As a process-oriented person, I love well-reasoned rules and clear instructions. When, having fallen pregnant, I was reading up on parenting, I noted no clearer instruction around a baby’s nutrition than “breast is best”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends you breastfeed your child until age two and exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months. On top of this guidance, hearing in our NCT breastfeeding class how “easy” and “natural” and “pain free” it was, and if we followed some simple steps, then my baby will get the best. Isn’t theory a marvellous thing!
When it comes to breastfeeding, my practical experience is so far removed from the theory that I can easily understand why 20% of birth mothers choose not to breastfeed at birth and only 25% breastfeed at 6 months dropping to 0.5% after 1 year (according to The Lancet Journal).
By day 4, my nipple was cracked and bleeding. On day 5, I was told my son was feeding great but I should change my hold – a change I was incapable of converting to, making me feel like a failure. On day 7, midwives were telling me to give 70ml of expressed milk as a top up to a full breastfeed after every feed. As I voiced my concerns, the support offered was “Oh, it’s OK, you’ll be fine, just pump until you get what you need”.
It was not OK. I was not fine. For the next week, every feed was more stressful and painful than the last. I will never forget sitting on my sofa at 5.30am after an hour and a half of feeding and one hour of expressing (with a double electric pump) thinking “This cycle starts again in 30mins and I’ve not even expressed half the amount I need”.
For those of you who have not experienced breastfeeding a newborn (either first or second hand) I wouldn’t judge you for thinking this is a one-off, unfortunate experience. Sadly, the statistics show it’s staggeringly common. The Maternity and Infant Nutrition Survey conducted in Scotland in 2017 highlights that two thirds of mothers (67%) experienced problems whilst breast feeding or expressing milk – ranging from latch problems when still in hospital to concerns about milk supply in the first few weeks and even to ‘maternal issues’.
My experience was far from the worst. From repeated mastitis (due to infected blocked ducts) to soaking the bed (from leaking!) the whole process of breastfeeding is an experiment in how far you can be pushed to the edge without losing your mind, all because “breast is best”.
Around a quarter of respondents to the Maternity and Infant Nutrition Survey who had stopped breastfeeding or expressing milk thought that access to certain types of support would have helped and encouraged them to do so for longer. I was lucky enough to have found such help in time. Not only through the love and support of my husband, parents and sisters (one of whom breastfed twins for 6 months) but also through an NHS breastfeeding specialist who gave me some excellent, practical tips.
But getting over this initial shock was only the tip of the iceberg. The next challenge was overcoming the taboo of breastfeeding in public. 27% of the Maternity and Infant Nutrition Survey respondents decided not to breastfeed their baby in a certain place because they thought they would be made to feel uncomfortable. This feeling isn’t unfounded.
It is actually illegal in the UK to prevent you breastfeeding, yet 3% of those respondents reported that this had happened to them. I think through a combination of luck, confidence and desire to normalise it, I embarked on a personal game of breastfeeding bingo. By the time my son was 3 months old I had breastfed in no less than 20 different public spaces, including on a rush hour tube and in The Shard. By the time he was 10 months old I’d breastfed him publicly in four different countries.
Despite this confidence, I was still aware of the taboo and a part of me was always on guard to counter any naysayers. At five months I was feeding my son alone in a Marks & Spencer’s café when I noticed someone’s shadow over my table. Upon hearing the “Excuse me?” I looked up readying myself to take on the whole café in a tirade about basic human rights. What came next absolutely floored me. “I just wanted to say you’re doing an amazing job and thought you might be thirsty so brought you over this glass of water.” If there were more people like her then maybe we could smash through this taboo and boost the confidence of breastfeeding mothers everywhere.
Whilst the UK statistics on breastfeeding uptake and continuity don’t compare well internationally, I was lucky enough to have the love and support of family and complete strangers, to help me overcome the shock that comes from the realities of breastfeeding and to fill me with the confidence to do so in public.
Thanks to this, I continued breastfeeding until my son was almost one enabling me to experience some indescribably wonderful moments. I just wish I had been forewarned that it’s not all roses and butterflies, and that, in fact, ‘fed is best, just try with the breast if you can as it’s meant to be better’.