Written by: Cally Worden
You are pregnant and want to breastfeed. You read all the books, and scour the internet for advice. You maybe even ‘practice’ breastfeeding with a toy baby doll. Breast feeding maybe natural but not always easy!¬†You feel confident. You feel ready. Then you survive childbirth and, feeling utterly exhausted, are handed a wriggling pink bundle and wonder how you could ever have been so naive.
What is Natural Anyway?
Extensive research efforts have fairly decisively agreed that breast milk offers your baby the best nutritional value around. As a result, women today are under increasing pressure to ‘give it a go’. Even a few days of breast milk are thought to deliver untold benefits to your newborn. This is fine, but life doesn’t always play out like a baby-rearing instruction manual. And advice on breastfeeding is not always forthcoming or consistently supportive from medical practitioners, partly because the NHS is so stretched and partly because of a lack of education across the board.
For a host of reasons some women are simply unable or unwilling to breastfeed. What’s natural in one set of circumstances may be completely alien in another. Yet women who don’t breastfeed are often made to feel like they’ve failed in some way. And those who do successfully breastfeed are often ostracised in public for daring to bare their boobs (which most don’t anyway, breastfeeding is actually very discreet). What kind of a messed-up set of views is that?
Breastfeeding is Hard Work
Even women who breastfeed successfully know that it is by no means an easy option. Producing enough milk, on demand, for a baby whose hunger levels vary wildly by the hour places an enormous strain on a woman’s body. Success relies heavily on a mother getting enough rest, eating the right foods, and being relaxed. At a time in her life when she is sleep deprived, often too busy to eat, and stressed out by fatigue and the newness of it all. Even second-time around Mums are not immune to these factors. Giving birth takes its toll on your body, and it can take years to recover. Not the best scenario in which to embark on a blissful breastfeeding career.
No, scratch that. You’re EXHAUSTED. Most newborns exhibit a preference to feeding at night. If you are feeding on demand this can mean that Mum gets little, if any sleep, especially if your baby is a slow feeder. And Mums who are seeking to establish a feeding routine don’t escape either – any newborn needs to be fed every two-three hours. There is no let up. It can feel interminable.
A tired Mum may not produce enough milk resulting in a fussy and frustrated baby, demanding of sustenance that simply isn’t there. The knock-on effect of this is that the baby becomes hungry and won’t settle. Mum gets more and more tired, and the cycle of inadequate milk production becomes entrenched. It’s a viscous cycle that can be very hard to break, and emotionally draining for the mother.
Your Baby is not a Machine
Not all little cherubs have read the breastfeeding pamphlet in the womb. Their suckle reflex may be inhibited, they may dislike or be allergic to breast milk (rare, but not unheard of). And just as adults have different eating habits so, too, do tiny babies. Some faff about, never really settling, and can take an hour or more at each feed. Others guzzle for all they are worth, tugging at already tender nipples like suction pumps. Still others will regularly fall asleep on the breast (it’s cosy, comfortable, and secure – what could be a better place to doze off?), and some babies seem to enjoy digesting each mouthful like a fine wine, refusing to be distracted from their gourmet rhythm.
The bottom line is that no two babies are the same. Working out which camp yours falls into is half the battle, but even then it may not all be plain sailing. Babies like to keep you on your toes, and a growth spurt, illness or teething can throw even the most regular of feeders off balance.
You Have a Life
I was fortunate to be blessed with two babies who had attended the bump breastfeeding class. I hoped and planned to be able to breastfeed each for six months, and for the most part was able to do so. Both latched well from day one. My second child was a rapid feeder, and he could be sated within 20-30 minutes per feed. But my daughter liked to take her time. Each feed took¬† at least an hour. In the very early days this meant I was occupied with feeding for at least 8 hours of each day. The remaining daily hours whizzed by in a blur of nappies, washing, settling to sleep, with the odd five minutes of sleeping and eating for me thrown in. And a shower. If I was lucky.
The point is, breastfeeding takes time. More time than bottle feeding on average. And at some point life has to kick back in. Your relationship (remember that?!) needs attention too, and the mundane demands of life and work still have to be managed. Fitting in breastfeeding around all of this is no mean feat. I spent many an hour working on my laptop with one hand and holding my babies to my breast in the other. For Mums working outside the home this isn’t possible, and breastfeeding may simply not be practical. Expressing milk for your baby can work, but is time consuming, requires you to be utterly relaxed to extract the maximum volumes of milk, and it can be uncomfortable too.
All that said, it’s no wonder so few women breastfeed for long periods of time. And the sad fact is that many women who wish to breastfeed simply can’t, and studies have shown that this can increase the risk of them developing Post-Natal Depression. Education, time, and a more open attitude to breastfeeding will all help. But this is one role that will always be a challenge for many women. When it all works, breastfeeding is bliss for Mum and Baby. I know this from personal experience, and I feel very lucky for that. But I also feel like I really earned my breastfeeding stripes. ‘Natural’ it may be. ‘Easy’ it most certainly is not.