I am proud to say that my second daughter is among the 1% of UK babies who have been exclusively breastfed to the age of six months. This has been a journey for our family which started before the birth of Alt.D1, and which will continue until, for now, Alt.D2 decides she's had enough.
Yesterday I came across this article in the British Medical Journal, wherein the authors detail their findings in research on how the idealistic "breast is best for 6 months" message compares with familes' experiences in the real world. It's a fairly hefty article, but the comments made by the women and their families (partners, mothers, sisters) make interesting reading. The conclusion drawn by the authors is that despite the all pervading "Breast Is Best" message given to parents, there is not always the support available to enable breastfeeding to be confidently established and continued.
I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree. BBC3's excellent documentary "Is Breast Best?" summed up the presenter's own experiences:
"If you're experiencing incredible pain, it's not okay to go through that. It's not something you should just swallow and suck up. I wish I had asked for help. I wish, I wish, I wish I had gone and asked for help and not just suffered in silence."
It is noteworthy that this investigation centred on families, rather than just women themselves. For me, and I know that if you ask Alt.Father, he will say the same, support for breastfeeding involves the whole family. That is not to say that the decision necessarily involves the family, despite well meaning titbits of advice (no pun intended!) from elderly relatives! What I mean to say is that the father's role in a breastfeeding family should never be under-estimated. Without the unending support of Alt.Father, I would not be where I am today.
I'd like to share the story of our journey, and you'll see where I'm coming from.
My mum told me that when I was born, a nurse held me up and said
"This baby will never breastfeed, look at the shape of her mouth!"
This was 32 years ago, to a stressed out, confused new young mother, who was trying and struggling to feed her new baby. Yet despite this blow to her confidence, Mum struggled on and succeeded, managing to feed me for 9 months, and subsequently both of my younger siblings.
So it was with her in my mind that I tentatively pressed the buzzer in the hospital ward time after time during the first 24 hours of Alt.D1's life. I called for help, and each time someone different arrived at my bedside, giving me different advice, or no advice at all.
"Is this your first baby?" asked one nurse, "you're very confident."
I didn't feel very confident. I felt like I didn't have a clue what I was doing! My baby was waking every hour, making a noise in an overheated room full of other women without babies (mixed ante-natal and post-natal ward). I couldn't tell if she was getting anything from me. I was sore, tired and lonely. At 4am, when I hadn't really slept for 2 days, a heathcare assistant asked me
"Have you got bottles at home?" and fed formula to my baby from a cup. Alt.D1 slept. In tears, I sent a text message to Alt.Father:
"They just gave her some formula. I didn't want to do that. I feel like the worst mother and she isn't 1 day old yet."
In 30 years, nothing had changed.
I was lucky though. The following morning, Alt.Father collected us from the Big Hospital and took us to our local midwife led maternity unit. Still sore and sad, I was shown by my trusted community midwife how to hand express the rich golden colosturum and give it to the baby. Over the next five days, I was given so much help and support by wonderful women who knew about breastfeeding. I pressed the bell 100 times, maybe 200 times and I didn't feel guilty, I felt supported. I was struggling, but I was supported.
We left the unit with a medical grade pump and Alt.D1 on bottles of expressed milk. As fast as I was pumping, she was drinking it. We supplemented with formula, and I spent hours each day in tears, hooked up to a machine. Alt.Father fed the baby, who cried a lot.
Then the day came of our local Breastfeeding Support group. The three of us toddled along, and were made welcome, despite the bottles we were reliant on. We tried "biological nurturing", allowing the baby to seek out its own feed. We all felt more confident. Alt.Father commented at the time that it's all very well telling us breastfeeding is best for your baby, but nobody had told us just how hard it could be.
With perseverence and the aid of nipple shields (sometimes controversial as they can affect milk supply) we mastered it. Alt.D1 went on to breastfeed past her 2nd birthday, as if she had read the World Health Organisation guidelines herself!
By the time Alt.D2 was born, I had become involved with the breastfeeding support group, and had attended a training course for Peer Supporters of breastfeeding families. I was armed and ready to feed my new baby from the moment she was born. Every squeak she made, I latched her on. She and I got the hang of it and never looked back. This time, I proudly read the words "confident mum" written in my hospital notes at the maternity unit, and was pleased that I did indeed feel quietly confident with the breastfeeding aspect (if nothing else!).
So it was with a little sadness but without surprise that I read the BMJ article. New mums, dads and babies need support. Healthcare professionals need more training. They need to care about this. We are the "alternative" 1% of a population that exists because their forebears did something that like it or not is natural for 100% of the human species. It's up to us to encourage our children, daughters and sons alike, to get these figures up. Let's hope that in another 30 years' time, something will have changed.
If you are reading this blog and wondering where you can get help near you, here are some useful links:
NCT Breastfeeding Helpline: 0300 330 0771
Open 8am - 10pm, 7 days a week
Association of Breastfeeding Mothers helpline: 08444 122 949
Open 9.30am - 10.30pm, 7 days a week
Breastfeeding Network Supporterline: 0844 412 4664
Open 9.30am - 9.30pm, 7 days a week
La Leche League: 0845 120 2918