Everyone tells you that childbirth will be hard. People loved telling me all the gory facts of their horrific births when they found out I was pregnant. I knew I would have to cope with sleep deprivation once the baby was born and that my body would never be the same. No one said anything about breastfeeding. No one said that it would be hard.
In my first week of giving birth, I hit reality. Breastfeeding was not as easy as it had seemed to be. My nipples were cracked and sore, I had no idea how to get my boy to feed and whenever he latched on it hurt so much I sobbed. When I had mastered the right technique, we discovered that he was unable to feed due to a tongue tie. I was sleep deprived, I couldn’t sit down because everything still hurt from labour and I was fragile.
We stayed longer in the hospital to allow him to latch on. My breasts, previously private, were the topic of conversation. Midwives grabbed by boobs and shoved them in the direction of my son. I was poked, prodded and annoyed. When we got home I was so full of milk that I developed a strange fever.
Slowly my son and I both learnt to work together. It took weeks, but eventually the pain went away. We developed a rhythm. A year later we are still going strong. I love feeding him, I love how he curls around me, how he lovingly strokes my face while feeding and the joy it brings him. My favourite part of the day is when I snuggle in with him at night for the last feed of the day. Learning to breastfeed was one of the most challenging things I have done but the rewards have made it all worth it.
There were many times in the early days when I was tempted to give up breastfeeding. What made the difference was the strong support system I had around me. My husband made me endless cups of tea, went on a mission for the perfect breastfeeding arm chair and laughed with me when my son kicked and played while feeding. My sister-in-law, supported me through my first breastfeed in public and came rushing to my aid in the middle of the night when I had trouble feeding. My mother-in-law bought me paw-paw cream to soothe my poor nipples and my mum brought over a cushion to make my feeds more comfortable. My sister cracked jokes, to ease my anxiety when my boobs were accidentally flashed at a passing waiter in a cafe. I even had a wonderful maternal health nurse who posted me reference books to read when my son went through a brief bout of breast refusal at 6 months.
The World Health Organisation recommends that babies are fed breast milk exclusively up to 6 months and with complementary foods for up to two years and beyond. However, in Australia we are falling short of these recommendations. Of the 96% of women that initiate breastfeeding, only 39% will continue until their babies are 3 months, and by 5 months only 15% of women are still breastfeeding their babies. 1
I can’t help but think that part of the reason we have so few women continuing breastfeeding is that we have unrealistic expectations about the process to begin with. Prior to having my baby, I thought that breastfeeding, being natural, would be easy and instinctive for both mum and bub. I was bitterly disappointed when I suddenly realised how hard it was. If I had known that it might be challenging from the beginning, I would have prepared myself, researched and asked others for advice. I needed someone to tell me that it would be hard work but that the rewards would be immeasurable.
What also surprised me is how the breastfeeding process changed as my son grew. I needed, and had to seek out strategies for when he bit me while teething (ouch), or when he became too distracted to feed and when he refused feeds when unwell. Without the support I had, I doubt I would have continued after each hurdle. Breastfeeding is an ongoing learning process and mums need support throughout their journey, not just at the beginning.
Breastfeeding for a number of reasons is not visible in society. Something that really should be so normal is over politicised and sexualised in the public context. We constantly debate the pros and cons of formula or breastmilk, and forget to support mothers that are really doing the best they can to feed their babies, however they choose to do it. I certainly wasn’t used to seeing women breastfeed in public and I felt very exposed doing it. I thought that I had to hide it and that people would stare. It was so liberating and reassuring to meet other mums on the same breastfeeding journey, and to feed in solidarity at a local cafe. Whenever I saw another mum feeding in public, I felt stronger and more assured about my new role. We need breastfeeding to be more visible if it is to survive in our current society.
So this week, lets celebrate breastfeeding mums and the support systems around them. If you see another mum breastfeeding in public give them a reassuring smile. If you own a cafe, offer a breastfeeding mum a comfortable chair or a glass of water. If you are breastfeeding, do it proudly and remember, when you feed in public you may be helping another mother feel more comfortable to feed in the future.
1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011, 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey: Indicator Results. Canberra: AIHW. URL:http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737420927