some thoughts on breastfeeding

by jenn on August 2, 2012

Last week I read two blog posts by Kate Young that made me stop and consider my prejudices. I like Kate a lot. She is smart, funny, kind, generous. She writes brilliantly. Also she happens to practice attachment parenting and she’s happy for her children to decide when they’re ready to stop being breastfed.. Aah breastfeeding. It’s featured pretty heavily in the media of late.

This fairly sensational cover of Time Magazine made waves in May this year. Is it extreme? Probably. Does it encourage discussion and personal reflection. Absolutely.

Before Charlotte was born I decided that I would breastfeed our baby; and Tom was 100% accepting and encouraging with this choice. We decided that we would allow our baby to ‘breast crawl‘ – essentially instead of putting the newborn on the nipple after birth you just have skin to skin contact and within about 20 minutes the new babe fossils about, the rooting reflex does it’s thing and voila, baby finds her way to the nipple purely through instinct. We weren’t sure if it would work but we wanted to give it a crack. It was SO amazing that our tiny little wonder found my nipple and latched on.

The plan (all going well) was to breastfeed for twelve months. After our stella beginning I found breastfeeding really difficult. The midwives, whilst all well meaning, all gave slightly different advice. The one thing that they were consistent with was this ridiculous theory that if it hurts you’re doing it wrong.

I couldn’t understand how we could be doing it more ‘right’ – chest to chest, chin on breast, Special K lips… we had it all going on. My breasts were ENORMOUS, engorged, painful, sensitive. I was taking panadol every 4-6 hours to try and manage the pain. My nipples felt cracked, although I couldn’t see any cracks or blisters. Every feed was agony. I persevered. Eventually things settled down for a while. I knew I was doing the best for my baby by breastfeeding her but I was getting a bit jack of my body not being my own. I had no desire for intimacy with my husband because my breasts were otherwise required and I couldn’t see how the two could co-exist. Just one year.

No more than one year.

We’d talked about those people who feed their children for too long. My theory was that in third world countries it made sense to feed as long as your supply was maintained as it meant one less mouth to feed, but that here where food is plentiful, if a child could ask for breast milk it was time to stop. I had visuals of the Little Britain ‘Bitty’ skit.

Twelve months, max

Then at around four months of age Charlotte went through a stage where she wouldn’t take my left breast. I felt my supply dwindling on that side and started taking Fenugreek and making lactation cookies to improve supply. Even after the supply improved it took a while for her to take to the left side again. A couple of weeks after that settled I got a blister on my right nipple. Then a few lumps, which thankfully I was able to massage out and never turned into mastitis. Then an unexplained severe pain in my right nipple that felt like it was being pierced with a hot needle. For a while there it was just one thing after the other and if it wasn’t for the cost and inconvenience of formula compared to the free and easy nature of breastfeeding I would have given it up all together. I was well and truly over it and really just taking one for the team.

When I eventually saw my doctor, she prescribed dactarin gel for thrush even though both Charlotte and I had no sign of the infection. It didn’t make any difference. Sometimes it hurt SO MUCH when I fed that I thought I was going to vomit. Eventually one of my Tweeps (oh, how I love thee, Twitter) suggested that it sounded like vasospasm. I looked up the signs and symptoms of vasospasm and they seemed a good fit so I made an appointment with a lactation consultant. It was amazing how one appointment with someone who really knew what she was talking about made all the difference in the world. Within the first couple of feeds the pain almost completely disappeared and Charlotte and I finally had our feeding mojo on. Simply amazing.

In the last couple of weeks we have begun introducing some solids. All of a sudden I found myself wishing I could feed Charlotte forever. How do I know how much ‘food’ to give her whilst breastfeeding? How do I know what flavours are best to begin with? Whose advice do I take from the multitude of ‘expert opinions’ out there. I know that she can’t be overfed breast milk. I know that I don’t have to remember anything more than a couple of nappies and a change of clothes when we leave the house. How easy would it be for me to just to stick to the breast.

Of course even those people who feed their kids, like, practically, forever introduce solids.

And then I read Kate’s post on breast feeding. She used to be a teacher and she swears that you can’t tell which kids were breastfed how long. She points out that as early as toddlerhood her kids stopped feeding in public, on their own accord. And she reminded me that as parents we make decisions every day, to try and do the best thing for our children.

It really got me thinking. Sure, it was probably (sadly) only because I like Kate so much that I actually read beyond the fifth paragraph. But it made me think about my prejudices and where they had come from. I was bottle fed from 6 weeks. My first brother was bottle fed even earlier. Even though my youngest brother was breastfed until 9 months of age I don’t remember it. Was it the lack of exposure that made me think that extended breast feeding was wrong? Or was it the family friend that continued to breastfeed her son until he was four so that he couldn’t do overnight or weekend visits with his dad when the marriage ended? Possibly. Was it just that society tells us that breastfeeding a toddler is weird and it is easier to just go along with the crowd rather than have an unique and informed opinion of my own? I’d say that’s most likely it.

It was Kate’s post over at iVillage called This is how I parent my children. Get over it. that humbled me the most. I hope she doesn’t mind me stealing a couple of quotes.

Since my son was born nine years ago, I’ve worn many labels. Attachment Parent. Permissive Parent. Instinctive/Natural Parent. Hippy La La Parent. Lazy Parent. Undisciplined Parent. Here is the label I assign to myself these days: Parent.

“I wonder sometimes how much of the discomfort people feel with some attachment practices is due to our cultural hang ups about bodies. A breast being used to nourish a walking talking child, a baby in a family bed… We’re constantly bombarded with images telling us that breasts must be aesthetically pleasing rather than functional. That the marital bed is for adults because SEX might happen there (we’ll not get into the argument about whether co-sleeping parents ever have sex. I have four children, and more than one room in my house. Have a little imagination.)”

I like to think of myself as a good person. An honourable citizen of the world. I embrace cultural differences, I support gay marriage, I give to the needy. I even support you if you choose not to vaccinate [so long as you have made an informed decision and not read any of that vaccination = autism crap].  And yet it took two articles about parenting from someone that I respect to make me realise that I had been harbouring breast feeding prejudices all this time!

It’s funny you know, now that I am actually enjoying breastfeeding, this twelve months is flying by. It’s interesting that it took someone else’s words to make me sit back and reflect upon my belief system, and that as a result of that reflection I have allowed myself to consider the possibility of breastfeeding longer. Or not. Whatever works for us at the time. I’m certainly not going to cut cut the apron strings (or bra straps?) bang on twelve months anymore.

So are YOU mum enough? I say if your baby is loved, clothed, sheltered and fed – by whatever means you choose – then yes. Hats off to you.

Thank you Kate; for being such an awesome writer, for alerting me to my prejudices, for reminding me that different does not equal wrong. Thanks for sharing your stories.

Have you ever read something that has changed your view on a matter so profoundly?