Breast Foot Forward – An article

I mentioned in earlier blogs that I was writing a feature piece for my local NCT magazine. This has now been published so I have included the text of the article below for my lovely blog followers who might be interested in reading it. Enjoy.

After a major government messaging campaign, breastfeeding in the UK is now well established as a favoured method of feeding, with approximately 80% of women choosing it as their preferred method initially. But statistics show this popularity doesn’t continue. So what’s going wrong?

I remember clearly the day my milk arrived when I was breastfeeding my first daughter. In floods of tears, I was driven by my husband to the New Forest Birth Centre as my little one was refusing to feed and I was becoming more and more stressed out. My breastfeeding journey was far from straightforward in the early days and I was beginning to feel there must be something wrong with me if I couldn’t get the hang of something supposedly so natural and easy.

Faltering starts and a lack of confidence illustrate the reality of breastfeeding for many women.  Initially, there is very little information to hand; new mums feel they are expected to ‘know what to do’ and that breastfeeding your baby is the most natural, and therefore automatic, thing in the world. Not so. Through writing my blog, I have spoken to many breastfeeding mums, more often than not about challenges, pain, discomfort and their determination to succeed.

All parents will know that bringing up children involves much soul-searching and worry over whether you have made the right decision. Breastfeeding is one of the most emotive areas, with pressure being placed on mums to ‘succeed’ in avoiding formula feeding. There is continual press coverage around perceived health benefits for both mum and baby and even claims of a child’s IQ being higher in later life if they are breastfed. It’s no wonder, then, that mums are affected by this pressure.

The truth is, feeding a baby needs to be learned by both mother and child and sometimes this learning takes time, which can lead to pain for mum and problems with weight-gain for baby. One such experience was had by Emma, a mum of two, who eventually adopted a combination-feeding approach with both her children.

With an “absolute belief” in breastfeeding, Emma had a determination to get it right despite initial problems with her latch and then eventually her milk supply. She fed and expressed to try to get a sufficient volume of milk but neither of her babies put on enough weight in their early weeks and months which led to her supplementing their feeding with formula.

Happily, Emma had some positive and supportive experiences – attending a breastfeeding clinic and using a nipple shield – which meant she was able to prolong her feeding journey, but it struck me that Emma’s experiences led her to refer to feelings of ‘guilt’ and being ‘gutted’ when she realised things weren’t going exactly to plan – something which made her “cry and cry”.

“Mums get such a hard time for not breastfeeding 100%” says Emma, “and society can judge without knowing all the history. Surely any amount of breastfeeding is good – better than giving up completely?”

With all the challenges that come with motherhood, it’s incredibly important not to lose sight of what matters for mum too. Mother of three, Maria, spoke about the pressures to breastfeed and how she dealt with her second-time experience of being a mum – to twins.

During the first weeks of being home with her eldest child, Maria was persevering with breastfeeding and dealing with the common battles of lack of sleep and painful nipples. Eventually, things came to a head when, after a serious thrush infection and agonising feeds, she spent a lonely night in tears on the sofa and went straight out to buy some formula the next morning.

“It’s so important to find a balance and create an environment that works for mum too”, says Maria. “I knew I never wanted another night like that so I just removed the pressure by using formula as well as continuing to feed the twins. It was the right choice for me, it allowed my babies to grow and flourish. You can’t beat yourself up, you have to do what’s best for them as individuals and that can vary with time as well as with each child.”

Maria’s twins were both breastfed but in different ways. One twin was just not getting the latch right so Maria expressed milk and chose to combination feed with this and formula whilst continuing to feed her brother at the boob. This experience only reinforced her opinion that all babies are different and need to be treated as such.

Often, mums find their ability to make the tough decisions – how to feed, whether to persevere through the discomfort or seek help – comes down to confidence. Laura is a mum who had very similar experiences with her two babies, although they both had very different feeding styles. She experienced problems with tongue ties with both. Initially, she knew nothing of this condition, where a tight piece of flesh connecting the tongue to the floor of the mouth can affect a baby’s ability to latch and causes painful feeding for mum, so she persevered through pain and damaged nipples. Once treated, problems caused by a tongue tie disappear almost immediately although in Laura’s case, they did re-grow on both babies. Laura describes herself as “adamant” about breastfeeding. “I expected it to be easy”, she says “but there are lots of factors, such as growth spurt feeding and tongue ties which make a real difference and mums are told nothing about them.”

Laura managed to get the support she needed and, once the tongue ties were dealt with, fed her first-born until he was around nine months. Her second baby has been a simpler feeding journey because she had experience and more information at her fingertips.

Anyone who has experienced child birth and parenting will know that nothing is certain or predictable. Many stories show that life throws challenges our way all the time, but it doesn’t always have to be a battle. As a first-time mum, Roz used her instinct along with a good dose of determination to breastfeed her son until he was just over 14 months old. After initially taking time to get the latch right, a dose of thrush which necessitated the use of nipple shields and the usual lack of sleep, things finally came together and Roz now looks back on a “wonderful experience”.

Jane’s story also shows things can be straightforward despite challenging circumstances. After some complications during her pregnancy, Jane’s second baby was born at 34 weeks and went straight into neo-natal care. For this reason, his first feed was formula but Jane had other plans for the long term. “I successfully breastfed my first baby until she was two-and-a-half” says Jane, “I am lucky I found it all so easy. We had some challenging times, such as her six-week growth spurt, but I persevered.” Jane’s experience meant she hand-expressed milk for her son from 10 hours after he was born and he had his first suck at the breast at two days old. Having combined formula and her expressed milk initially, Jane went into transitional care with him and is now exclusively breast feeding. She received excellent support at the hospital and their recognition of her desire to feed was definitely instrumental in achieving this eventually.

These breastfeeding journeys range from extended feeding into toddler-hood to feeding twins, combined feeding and everything in between. All the mums share one opinion, though, and that is an acknowledgement of the huge amount of satisfaction and pride they gained from feeding their babies, no matter what the extent of this.

Their experiences show that breastfeeding is far from straightforward; in fact only one thing seems common between these women and that is their determination to care for and nurture their baby, come what may. Many of them have resorted to various breastfeeding aids – such as nipple shields, lanolin cream and even breastfeeding jewellery. One of the problems with feeding an older baby can be keeping their attention or stopping them from focusing on pulling your own hair or jewellery. Pretty necklaces made with extra strength, non-toxic beads work a treat by giving baby something interesting to look at or fiddle with during a feed.

Support is also a key factor in enabling women to achieve the feeding journey they want. International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Jayne Threlfall, runs Bosom Pals, a breastfeeding support group, one of a number in the New Forest area. “Women come to our groups with a range of breastfeeding challenges and we are able to give them advice and guidance and set them on their way to successful breastfeeding”, says Jayne. “There is very rarely a problem that can’t be solved, either by working on baby’s latch or by giving mum some ideas about different feeding positions, for example. The best approach is always to seek help and also chat to other mums about your experiences because this helps to build confidence and can prolong the feeding journey.”

Despite the initial rates of over 80% of women breastfeeding their babies, the latest NHS Infant Feeding Survey, published in November 2012, shows that just 17% are still exclusively breastfeeding their baby by three months.

Says Laura, “Maybe the government and NHS need to be more open about the challenges faced by breastfeeding mums. If people knew it was painful at the beginning and that it takes patience and perseverance to get right, they might persevere for longer. It’s because breastfeeding is billed as a completely natural thing that people think it must be easy so if they struggle they automatically assume they are doing something wrong and give up.”

For certain, breastfeeding in whatever capacity creates an amazing bond between mother and baby. My initial memory of tears and frustration became one of my fondest as I was shown such amazing support and kindness which set me up for a truly life-changing experience.  Roz treasures her memories of nurturing her son through their joint learning process. Emma eventually fed her eldest baby until she was a year old and made her own decision to stop feeding and Laura speaks of how much she enjoys feeding and how glad she is that she persevered.

It’s clear though, that all these mums, and more, needed support and guidance and sometimes medical intervention to really make things work. They have battled and won, cried, bled, healed, nurtured and given love by the bucket-load, regardless of the route their journey took.

Natural? Yes. Easy? No. But then nothing worthwhile ever was.

For more information or to purchase breastfeeding necklaces, visit facebook.com/originalbabybeads

For more information on the NHS Infant Feeding Survey, visit www.unicef.org.uk

For information on breastfeeding visit http://www.uhs.nhs.uk/OurServices/Maternityservices/Feedingyourbaby.aspx

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