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To the new breastfeeding mother

18th September 2013

It’s no secret that breastfeeding is not the norm in mainstream western society in this day and age. Those who want to do it seem to be quickly overwhelmed, don’t get the support they need (or don’t want it), are tempted away by the ‘easy option’ or negative opinions and generally give up on it rather quickly.

And to this I’d like to say a few things: things that I’d have liked said to me when I was starting out.

(Note: I am aware that a lot of these things have already been said many, many times – I just feel better about writing my experiences in my own way; I hope it will help me if I face similar challenges with D’s sibling. I also emphasise that this is my opinion and should be taken as just that. I am not intending to make people feel bad for issues that may or may not be their fault or their choice – everyone and every baby is different.)

Breastfeeding is not easy… At first.

No, it’s not. Especially not for the first-time mum. But you know what? It’s true what they say: it does get easier. It does take time, but once you’ve established a good BF relationship, you’ll find it the easiest, most convenient thing you can do for your baby.

One thing I found was that I had to really want to succeed. I was offered formula many times. I considered it many times too. But I also knew that if I did that, I’d be jeopardising the success we’d already had – I knew that it would get better. Any day now. Any day. Just one more day, I said.

You will need support.

I was lucky enough to have the support of a few BF friends, some of whom had already had successfully-breastfed children and reassured me that everything I was doing and experiencing was normal. No, I wasn’t running out of milk. Yes, he was eating enough. No, those constant feeds were not a sign of my milk being inadequate; they were a sign of him establishing supply (cluster feeding) and/or a growth spurt. I was reminded that this would have happened regardless of whether I breastfed or formula-fed – would I prefer to be up and down all day and night preparing bottles? Not really.

In the end, I sought out external support after finding that things just weren’t getting better. D had a bad latch, hence pain; a bit of a tongue and lip tie (pain, bad latch) and I had partially inverted nipples. It took 4 or 5 visits from the support team to sort the majority of those issues out (the TT we didn’t sort in the end, since we managed to get to a place where it seemed to no longer be an issue). Again, I had to fight to get that far. I had to want to get over the issues, and I did this because I knew they could be overcome.

I count myself lucky to have had those friends, but they weren’t exactly local. In my local area, I was the only BF mum I knew of. The midwife team at the hospital tried hard to push formula due to our bad latch issues and D’s blood sugars dropping (and they may have succeeded; more on that later. To say I’m not happy about it is an understatement). My own mum didn’t get on with breastfeeding (at least not with me, anyway) which also increased the pressure: I worried that I’d inherited something from her that meant I couldn’t do it. Of course, I didn’t – she just didn’t have the determination or support that I did to see it through.

Ignore the myths.

There are SO MANY of them. Not making enough milk, milk not nutritious enough, worry over how much baby is getting, solids are enough after 6 months, formula is ‘just as good’* or easier, wanting baby to sleep through the night, wanting your body back, worry over breasts going saggy, certain medications/diets/lifestyles interfere with it, partner can’t take part, no freedom… All (largely) false, and can be overcome with the right support.

* I’d say it’s different, and can’t really be compared to breastmilk at all. It’s milk from another species (it’s cows’ milk-based, usually), not made especially for the baby, so I don’t think it can be ‘just as good’… I can see that this is a thorny topic though so I’ll just clarify that as being my opinion!

Ok, so there is a bit of truth to some of these myths: for example, some medications do interfere with BF (i.e. you can’t/shouldn’t BF while taking them), but in most cases they just aren’t tested on BF mums so the advice is actually only a precaution. Talk to someone who does know about these things (and no, doctors, nurses and health visitors don’t necessarily count – they tend to stick to the precautions. More on that later…), like these people.

And yes, some people do find formula easier. They like to know exactly how much baby is getting and be able to prepare each feed and schedule it into their routine. That’s fine. But for me, it wasn’t easier at all. Not that we used formula – I did a lot of expressing in the early days so my partner could help with the feeds. That in itself wasn’t a problem, but getting the bottles ready and warmed up when D was crying with hunger, even if it only took a few moments, was too long for my liking. That and for him to end up leaving half of it and being hungry again moments later meant a pretty constant back-and-forth trip to the fridge. Not to mention when he’d been in a cluster-feeding mood, we’d often run out of clean bottles and have to wait while they were sterilised. In the night, it meant a trip (or many) down to the kitchen to sort all that out too.

In general, most of the negative things you hear about breastfeeding are myths. You can still drink. You can still have your body back (it’s pregnancy that messes with it, by the way). Your partner can help. You can still go out and have your freedom. Your baby will still sleep. :P

Doctors/nurses/health visitors etc DON’T always know best.

No, really – they don’t, something I was very surprised about! Let’s take the following:

  • The doctor who, at 8 weeks, was recommending D be given paracetamol every 4 hours for a week to keep him quiet (this was during our colicky phase), rather than trying to sort the original problem out (it was wind-related)
  • The health visitor who said D should be drinking cows’ milk at 9 months, when every single piece of literature on the subject does not recommend cows’ milk before 12 months
  • The numerous HCPs (Health Care Professionals – all these doctor-type people, basically) who told us there were no feeding issues – no tongue tie, no bad latch, nothing – “he has a small mouth”, they said. I was told I would probably not be able to feed him and that was not my fault but his. In reality, his mouth was no smaller than the average baby’s – he just didn’t know how to use it to latch properly.
  • Oh, and let’s not forget the midwives who force-fed D what I strongly suspect was formula (despite my insistence otherwise. I was told they’d get me donor milk but I would have had to sign a consent form for that, which I did not) when he was a mere 8 hours old, because they were not satisfied that I was feeding him correctly. And if this was formula, by the way, it could answer a lot of questions I have re his eczema, for example, but that’s that and I can’t change it now)

A sad fact is that HCPs are there to do a job. They do not know you, or your baby, and simply go with what they have been trained to do, or with their own experience. Because formula is seen as the norm, these people tend to recommend it over BF. It makes their jobs easier: you’ll go home happy (ish. Or at the very least with a ‘solution’ to the problem), baby’s ok, everyone wins. These people cannot help you with BF issues because, for the most part, they don’t know how to. You need to seek help from a proper BF support group (ABM, BFN, LLL or similar), or, preferably, a lactation consultant (or IBCLC, as some people refer to them). These people are more likely to be able to recognise a tongue/lip tie, especially if it isn’t obvious, and to correctly support you to feed how you want to instead of recommending formula. I had a bit of difficulty finding an IBCLC, but they do exist and are much better at diagnosing and fixing BF issues than a ‘normal’ doctor or nurse.

Another thing: ignore growth/centile charts and consumption recommendations (for the most part)! HCPs seem to be obsessed with these facts and figures and are quick to point out that any baby that does not maintain a steady weight gain (“following the line”) or isn’t taking in the recommended amount of milk should be topped up with formula because breastmilk is ‘obviously’ not enough. Other times, parents can become quite fixated on how many oz of milk their baby is drinking, which, of course, you can’t gauge when breastfeeding. My advice here is: it doesn’t matter how much your baby is drinking. If they ARE drinking, and they seem happy and content after feeds, they’re getting what they need. If they’re not happy and content, consider whether there might be a latch/tongue tie/positioning issue – and get some support.

An important note here, and one that I am very quick to forget: your baby, your choice. If your doctor tells you you must switch to formula/take some medicine/give a supplement and you don’t want to, you don’t have to. For example, I did not have to let the midwives force-feed D when he was a newborn. I should have stood my ground, confident that we were making progress. But I didn’t: I was tired after 48 hours of being awake, I was in pain and discomfort from the birth and the beginnings of BF, and when I refused their advice the first few times, I bought their story of D’s blood sugars probably being low and that he needed to be fed now. This was probably true, by the way (D was on a monitoring programme for 48 hours after birth since he has a difficult birth), but I did NOT have to let them do what they did if I was uncomfortable with them doing it. No one can force you to do anything you don’t want to, so don’t let them.

This article is a good read, on the subject of poor support and bad advice from HCPs.

It’s your choice.

Reiterating the above, really. If you don’t want to breastfeed, that’s fine. If you try it out, find it’s not for you, that’s fine. If you want to breastfeed and use formula together (combi-feeding), that’s fine. If you prefer to pump milk into bottles, that’s fine. Don’t let other people sway your decision and don’t feel guilty for making it.

But if you do want to breastfeed, and find you are having problems, you don’t have to resort to formula if you don’t want to. It ISN’T a magical, ‘fix-all’ solution, as HCPs and advertising campaigns might lead you to believe; it is simply an alternative available to you if you want it. For me, everything fell into place at around 4-5 weeks, possibly even a bit before that, and we’ve not looked back since. I fed D exclusively until he was around 5.5 months (I’d have gone to 6, but he took matters into his own hands… :P ) and up until our recent challenges, we’ve had a rather excellent BF relationship. He hasn’t had a bottle (of EBM) since he was 4 weeks old (we’ve tried; he refused) and I haven’t once regretted my decision to persist with getting what I wanted for us both.

Some sites you might find useful: