Breastfeeding has been back in the spotlight again recently, after a study found that people who had been breastfed for at least 12 months were in education for longer, had a higher IQ and earned about 20% more than the average income level by the time they were 30 years old.
I have really mixed feelings about this, and about all the responses I’ve been reading across various blogs and news reports, because I am still breast feeding my one year old but only fed my son for 2 weeks before moving him on to formula.
I have no regrets about making the decision to stop breast feeding Rhys when I did. It was absolutely the best decision for my family. But, having been successful with breast feeding second time round, I do sometimes wonder if things might have been different with Rhys if I’d known more about it.
So, with the hope that this might help some other mums out there, here is my list of the things I wish I had known about breast feeding before I started.
1) It may be ‘natural’ but it’s not always easy
We’re constantly fed this line that breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world. And yes it is, in that our bodies are designed by nature to nourish our children. But this doesn’t mean that breastfeeding will come naturally to us. It also doesn’t mean that it’s an easy thing to do.
I’m sure some women do take to breastfeeding really easily, their babies know instinctively what to do and it all does come naturally to them.
For the rest of us though, it takes a fair bit of fumbling around, trying all manner of feeding positions to get baby to latch on properly. For me personally, it took at least 8 weeks before breastfeeding started to feel quite natural.
2) It can be really painful
Breastfeeding can be a really painful experience, especially at the beginning, with poor latch, cracked nipples and mastitis to contend with. Those issues can all be resolved and you should be able to carry on breastfeeding, but you might find that you’d rather stop than power through the pain which, in my opinion, is absolutely fine.
I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me, but I personally think that if you’re miserable and in pain trying to feed your baby then sometimes it’s better for the whole family if you stop.
Happy mum = happy baby, regardless of how they’re fed.
3) It may always be uncomfortable
I was lucky in that I’ve never had issues with cracked nipples or mastitis, but I did still find breastfeeding painful for quite awhile. Every time Nerys latched on I would tense up for a few seconds until it felt more comfortable. I was sure that she must not be latching on properly, seeing as you’re always told that if it hurts then something must be wrong with the latch. I asked quite a few of the midwives in the hospital and my community midwife and the health visitor when I got home, and they all reassured me that she seemed to be latched on fine and was feeding well.
I still wasn’t sure that everything was ok though, until one particular midwife told me that she fed all three of her children and it was painful every time. Weirdly, this made me feel so much better! Knowing that the pain wasn’t a sign that something was wrong helped me to relax, knowing that Nerys was getting all the food she needed.
Then, after about 8 weeks, I realised that it suddenly wasn’t painful to feed any more. But it was always slightly uncomfortable at the start of each feed, when my milk let down.
4) You end up covered in milk for the first few weeks
I was completely unprepared for this when I started feeding Nerys, but yeah, some babies are messy eaters who like to dribble milk all over you, some babies like to randomly un-latch during a feed causing milk to spray everywhere, some babies will treat you to an extra few hours of sleep one night which, while wonderful, will leave you with an abundance of milk that leaks out all over the bed (I may or may not have experienced all of these things!). Stocking up on muslins is a very good idea!
5) Newborns feed ALL the time (which is actually a good thing!)
One of the biggest reasons I stopped breastfeeding Rhys is that he never seemed full and content. He would feed for ages, then still want a bottle of formula. I don’t remember anyone telling me that it’s normal for babies to want to feed constantly.
When I had Nerys I spend the first night with her at the hospital. She fed pretty much all night long. I started to worry that, once again, I wouldn’t be able to satisfy her hunger. But the next morning when I told the midwife that Nerys had fed non-stop all night, the reply I got was ‘great!’. And I had the same response when I talked to my community midwife about it at home. What a revelation! It’s a good thing for your newborn to feed ALL the time!
Looking into it more, it started to make sense too. The more your baby feeds, the quicker your milk supply is established. It’s a supply and demand system, so your baby places a lot of demand on you in the beginning to make sure the supply is there for them.
6) Every experience is different
I had a very different experience with feeding Nerys than I did with feeding Rhys. And the more people you talk to about it, the more you realise that every experience is different. You really can’t compare your experience with someone else’s and really shouldn’t beat yourself up about it if they make it look easy and you struggle. Or if they happily feed for a year or more and you stop after a few weeks.
7) It makes you extremely thirsty within seconds of baby latching on
Make sure you have a drink within easy reach before you start feeding. Seriously, it’s an overwhelming thirst that comes over you when you start feeding!
8) It’s not the be all and end all of motherhood
Yes, feeding your baby is a huge part of being a new mum. It can be all consuming if you’re having issues with breastfeeding. There are so many emotions involved and so many outside influences and opinions to contend with.
But, when your child is fully grown and you look back on your experience as a parent to that point, I doubt very much that the thing you will focus on will be whether or not you breastfed them. I don’t believe that choosing to give Rhys formula when I did will be the defining moment in my parenting career. Motherhood is about so much more than how we feed our babies.
9) Babies can still thrive on formula
On that note, I think it’s important for mums to know that babies can still thrive on formula. Yes, breast milk may be, nutritionally, the best food for our babies. But they can absolutely still thrive on formula.
10) You can still bond with a formula fed baby
One of the big ‘selling points’ of breastfeeding is that it helps you to bond with your new baby. You’re led to believe that you won’t bond as well with your child if you bottle feed.
Well, I call boohockey on that! Maybe you don’t bond in the same way if you bottle feed but you still form just as strong a bond. Nerys and I have had some lovely times quietly nursing, and we bonded differently in that she physically needed me for food and comfort. But I felt just as strong a bond with Rhys when I would feed him his bedtime bottle, leaning over him so he could twirl the hair from my fringe in his little hands. Even now he’ll twirl his hair when he’s getting tired, which makes me think that my presence was what really gave them both security and comfort, not the milk they were fed.
11) Whether to do it or not is a personal choice
It’s so important to remember, but whether you decide to breast feed or formula feed is completely up to you. It can be hard in the face of pressure from health professionals, the media and even family and friends but you have to make the choice that is best for you.
12) It’s shocking how much pressure is put on new mums to do it.
I’m sure a lot of the pressure comes from inside, as we can set our hearts on breastfeeding when we’re pregnant. But there is also a huge amount of pressure from outside sources to breastfeed.
I understand that the NHS promotes breastfeeding, but I find it really bad that this means that NHS staff are basically not allowed to promote any other kind of feeding. When I was struggling to feed Rhys I was chatting with a lovely community midwife about the best course of action.
I’ll always remember her telling me “as a midwife I have to tell you to keep trying with the breastfeeding, but as a Mother I’m telling you to top him up with formula”.
Even now those words make me fill up with emotion.
I will always be grateful to her for giving me a real, human answer. But I’ll also always be frustrated that she was put in the position where she had to separate her answers like that. It worries me that our midwives are put under pressure to encourage mothers to keep on breastfeeding, when it really might not be the best course of action for them.
Which leads me on to my next point.
13) There’s support out there is you want it, but sometimes this can make it worse.
If you’re really keen to keep going with breastfeeding, even if it’s tough, then there is a lot of support available. I spoke to our local breastfeeding consultant when I was still uncertain about how feeding was going with Nerys and was very happy with that service. There are local groups you can go to for support. The community midwife teams and health visitors can offer a lot of support if you need it.
The problem with this, is that sometimes breastfeeding is really tough and what you really need is for someone to tell you it’s ok to stop. Having all the support offered to you can make you feel like all you need to do is persevere and it’ll all work itself out.
Sometimes we don’t have the energy, the strength or the will to ‘persevere’.
Sometimes the stress of trying to breastfeed can edge us away from the normal baby blues and towards depression.
Sometimes the best option for everyone involved is to stop persevering and move onto formula and we need to know that this is ok too.
So, that’s my thoughts on things I wish I had known before starting my breastfeeding journey and things I think might help other mums before they start their journeys.
What do you think? Do you agree or hugely disagree?
What would you add to my list, what do you wish you had known about breastfeeding before you started?