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This is NOT Breastfeeding Advocacy

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This evening I saw the most beautiful image of a baby breastfeeding. It was in pastels I think – the kind of picture that jumps out from your Facebook feed. Just stunning.

It was posted with the words… “If it’s important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an EXCUSE”.

I am so incensed by the tainting of that image that I’m struggling to express the many levels on which it is wrong:

  1. If breastfeeding isn’t important to you, then why would you bother making excuses? It’s not a priority for you. No need to justify.
  2. If breastfeeding is important to you and it doesn’t work out, then whatever it was that you couldn’t handle, be it mental or physical is a reason, not an excuse. No need to justify.
  3. The percentage of women in the UK who give up breastfeeding before they wanted to is high. So chances are they’ve tried bloody hard to make it work – probably harder than some women who manage to breastfeed for longer. Nothing they tried worked. No need to justify.
  4. Some women actually can’t breastfeed. Yes, we know that it’s a tiny number. But it doesn’t matter how important it is to them, they won’t “find a way” to feed their baby themselves. No need to justify.
  5. Some women could have breastfed, but needed support. Sometimes the right support isn’t forthcoming even when you know to ask for it. In that scenario, you may as well be physically unable to breastfeed. No need to justify.

The bottom line is, there is never any need to justify. We all know that breastfeeding has benefits for your baby and breastfeeding supporters will do everything they can to help you succeed. But if you don’t feel it’s right for you, or you hoped it would be and it doesn’t work out then so be it. It is your decision and your right to make that decision without guilt or fear of judgement.

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The Duchess of Cambridge is Breastfeeding

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Royal Baby Newspaper CoverAs soon as baby George arrived, speculation moved to whether the Duchess of Cambridge was breastfeeding. Chances were she was going to – most women in the UK start out trying to breastfeed. In the latest Infant Feeding Survey (2010) the proportion of babies breastfed at birth in the UK was 81%. Breastfeeding was most common among mothers who were: aged 30 or over, from minority ethnic groups, left education aged over 18, in managerial and professional occupations and living in the least deprived areas. 3 out of 4…

When she was spotted in a rather nice nursing dress, it was a pretty sure thing. Apparently it is now officially confirmed that she has chosen to breastfeed the new Prince.

Of course whether she continues to breastfeed is something else. The same 2010 survey found that by 3 months the number of women exclusively breastfeeding was only 17% with another 31% mixed feeding. That means that nearly half of those women don’t get to the 3 month milestone.

You’ll notice I don’t use the phrase “give up” – too emotive and largely just not true. Some of those mums actively chose to stop breastfeeding because it didn’t suit their family – fair enough. But statistics show that the majority of breastfeeding mums wean before they want to, many battling through all sorts of issues (mastitis, tongue tie, bad advice, fear of breastfeeding in public…) without the right support for far too long and finally deciding with much heartache that breastfeeding can’t work for them. Giving up doesn’t come into it.

There is no one size fits all support or advice for breastfeeding mums – some need physical support, some need emotional support, some need medical support, some need someone to make the tea and feed them chocolate buttons… (thanks darling!), but we nearly all need something, and if that support doesn’t come in the right shape at the right time, then chances are the breastfeeding relationship will falter.

Royal sources are quoted in The Mirror saying, “…Don’t expect Kate to be photographed breast-feeding. She does not want to become a pin-up for the breast-feeding lobby.”. While Kate clearly doesn’t want the media pressure of becoming a breastfeeding advocate (and who would?), the reality is that her parenting choices will influence new mums around the world, regardless of whether she is ever seen breastfeeding in public. It’s a big deal.

Kate will be surrounded by supportive women (the Queen breastfed, as did her mother before her) and will I’m sure be given all the help in the world, but even with the best support available, the pressure to be this perfect can’t be helpful – my first breastfeed in front of other people was a nervous experience as I paranoidly assumed everyone was watching me. In my case they weren’t, but what if they all really were watching you?

Much as it’s great to hear that she is breastfeeding, being a Princess doesn’t make Kate any less a new mum. She has enough responsibility at this point looking after her baby and herself, without the stress of trying to please everyone else. I hope for her sake that she is getting the right kind of breastfeeding support for her, and whether she moves to formula within days or breastfeeds him until toddlerhood, she makes those choices without pressure or judgement. And in that respect, may you all be treated like Princesses!

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A-Z of Breastfeeding

G is for...
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G is for...G is for…

Gel pads – Little breast shaped sachets of gel which you can cool in the fridge to soothe sore breasts.

Glider chair (see nursing chair) – A chair with smooth forward and back gliding motion, designed to soothe baby while you breastfeed. Having never owned one, I don’t know how well they soothe, but they are very comfortable to breastfeed in.

Groups – Support groups can be a lifesaver when you’re struggling with breastfeeding or parenthood in general. Get to know your local groups before baby is born if you can and try not to prejudge the mums there – new babies can be a real leveller, and if nothing else it’s a relief to know that even the mums who look perfect aren’t coping as well as they seem!

Growth spurts – Babies don’t follow the gentle curves that most books show. They grow in fits and starts in order to keep us constantly concerned about their weight gain and food intake. If your baby suddenly turns into a bottomless pit and you feel glued to the sofa as baby feeds every hour, don’t panic and assume there’s an issue with your supply. Growth spurts traditionally occur almost constantly during the first 6 weeks, at 3-4 months, 6 months and 9 months. They can feel endless when you’re in the middle of one, but hang on in there, this too will pass.

Guidelines – The WHO infant feeding guidelines state that for optimum health, babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life. From then onwards they should be given solid food while breastfeeding continues for up to two years and beyond.

Guilt – Something parents seem to be good at. I’m not going to go into the whole “breastfeeding guilt” thing here. There is no reason to feel guilty when you’re trying do your best for your child and your family.

Gymnastics – If you find yourself breastfeeding an older baby or toddler, you’ll soon understand why this is in a breastfeeding glossary. Babies become very distractible and can end up in all sorts of strange positions.

Any more? Please add them in the comments!

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Should male midwives be in breastfeeding classes?

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You may have seen the news story about a trainee midwife turned away from a breastfeeding class, because he was male. As someone who had a male midwife in labour, I felt compelled to write something about the story.

Basically Chris Butt, a male trainee midwife (one of only 132 in the UK), was told he could not attend an NCT breastfeeding class because it was a women-only session and some of the women attending may not be comfortable with a man in the room.

A clear case of discrimination, right? Yes and no. Let’s face it, a female trainee midwife wouldn’t have been turned away. But the trainee in question was offered alternative classes where it was felt he would be welcomed and which he chose not to attend, so I don’t think the NCT have any case to answer.

It’s a tricky one. It’s great that men want to take on traditionally female roles. Our children will have more options because of these pioneers. And of course a midwife needs to know about breastfeeding and the available support for new mums. We wouldn’t be surprised by a male GP, or a male gynaecologist – we might be offered the chance of a female instead, but few of us would be bothered. So why is this different?

Being fair to Mr Butt, his remarks were originally made in an opinion piece, “Upfront” in Midwives Magazine. His piece wasn’t the discrimination polemic the Daily Mail made it into. It was aimed at other professionals and voiced his frustrations at being seen as a male before a midwife. He made some good points:

Don’t women only drop-in clinics send mixed messages to women, suggesting that they can only breastfeed where other women are present?

Yes. Absolutely…ish.

I firmly believe that men have a place in breastfeeding, and that wherever possible they should attend breastfeeding classes with their partners. I firmly believe that breastfeeding is not a private activity that should be hidden away. I’m lucky that Mr MilkChic agrees with me. But not everyone feels the same. Why should those women and their partners miss out on breastfeeding support because they “should be OK with it”? Why should those babies miss out because their mums didn’t feel comfortable?

I would love to live in a world where these sensitivities don’t exist, and I would love to live in a world where every mum could feel confident about feeding in public, in front of their partners, other women and other men. But we’re not there yet and forcing the issue isn’t going to help.

As a midwife and as a professional, I feel Mr Butt has a duty to understand those sensitivities and put the needs of vulnerable mums and babies before his right to absolute equality in the workplace. Perhaps if there wasn’t such a shortage of midwives and support groups, we would be able to embrace the differences, with male midwifes attending mixed breastfeeding support groups and providing much needed support from a male perspective too?

The fact is that when you’re getting contractions one minute apart, and your midwife walks into the room and introduces himself with just the calm, unrattleable confidence you need, you don’t care about his sex. When he reads through your birth plan and listens, you’ll be damn grateful you are in his care. And you’ll tell your friends that, and they’ll tell theirs. And the next male midwife will get it just that little bit easier. And one day, when a little boy tells you he wants to be a midwife when he grows up, maybe it won’t seem strange.

What do you think? Would you have been comfortable with a male midwife at the birth or breastfeeding sessions? How would your partner have felt?

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How can Dads support breastfeeding mums?

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Mr MilkChic and small oneDads are often left out in the cold where breastfeeding is concerned. Well of course they are! They don’t have breasts, can’t produce milk… It’s no wonder many men are left feeling a little like spare parts when it comes to feeding, and we’ve all heard comments about bottle feeding “allowing Dads to bond with their babies”, as if it was the only possible way.

While men are encouraged to take active roles in every other aspect of pregnancy and parenting, breastfeeding seems to stand outside this. Our (otherwise brilliant) NCT classes included a “women only” breastfeeding session with no equivalent education or support for male partners. We learned about the latch, breastfeeding holds and potential issues, knowledge of which would have definitely helped Mr MilkChic support me as I tried to establish breastfeeding.

In fact, research shows that Dads are incredibly important in successful breastfeeding relationships. Women who feel supported by their partner are not only more likely to start breastfeeding, but also continue for longer.

These are my top tips for supporting your breastfeeding partner:

Be Prepared:

  • Get involved from the start – discuss feeding options together and learn about potential “boobie traps” that might jeopardise the breastfeeding relationship.
  • Make it your job to get a list of local support groups etc. so you can get help quickly if she needs it.

Get Involved:

  • Be part of the feeding routine. Just because you don’t physically feed your baby doesn’t mean you have to be excluded. In the first few months, those may be the only quiet minutes you get to spend together as a couple – make the most of them!
  • Carve a niche for yourself – Mr MilkChic was much better at winding small one than me, and I was relieved when he took over the job almost entirely. Both he and my teenage stepson took manly pride in the “efficiency” of their burping techniques, reaping the benefits in  sleepy cuddles afterwards.
  • Don’t isolate your partner because she’s feeding. Stay in the same room with her when possible, and make sure she always has something to eat and drink within arms reach

If things go wrong:

  • It is heartbreaking when your partner is suffering and you feel unable to help. Channel your energies into ensuring she has every comfort and support – cushions, creams, shields etc. etc… your job is to research, source and apply as necessary. If she’s not getting the support she needs, act as intermediary and insist that help is provided.
  • Try not to push formula. Not because formula is necessarily bad, but because you are between a rock and a hard place. Breastfeeding is an emotional issue and “giving up” can leave mums feeling both sad and guilty.
  • Equally, don’t harp on about the benefits of breastfeeding. If she’s continuing to try and feed in the face of real difficulties, she is only too aware of them. Expect tears or anger. Probably both.
  • If things get really bad, the only person who can make the decision to continue or to stop is your partner. Whatever she decides, back her up.

Breastfeeding in Public:

  • It’s natural to feel protective of your partner when she nurses in front of other people, but if you are nervous, try not to let it affect her confidence. Your attitude can make the world of difference, so make sure she knows you support her 100%.
  • Should any ignorant fool (technical term) dare to disapprove of your partner breastfeeding in public, firmly assert her rights on her behalf. This is one occasion where you are fully within your rights to be over-protective – someone is suggesting you should deprive your baby of food. Even if she finds your reaction embarrassing, she will still love you for it.

 Make her feel good:

  • Most mums need a bit of a boost post-baby. They’re exhausted, their bodies don’t feel right, none of their clothes fit… and everyone they’ve ever met wants to come and visit! On the bright side, you don’t have to do a lot to make her feel pampered – just giving her 10 minutes to shower baby-free is a luxury. If you’re after real brownie points, book her a haircut and go along to babysit, or pop to MilkChic to find some flattering breastfeeding clothing.

Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful “breastfeeding Dads” out there. Your support makes everything easier.

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