World breastfeeding week

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Last night whilst struggling to fall asleep, I was mentally wiring blog posts. They were astute, witty and used lots of big words. Baby D woke around midnight (I was yet to fall asleep) for a feed and then every hour until he woke very hot and with a rash at 4:50am. I volunteered to get up with him and managed to doze a little from 6-8am. Foolishly I am going to try to write a post still, on a touchy subject. Bare with me.

It’s national breastfeeding week (1-7th August) which is something I’d like to celebrate. However I feel like I am unable to do so publishing for fear of misunderstanding. I’ve learnt my lesson on this one having inadvertently upset a whole swathe of women with a comment I made on the subject so I’ll try my best to be as inoffensive and honest as I can.

I am a huge supporter of breastfeeding. I think its a wonderful, natural and obvious choice for any mother and am often surprised that other people don’t feel the same. I also have first hand experience of how stressful and difficult it can be to convince a tiny baby that breastfeeding is the way forwards. From getting the latch correct to getting your baby to stay awake, to the incessant feeding of a new born (he can’t be hungry again? !), to bottle refusal, sleep deprivation, sore nipples, blebs, teeth, nursing strikes and mastitis.

However it is near on impossible to be Pro Breastfeeding without appearing or being labeled “anti-formula”. Or more specifically “anti-parents-who-use-formula”.

In the past I might not have worded myself well or tactfully (which I shall blame on the fact that I’ve had one five hour stretch of sleep since January and not much more than 2hrs at a time since). However it is important that we take responsibility for our own emotions and bias when it comes to reading stuff on the Internet.  A lot I read could offend me. My baby doesn’t sleep and I am often reading posts from disgruntled mums complaining their babies are waking once a night whilst mine is waking seven plus. I deal with it because I wouldn’t wish my situation on anyone and I know that I am not necessarily able to be rational about it. The same needs to be extended to feeding issues. I know it’s deeply emotive for those who feel or were told they were unable to breastfeed, however this is not the fault of those who do breastfeed, and they are not flaunting it to upset you.

To set out my feelings:
I think breastfeeding is awesome because it is what my body was made to do. We are Mammals, named so because of our mammary glands. The fact I can feed my baby for free, with a tailor made substance that can change its consistency and make up to nourish, soothe and hydrate is mindblowing.  I could feed my baby with it all day every day and he would never be over fed. It’s very clever!

I am surprised when women do not want to breastfeed if they are healthy and able to but we are all different and this is what makes the world go round (well, you know what I mean). Luckily formula exists (whether one agrees with some of the marketing tactics and ethics of the companies that produce formula or not) and modern women in the developed world have options. Sometimes (but not often) a women’s decision is out of her hands-usually linked to illness and medication and it must be heartbreaking for those who would love to feed their babies but are medically unable.

On top of this I am saddened when women who want to breastfeed are unable to access the help, advice and motivation to get through the sometimes grueling first few weeks. I’m saddened when they are told that their baby isn’t getting enough milk because they are feeding regularly, when they’re advised to top up with formula rather than spending time skin to skin to boost supply (we did both). In other countries breastfeeding rates are so much higher (often through lack of choice), no doubt linked towards social attitude towards breastfeeding.  In particular the experience that women have in hospital which will likely taint their whole experience of breastfeeding. Nowhere describes it better than “The Politics Of Breastfeeding” by Gabrielle Palmer…..
(Page 34)

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Extract of the analogy:
Imagine a young man making his first attempt at sexual penetration. Ask him to say about the project on a special sex centre where there are “experts” he has never met before, ready to supervise him and tell him how it ought to be done. [….]  By the bed is an artificial penis , put there, as the young man is told, “just in case you can’t manage it; many young men can’t make it. It’s not their fault, nature often fails.”

Although I slightly disapprove of the sexual nature of the analogy because I don’t want people to liken breastfeeding to a sexual act, it makes an important point. The huge pressure on women to feed, whilst dangling the backup tantalisingly over their heads really sends confusing mixed messages to women and families in a very vulnerable time. This combined with the social attitudes when women leave hospital makes it very hard for them to make rational decisions.

And that’s something that genuinely shocks me- the western world’s baffling attitude towards breastfeeding. It’s literally the most normal and natural thing that a woman could do and I am gobsmacked that anyone could think it’s disgusting or wrong. From the first few weeks when I struggled to feed, I was keen not to limit myself to trying to feed in private. In fact, I am lucky to be a confident person and I’m very sure of myself when it comes to my decisions about feeding. I’m lucky never to have been challenged about feeding my baby in shops, restaurants, parks, town centres and churches-I’ve even fed in St Pauls cathedral! I think that it’s important to do this so other women (and men) see it and see that it is ok. The more we normalise and the less we stigmatise, the easier it will be for women to continue with feeding for as long as they want to.

The “breastfeeding gestapo” do exist. Whilst I secretly agree with much of what they say, I don’t agree with the personal element. It’s our society that has funny ideas about breastfeeding, and we as individuals are just part of that. However what is often ignored is the polarisation of feeding. Like many issues (as I’ve mentioned before) many people I’ve come across are so black-or-white about the issue.

From my personal experience I’ve been offended by things that people have said directly about breastfeeding or questions I’ve been asked. Within two days on Facebook I saw one new mum (second baby) say that breastfeeding was “created by the devil” because she was struggling with it, and another person complain about “all the perks that breastfeeding mums get” after an article was doing the rounds about one cafe offering Breastfeeding mums a free cup of tea. I am frequently asked when I’ll stop breastfeeding, often alongside someone’s opinion of when a child is “too old” to be breastfeed (walking, talking, a year, going back to work, 18 months etc).

The difference is that there is a lot in the media currently about breastfeeding not being “all that”, about women being bullied into breastfeeding and about women who feel they are looked down on for formula feeding,whether they feel it was a decision they made by choice or not. There is very little about the flip side of the coin, though the odd story does come up including the lady Emily Slough who had a photo of her breastfeeding her child uploaded to Facebook with nasty comments about how disgusting and “trampy” it was.

Sometimes it feels that is not ok even to state facts about formula feeding of the companies that make formula for fear of offending, however you can make a pop at breastfeeding being “the work of the devil” or similar with no repercussions or acknowledgment of the concept that that might be upsetting for breastfeeding women.

In the UK just 1% of women exclusively breastfeed to 6 months. We are in a minority that is little understood and often treated badly. I hear stories every week through my online network of mummy friends and acquaintances of women being told to go elsewhere to breastfeed, often to toilets or other inappropriate places. This is not a perk. It’s naïve to suggest that women who breastfeed in the UK are getting “perks”. Does  the aforementioned cafe really want to reward breastfeeding mums? Or are they reveling in their highly shared positive press? Are they hoping you’ll buy a cake and invite your friends? What will it do for their business profile?

I often  want to know this. … But why can’t women be kinder to each other. We know that bringing up a baby is ridiculously difficult without creating barriers.

So I am (sitting at home sick to the sofa with a poorly baby) celebrating international breastfeeding week and I don’t care who knows it. Of course I feel like every week should be breastfeeding week!

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