Rebekah Shallcross @mamafeminologist
👂🏼 Clinical Psychologist & Researcher Talking all things Women’s Mental Health Mum to Arfie Lover of second hand bargains, leopard print and cake 🍰
People probably assume because of I’m a big advocate of #normalizebreastfeeding that my journey with breastfeeding has been uncomplicated or without conflicted feelings. And I really want to write a light happy piece about the benefits and joys of breastfeeding which of course there are many! but, in reality, my relationship with breastfeeding, in early the days, was hugely challenging…
It started, as most breastfeeding journeys do, in the immediate time period after giving birth. I felt in a state of shock and didn’t have the energy or inclination at that point to feed my baby, which in itself was a tricky start, as those first few hours can be important in establishing breastfeeding. This tricky start was further compounded by being given prescriptive, and often inaccurate information about feeding, which led to obsessive recording of information (which breast, how long, what time) and thus an increase in my feelings of anxiety. I also experienced conflicted feelings of wanting to assert my right to breastfeed my baby in public, and also just finding the emotional toll of ‘getting my boobs out’ all the time emotionally draining and exhausting. Whatsmore, by the time I figured out that breastfeeding was taking a toll on my own mental wellbeing, my baby simply couldn’t figure out how to get milk from a bottle, and therefore I found myself with no other option than to continue breastfeeding; all told, it was a really tough time. Being out on my own with Arfie, without my partner, protecting my space whilst I fed, along with the feelings of being ‘touched-out’ and the intrusive thoughts I experienced whilst feeding (especially when sleep deprived alone in the middle of the night) all contributed to what was a very challenging first few months of our breastfeeding journey.
So instead of writing the light-hearted happy piece I’m writing about the reality of the all-consuming, no-one else can do it for you, every 1-2 hours, 24/7 nature of breastfeeding is something that is not often talked about. And the journey mothers go through (often to extraordinary lengths) to meet the challenge of feeding their baby is simply not honoured enough in our society. It is unlike any endurance test you have done before! And the fact that we still debate whether or not a woman should cover up whilst feeding is testament to the patriarchal attitudes that mothers have to contend with– the insult to the injury of what can often be a very challenging experience.
And I haven’t even touched upon the sore boobs, the blocked ducts, the sore nipples, the experience of birth, the sleep deprivation, the lochia (look it up), the stitches in my vagina, the fact that no-one tells you ‘well done mama’, the visitors that descend…and so many other potential challenges associated with this time!
However, in an effort to not completely overwhelm you with the challenges I faced, there were also plenty of things that helped (you’ll be glad to know!):
1. Getting specialist breastfeeding advice
A big turning point for me was seeing a lactation consultant. We were lucky enough to afford to pay privately, it was around £60-70 for one session, which was all we needed. She normalised the whole process, made me believe in my ability to feed my baby, and was so relaxed about the whole thing that she made me feel more relaxed. She also encouraged me to stop obsessively recording as she could see that was a big part of my anxiety and reassured me that I was doing a good job – the first time I’d heard this! The other thing I did, was to follow @milkmakingmama a lactation consultant on Instagram who provided nuanced, kind and normalising advice that helped me feel more confident in my abilities to feed my baby.
The second thing that helped with night-time feeding was co-sleeping. I had Arfie in bed with me from the beginning (following safe co-sleeping guidelines, found here: https://kellymom.com/parenting/nighttime/cosleeping/). A huge breakthrough came when we mastered side lying sleeping (at about 8 weeks) and I no longer had to sit up to feed him in the middle of the night, which meant everyone got some more zzzzz.
3. Eat plenty
When establishing your milk supply in the early days it is important to eat plenty! I had an early breakfast, a late breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the snacks in between – Yum! I ate whatever I fancied, including (but definitely not limited to): porridge, smoothies, fruit and nut bars and delicious home-made meals my wonderful mum had prepared. I didn’t give any thought to the amount of calories I was consuming – I was too busy making milk!
4. Surround yourself, where possible, with supportive people
My partner did almost everything else whilst I fed Arfie 24/7 in those early days. He also sat with us, patiently supporting, whilst we learnt how to do this boobing malarkey! Having a baby with someone really does tell you everything you need to know about them and I learnt the depths of his patience, love and gentleness in seeing him become a dad. His support has enabled Arfie and I to continue feeding into toddlerhood. My mum and dad were also super supportive! Driving all the way from Liverpool to Bristol at a moment’s notice with a supply of food for us, flowers for me, and a present for Arfie. They ran errands, washed dishes, washed clothes, fed me whilst I fed Arfie, and just did everything in their power to make life as easy as possible for us. My dad even found me crying in the kitchen because I couldn’t do a poo and went out to get breastfeeding friendly laxatives and nipple cream – that’s the sort of supportive father a daughter needs in her life!
So that was our feeding journey from 0-6 months. And as we have progressed I see the amazing comfort that breastfeeding provides for my toddler, a moment of security in a busy day, a sense of relaxation and ‘home’, the power of it to help him drift off to sleep, and a source of pain relief for life’s little tumbles, both physical and emotional. So if you’re about to begin, or are beginning your breastfeeding journey – I hope you find what works for you and your little one – no matter what that looks like. Much love and #mamasolidarity to you