Roz Webb looks at the bigger picture

Breastfeeding – one word that conjures up a million emotions in any woman who has had a baby. Research tells us that only 1% of women have a physiological reason for being unable to breastfeed, so why on earth is it so hard for so many women?

It is probably because feeding your baby is so much more complex than boob-or-bottle-in-mouth. There are a lot of physical, social and emotional barriers to breastfeeding that can be a real challenge to overcome. Of course some women genuinely choose not to breastfeed, as is their right, and they can be given quite a hard time about that sometimes. However, many women don’t really feel that their choices really were theirs.

It all starts in the hospital. The caesarean rate in London hospitals is 30%, and many women are induced, have forceps or ventouse, or an epidural. While all of these may have been absolutely the right thing at the time, those births are clinical and might undermine the mother’s confidence in herself, as well as often having an impact on the baby’s ability to feed.
There is evidence that many interventions in birth can affect breastfeeding; if a new mother is exhausted from the birth and is stuck in what is often a not very calm or relaxing postnatal ward, how can she be expected to start breastfeeding with ease?

Then we have the confusing situation when a woman is told that breastfeeding is ‘natural’ and therefore easy. She was might have been told that about birth as well. We don’t live in a ‘natural’ society, we don’t see women breastfeeding, we don’t spend time with women who are breastfeeding, so how can any woman be expected to just ‘pick it up’? Because of the way we live, it will inevitably have to be a learnt process.

What can a breastfeeding mum do?

What has happened has happened and if you want to breastfeed, it is helpful to know what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t. At the last antenatal class I taught, everyone in the room was astounded to hear that nipples should not bleed or hurt; they were all preparing to be martyrs and simply put up with it. Don’t.
There is a lot of support in this area – your local children’s centre may well have a breastfeeding drop-in and sometimes just sitting and feeding your baby with other women can be all you need. Most difficulties are down to ‘latch’ and an experienced breastfeeding counsellor can help with this.
Research tells us that a key factor in breastfeeding success is the support of partner and family – if they are on your side, it will be much easier. Another key message is get support, get support, and get support.

A ‘babymoon’ can also be really powerful and even if breastfeeding doesn’t come out of it, you’ve done something great. Try going to bed with your baby for a few days (partners can join in too!) and just hang out together – have lots of skin-to-skin contact, and don’t try too hard to feed. (Don’t actually sleep with your baby unless you’ve done the research about bed sharing.) Lying down to feed can often be more effective than sitting up as both mum and baby tend to be more relaxed. Take the pressure off yourself and sometimes it will just come. If it doesn’t, you’ve given your baby an amazing experience anyway. Just sitting doing nothing, cuddling your baby, you are:

• reducing their cortisol (stress) levels and keeping them calm and relaxed. This will later enable them to calm themselves much more effectively
• teaching them about relationships and communication, a blueprint they will carry all their lives
• growing their brain! – just by being with your baby, you are supporting their brain development
• developing their senses (touch is an incredibly powerful sense for a baby)
• promoting bonding and attachment between baby and parent(s)
• teaching your baby about love, raising levels of oxytocin (the love hormone that makes you feel good) in yourselves and your baby
• creating a comforting environment that replicates being in that lovely, comfortable womb that your baby has recently left

You can also replicate all the nurturing aspects of breastfeeding with a bottle if you want to – see http://nurturedchild.ca/index.php/2010/12/10/baby-led-bottle-feeding. And try to make peace with whatever you do.

Roz Webb is a Birth and Beyond practitioner, teaching antenatal ‘Essentials’ classes with the NCT, and a baby massage teacher.