This week being World Breastfeeding Week, I’ve decided to leap onto the lactatory bandwagon with my own experiences.
Now before I tripped and fell pregnant, I hadn’t really given much thought to breastfeeding beyond assuming that it is what the majority of mothers do unless they have medical reasons that make it impossible. Given that nourishing their young is what the mammary glands in mammals evolved for, and excepting those occasions when nature stuffs up, why on earth wouldn’t a mother use workable boobs for their given purpose? Thought I.
In the run up to Maya’s arrival, I began to hear all sorts of accounts of just how extremely difficult breastfeeding was: impossible, according to many. But, thought I, would it not be a massive evolutionary design fault if such an apparently large percentage of human mothers were unable to feed their young? Some, I can certainly believe (I grew up in a farming community, and have seen for myself that nature does stuff up) but surely they are the exception, and not the rule?
Sometimes these evolution-based thought processes serve me well: in this case they led me to assume reports on the blanket difficulties of breastfeeding had been rather exaggerated, and so I didn’t enter the process paralysed by anxiety which I’m sure played a part in easing me into the boobing journey.
(On other occasions they do let me down a bit: “What evolutionary purpose could possibly be served by a baby crying in its crib until 3 in the morning??” my sleep-deprived self wailed most nights for the first month of my daughter’s life. But of course I was looking at it all wrong. How would our species have even survived to evolve if its newborn young were left all alone in the opposite corner of the cave? Human babies are programmed to want to stay in close proximity to their mothers. Evolutionarily-speaking, it would have been their best chance of survival.)
Another rather startling opinion of breastfeeding that reached my ears, was that it was too intimate. Too intimate? Really?? So how would you define pushing a whole other person out of your lady bits? Coldly formal?
But when put hand in hand with the ‘boobs are for your man’ and the ‘breastfeeding ruins your figure’ school of thought, though, it does indicate just how far we have moved away from our natural state. Personally the fact that my breasts can make food for the baby my womb has grown makes me rather chuffed with my body. It is certainly a huge improvement on its ability to convert one small cream cake into three extra chins, and transform a modest helping of lentils into a biological weapon.
An additional and oft mentioned factoid was that ‘bottle feeding the baby would allow other family members to help out’, and ‘provide a bonding opportunity for the baby’s father’.
Hmmmmmm. Thought I. Given that breastfeeding is literally the only act that only the mother is capable of, surely there is an entire spectrum of ‘helping-out’ that can be done without needing to resort to rubber nipples. Housework. Cooking. Changing dirty nappies. Rocking the screaming infant. Cleaning up regurgitated milk… What? None of that up your street, Aunty Edna? You’d rather sit with a happily sucking baby in your lap feeling serene and helpful whilst its frazzled mother brings you a cuppa? Right.
And as for Daddy time, surely there is an entire spectrum of possible bonding activities there, as well. Cuddles. Bath time. Skin-to-skin. Wearing your sprog in a sling. Singing it silly songs and showing it that you are the other most dependable person in its little world.
Luckily for us though, (and yes, I am very aware of just how lucky we have been so far) no sooner was Maya laid on my chest, she started snuffling around like a truffle pig and found her target in a matter of minutes. The cluster feeding to get my milk supply up was admittedly not fun, the pain as my boobs got used to the repeated assaults on them was a little grim, the nipple thrush caused by antibiotics for an infected caesarean scar was even grimmer, my one dose of mastitis grimmer still, and the time she ripped a hole with her first tooth (it only happened once) absolutely indescribable.
But I am no martyr – the joy the breastfeeding bond has brought to my personal mothering experience completely and utterly outweighs the discomforts.
And now Maya is a toddler, I can see even more just how important her ‘Mummy Milk’ is to her. Far from just being additional nourishment or a thirst quencher, it offers her relief when she is poorly or in pain, soothes her when she’s upset, relaxes her into sleep or helps her come round from a nap, reassures her when we have been separated, and so much more. She often uses the time to explore my face – breaking off from sucking to poke at and name features “nos, Mummy, ais, teef, air, eeeass.” She strokes my arm, winds my hair round her fingers and stares beguilingly into my eyes. (On other less Madonna and Child-like occasions, she uses my body like a piece of gym equipment – climbing, bouncing, and cartwheeling her way to a full stomach. Without releasing my nipple. Ouch.) They are moments for me to relax and study her too – I have no option, there’s no rushing a boobing baby. The housework can wait. That translation can wait. This is so much more important, and this precious time so short.
Sadly there does not seems to be enough support for facilitating breastfeeding: I only had to look around the ward in the UK hospital where Maya was born to see that there were at least as many brand-new mothers holding bottles (ready made-up formula supplied by the hospital) as there were mothers holding their newborns to their breast. Saddest of all was the unavoidable observation that most of the mothers who had opted for bottle were fairly obviously those for whom the cost of formula would be burdensome. Then in Italy many of the mothers I have spoken to were told they “didn’t have enough milk” and were instructed to supplement with formula or give up breastfeeding altogether. Given how unlikely it is that such a large number of mothers are unable to feed or not producing milk, could it simply be that there is not enough knowledge on the science and mechanics of breastfeeding amongst the professionals?
(In the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, tinned fruit and vegetables are better than nothing. Most definitely not as good as, but better than nothing. In the absence of breastmilk, formula is better than nothing. Most definitely not as good as, but better than nothing. And even then, only when used by mothers who can afford not to resort to watering it down to make it go further, and who have access to clean water and a means of sterilising all the equipment that goes with it. What a shame the formula companies lack the morals to take any of this into account when marketing their product. Profit is King, and the most vulnerable are expendable.)
Of course there are women that simply don’t want to, and women that simply can’t, but how sad to think that mothers who actually longed to feed their babies naturally might be being deprived of the experience and the related health benefits simply through a lack of information. Or worse, being actively misinformed by the very people they should be able to trust on the subject.
And then you have the tut-tut merchants that make life just that little bit more difficult and unpleasant. Showing less cleavage than most women do at the beach, or even out on the piss on a Saturday night, is unacceptable to some people if there is a baby involved. Tits for suntanning or attracting sex: fine and dandy. Tits for tots: just like urinating in public, apparently. So a poor mum, already stressed though lack of sleep and the fact that her child is now wailing in public (another tut-tuttable offence), has to try and winkle a boob out of clothing and bra and attempt to drape her and the thrashing child in a scarf, whilst the tut-tut brigade glare at her, just daring her to flash them a bit of side breast so they can stone her for a shameless exhibitionist.
She should just stay at home until she weans the brat.
But honestly, if it offends you, why look? I avert my eyes from builders’ hairy bums and women who persist in bending over whilst wearing skinny hipster jeans and a g-string, for example. I find both a little stomach churning, so I visually opt out, whilst all the while mentally acknowledging their prerogative to dress as they please. You would have thought that trying to do your best by the next generation would merit a little of the same leeway, but sadly some people are so keen to declare themselves mortally offended that they are actually capable of comparing nourishing a baby with urinating, or even masturbating, in public.
I suppose it says an awful lot more about them than it does about the lactating object of their disgust, but still.
And now I’m breastfeeding a toddler (with no intention of stopping until my daughter is ready) I have no doubt that I shall soon be the cause of some loud tut-tutting (and hopefully a heart attack or two). I have already been treated to numerous eye-rolls, suggestions that the cause of any parenting problem I might have is this boobing lark, and an interesting lecture from my local pharmacist about the fact that I am “no longer producing milk, just a plasma-like substance similar to water”. But to anyone who might actually be interested, I shall simply explain that this is not “extended breastfeeding” but natural term breastfeeding. And yes, even I might have found it weird before I had Maya, but now I realise that it is the most instinctive thing in the world and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So VIVE les BOOBS and all the tots who benefit from their milky goodness the world over, not just during World Breastfeeding Week, but now and for always…