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From mountaintops to trains: The highs and lows of my breastfeeding journey

As various health bodies promote mother's milk this week, Chrissie Russell admits she'll shed a few tears as the time to stop nursing her youngest son draws closer


Chrissie Russell breastfeeds her son Tom

Chrissie Russell breastfeeds her son Tom

Chrissie Russell breastfeeds her son Tom

From whipping a breast out while surrounded by goats on the icy summit of a Norwegian mountain to nursing in a palace, a zoo and among the ancient columns of Olympia. There have been tears and tantrums - sometimes the kids, sometimes me - smiles, surprises and shocks.

Breastfeeding stories often tend to revolve around the health facts and figures. This is World Breastfeeding Week and the theme this year is the environmentally friendly aspect of nursing, while La Leche League has also used the week to highlight the immune-boosting immunoglobulin and antiviral aspects to mammy's milk.

But for me, breastfeeding has always been suffused with emotion. For the past seven years, I have either been growing a baby or breastfeeding one. With my youngest now two years old (his brother self-weaned at three), I reckon this World Breastfeeding Week will the last one where I'm actively, or should I say 'lactively', involved.

When I look back, it's not the cracked nipples or cluster feeds that I remember, or the health benefits I think of, but all the emotions that have gone with my experience of breastfeeding. The feeds I'm happy to remember… and others I'd rather forget.


Chrissie Russell breastfeeds on a mountaintop in Norway

Chrissie Russell breastfeeds on a mountaintop in Norway

Chrissie Russell breastfeeds on a mountaintop in Norway

There was the first feed of course, and my sudden realisation that just because breastfeeding is natural, it won't necessarily come naturally. Six years on and my tummy still lurches with anxiety at the stress of those early post-partum days, tearfully trying to master what seemed like an impossible task. I remember the feeling of elation when baby first latched without third party assistance…and crushing disappointment when the next latch failed.

I was relieved to read this week that increased community supports have meant that breastfeeding rates haven't dipped during Covid, because support saved me. Unwashed and barely dressed, I raced to a support group when my four-day-old hadn't fed for seven hours.

Weeping and with rock-hard boobs, I remember feeling a huge wave of gratitude when other mums let me jump the queue for help, and even greater relief when a kind and patient lactation consultant led me to a quiet room and guided baby to breast.

I've laughed. The bizarre scenarios that breastfeeding throws up are numerous and varied. Do these goats that have surrounded us pose enough of a threat that I need to take baby off the boob and move? Is it ok for me to sit and nurse on this antique chair in a historical palace?

Responding to my wailing son (and thinking I'd hung up), I inadvertently shouted 'the boobies are coming!' down the phone on a work call.

I've been frustrated, and touched out and fed up and ready to quit. The nights of teething and growth spurts, the periods of separation anxiety and sickness, when all my sons have wanted is to suckle, have left me feeling sucked dry in more ways than one.

But I've also been thankful that during the sickness and teething and separation anxiety, I've had this fairly amazing option in my tool kit to rely on. Sore ears on the plane during take-off? Hangry? Over-stimulated? Tired?

I've been stunned and delighted to discover how many problems can be solved with a breast.

Then there's the rush of pure love when I look down and see them content. I've been mortified when, on numerous public occasions, I've failed to reattach bra-straps and put everything back where it should be.

There were the feeds that led to impotent anger and embarrassment. I'm happy to report that no one has ever been verbally abusive to me in all the years of nursing in public, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't seen the looks, the raised eyebrows and sideways glances, particularly once my boys entered into 'old enough to ask for it' territory.

I've wanted to stop, fed up with the responsibility of it all.

Then there was the feed before the mammogram I needed after a doctor found a lump, when I nervously laughed as a jet of milk squirted from me as my breast was clamped between the slides of the mammogram machine.

The fear and confusion I felt when I was told I'd need a biopsy and that might mean weaning or risking complications. The gratitude for the experts who helped answer my questions and come up with solutions. The trepidation when I put my eight-month-old to my bandaged breast, and the relief when it seemed like normal service as usual. The joy when the results came back clear.

There have been feeds where I've felt like superwoman, multi-tasking like a pro. Nursing a baby while typing at a laptop, serving up dinner while he suckled in a sling, doing a phone interview with someone who has absolutely no idea I'm on the other end of the line with both breasts al fresco.

I resented them at the time, but sometimes I long for those epic, early feeds where lactating and binging on The Good Wife was the height of my to-do list.

I've secretly loved the 'convenient feeds' that enabled me to swap any social setting for a lie down in a quiet room.

From fumbling first feeds, I've felt a sense of personal victory when nursing in public became a fairly seamlessly discreet affair - top up, bra down, only the smallest flash of flesh to the elements. Nothing to see here.

If there have been hostile looks, then there have also been kind gestures from strangers that have surprised and delighted me. The time I feared the couple next to me in the restaurant were looking critically at me for breastfeeding in public, only to come over to coo at my son. The twenty-something chap who sat opposite me on the train from Dublin to Belfast and was completely not fussed when my two-year-old started tugging at my top, "sure it's just natural, isn't it", he said simply.

In the small hours of the morning, I've been helped and cheered online by strangers, when I've wondered 'is this normal?' about everything from cluster feeding to nipple twiddling, green poo to toddlers wanting to balance on one leg as they nurse.

Right now, the breast is still the first thing my two-year-old looks for in the morning and the last thing he wants at night. But I know we're on the home stretch. And just like my first feed was accompanied by tears, I've no doubt the last one will be too.

Breastfeeding, you've been an emotional journey. But one I wouldn't change for the world.

Irish Independent