When I was pregnant with my first baby, I immersed my-self in preparing for the birth through yoga, reflexology, ante-natal classes, reading books and writing a birth plan.
My preparation was all about the birth. I practised my breathing daily and updated my birth plan regularly. It was only after my baby arrived that I realised I had not prepared myself for feeding him.
After a difficult birth which included an episiotomy, forceps, stirrups and a vacuum, I was shredded -- emotionally and physically.
According to the books I had read, I was supposed to immediately bond with this little person. Instead I felt exhausted and unsure. I knew I wanted to breastfeed but had no clue how to; it simply did not come naturally to me.
We got off to a bad start; after the birth, he was with his daddy for 45 minutes while I was cleaned and stitched. In hindsight, I should have had him placed on my chest but I was in such shock I said nothing. The first hour of a baby's life is important to establish breastfeeding but we missed that window and by the time he was placed in my arms, he was nodding off.
My son also had the bad luck of being born on a bank holiday, with no breastfeeding consultants around. Unfortunately, the busy nurses did not have time to show me how to breastfeed either and after a long day of trying unsuccessfully, mostly alone, a nurse handed me a bottle.
I was horrified. I was trying to give my baby what I believed was the best start in life and, instead of supporting me, the nurses fobbed me off with a bottle of formula. Initially I refused but the nurse said my baby was very hungry and, because I could not feed him myself, suggested it would be cruel not to give the bottle.
I relented but still kept trying to breastfeed for the next 10 days, albeit with little success.
Unfortunately, my mother, gran and aunts did not breastfeed because their generation were not encouraged to, so I had no one to show me how. On top of this, the advice I received, from the nurses and public- health official, was conflicting and confusing.
In the end, I expressed breast milk into bottles for 14 weeks. It was a compromise: he got the milk we wanted him to have but I lost out on being able to give it to him the way I wanted.
I missed out on the bonding and ease of feeding without bottles and sterilisers. It was upsetting and I felt like a failure. The one thing I should have been able to do was feed my child but I could not.
What I now realise is that breastfeeding does not come naturally to everyone. I've spoken to many mothers who had a similar experience and it seems we all had problems because we were not taught how to feed or helped when we tried.
The advice new mothers are given -- whether it comes from the hospital, public-health nurse or GP -- lacks consistency, causes confusion and leads to mothers giving up breastfeeding because they cannot find a way through.
Breastfeeding is a bit like riding a bike. You wouldn't just hop on a bike for the first time and cycle off by yourself. You need someone to show you how to do it. You need someone to encourage you, until you are ready for the stabilisers to come off.
Enter a new group called 'Friends of Breastfeeding', a bunch of mums from around Ireland who are working with the HSE to ensure new mothers get proper advice and support to enable them to breastfeed.
Mary Eileen Lalor, spokesperson for the group, says: "Our goal is to do whatever we can to help mothers who want to breastfeed get the support they need to have the experience they want. At present, 47pc of mothers start out breastfeeding, but this figure drops to just 3pc by four months. We want to promote mothers' confidence in their own ability to provide exclusively for their baby -- which is one of the main obstacles stopping more mothers breastfeeding for longer."
Mary, a mum of two from Co Wexford, did not get the necessary support when she started breastfeeding and is hoping the Friends of Breastfeeding group can address this problem. She explains: "Maureen Fallon, the national breastfeeding co- ordinator within the HSE, is very supportive of our organisation and what we want to achieve. By working with her, we can influence the advice new mothers are given."
As well as helping mothers, Mary believes Friends of Breastfeeding can have a positive influence on the image of breastfeeding in Ireland, "Breastfeeding needs to be recognised for what it is, no big deal, just a mother feeding her baby. It is something which can be done whenever and wherever needed.
"Also, there is a stereotype regarding the type of woman who breastfeeds and it needs to be recognised that breastfeeding can suit all situations and parenting styles."
Mum of four Melanie Kialka-Power from Co Meath reckons breastfeeding is the easy option, once you know how. Melanie breastfed all her children but admits it was not easy at first.
"I felt awkward when I started, especially feeding outside my home. I remember being out one day with a friend who is quite modest. My baby started crying and I felt uncomfortable about feeding her but the crying soon changed my mind. My friend was embarrassed but my baby needed to be fed, so I just got on with it."
Now, with baby number four in her arms, it's clear Melanie is an expert. She says: "I sometimes feed while I'm walking. I'm so busy with four children that I hardly sit down anymore! Just recently I was in the supermarket and Isaac needed to be fed so I popped him the boob as I shopped. He was in a baby sling, so we were very discreet. I bumped into an old friend and he peeked over to see the baby and got a bit of a surprise when he saw Isaac feeding away. After he got over the initial shock, we had a good giggle over it."
With groups like Friends of Breastfeeding growing nationwide, let's hope future new mums who want to breastfeed, get consistent and relevant advice so they can master it and give their baby the ultimate in fast food!
For information about the Friends of Breastfeeding group, email FriendsofBreastfeeding@yahoo.ie