When I tried breastfeeding with my first child, I got into a painful mess, broke the Guinness World Record for the number of times anyone has had mastitis and worried constantly that I was starving my baby. However, roll on to baby number two and she was more or less exclusively breastfed, and even doubled her birth weight at six months old.
When it works, breastfeeding is convenient, cheap and healthy for mums and babies. But when it doesn't… hoo, boy. With World Breastfeeding Week this week (1st to 7th August), here are just a few of the things nobody mentioned beforehand.
1. Breast isn’t always best
Watching my firstborn rooting around for milk the first time was nothing short of awe-inspiring. How did she know what to do? How did my body know to produce this gross yellow stuff? Lo, how the miracle of nature… actually, that’s about as much romanticising as I managed, given that my undercarriage was still being stitched up.
For a time, everything went swimmingly but after about four months we started to have problems. The baby started crapping the colour of wheatgrass (see breast pumps, below). As she dropped steadily through the weight centiles, health visitors talked about a “failure to thrive”. There were times when I would actually cry out from pain as she latched on, so sharp was the pinch as she tried desperately to get the nourishment she needed.
Yet the idea that Breast Is Best was so firmly lodged in my sleep-deprived mind, that I was ready to bludgeon to death anyone who suggested trying a bit of formula, or weaning the baby early. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great slogan - rhymes and everything. Just maybe needs a little asterisk: *except when it’s the worst.
2. Breast pumps are not your best friend.
I was SO FRICKING PLEASED WITH MYSELF for buying an electric breast pump. “This is the key to my independence!” I thought, as I handed over £120 I didn’t have. Honestly, I would have paid double.
As a fully paid up disciple of Gina Ford, I used to awaken at 6.45am, drag myself out of bed and slump into a chair in the baby’s room, pumping out 60ml or so before she’d even woken up. (Although usually not before my husband had woken up and done his world-class impression of the angry duck noise it made.)
The expressed milk was put into the freezer for a later date, then carted around to relatives’ houses - proudly placing it into their fridges alongside the cheese and the raw chicken - if ever they were looking after her. Because heaven forfend a drop of Aptamil formula should pass my daughter’s lips.
Before long, though, I started to get competitive about it. If I’d managed 60ml, surely 80ml was better. Today, 100ml! Now 125ml without even trying! Soon I had chronic oversupply. The baby was getting too much watery foremilk, and I was getting mastitis. Which I figured I could express out…
Now, clearly, the problem wasn’t the breast pump, the problem was that I am an idiot. But I do wish someone had pointed out that they’re a useful occasional tool, rather than a way of life.
3. You have to take the baby everywhere.
My baby went on her first hen party at 6 months old, because if I’d left her with somebody else from 2pm to 2am we both would have died. She’s also very experienced with business meetings, but can’t be trusted in a hairdresser’s, which is why I now sport a huge dark stripe down the centre of my head, like a sort of reverse Cruella De Vil. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I DID give her a bottle when she was small to make sure that she would take one; unfortunately, since then she has changed her mind and goes rigid and screams her head off if you try to go anywhere near her with an artificial teat. #FAIL)
4. People are weird about it.
If I had a quid for every time someone had suggested to me that “you might be more comfortable over there in the corner” I would be able to afford at least six months of organic formula. It’s probably well meaning, but it always feels like they’re saying that THEY would be more comfortable if you were in the corner. Or another room. Or the toilet (we’ve all done it).
One elderly couple actually came up to me in a motorway service station and told me how nice it was to see somebody breastfeeding in public, and how their daughter-in-law hadn’t managed it, and wasn’t that a shame - an exchange that I managed to get through by freezing a rictus grin on my face instead of screaming “PLEASE JUST LEAVE ME ALONE, GET THE FRICK OUT OF HERE AND GO BACK TO BITCHING ABOUT YOUR DAUGHTER IN LAW IN THE PRIVACY OF YOUR OWN VAUXHALL ZAFIRA LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE”.
In fairness to the people who just do not know where the heck to look, it is hard to do without flashing a bit of tit. You can try to shroud yourself in a scarf, but if the baby’s trying to have a look at what’s going on outside, it’s difficult to avoid brexit (breast… you get the idea).
5. It will leave your boobs looking like empty football socks.
When I was breastfeeding I saw a guy who had had his earlobe split by a massive tunnel earring. As I gazed rudely at the two stringy lobes of flesh that were literally blowing in the breeze, it occurred to me that this is pretty much what my boobs look like now. Unsupportive feeding bras have made them so droopy that I’m actually considering giving up on bras altogether and simply tying them together in a decorative bow.
6. You don’t have to use the 'Hollywood hold'.
The classic image of breastfeeding is to cradle the baby sideways, its head resting on your elbow. That’s still how I feed most of the time but if you’re having problems, it turns out there are about 17 other ways you can try that might feel more comfortable. Leaning right back propped up on cushions helped me when I had oversupply. The lying down and rugby holds are good at spreading the pressure around different parts of the nipple while you’re still getting used to it. Sitting the baby up on your knee facing you is awesome at preventing wind. *makes sign of cross at mention of newborn babies and wind* Because we nearly always see the cradle hold, it’s easy to forget there are other options.
7. You can always try again.
Having screwed up so titanically the first time, I never thought I’d get very far with breastfeeding another baby. It still hurt on occasion, but I hardly ever felt compelled to tell a stranger that “I’m the world’s shittest breastfeeder”. In World Breastfeeding Week, I’ll drink to that.
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