My baby is twelve weeks old in a few days. I think this is regarded as a milestone? Lots of people say that the first three months is the hardest. I can’t say yet whether or not that is true, because several developmental leaps and stages are yet to come, and they tend to have their own particular sets of challenges.
But I reckon the first twelve weeks of parenting a first baby definitely involves the steepest learning curve for the parent, and in terms of breastfeeding, would be the hardest part for the mother for sure.
I took Xanthe to see a community midwife today to have her weighed and to ask a few questions. She answered them, and then, upon learning I was breastfeeding, had a litany of questions for me. This midwife also works in a maternity ward, and was seeking information and advice for brand new mothers learning how to breastfeed.
I was very pleased because trying to feed your baby that first few weeks is an actual nightmare and, at that time, I had wanted the knowledge and support of midwives. I found what I got to be lacking.
For the longest time, all babies were breastfed, because it was the only option. For over 99% of our history! If a mother couldn’t breastfeed, then another woman would feed her baby for her; a wet-nurse. I just love the term wet-nurse. Later on, if an upper-class woman didn’t want to breastfeed (or, more likely, if her husband didn’t want her to), she hired a wet-nurse. For a time, in some countries, more babies were breastfed by strangers than by their own mothers.
I just watched the show The Letdown. There is an episode where the mother goes away for the weekend and leaves the father with breastmilk and bottles, only the baby won’t take them. He calls in a couple of the mother’s friends to help, and one of them just breastfeeds the baby herself. The father asks if he should tell his wife. “Nooooo,” both friends answer decisively. DEFINITELY not. The implication being she would be horrified. But why?
Because formula, I think.
Breastmilk substitutes have been around for ages, but really only started becoming viable last century. When they did, suddenly more babies were fed formula than breastmilk. I was fed formula, and so was my mother, and so was hers. That’s seventy years of formula feeding. So now wet-nurses ain’t no thing. They hang out in profession-heaven with the chambermaids.
I think it’s just since my generation has become parents that the swing back to breastfeeding has been so pronounced. Since so much research has found how beneficial it is to a baby’s growth, immunity, physical and emotional development and health. All this research evidence has lead the WHO to recommend breastfeeding for two years, and for hospitals to encourage breastfeeding as best practice.
So midwives must be taught over and over that “breast is best.” It must simply just be hammered into them. And “encouraging” and “supporting” new mothers to breastfeed becomes “pushing” and “insisting.”
Yeah, I wrote about my experience being “supported” to breastfeed in hospital in my last entry. It took having my first ever panic attack, complete with gasping and sobbing and shaking out of my own skin, for me to learn that giving formula to my extremely hungry baby was even an option. I’m positive I’ll never forget the relief I felt when newborn Xanthe drank it down, stopped crying, and went to sleep for the first time since her birthday.
After that day, despite my clearly and repeatedly stated and demonstrated desire to learn to exclusively breastfeed, I felt like a piece of shit every time I asked for a bottle. I would breastfeed all day, every day, for as long as I could, while crying from the discomfort. When it got to be too much, or the baby became just too unsettled, I would work up the nerve to ask for a bottle. I would press the call button, take deep breaths, and steel myself in preparation for the midwife’s pursed mouth, or too-carefully-kept blank face, or barely concealed sigh. Their artificially even-toned voice as they asked if I couldn’t just keep trying, their recitation of statistics, their offer of fetching the lactation consultant yet again.
So when this community midwife today asked after these experiences, asked me what I felt helped me to succeed, asked me how she can best support new mothers, I was just so delighted.
After I gave birth, by the time my milk came in my nipples were broken. They had blisters and cracks running through them. So I got to the point where I could finally feed my baby, and yet I couldn’t, because doing so felt like knives and hooked hot wires pulling my flesh out. “It should hurt for the first twenty seconds,” I was told over and over. “If it continues to hurt after that then you’re doing something wrong.” Yeah, well, breastfeeding through open sores is I think what was wrong there, maybe.
So when I went home I made immediate use of my electric breastpump. Pumping still hurt a bit, but nowhere near as much. I pumped every two hours, and gave Xanthe the expressed milk in bottles. I did this while my nipples healed. I breastfed her at least once a day regardless, so she could keep learning how to latch.
When my nipples healed, I breastfed. When they broke again, I went back to expressing and bottles.
Over a few weeks, I learnt how to handle a baby. I grew more confident in holding her, picking her up, positioning her. I realised what a huge part of breastfeeding these skills are.
One month after her birth day I felt comfortable with her. I could position her correctly. She could latch correctly. I was able to breastfeed her pretty much exclusively.
So my main advice for the midwife was to encourage new mothers to be patient with themselves. To let them know that breastfeeding is a skill that can take weeks for you and your baby to learn and become comfortable with. To not be so afraid you’ll fail, or so wracked with guilt, that you push yourself to the point you break down and give up.
Take the time to learn your baby, to hold her and handle her. Give yourself nipple breaks if you need them. Know that confidence and comfort will come, just as it does with any new skill. You weren’t born knowing how to walk, though humans are supposed to walk, and no one thought you a failure for that. So if you can’t immediately breastfeed nonstop you are not a failure either.
If your baby is hungry and you can’t feed her any more and you don’t have expressed milk and you’re stressed out, give her a bottle of formula. Your supply of breastmilk will recover. Your supply goes up and down all the time as your baby’s needs change. If you’re concerned it might be going down, express more often for a while. It will go back up.
Don’t panic. Even if your milk does go away, and you need to move to formula only. Babies breastfed for just two weeks after birth gain plenty of benefits from the milk in that time. And there eventually comes a time when doctors and nurses don’t even ask if your baby is/was breastfed any more. It’s just no longer that relevant. Either way, it works out. Particularly if you have your mental health. Feeling okay means you can take better care of your baby. So if breastfeeding means you don’t feel okay? Don’t do it.
Breast may be best. But best isn’t best if the costs are too high. If it’s at too much of the mother’s expense, fed is always best.