Tuntunterrah…. It’s World Breastfeeding Week. Of course while it’s a great thing to promote the most natural way to feed a baby, it’s a crying shame that it’s even necessary. But the millions of billions of cash spent by the formula industry undermining women’s belief in their bodies has done the trick and dedicating a week to encourage mammals to act like mammals is utterly necessary, so here’s my twopence worth. Again.
On the experience and merits of breastfeeding, I speak as one who has retired from milk production. Earlier this year, aged 23 months, my last baby was finally ejected from the milk bar. He would have hung around longer but I’d done my time and was happy for us both to quit and for him to start drinking from something with handles – not love handles. So before I forget everything and in honour of the week that’s in it, here’s my My A to Z of Breastfeeding.
A is for anytime, anyplace, anywhere – the greatest advantages of breastfeeding. In my experience most people are welcoming of feeding mothers in so far as they are far too busy to frankly give a shite. Yes I’ve stared down the rare gawker but honestly – having fed babies and toddlers in pretty much every place you can think of, it’s safe to assume that most people really aren’t bothered by a feeding baby. For those that are (a) the law is on your side, and (b) give them a ten second blast of a loudly crying baby and they’ll see the attraction of your milky fountains. A is also for areolae – of which you have two, and which (like me) you remained largely oblivious of for about 33 years. With the arrival of milk, your areolae take on a whole new importance. They step out from the shadows of your nipples and at last get the recognition they have long craved. Everyone talks about them. Your Dad texts to ask how they are. Your Health Nurse feels free to grab them with abandon. Your baby is magically drawn to them. Welcome to the world Aerolae. You’re only lovely.
B is for Breasts – the point of all this. Our breasts are amazing and do a wonderful job from start to finish in the business of baby-making. Look after them. Don’t forget the ‘breast check’ rules apply when while feeding. And for god’s sake rock that milk filled cleavage while you can! B is for Bra. Buy well, buy supportive and buy pretty. Don’t buy them all at the start – your size changes as you nurse longer (you go from mega hammock to mini hammock in my generously proportioned experience) so just buy a few biggish ones at the start and invest in a few more at the 2 month and 6 month stages so you have sizes to fit. B is also for breast reduction – the best gift my three sucklers gave their mama. I used to have the side profile of a Russian Lady-Shot-putter. I am now less shot-putter-like and grateful for it.
C is for community. Breastfeeding families need support. Early challenges don’t need the constant offer of a bottle; instead they benefit from encouragement, experience and empathy. Family supports are ideal but not always on offer. I was always lucky to come from a breastfeeding family but had, ahem, challenges with my in-laws who had only known formula-feeding and frankly thought I was a mad hippy for feeding our babies. Community-based supports can be all sorts of fabulous and many sorts of terrible. If you’re lucky enough to have a local Breastfeeding Support Group they are a great way of getting to know other mums in the area, but even if you have to travel a bit to one, make the effort and you’ll find such great wisdom – and warm tea on offer. C is also for cluster feeds. I’ve had three teatime cluster feeders who – regardless of growth spurts or anything else, simply wanted to guzzle milk for a few hours each evening – conveniently around the same time I wanted to guzzle some food myself. While it’s a little easier to sit back and go with the flow when you’ve just one baby, when you’ve other kids to entertain get yourself organised by making food ahead of time and settle down with a large glass of water, the kiddies and a family movie and off you go. C is also for crisps. An essential ingredient in the feeding mother’s diet. Oh – then there’s chocolate. And I wonder why the weight never fell off…..
D is for demand-led – which breastfeeding is. Obsessions about schedules are – for me anyway, manic and a very modern concept. The demand-led approach to feeding lets you establish your supply while getting to learn your babies cues. Happily, it does not mean you are used as a soother or will end up with a ‘spoilt baby. D is for Daddy. I think establishing good feeding is impossible without a supportive and encouraging Daddy. I know plenty of first time Daddy’s worry they’ll be cut out of the action by breastfeeding but there’s always winding, changing and endless streams of washing to get to grips with – and while you feed baby, he can feed you. I should add I’ve never met a second time Daddy who had such worries. Second timers are wise to the advantages of feeding by that stage and far too sensible to worry about sleep to give a moment’s though to their relegation to the sidelines by a pair of boobs.
E is for Educated. If you are making a decision to breast or bottle feed you should educate yourself about the pros and cons of both options. If you are pregnant and want to feed, find out all you can about the likely stumbling blocks and make sure you know who will be on hand to give your useful and practical advice. It’s hard to get help at 3am when you’ve an aching fanny and a baby who won’t latch. Ask for help in the daylight hours and it’ll stand to you when the inevitable tough times arrive. If you are not sure about breastfeeding and think you might opt to bottle feed then think through the challenges each offers and how you feel about them. Make your decision with as much information as possible – and own it.
F is for ‘Fuck Off’ – the only retort worth giving if someone gets in your face about feeding. Picture the scene: still passing clots the size of my hand, I venture down the Prom in Clontarf on a sunshiney day with the precious first-born – about 2 weeks old, tucked into his brand new buggy and wearing six layers of clothes in spite of the fact that it was July. Ignoring the fact the earth is falling through my torn and stitched perineum, I’m actually enjoying my first maternal walk. The baby stirs – after all it’s been 31 minutes since he was fed, and I lower myself gently onto the metal (God forgive you Dublin City Council) bench to give him a quick feed. I wrestle with my stupid top, eek the child out of his ridiculously heavy snowsuit, he latches on, I wince in pain, he feeds, I relax. A little old lady comes over. Her contribution : ‘That baby is too young to be out. And you should be ashamed of yourself doing that in public.’ To which I replied, you got it. ‘F is for Fuck off. Silly old bag.’
G is for ginormous – a size your boobs feel in for a good while after you start feeding. Get that good nursing bra on and revel in the fact your humongous knockers make your waist look small. G is for growth spurts – which seem to start just as soon as you feel you are in the swing of things, but which thankfully only last a few days. G is for Great – which your baby thinks you are no matter what you do. G is for Gravity which is frankly unkind and best ignored.
H is for Hungry – which you will always be. Milk making is a full-time job and a hungry one at that. Try to be sensible but expect the sugar cravings. Keep water at hand and stock up on nice food of the good variety. With a stash of crisps and a bit of the chocolate from earlier.
I is for Internet – the greatest source of good and bad vibes for breastfeeding mums. Set aside the negative nonsense peddled by the Daily Mails of this world and spend your time reading some of the best and most supporting sites where you can get invaluable advice on all aspects of feeding. Breastfeeding.ie is a site I’ve not widely used but has plenty of information on local services and supports in Ireland. I found Kelly Mom and Dr Jack Newman’s sites absolutely brilliant – and the best thing about all of them is that they ARE on hand at 3am.
J is for Juggle – one of the things I miss least about feeding. There’s the juggle with the sling that says you can feed while the baby is in it but simply your breast can’t stretch that far. There’s the juggle with your trolley and bag as you try feed while doing the groceries. There’s the juggle with your top as you try – in vain, to put away your large veiny breast on the bus. There’s the juggle with the other kids pulling at you while you try feed the baby. There’s lots of juggling. And I don’t miss it.
K is for Kind which many people are. Unless you’re Donald Trump or someone else with ass-holeish tendencies, there’s nothing more beautiful than a nursing mum and I honestly believe many people feel that way. I always remember the people who have been nice to me over my years of feeding. Mums who offered advice (the helpful kind). My father-in-law sticking up for me feeding my babies. The lady in a cafe who brought me over a large slab of cake and a cup of coffee – on the house, when I was feeding my first baby. Kind people who felt that nice warm glow of a happy baby. Non-asshole mammals of whom there are many.
L is for Latch – which is what it’s all about. If the baby is latching on right you’re sorted, if not then things get tricky. I remember the sweat pouring down my back as I tried to get my first fella to latch on. The Nurse’s instructions sounded like a foreign language. We just weren’t getting it. And then – after much practice, a few paracetamol and – honestly, a well deserved glass of wine, we relaxed and it just started to work. L is for Lactation Consultant – who give invaluable help that is not to be underestimated. I was lucky. All of the Public Health Nurses in my local area where lactation trained – by which I mean they had actually studied breastfeeding, breastfeeding support and all the science behind it all. They were also a bunch of right-on ladies who had fed babies themselves. Secondly, one of my best friends is a Lactation Consultant – the lovely, funny and very talented Ciara from Nurture for Two. In my more challenging days as a first time mum and later when my third baby was in NICU for his first 10 days, both Ciara and our Public Health Nurses were my rocks and I owe much of my positive experience to them. I never had to call on them but Ciudiú also offer breastfeeding mentoring from experienced volunteer mums in the community. Or alternatively for the relatively small fee that’s the same price of a few tubs of formula, pay for help. It’s amazing what a half hour on the phone or sitting down with a trained Lactation Nurse / Consultant can do and it can make all the difference between a successful breastfeeding experience and a really tough time. Check out the website of the Association of Lactation Consultants and find someone who can help. Fast.
M is for M cup – the size I think I was when I first naively asked for a bra measurement post delivery. M is also for Midwives – sterling workers on the labour wards but with a mixed track record on breastfeeding advice in my own experience. Feel free to ask that 23-year old who is blithely advising you to hand express at 1.36am if she’s ever actually fed a baby – then hop straight up to L for some additional support if your Midwife just isn’t giving it. M is for mastitis – the holy terror of every feeding mother. Know what to watch for and – more importantly how to nip mastitis in the bud with rest, warm showers, compresses and regular feeds.
N is for nipples. The stars of the show who are momentarily upstaged by those fame-hungry aerolae, your nipples are about to put in some sterling work. Dry them, tweak them, massage them, lube them. Try not to scream when someone bites them.
O is for Ow. The first days of feeding your first baby in particular are sore. It should and it does get easier particularly with a few well placed products like Lansinoh ointment or Multi-Mam compresses or gel. While an amount of pain is normal, don’t be a martyr to the cause and ask for help as it’s likely your need a bit of help getting the baby to latch on properly. Remember – it’s all natural but it’s not necessarily easy.
P is for (Breast)pads – every nursing mother’s best friend. I always needed to keep a good stash of pads handy for at least the first 12 months of feeding. Strangely I have left breastpads in a large variety of places, yet never had one returned to me! *Awkward*. P is also for pump – a non-essential piece of kit. On my third baby I had to establish my supply just using a pump as himself spent a stint in NICU but the hospital supplied a good quality pump on the ward so I just needed my own after discharge. Being honest I think having a pump on hand in the early days – except where an emergency like that strikes, is a distraction as it gives you another thing you convince yourself you need to do. They’re handy down the line but not an essential by any means. If you are buying one, invest well. I’d recommend an electrical pump though many mums swear by hand pumps (I don’t think I’m that patient) – and buy ear plugs if you don’t want to sit through the sound of being milked!
Q is for quick which feeds often are. The reality is breastfed babies feed more often than bottle fed babies – but equally in my experience they feed more quickly. I was lucky to have efficient feeders and a fast let-down- and I was luckier still that an experienced breastfeeding friend pointed that out. Otherwise during growth spurts or cluster feeding times I could have been conned into worrying about my supply and whether my babies were getting enough. Simply: quick feeds aren’t always a bad thing so fix yourself up and enjoy the 27 minute lull before that milk addict wants to go again.
R is for rest. Stick the feet up and give your milk producing body a chance. I firmly believe this is the big missing ingredient for postpartum mums who stress about ‘getting back to normal’ or doing crazy things like getting to the gym weeks after delivery. Enjoy that fourth trimester, and the fifth and the sixth. You are doing a big job. Sit down, hold the baby close, read the toddler a book and the mountains of washing will wait.
S is for supply – the obsession of every feeding mother. There is great advice from sites like Jack Newman on how to gauge the adequacy of your milk supply but of course a well fed baby with wet and dirty nappies is the best indicator you have plenty of milk. For boosting supply stick with the simple ideas – more rest, more water and a good diet and only resort to pumping under professional advice. S is for schedule. It all works out eventually when you and your baby find your way so put away any nonsense penned by the likes of Gina Forde and all will come right in the end. S is for squirt. You’re no-one to a nursing mother if she hasn’t fired some milk at you at some point. The baby’s eyes, my best friend’s hair, a stranger who didn’t need to know. You’ve all been at the receiving end of a little jet of milk and no harm done! S is also for sex – which also illicits a good gush of milk. Consider working that into your bedroom routine you sexy mama!
T is for three – the magic number. I found the first three days of feeding my babies very tough and yet by the third week we were flying. With the first it was because I had no real idea about what I was doing; with my second it was mastering sitting and feeding her while juggling a toddler; and with my third it was establishing my supply when my baby was in NICU and unable to feed. After three days on all of them my milk was in – in abundance, and things got easier. Later, by three weeks all my problems with latches and feeding positions were righted and my babies were doing well. By three months, I was able to feed all without a moment’s thought. I should add – lest my husband ever reads this blog let alone an article on breastfeeding, three breastfed babies is my very magic number. Enough of the crazy baby years. We are done.
U is for underwear. While a good bra is important for your boobs, good long nursing vests are the saviour of those of us who don’t want to flash the postpartum jellybelly – or even that perma jellybelly we can no longer blame on the sprog. Don’t rely on using pregnancy vests – you’ll just resent that they’re not actually that baggy even though you just pushed a large child into the world. Buy good quality nursing vests in black, nude and white and you’ll get years out of them. The Boob brand of tops were always my favourites – and great value in their online sales too.
V is for viruses and all those other virulent nasties you protect babies from by feeding. The mechanics of breastfeeding are utterly amazing – but the part that always fascinated me was the mother’s body’s ability to create real-time defences from bugs. Seriously we are goddesses – and we also live in a world where people pay a fortune for medicines to keep them well but completely underestimate the benefits of the baby’s first food: breastmilk. V is also for vaccines – a necessity of the baby years but something made so much easier by popping baby on the boob so they remain oblivious to the prick of the nurse’s needle.
W is for weaning – from the boob rather than onto solids. Whenever you do it leave lots of time for baby and you to adjust and drop those feeds gently and slowly. If you’re weaning a toddler, good bloody luck! I spent my first night away from Woodie when he was 21 months old and was convinced the addict had been weaned. The next evening I was welcomed home by a Benny Hill type character running down the hall shouting ‘boo boo’, eyes transfixed at my chest, dribble running down his chin. Clearly, I’d been missed. W is for weight – mama’s weight. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t fall off you while you feed – for some women it does but for many others sometimes its a slow burn and – sometimes for the rest of us, it’s a very. very slow burn. W is also for weight gain and wet nappies – all baby’s you’ll be glad to hear. These are the reliable good signs baby is getting enough milk. Don’t obsess about weight but use your common sense. An alert baby that is reaching the important milestones and doing regular wee and poos is a well-fed baby. If you do have concerns about their development or your own supply then again look for help.
X is for x-rated which breastfeeding is not. For any of those tossers out there who talk about breastfeeding being immodest or inappropriate for public places, I give you one Madonna Lactans. Hardly the x-rated porn star of the 12th Century.
Y is for You. It’s all about choice. Do what works for you and just own the decision. Feed if you want to feed; wean when you want to wean. Motherhood is not an act of martyrdom – it’s just a large collective of women most of whom are unable to use a trampoline but all of whom are trying to do their best.
Z is always for sleepy zzzzzz’s. Grab what you can and when you can. On that first baby its much easier to enjoy those sneaky afternoon snuggles but even with older kids in tow use the one zillionth re-run of Frozen, and some well placed cushions to put the legs up, baby on the feeding cushion and let the eyes slowly close. For night-times, room and bed sharing are a must. As well as keeping baby close you reap the biggest reward of breastfeeding – staying warm in bed for as much time as possible.
For some strange reason, while the rest of the World celebrates World Breastfeeding Week in August, here in Ireland we mark the occasion in October. For more information go to www.worldbreastfeedingweek.org. The lovely logo I used above is the logo adopted for World Breastfeeding Week 2016. It is reproduced with permission.