Well, hello from the “otherside” – apologies for the radio (blog?) silence but for good reason – I am officially a mother now to our beautiful baby girl born six weeks ago – she is absolutely precious and what a month it has been. I have so much to say and so much to tell you – but have to grab the few peaceful minutes here and there whilst my newborn naps (as I am sure many of you will understand).
Whilst on maternity leave one of my resolutions is to write more on the blog, I want to continue to embrace the dialogue surrounding maternal health, with the added bonus of sharing my own “lived experience” which will no doubt accent my academic understandings.
The go to first topic to discuss would be around my pregnancy and labour experience – but I will intentionally leave this for another time, as I feel a pressing need to give attention to something very rarely talked about in clinical settings – and that is the topic of breastfeeding. It is something I know quite a lot about from a medical perspective, and was kindly invited to speak at the Great Britain Lactation Consultants conference last year on the use of medication whilst breastfeeding, however only recently have had first hand (breast?) experience of.
There is often so much emphasis placed by staff and patients alike on the birth experience (and yes, I have seen laminated birth plan 5000 word essays) but by doing so its almost like focussing all your energy on planning the wedding without giving a second thought to the aftermath of having a happy and healthy marriage.
The topic of feeding your child is complex – specifically the intention to breastfeed and the emotions evoked when this is not as easy as one hopes/assumed it would be. Nursing your child carries a heavy psychological weight. It is associated with being a bountiful women able to nourish and provide for her baby from her breast, with any deviance from thus idealism deemed as defeat with feelings of failure, guilt and shame… emotions I have often seen women in clinic struggle with, and many have told me the stress of which triggered their postnatal depression. There is also an additional dichotomy women face of being divided in their position between the maternal and the sexual – with the depiction of breasts throughout modern history as erotic rather than a practicality perpetuates this (often collective societal subconscious) conflict. I remain in awe how a woman can be half naked exposed on a massive billboard on a train platform, marketing, well, anything (don’t you know sex sells, darling) yet a woman trying to breastfeed her child on same platform with a fraction less exposed skin will face all sorts of spoken and unspoken commentary. This manifests itself in those same feelings of guilt and shame, except this time when needing to nurse.with a third of women feeling embarassed to breastfeed in public .
Although it is well known that breast feeding has a range of benefits for the child, The UK interestingly has one the lowest rates in the World, with only estimated 1% of mothers exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months postnatal. I would recommend everyone to check out the great baby friendly initiative from UNICEF if this is something of interest to you – as they are championing change in attitudes towards breastfeeding on a societal and political level. The Lancet also published a fantastic comprehensive series on breastfeeding with an interesting economic analysis, with a noted difference through rich and poor, in sickness and in health – with rising popularity (and prices) of substitute milk formula, preferred by many lower socio-economic communities as breastfeeding is becoming to be seen as “primitive”. Since becoming a mother of course I have naturally become interested in the activity that takes up most of my day, but there is so many opinions and conflicting information on the subject – and then theres the pumping and expressing..
... dont even get me started on expressing and the world of breast pumps!
All of that is fascinating in theory – but what about in practice? I put myself to the test and just had my first experience of trying to breastfeed alone in public – in a busy Starbucks no doubt (insert despair emoji here).
It was all going so well, until the little one started screaming and there was no where to hide. I suddenly felt all eyes on me, and a sense of “why can’t you control your baby – you are ruining our afternoon coffee”. I then realised this was my moment to fly the #normlisebreastfeeding flag – so i sat down, got my big muslin shawl and tried to console my newborn, but i couldn’t get comfortable as she continued to scream and i got so frazzled trying to not expose myself i ended up getting tangled with my head under my scarf ! when i managed to detach myself I realised my “quiet corner” was in fact in front of a full glass wall, with plenty of onlookers witness to my meltdown. Just before I tipped into full panic mode I decided to try make a gracious exit – but the pram got stuck in the doors as the entrance wasn’t wide enough – i pressed the disability button (for wheelchair access assistance) but the baristas paid no attention to me or my screaming newborn. Eventually a man helped by unlocking the double door and I RAN as fast as my buggy would allow.
Although on the surface it wasn’t the best experience and the young women next to me gave me and my screaming daughter a disapproving stare – I am glowing with pride for leaving the house alone with my newborn for the first time (after an emergency caesarian section) and for managing to overcome my fear to feed her in public. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel proud I did my tiny part in challenging societal assumptions and normalising the highs and lows of breastfeeding! I am a huge advocate of the movement “fed is best” , rather than the “breast is best” mantra many women have grown up with. Breastfeeding of course has a wealth of benefits, but none of these matter if you are either unable to physically breastfeed or the perfectionist pursuit is causing nothing but stress and anxiety (both of which will rapidly cease your milk supply anyway!)
However a women chooses to feed her child through breastmilk, formula or a combination of both – it is our duty (as health professionals and members of society) to empower them and eachother to create a space (physically and emotionally) that is safe for families to nuture their children. I have learned so much in these short 6 weeks, and will continue to advocate this issue with a passion as I believe it is a womens basic human right. I think we also need to do a better job of preparing women in pregnancy for the reality of life in the immediate newborn period, because it is not all cute baby clothes and cuddles (although there is a lot of that!).
What are your thoughts on breastfeeding ? have you had any experiences of nursing in public? do let me know in the comments below or on twitter