Boob Minefield: The Reality of Breastfeeding A Newborn

“Some women can breastfeed several children without ever feeling let-down, whereas others feel let-down every time they pick up their baby.”

They’re talking about the “let down”, ie the tingly feeling some women get when the milk starts flowing through their boobs in response to their baby sucking (or indeed, in response to a variety of stimuli eg clothes, a passing baby’s shriek, a particularly heartstring-tugging instagram…), and yet I can’t help but feel the statement stands for breastfeeding as a whole, really.

Some women get on great with it, others don’t; some babies take to it, others don’t; some women get that crucial bit of support or information at a vital moment to enable them to overcome whatever hurdle they’ve encountered, but many don’t; loads of women get blindsided by how bloody difficult it can get, by how many seemingly intractable problems are thrown at their newly sleep-deprived brains, by the massive gulf between expectation and reality–and stop before they want to.

It’s a boob minefield, with loads of emotional trip hazards on the way for the unwary conversationalist. No one who’s tried it has a neutral opinion… because it’s an activity of intense highs and crashing lows, all against a backdrop of the sort of hormones more familiarly seen in teen dramas. Big, swooping urges designed by evolution to keep a baby alive against the odds; but in a context where the baby will probably be absolutely fine if they aren’t breastfed.

Yes: absolutely fine. Don’t get me wrong – I massively advocate breastfeeding, and am currently breastfeeding baby twins, which is about as strong a statement in favour that I can make – but you can’t hand-wring about the statistic that 99% of babies in the UK aren’t exclusively breastfed at 6 months, and then say therefore only 1% are going to be okay. We are lucky enough to live in an era of low infant mortality: the majority are quite clearly fine.

Would they be even better if they were breastfed for longer? Possibly, probably… but not if it was in exchange for their mum’s mental health. No one seems to be doing studies of formula-fed babies with loving, well-adjusted parents pitted against breastfed babies with parents in the grip of postnatal depression, but I’d be astonished if the latter weren’t more disadvantaged.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I think if each new mum received expert individualised face-to-face support, with practical help with getting her baby to feed as effectively as possible, then that would be beneficial for the babies and the mums alike. It is bloody lovely when it works, with benefits a-plenty. But it is shocking to me to see how rarely that happens without an intervention of some sort. And the collateral damage is loads of ladies with piles of guilt and resentment and regret.

Those big powerful keep-the-baby-alive hormones are not there to keep the baby on its weight centile as plotted in the Red Book of Judgement; they’re mismatched against the backdrop of NHS percentage weight gain targets and perfectly valid alternatives, and when things don’t go to plan it’s easy to feel wretched.

Women are told, correctly in my opinion, that “breast is best”… but then are sold this utopian vision of Renaissance-painting-style effortless boobing and given the idea that if it hurts, or if it’s difficult, then they’re doing it wrong.

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what a nice 4th trimester she’s having

Newsflash: it often hurts. It is often difficult. Even when everyone involved is doing it right, initially it can hurt like hell. (Google “what breastfeeding really feels like” and you will find a lot of razor blade and electric shock metaphors!)

But if someone had told me that it would only hurt like that for eight weeks, and then blessed nipple numbness would descend and it would barely hurt ever again, I would have found it a lot easier in the beginning.

The same goes for many other hurdles faced early on. Baby crap at latching on? Gets better as baby’s mouth gets bigger. Baby constantly falling asleep mid-feed? Gets better as baby emerges from the forth trimester. Milk supply seems low? Improves as baby stimulates boobs by feeding all the damn time. (My personal bugbear is the negative-milk-supply-formula-spiral, which sweeps up so many women and then dumps them out the other side of combi-feeding feeling a failure, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Practice makes perfect; but practice takes time, and energy, and the ability to overcome the crippling doubts that maybe you’re in the 2% (or 1, or 5, depending on your chosen study) that are physiologically unable to breastfeed and that in pre-formula times your baby would have wasted away. Not comforting at 4am when the baby’s (or babies’) screams are drilling through your skull and you just. Want. To. Sleep.

Meanwhile the hospitals and Health Visitors are clocking weight gain and pushing formula “top-ups”, with zero (in my experience) discussion that if you use formula to get through a rough patch it is possible to get back to exclusive breastfeeding, if you’re properly supported and make reducing top ups a priority. It’s hard, and takes mental and physical stamina. But what’s new? That’s parenthood all over!

That’s the other thing. Women are hardcore. They do things that hurt (childbirth, whatever your method, ain’t a breeze) if they’re convinced that the benefits outweigh the pain. But if their confidence is undermined, that’s different. If they’re told they’re doing it wrong, and that’s why it hurts–and that if they were doing it right, it would be painless–that’s grounds for serious demotivation.

If more people were told how normal all this is, the initial pain and clumsiness and cluster feeding, and that mostly it passes or at least significantly improves–then maybe they would have more confidence in themselves to persevere, if that’s what they want, or evaluate for themselves that it’s not a good fit, and choose not to pursue it, judgement free.

Portraying breastfeeding as an easy, instinctive and straightforward pursuit is not, as some advocates seem to think, saving women from getting scared off antenatally. At best it’s giving them a false sense of security which may be dashed if things don’t go to plan. At worst it breeds self-doubt, paranoia, depression.

My strong feeling is that a disservice is being done to new mums by the narrative that breastfeeding is all or nothing, achieved or abandoned, best versus worst.

More women would probably persist if they knew more about the hurdles beforehand, because they would have prepared psychologically to jump them–and then could give themselves the congratulations they deserve at the end of a long day where “all we did was feed”. Fed is not best; fed is essential. The “best” way to feed a baby needs to incorporate the best experience for the mum as well.

TL;DR – feeding newborns is bloody hard work. A woman’s choice should be respected; whatever it is, she’ll have had her reasons. And if you wade into a conversation about how a woman is feeding her baby, without being mindful of what you say, don’t be surprised if it blows up in your face. It’s a minefield out there; tread carefully.

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