Disclaimer: this is not a manifesto on ‘breast is best’. If you, for whatever reason, fed your baby formula, from whatever stage – never feel excluded from the conversation (too many of my friends have). You are a nurturing life-giver. Science is a wonderful thing – it doesn’t bear thinking where we’d be without it.
My youngest child is about to turn one and I’d been deliberating on when to stop breastfeeding. Last week, his newly cut teeth locked onto my nipple. As I inhaled in pain, fighting the instinct to jerk myself away, whilst trying to contain my reaction so as not to give him a fright, I looked down at him – and he laughed, hysterically. I knew that was it: breastfeeding is done. Until, perhaps/fingers crossed, the next time.
Before having kids, I looked on breastfeeding mothers in complete wonder. Bodies nourishing other bodies was a mind-blowing concept. Little hands poking up out from muslin shrouds and resting on their mothers’ chests seemed the most tender thing. But I was sure it wouldn’t be for me. The thought of whipping a boob out, wherever and whenever seemed far too revealing. I didn’t think breastfeeding mothers displayed themselves inappropriately – they always looked so unattainably wonderful. I simply couldn’t imagine myself doing it.
Before the birth of my first child I tried to convince myself that I’d be having a drug free labour. I got into hypnobirthing and, alongside my Sally Philips-esque Pilates teacher, I practiced directing my breathing towards my vagina. I packed my bag with battery-powered candles, essential oils, and made a playlist. The plan: skip off to hospital, allow natural hormones to do their job – and out he’d pop.
The reality: none of the aforementioned things made it out of my bag. My plans for a gentle, meditative, pre-labour at home were scuppered. I lay for hours in triage under bright lights, hooked up to a monitor notifying me of every contraction and heartbeat. My husband and mother worried that this divergence from the birth plan would shatter my world. It didn’t – there was no way I was going to get by without an epidural.
Disclaimer numero 2: People whose babies birth themselves, who ride contractions with the powerful aid of breathing techniques really do exist – it’s amazing, and its true! I know many, and they are incredible: their power and ability to dig deep into their most raw level of being is awe-inspiring. I’m not discounting myself, or any other person who has used pain-alleviating drugs during labour. I bow down to those who go drug free. But I also happen to worship both of my anaesthetists. I will also never forget the nurse who massaged my shoulders and sung a beautiful song into my ear to distract me from the massive needle about to puncture the space around my spinal cord. Whoever you are, you are wonderful.
Turns out, the ‘little’ newborn I was expecting, was huge. After a combination of blood loss, an administration of the wrong drug, and a placenta that didn’t want to budge – breastfeeding was not an option. My arms were too weak to hold him and I was delirious. All I could focus on was recuperation whilst my husband dutifully fed our baby formula milk.
Bodies are amazing AF: the way they heal to render you functional. A couple of days later, before being discharged, a woman sat at the end of my bed with a knitted boob in her hand. I told her that it was unlikely I’d breastfeed, but I reluctantly humoured her when she asked to go through a few things before I made my final decision. I felt irritated by her being there. The visceral postpartum reality felt exhausting – I was sick of being examined from all angles, of having my body parts on display, of bleeding, of peeing into pots and giving blood samples. Lifting my son to my now swollen and painful boobs, while he and I both struggled to get him to latch on, felt like a step too far. I was desperately worried of feeling like a failure. But this woman (and I wish I knew her name) tentatively gave me the confidence to find my way. After some practice, we nailed it. The kid was finally attached.
In traditional societies, the forty days postpartum is a time when mothers are allowed to adjust, recuperate and rest. A new mother is cared for by other women in her community, fed by them – her responsibilities shouldered by others. She’d be given time with her infant, and fed meals to replenish nutrients in order to maximise the production of breastmilk.
Over in London, I heaped pressure onto myself to get life back to ‘normal’ (whatever that means). As a person I am chaotic – but suddenly, I felt like if I wasn’t developing a schedule with my newborn baby, if I couldn’t find a way of predicting what he would need next, then I wouldn’t be able to make sense of the day. I never knew I was such a control freak. But brand new human beings don’t adhere to our rule of ‘time’ – nor should they ever have to – their bodily functions are haphazard. They are programmed to survive and to tell their inept parents, in the only way they know how, what they need immediately.
It was when I relinquished the need to control things, that my baby and I found our rhythm – and I learned to share the joy of feeding, of watching him benefit from the amazing natural nutrients my body supplied.
Second time around, my bafflement in the face of the unknown was replaced by my naivety in underestimating that all babies are different. With a dose of hubris, I’d assumed that, having done it once before, the mechanics of breastfeeding would be a doddle.
It’s so elementary, but babies are all unique (as individuals and anatomically) which affects their latch, their differences in hunger, their needs and their patterns of behaviour. Instead of my first child’s colic, my second had lower abdominal discomfort. Where my first child attached like a Henry Hoover – the second wasn’t able to keep a connection. And there were (and still are) many times where I feel as though I know as little as I did first time round – there’s so much I’d forgotten; there’s so much that’s totally different.
Here’s what I learned (in my humble and unprofessional experience):
- If breastfeeding is not for you – for whatever reason – do not berate yourself, and do not let anyone make you feel any less than a mother who is doing everything she can. We only have the choices we are presented with.
- If you want to keep trying to breastfeed, then don’t be afraid to seek advice from a professional. During the weeks after my second child’s birth, for some reason, I felt nervous asking for assistance with breastfeeding. Asking for practical help is not synonymous with an admission of trouble coping.
- If you can find time to express your milk – before your body’s ‘supply and demand’ routine kicks in – it can really help with engorgement. You’ll also build up a great supply of frozen/refrigerated milk. I’m not going to sugar coat it – during the long game of breastfeeding, there’s times when you feel like a hopeless dairy cow, and there’s times when you feel the claustrophobia of not being able to leave your baby’s side. The inseparable nature of pregnancy continues to some degree. Having that supply can be so handy for when you need to leave for dinner with a friend or your other half – or, in my case – escaping to Glastonbury for 24hrs. Ahh, the memories of ‘pumping and dumping’ in a shit-filled portaloo.
- There is no denying that feeding your baby is wonderful bonding time: a mother’s smell, skin and embrace can turn a weird and unknown place into a safe haven. But here’s the thing: a newborn taking around 45 minutes to feed gives just enough time to get through an episode of Queer Eye. So set yourself up with a cuppa, the remote control close at hand; surround yourself with pillows and put your feet up. Indulge in an hour of escapism, safe in the knowledge that your baby is happy too.
- Do not look at ‘perfect’ images of domesticity on Instagram and feel anxious that your life lacks a softening filter. Perfect does not exist. And anyway, in my book, chaos = perfect. Up until last week, our reality of breastfeeding ‘bliss’ was all four of us crammed into bed along with two cats vying for a place amongst the duvet. It involved me trying to be present during feeding time, whilst simultaneously stopping my toddler from jumping on his younger brother; my husband trying to block out the noise while he geared up for another unrelenting day in the office.
- Boobs are sexual organs in as much as the brain is, your feet are, or whatever other part of your anatomy you enjoy the use of during sex. Some people might reserve their boobs solely for sex – and that is totally legit. But to anyone who thinks a person publicly breastfeeding is a display of indecency: Don’t be a dick. And to those who need to feed their babies: Never feel ashamed.
- And finally – I announced my decision to give up breastfeeding to an audience of a three year old, and 12 month year old. In instances such as this – do not expect a congratulatory fanfare. Do however, expect another nappy to change, another duplo tower to assemble, another bedtime to negotiate. Do expect to feel a mix of emotions, ranging from relief to a distant sense of loss. Whether it’s been formula or breastmilk that’s kept your baby going, do feel proud of yourself: clever bodies, clever science.
You didn’t ask for my advice, so discard it at your leisure. There’s no rule book to this parenting malarky, no one knows really knows what they are doing. What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another. If you’re seeking professional advice: here’s what the NHS have to say as a starting point. Speak to your GP, or consult a breastfeeding specialist.