Sunday 16 December 2018

Breastfeeding in the middle ground

Speaking out on behalf of the silent majority of Irish mums - 'we do our best, we sometimes use formula and we want an end to the use of breastfeeding as a weapon...'

Nursing mum: Sinead with her three-month-old daughter Laoise
Nursing mum: Sinead with her three-month-old daughter Laoise
Sinead with her children Cathal (2), Ciaran (4) and Laoise

Sinéad Fox

Breastfeeding. It's not something we talk about a lot in Ireland. In fact, I hesitated a lot before writing about it. It's not like me. I don't hesitate in sharing with the world what I ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner or tea, usually posting photos and recipes of it on Twitter and Facebook (I probably should hesitate more about that, but that's a whole other matter).

I don't even like using the word 'breastfeeding',, I say that I 'feed' rather than 'breastfeed'.

But here I am on the record as a breastfeeder.

In my head I think that if I share my views I'm going to unleash endless wrath from all sides, pleasing no one.

I imagine that people will either think that I'm a slacker for giving my baby a bottle/soother/formula/weaning at six months.

Or they'll think that I'm a hippy treehugger who just wants to show the world her boobs/a militant/too mean to buy formula, and that I should go sit in a toilet cubicle rather than feed the baby at a cafe or in the sitting room and offend them by letting baby feed in their presence.

I'm neither. I'm here, in the middle ground, and there are lots of us.

We're the forgotten breastfeeders, the ones the stereotypers forget, the silent majority.

We look and sound just like normal people (who are covered in baby puke), we just happen to breastfeed our babies.

Ireland has a very low breastfeeding rate in international terms and according to only 47pc of infants are breastfed leaving hospital, with this dropping to a tiny 10pc at six months.

So, the majority of Irish breastfeeders do it for six months or less. Just like me. It's pretty crowded in the middle ground.

I fed both my boys to six months and hope to do the same with my baby girl, who's almost three months old, in the interests of equality for all and the overpowering mammy guilt.

Like most babies born in the 1970s I wasn't breastfed myself and only vaguely remember being aware of one aunt and one family friend breastfeeding during my childhood, but I decided to 'give it a go' with my first baby.

I convinced myself that my attitude was one of "if it works it works" (if it hadn't worked I expect this may not in fact have been the case) and despite a difficult delivery and a three-day stay in the SBCU at Wexford General, my eldest latched for the first time at three days old and took to it like a duck to water.

His younger brother and sister clicked from the first attempt. It worked, so I did it. Who knows what would have happened if it hadn't just worked?

Now, we've had hiccups, thrush on baby one, agonising bleeding nipples on the other two, not to mention countless stinging letdowns and plugged ducts but nothing serious. (I have had three colicky babies though, in case I sound smug, so cut me some slack.)

I know that I've been lucky, and have friends who would love to have fed but it just didn't work out for them. I know amazing women who pumped for months on end when their babies wouldn't latch. That takes determination and dedication and they, in my eyes, are the superhero mammies.

What I found most helpful on my breastfeeding journey was the support of other mothers.

I remember sending two friends with babies a few months older than mine a tearful email when my first baby was three weeks old asking whether things ever got better, whether I'd ever sleep again and how I could do it all better.

My friends duly replied, sending two emails and follow-up phonecalls in return, one from Limerick, the other from Norway, reassuring me that I was normal and giving me survival tips.

I feel those two friends have passed the baton to me and I find myself encouraging pregnant friends or new mums I meet at the clinic to ring me or email me at any time day or night if they need a chat or to bounce something off someone who has had more sleep – and they do.

New nursing mums need to be made feel normal, not to be told that "it's all natural" and to soldier on.

The problems that can arise when breastfeeding are like a big secret that nobody wants to break.

We need to share so that new mums can expect these and then cope when they reach challenges, not panic and consider themselves failures.

The secrets extend to stopping breastfeeding too. When the time comes and women stop breastfeeding and wean to the bottle, things are difficult; but again, if not prepared, the new mum will think that she is going crazy.

She's dealing with the mammy guilt of no longer feeding when the hormones kick in, resulting in her being over-emotional, having wild mood swings, night sweats that can carry on for weeks, and sore breasts.

So if you see a teary woman holding a baby with cabbage leaves sticking out of her top, go easy on her.

I confess that I was afraid to go to any of the many breastfeeding support groups as I felt that I wasn't hardcore enough.

I thought that they would scoff at my baby's soother, declare him deficient of gut flora thanks to the formula that kept him alive while he was in an incubator and forcefully expel us from their pure milky midst.

My fear has yet to abate, although I have been assured that they are indeed very welcoming places, even for us middlegrounders.

There are practical things that helped too, like moving my nightfeeds from the dark empty bedroom to the couch with a favourite TV series to keep me company.

Using an iPhone app has been great to keep track of feeds and as soon as I need to feed the baby I look for my phone, so my boys now think that it's a remote control for my boobs.

Also, chocolate digestives and my mammy's scones with Kerrygold butter on top contributed greatly to my breastfeeding success – you've got to eat and sometimes you genuinely forget or don't have time.

What I found unhelpful were the raised eyebrows and looks of disgust when I fed my baby in public.

People asked how long I intended to breastfeed, people constantly suggested that my eating X, Y or Z may have been the reason that my baby had colic, judgemental people when I gave my baby a bottle, judgemental people when I breastfed my baby, and bizarrely, I found unhelpful the literature that is supposed to encourage you to breastfeed but instead makes you think that you have been duped.

Ah, the literature, or as we called it the propaganda. I remember my husband and I, exhausted from minding our colicky first-born, laughing looking at the breastfeeding leaflets that mention only the positive.

A complete absence of tender, sore breasts, nippleshields, nightsweats, of smelling of sour milk all the time, of waking up on sheets drenched in milk, of bleeding nipples or engorged breasts or thrush or mastitis.

This is simply unhelpful. New mums are unprepared when they meet these challenges and in "survival mode" with a newborn.

They are struggling to keep it all together. Keeping it honest and real would be more helpful, rather than peddling guilt and claiming your breastfed child will never ever be sick and is less likely to have colic or asthma or eczema (mine have all of these).

The bottom line from the middle ground: I believe that a baby needs a well and happy mother more than he or she needs breastmilk.

A bottle of formula to supplement or to cover when you have some baby-free time will not do any harm in my experience, and if continuing to breastfeed makes life harder for everyone, it is okay to stop.

Martyrdom helps no one. Seek help if you're having problems.

Do what's best for everyone and go easy on the mammyguilt.

This article is based on a blogpost that originally appeared on

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