THE BLOG

When Breastfeeding Isn't the Most Natural Thing in the World

05/08/2014 17:16 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 10:59 BST

Nothing could have prepared me for how hard breastfeeding was going to be. No ante-natal classes spent practising holding a doll to my boob, no time spent watching relatives feed their babies, and no words of wisdom from other mums would have readied me for the shock that was learning to feed my own babies.

This week is World Breastfeeding Week and it is with a sense of sadness and almost grief that I write about it knowing I will not breastfeed again. I have breastfed two babies - my son Milin for seven months, and then my daughter Jasmin, for ten and a half months. I last fed Jasmin two months ago, and now that the bittersweet sadness of that last feed has abated, I can look back on my breastfeeding journeys with some sense of perspective.

What strikes me is how little I celebrated the achievement that was breastfeeding. I remember a sense of relief once feeding was established but, looking back, I never realised how amazing it was that my babies had learnt to feed and I had learnt to nourish them. Because no matter how much the phrase that 'breastfeeding is most natural thing in the world' is repeated - it doesn't feel like the most natural thing in the world to many new mothers.

Feeding a newborn can be hard. It can be almost soul-destroyingly difficult. It can seem so impossible, in fact, that many mothers stop. For some, feeding is too hard. For many, there isn't enough support available to help them keep trying.

When Milin was born in 2011 in New Zealand, I spent a week in hospital with my tiny boy. I had delivered by emergency c-section and had pre-eclampsia and HELLP Syndrome. It had been a complicated pregnancy and a stressful birth. And then the realisation hit me like an electrical storm - breastfeeding wasn't as easy as pulling up your Tshirt and holding your baby to your boob.

The care provided by midwives on my ward was astoundingly good. If it wasn't for those women who sat with me during every feed, showing me, guiding me, guiding my baby and telling me tips - I wouldn't have continued. There were breastfeeding classes every other day, videos to watch, and years worth of experience shared by midwives.

Yet still, when my baby wasn't gaining weight and I had to use a 'latch aid' (a tiny feeding tube next to my nipple, which Milin sucked from at the same time as feeding from my breast) - I felt no relief that the formula I was using to top him up meant he was getting more milk. Were it not for that formula, Milin would not have gained weight.

Instead of celebrating that my child was getting the nourishment he needed though, I inwardly berated myself for 'failing' to provide him with enough breastmilk. Months later, when breastfeeding was established, I looked back on those few days of top-ups and around the clock pumping to bring my milk in, and I realised that the guilt I had felt was absurd. My child had been fed. That was the only thing that was important.

When my daughter was born 18 months later in London, again by c-section, I thought I was prepared for difficulties in establishing breastfeeding. I wasn't.

She wailed for three days while waiting for my milk to come in. I didn't sleep, because the only way to calm her was to hold her to me. I, meanwhile, held on to the knowledge that these few days would pass and it would get easier.

On the busy hospital ward, where the midwives knew this was my second child, no-one had a moment to really check how breastfeeding was going. I was sent home before it was really going anywhere.

I persevered. A community midwife took a closer look - Jasmin wasn't latching on correctly. My bleeding nipples and the excruciating pain wasn't something I should have been enduring. She worked with us, corrected Jasmin's latch, and returned twice in a week to ensure feeding improved.

Without her, I'm not sure I would have kept trying. It was almost too hard.

And that's the thing. Breastfeeding can be hard. It can be seemingly impossible - for the new mother whose baby hasn't stopped crying, for the new mother who hasn't slept in three days, for the new mother who didn't know it would be like this, for the new mother whose milk hasn't come in, for the new mother exhausted by pumping to bring her milk in, for the new mother whose baby is still learning her latch while her toddler also needs her attention ... it is difficult to remember that one day, breastfeeding will seem like the most natural thing in the world.

Once the hardest weeks were behind us, I loved breastfeeding both of my children. I can look back now with a sense of pride that I nourished them from my own body. I learnt how to feed them and they learnt how to be fed.

Yet there are many women each year who stop feeding their children because it is hard. Many look back a few months later and wish they had had the right support around them to encourage them to continue.

We need to be more open about the challenges breastfeeding mothers face. We need to talk more about the reality of establishing feeding, we need to resource better support for mothers of newborns, and we need to celebrate what breastfeeding mothers achieve in those early days.

Sometimes breastfeeding doesn't feel like the most natural thing in the world. One day, however, for most women, it will.

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