Every breastfeed makes a difference
It’s National Breastfeeding Week 2013 here in Ireland from October 1st to 7th. The theme for this year is “Every breastfeed makes a difference”.
This theme is really important to me because it gets right to the heart of my thoughts on breastfeeding. I think that when it comes to something as emotive as how you feed your baby, you never know what path the person you are speaking to has travelled. In an ideal world I would love for women to have real choice. To decide to breastfeed or formula feed and for that to be all there is to it. Right now though, for anyone who decides to breastfeed when their baby is born, unfortunately it may not be as simple as just making that decision and away they go. Huge numbers of women report switching to formula because they felt they had to, not because they wanted to.
Our society is a distinctly formula-oriented one, no matter what the breastfeeding propaganda in the hospital might lead you to believe. Once that baby is born, many people find that there is little to back up the hospital breastfeeding policy other than unhelpful platitudes and an insistence that you persevere.
But perseverance may not get you very far if the medical professionals surrounding you and offering you advice are unable to diagnose common breastfeeding problems and offer real breastfeeding solutions to fix them. Likewise there’s a real misunderstanding of breastfeeding and breastfeeding issues in our society and so those immediately surrounding the new mother may offer bad advice based on myths that they have picked up about breastfeeding over the years.
For example, one of the most common issues I hear people discuss is how windy their babies are. There is a perception that breastfed babies shouldn’t be windy, and that if they are, then it is probably down to something the mother ate. So mothers end up restricting their diets in an attempt to help their babies and often when that doesn’t work, they end up switching to formula, maybe even a specialist formula in the hope that it may help. But far more likely than an intolerance to something in the mother’s milk causing windiness is an issue with the baby’s latch, or the amount of milk being produced, or the rate at which the milk flows. Oversupply and over active letdown are both common causes of windiness in breastfed babies, but in my experience those issues are rarely investigated before a suggestion about diet restriction is made.
Another common issue, and a topical one right now, is that of tongue tie. It is estimated that one in ten babies has tongue tie. This condition can cause numerous breastfeeding problems – poor latching, ineffective milk transfer, excessive windiness in the baby, and pain, lots of pain in the form of cracked nipples and soreness. And yet it isn’t checked for by default in our hospitals. Just this week the National Maternity Hospital stated that they don’t believe it causes breastfeeding problems, ignoring the hundreds of women and babies who experience those problems.
What has all of this got to do with this year’s theme you may ask? Well these are just some of the examples of the stumbling blocks, booby traps if you will, that women in Ireland may encounter if they decide to breastfeed. Depending on their own level of knowledge or the knowledge of those they approach for help, it may not be possible for them to overcome those stumbling blocks and go on to develop a successful breastfeeding relationship with their child.
Lots of women report feeling overwhelming guilt because they had set themselves breastfeeding goals of weeks, months, or years that they then didn’t manage to meet because they encountered a difficulty that they weren’t expecting and they couldn’t overcome. But I believe that guilt like that is counterproductive and misplaced. If you were trying to learn to drive and the people you went to for instruction were only familiar with cycling, and you failed your test based on what they taught you, you wouldn’t feel guilt. You’d be annoyed that they hadn’t sent you to a qualified instructor instead so that you could achieve what you set out to achieve. It’s no different when a health professional suggests giving that baby a bottle rather than referring you to a lactation consultant.
When I look back on my own breastfeeding experiences, it amazes me how different they were. My son refused to latch the day he was born. His first feed was a formula feed. He did breastfeed after a few days, but the early weeks were horrendous for us and I was in a lot of pain. (I have my suspicions about undiagnosed tongue tie – but I’d never heard of that then and didn’t know to ask to have it checked.) After six weeks, I switched to combination feeding him, and by the time he was seven months, he was fully formula fed.
Compare that experience to my current experience with my daughter. A few problems at the start that we managed to overcome, and then the most amazing breastfeeding experience since. She was exclusively breastfed until we introduced solids last week, and right now I don’t know how long we’ll feed for because it’s working so well.
But even though my son had fewer breastfeeds than my daughter, I am much prouder of myself for what I achieved feeding him. I’m glad my experience with my daughter is going so well – but it’s been easy for most of the time so why wouldn’t it go well? If you compare feed for feed, sure you could say that I’ve been more successful this time around. But that’s not how I see it. I believe that every breastfeed makes a difference. And I know how hard I worked for the breastfeeds that my son got. While I may have some regret that I didn’t know then what I know now (so I may have avoided some of the issues I encountered) I have no guilt.
I think that for those who chose to breastfeed, rather than focusing on the goals they may not achieve, it is much better to take it one feed at a time and remember that every breastfeed makes a difference. It’s too easy in the early weeks to feel “oh god, I can’t keep doing this for six months or a year”. But you’re not comparing like with like. A baby who takes ten minutes to latch, 40 minutes to feed, and feeds every two hours at two weeks old, may well latch instantly, feed in five minutes, and only feed every 3-4 hours by ten weeks old. You just don’t know. So my advice is to take it feed by feed and see how you get on.
And whether you manage one feed or one hundred feeds, recognise each feed as an achievement and let go of any guilt you are carrying.
To celebrate National Breastfeeding Week, we have a great giveaway from NUK – two electric breast pumps and two manual breast pumps as well as gel cushions.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Be sure to catch the other great posts from this week. You’ll find them here: National Breastfeeding Week Blog March