My favourite piece about breastfeeding is by Mary Tyler Mom, she describes breastfeeding as “a sweet, amazing, tender transaction between me and my kids”, which is very much how I feel, especially this time. I wanted to write about breastfeeding in that sort of way, but I keep knocking against the political issues.
I wanted to write about last Tuesday, how my husband was late home from work and everything went wrong. I got bub ready for bed then put him in the cot after a little feed, drowsy and almost asleep, and turned my attention to the little dude’s bath. It was the best plan I could think of at the time but turns out it was a crap plan. Bub started crying almost the second I put the little dude in the bath – I kept thinking he’ll fall asleep soon, he’ll fall asleep soon, people say that’s what happens, but he didn’t. He just cried, solidly, for the whole time it took me to get his brother to bed. I felt awful. When I went back, he’d made a little damp patch of tears in the cot. Is there anything more pitiful than a baby unable to wipe their own tears? Poor little love. I cradled him and nursed him immediately and his little body relaxed, and he slept, and we lay there for a while, and in moments like that, it’s so affirming of the bond, little mouth, soft on soft, I hold him to me, stroke his fluffy head, feel like we’re reconnecting, and all his needs are being completely met.
I’m pretty keen on breastfeeding eh, I like that cosy closeness. It’s a bit like how I’m keen on going for long walks, or swimming at surf beaches, or baking; and as with all those things, I can also see why people might not like it and that’s fine too. Except… the way we feed our babies is one of the most fraught and judged aspects of parenting. I wanna be able to say that support for breastfeeding should be better BUT ALSO we should be glad that formula exists, a safe alternative to human milk, and y’know, there shouldn’t be so much baggage to feeding decisions.
With the little dude, breastfeeding was a nightmare to start, and after the horrendous birth it took on an outsized importance to me. I was determined to breastfeed. Birth had been a trainwreck. My body was a complete mess (hey, y’know what’s not fun? Zero bladder control for three weeks while also looking after a baby – thankfully my husband was on leave). I felt like I needed the breastfeeding to work. It had to work. I was fixated on the potential redemption of my body doing what I wanted for me and my baby.
I’m so inordinately glad that I got good support from lactation consultants to get him feeding, that we got his tongue tie and lip tie treated, that we learned how to breastfeed together and he thrived. I had, and still have, a ridiculously overabundant milk supply. I have to be very careful not to get engorged, it happens easily, and several times I’ve had blocked ducts and a bout of fever, but never full blown mastitis (luckily). The supply is such that there are times when I avoid feeding in public because I know I’ll squirt everywhere. This meant that despite the problems with the little dude’s feeding, I was always able to produce enough milk for him. It’s a bit of an annoyance generally, but those first few weeks with him it was winning the boob lottery.
(My husband once said “if you went back in time, you could find gainful employment as a wetnurse”. I said “interesting fact, redheads were considered a poor choice for wetnurses because people thought it would make the babies too feisty.”)
The first time round, I was SO HAPPY that I managed to breastfeed and felt kinda fucked off that the lactation consultant was private and therefore not available to everyone, and fucked off that the pro-breastfeeding messages didn’t take account of how difficult it could be, and I felt really lucky that it worked for us. Fucked off at the hospital for not checking the little dude’s mouth – not noticing the extremely obvious problems, he couldn’t even suck milk out of a bottle, no wonder my nipples were destroyed. The day we turned to expressing, we fed him with a syringe. Fucked off that I had no idea what advice was good and what was bad – should I be stressed about giving him one bottle? Is virgin gut a real thing? Is nipple confusion a real thing? Will it make the breastmilk go away if he gets some formula? AHHHHHHH.
This time, it’s all been perfectly lovely. I had every expectation of breastfeeding again (it could hardly be worse than last time), and the birth was so great, and then bub just seemed to know what to do. I had that picture perfect thing of feeding him minutes after birth, skin to skin. He got bigger and bigger and bigger and now he’s really a ridiculous giant baby, and at 5 months he’s almost ready for the taste explosion of pureed kumera. It’s been really nice to experience an easy version of breastfeeding.
And it’s opened my eyes to something I didn’t notice before.
We dodged a bullet with the little dude. If my supply hadn’t been so copious, my obsession with only giving him breastmilk when he clearly wasn’t able to latch could have been dangerous.
The Plunket data shows that 86% of babies are either fully or partially breastfed at six weeks old. I think that demonstrates that the vast majority of mothers intend to breastfeed and give it a solid attempt. The data also shows that of these breastfed babies, just over a third have also had some formula. Having talked to more friends who’ve done mixed feeding, I think we should be more open about this, and particularly about the role formula can have in the early weeks for mothers whose supply is low (given it’s not like we have breastmilk banks everywhere offering an alternative). At the moment, mums and babies are often in a really awful situation if the breastfeeding doesn’t start well. They’re stuck in the gap between the pro-breastfeeding/anti-formula public health messages, and a lack of support to get breastfeeding established. It’s kinda the worst of both worlds, with some major risks – especially if the baby’s not getting adequate fluids.
In times gone past, it was considered totally normal for another lactating mother to feed a newborn in the early days. We’ve historically recognised the possibility that the mother who just gave birth may need milk backup, but now – despite formula being available in the supermarket – it’s barely discussed.
The support available for breastfeeding isn’t good enough. But increasingly, I also reckon that we’ve reached a point where breastfeeding is more or less normalised in NZ, it’s seen as the main way babies are fed. So… can we maybe chill a bit with the pointed messaging, and consider how to support mothers in their feeding preferences? Including the very obvious preference for babies getting fed, foremost.
As someone who’s racked up almost two years of breastfeeding experience, I also reckon it’s most enjoyable after it stops being exclusive. Which makes the pressure to not use any formula seem particularly odd. The time I was happiest to be breastfeeding the little dude was after I went back to work and he was eating a big range of solids. He could be gone from me for long periods, but when I returned, we’d nurse, and my on-the-go little chap would be quiet and cuddly. He was finally weaned at 16 months, a week after the positive pregnancy test for bub. Tandem nursing was never on my mind because I couldn’t bear the thought of breastfeeding through the bodily collapse of the first trimester. And yet, as soon as it was over, I missed it.
When I love it most, it’s not for the advertised health benefits, it’s for the convenience and the snuggles. That said, there are other ways to experience that close love for a cosy bubba, like having a bath or a shower with them, or rocking them to sleep then holding them for a long while, or co-sleeping. Breastfeeding is a feature of parenting that I mostly enjoy; simultaneously, I feel like it’s insulting and patronising to put it separate and above from the combined package of intimate baby care. I don’t know how I’d calm my crying over-tired baby if I wasn’t breastfeeding him – but I’m sure we’d figure something out together.