has been changing here in Ireland, and we don’t need to rely on underfunded HSE websites or large multinational corporations with ulterior motives for our advice anymore. Experienced breastfeeding women are setting up their own support groups instead. (Office Mum has pulled together a great list of support links if you need them: Breastfeeding Support Links) There are now Facebook groups for breastfeeding mothers in Ireland, some at a national level and some at a local level. When I ran into difficulties feeding my daughter, I got great help and advice from three of these groups – Breastfeeding Mothers in Dublin, Extended Breastfeeding in Ireland, and Breastfeeding with Tongue Tie.
I lamented earlier in this post the knowledge that has been lost through generations of formula feeding in Ireland. Well these groups are building that knowledge right back up again. Between them, the women in the groups have fed thousands of babies, and just like our bloggers in this week’s blog march, they have had thousands of different experiences. They’ve encountered breastfeeding problems and they have found breastfeeding solutions. And if you’re sitting there feeding your newborn at 3am and you wish you had someone to talk to, you can be guaranteed there’s someone there, also logged in on their smartphone while they feed their baby. I couldn’t believe how much things had changed in the four short years since I had my son. To have such good and helpful advice and such motivational support literally at my fingertips 24 hours a day was amazing. It’s inspiring in fact.
With all this talk of support, I’m worried I’m giving the impression that breastfeeding is terribly hard work! But the truth is that the effort for breastfeeding is front-loaded. All the hard work comes in those early weeks after birth, the very weeks that you are tired, sore and emotional. But if you can get breastfeeding established, by the time your baby is 8 weeks old, you’ll start to find that the tables are turning, and by the time your baby is 12 weeks old, the chances are if you have formula fed before, or you have friends or family who formula feed, you’ll notice that breastfeeding is far less work and hassle. And soon enough you’ll be in a position to be the one offering support instead of the one looking for it.
A wealth of information has been shared this week by everyone on the blog march. Here is the full list of participants again in case you missed any of the posts:
My Internal World with Breastfeeding in Ireland: Support on Paper but not in Practice
Musings and Chatterings with Lumps, Bumps, and Grumps – Things I never knew about breastfeeding
Mama Courage with Hey you! Be a BFF to your BFF (Breast Feeding Friends)
The Nest with World Breastfeeding Week
Mama.ie with Breast Buddies
At The Clothesline with Close to my heart
My Life as a Mum with Mummy I need your pookie
Learner Mama with The Breastfeeding Trier