I promised a post on breastfeeding a while ago and I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to figure out how to put into words my experiences without scaring pregnant ladies and new mums. But I said this would be a warts and all blog, so here we go.
The fact is, to say breastfeeding has not been straight-forward for us is an understatement. The road has been littered with challenge after challenge. Never one to back away from something difficult (stubborn could be my middle name), I rose to the challenge. But nine and a half weeks in I began to realise the price my baby and I were starting to pay.
You see, the problem with medical professionals these days is that there is little to no recognition of how difficult breastfeeding is. Right from the moment you give birth they are there in the hospital and if it isn’t straight forward they’re throwing tactics and ideas at you like they’re raindrops in a thunderstorm and trying to shove the baby’s head against the breast to latch him on. Once you’re out of hospital you have to really be a self-starter to find the support to keep going.
In a society where we are preached to about the benefits of breastfeeding, it is actually staggering that they don’t make this easier for new mums. And it’s all very well and good preaching that ‘breast is best’, but if professionals on the front line don’t know how to properly help people that are struggling, then of course women are ultimately not going to go the distance.
Added to this, if your baby’s or your own health is suffering (including your mental health because, let’s face it, you’ve just had a baby, your hormones are on speed and it’s a lot of pressure having the sole responsibility for keeping another human alive by feeding them from your own body), why on earth would you continue? And even when you do find the support – which I did – sometimes it is still one battle after another and just not meant to be.
I am sure that whatever Jamie Oliver said recently about breastfeeding was taken out of context because, unless his wife is some kind of Mother Earth or just incredibly lucky, I find it hard to believe that she has had four children and it was all plain sailing because I haven’t come across a woman yet that hasn’t had problems in some way, even among those that have ended up feeding for a year.
Incidentally, I was at a really low point in my breastfeeding journey when Jamie’s comments were reported and I literally wanted to punch his lights out. That a man thought he had the right to pass comments on breastfeeding in the first place was laughable – why don’t we just go back to the days when men told women what to do? But the black and white opinion being portrayed and putting mums under even more pressure was incredibly insensitive. Trust me Jamie, we don’t need you to put us under more pressure – we are already doing a great job of that on our own even when we’re doing a crap job of breastfeeding!!
The thing that seems to have passed Jamie by is that breastfeeding takes time and skill and there are a lot of factors that prevent it from working effectively. I previously referred to it as a science and I’m not exaggerating. So to label it ‘easy’ isn’t doing it justice and therein lies the main issue. We are preached to from the second we get that positive test that ‘breast is best’ but this unnecessary pressure on women to do it and the image that is being communicated to new mums that it’s easy is endemic and, I believe, a big barrier to breastfeeding, but also an even bigger barrier to giving up even when you know in your heart that it’s what’s right.
If you lead a woman to believe it’s natural and easy from the outset and it then doesn’t happen this way, she is going to believe that she can’t do it. Or in my case, she will continue with the full force of a Roman warrior, berate herself to the point of exhaustion and challenge herself to keep going to meet some stupid unrealistic goal because it’s supposedly best for the baby and, like any mother, she wants her baby to have the best.
Personally, I was under no illusions that it would be easy, but I’d never anticipated just how difficult it would be. Add to that me being a classic type A personality and all I was doing was pushing myself to the limits in a quest to excel as a Mum, as I was used to doing in other areas of my life. To fall at the first hurdle was not an option.
I sought help with lactation consultants and two local breastfeeding groups and although they helped me to carry on as long as I have and gave me a lot of practical support, they also, in one way or another, added to the pressure to keep going and spun more of the myths of breastfeeding (more to follow on this). And ultimately they aren’t there at 4am when the baby is screaming at your breast and won’t latch on or when you’re rolling around on the floor in agony from mastitis.
I don’t doubt that there are women out there who choose not to breastfeed because they don’t understand the benefits it brings their babies, but what we need to get better at as a society is teaching women that want to breastfeed how to do it in a comfortable one on one environment and changing education so that it is less about pressuring.
It should be about helping mums realise that breast milk is great, but what is actually best is that your baby is fed, clean, rested, happy and healthy and has a mum that is fed, clean, rested, happy and healthy. And it’s taken me until now to realise that all of this is more important than the milk itself and to pat myself on the back for going as long as I have, even in the face of adversity, rather than feeling guilt for the weeks I now know I won’t.