Breastfeeding can be such an emotive subject on blogs and social media that I feel I need to caveat this post before I begin. This blog series is about things which make me personally happy. There are lots of things which are healthy or good for you or good for other people, which don’t make me happy in the least, and so will get no mention here (exercise, green juicing and taking my kids swimming spring to mind). Lots of women choose not to breastfeed or want to but aren’t able to, or do so but don’t enjoy it much. That is no-one’s business but their own, and this blog is certainly not trying to criticise or guilt-trip, I just want to talk about something which has been a significant and unexpected pleasure for me.
As a teenager and young woman I gave no thought to how I would feed any future babies I may have. Probably my underlying assumption was bottle feeding. I had been bottle fed, as had both my parents, and that certainly seemed to be the cultural norm where I grew up. When I was about twenty-three I had a job working in public health. My role was mainly in smoking cessation, but I was part of a small team of people responsible for promoting healthy eating, breast and cervical screening, breastfeeding etc, and breastfeeding became something I really considered for the first time. I learnt that there were significant health benefits to both mother and baby, and noted to myself that, when I had a child, I really must try it.
Fast forward five years or so and I am pregnant with my first baby and sitting in an appointment with my community midwife. She asks me how I intend to feed the baby. I am still somewhat ambivalent about breastfeeding, but announce that I intend to give it a go. She snorted slightly, and said “Well, it’s very hard work, you know. You probably won’t be able to.” At that moment my ambivalence hardened into a steely determination to feed my baby for at least three months if it killed me. There were moments when I thought it would kill me. Anna struggled to latch on at first, and so I had to express and syringe feed. I felt enormous, bovine and humiliated hooked up to the hospital’s industrial pump. Back at home when, aged about 6 days, she fed nonstop for nine hours I sat with bleeding nipples and tears pouring down my cheeks wondering what I’d let myself in for. We were lucky, however, to have the support of an angelically wonderful breastfeeding counsellor who got things sorted out for us pretty quickly. I always remember what she said to me: “The amazing thing about breastfeeding is that there is this little person you love more than anything in the world, and there is one thing they need more than anything else in the world, and you are the one person in the world who can give it to them.”
There were times when I found nursing frustrating. It meant I was always the one who had to get up in the night, there was no such thing as time off, and it was a long time before I could even leave the house by myself. Expressing never really worked for me, so pumping and bottle feeding wasn’t an option. However, for me, the advantages of breastmilk far, far outweighed the disadvantages. There was no faffing with bottles and sterilisers. Half asleep in the middle of the night I didn’t have to do anything more arduous than lift my pyjama top. It was always available, I couldn’t forget to take it out with me, and it provided instant comfort as well as nutrition. There was the satisfaction of knowing that it had plenty of health benefits for my daughter, but for me, it was the warm, loving intimacy of feeding that really made me happy.
I have heard some women say that their partners felt excluded by breastfeeding, or that they didn’t breastfeed because they were worried that he would. I was very fortunate because my husband was 100% supportive of my decision to breastfeed, and never seemed to feel in the least excluded by it. He would bring me snacks and drinks while I fed, take the baby to wind her and settle her afterwards, and, in the early days, would lie on the bed with us, curled protectively around me as I curled protectively round my feeding baby.
Happily breastfeeding came more easily to Sophia, so my nipples had things far easier second time around. She was a more restless feeder than Anna, though, and I was far more likely to find myself exposed to the world in the middle of a cafe/train/school playground. I am still feeding her now, although when she turns one shortly I am planning to drop daytime feeds and wean her onto cow’s milk in a beaker instead, just carrying on the early morning and bedtime feeds. I still love breastfeeding, but I am ready to have a little more freedom, and to be able to wear dresses which aren’t wrap dresses again!
I certainly never expected that breastfeeding would make me as happy as it has, but it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of nurturing and mothering my babies, and one which I feel enormously lucky and privileged to have experienced.