August 1st – August 7th 2013 is World Breastfeeding Week – read more about it here
The focus is on community support, particularly in the form of peer-to-peer support. To show our support for World Breastfeeding Week, the Irish Parenting Bloggers group is coming together in a blog march about our varied breastfeeding experiences, including our experiences with breastfeeding support in Ireland. So here’s my contribution.
I intended to breastfeed from before I was even pregnant. I’d read up on it, spoken to other women who had done it and decided it was right for me and my babies – who were still to be conceived at this stage. Once I was pregnant this certainty that it was right only intensified. Breast is best, health benefits for baby, health benefits for me etc etc. But if I’m honest part of my wish to breastfeed was a image in my head of me holding our baby curled into me and the baby gazing back at me adoringly while having a good feed. And I eventually got there but not without many tears (mine), much frustration (mine), immeasurable patience (husband’s) and some experiences I’d never expected to have (all 3 of us).
As previous readers will know our daughter was born with physical and intellectual disabilities which had been diagnosed prenatally. I had not been able to have the birth I wanted and had a planned C section instead which I struggled with for a long time (and have written about before here.) So being able to breastfeed her then became vital – I had to succeed at some part of this whole new mum experience. Looking back now that belief added to and exacerbated all my problems.
When I was brought back from recovery after the section, my husband and our brand new daughter were waiting for me on the ward. I was settled into bed and one of the senior midwives came to help me try feeding. Fionnuala didn’t seem interested but no one seemed too concerned by that so we just cuddled and drank in every aspect of this snuggly warm bundle. Later that day SCBU staff (special care baby unit) suggested a formula feed as she still wasn’t sucking – I wouldn’t allow them give a bottle but allowed a cup feed which she took fairly well. Roll around to day 2 and one of the lactation consultants came to see me in the afternoon after hours of me asking to see one – babs had not latched on at all by this stage and she was now about 31 hours old. No one had suggested I try expressing or had even mentioned it to me. After trying to force my nipple into our baby’s tiny mouth, the lactation consultant announced that she had a tongue-tie and would probably never be able to nurse. I was devastated to say the least, and am still angry at how this was done, I had had a c-section just the day before, I was sore, tired and my baby had a serious health condition and that is how I was treated. I wish I’d had the strength to stand up for both of us but I didn’t. Finally on day 3 I was shown how to express and started to get something but it wasn’t until day 4 that there was anything of mine to give my little girl, she was still having formula by cup, but at this stage the SCBU team were making noises about tubes and her not being able to come home with me as she wasn’t feeding enough, so after much sobbing and distress and upset for both my husband and I that I agreed to try a bottle with her, I just wanted so desperately to bring her home.
We left hospital when she was 6 days old, and she was having mostly formula and some expressed breast milk (EBM) all by bottle. We had bought a pump and as well as the enormity of having a new baby and her diagnosis I also struggled to cope with attaching a rather delicate part of my anatomy to what felt like a mini milking machine every few hours (including during the night – my husband would give F a bottle while I pumped away). We continued like this with the amount of formula lessening and the EBM increasing until she was 8 weeks old. By which stage I was completely exhausted, expressing and caring for a little baby is unbelievably hard work. I was very close to putting her completely on formula until my wonderful PHN suggested using a nipple shield to help counteract the tongue-tie, after some hard work we succeeded at this. So we got there in the end but I can’t help wondering if it all could have been different and if we could have been saved so much distress if someone had just mentioned nipple shields to me before. But we got there and by using nipple shields I managed to breastfeed our darling girl until she was 20 months old. She probably would have continued but I wanted to stop, her appointments and therapies were increasing and I just felt it was time to stop.
So that was my experience of some very poor help and some very good help from the Irish health system – the pumps! The lumps (blocked ducts) I was aware might happen but oh holy jaysus the pain!!!! I couldn’t get the whole cabbage leaf thing to work and the massage didn’t seem to work either. Then a lovely woman on a parenting forum suggested I use a hairbrush with nobbly bits on the end and try ‘brushing’ towards the nipple. It sounded utterly mad. It worked. That’s one thing I never thought I’d check off my to-do list!
One thing that DID take me a little by surprise was the attitude of some members of society towards breastfeeding. Once we had established breastfeeding successfully I had no problem with feeding in public. I found most rooms set aside for nursing mothers smelled of stinky nappies and weren’t always clean – no way was my baby having her food there – so I would feed her whenever and wherever she wanted to be fed. One such occasion was in a fast food place. A man sitting a few seats away from us glared when he saw me feeding the baby and ostentatiously moved further away. My stepchildren commented on how rude he was and I couldn’t disagree. My husband was livid, pointing out that if there had been some young woman sitting there in a revealing top leaving little to the imagination that same man would probably have lapped it up. At other times some people looked away when they saw me feeding but I don’t know if they were embarrassed or disgusted. And I don’t care. Hence the grumps.
With World Breastfeeding Week in mind, I’ve been wondering what advice I’d give any pregnant woman – its very simple. Give breastfeeding a try. If it works for you, that’s great! If it doesn’t work for you, you are not a failure. The advice I would give wider society is equally simple: support any woman who is breastfeeding or who wants to try. Don’t make her feel uncomfortable and don’t doubt her if the first few weeks aren’t all plain sailing. I know one woman whose daughter was keen to breastfeed. I met her a few days after the baby had been born and asked how the feeding was going. “Oh she had to stop, he (baby) wanted to feed all the time. She couldn’t keep doing that it was ridiculous.” I explained that is how babies regulate their mother’s milk supply – by feeding whenever they need to. If that new mum had had more support and understanding it is possible she might have continued to breastfeed. As it was she gave up under lack of support from her mother and husband – and sadly that is such a common story. Even if you have no experience of breastfeeding (whether yourself or someone near you), help a new mum however you can. And one of the best ways? Give her a hug (if you know her well obviously!) and tell her she’s a great mum. Cos she is.