Mothering the mother is a phrase often heard during pregnancy and birth. Look after the mother, care for her, support her emotional needs ... and she will feel more empowered to grow, birth and care for her baby. A phrase (and actions) that makes so much sense and is seen in many cultures across the world.
But might this form of love and care also be a key part of increasing our breastfeeding rates too? Of course, education, guidance and support directly about breastfeeding are vital parts of ensuring new mothers are knowledgeable and equipped to breastfeed. But if we really want to stand a chance of making this work, we must look outside of breastfeeding too.
Having a baby is hard, especially the first time. It is life changing and can be so overwhelming. Suddenly you have a brand new person to care for who is reliant on you for all their needs. And they communicate this well - after all, if they didn't they wouldn't survive. We aren't baby giraffes who can get up and walk shortly after birth; we are entirely reliant on our caregivers for warmth, protection and food. Our babies need us, and we are hardwired to need to respond to them.
But as normal and natural as it is for babies to want to be kept close, this can understandably often feel exhausting and all consuming for new mothers. Many have gone from having freedom (and lots of sleep) one minute to having a baby who wants to feed often, chat at night and certainly doesn't want to be put down. It can feel like all they do is hold, soothe and feed on repeat. Many weren't prepared for it and start to worry that something is wrong. Might feeding him again create bad habits? Am I spoiling him? Is he manipulating me? What is this rod for my back people keep talking about?
Unnecessary pressure to return to 'normal'
But babies aren't broken. They can't manipulate. And it's impossible to spoil them. In fact responding to, caring for and simply loving a baby is one of the best things you can do to ensure your baby grows into a happy, confident and loving adult. But society doesn't recognize how valued just sitting and feeding your baby should be. Get your life back it shouts! Get back to work! The gym! At least get out of the house... and what about your poor partner? You must keep them happy too! And whilst I mention it ... have you seen the dust? Your home isn't looking like that celebrity new baby spread is it ... oh and those nails... how on earth haven't you managed to fit in a manicure? Priorities...
New mothers don't need to get their lives back. That old life has gone and a whole new world has begun. But what they do need is support. In many cultures mothers are cared for and looked after for at least 6 weeks after the birth. Their meals are cooked, the housework is done and they are nurtured and supported. It isn't a coincidence that rates of breastfeeding are high and levels of postnatal depression low. Meanwhile when I recently Googled 'six weeks rest after the birth' I got back a series of articles on avoiding heavy exercise.
In Western culture mothers often don't have that support after the birth. Many live hundreds of miles away from home. Families are smaller and dispersed and many grandmothers will be working. Mothers are now often left to care for their babies alone, which we are simply not designed to do. No wonder the frequent needs of a baby feel overwhelming, especially for breastfeeding mums who might feel they do nothing but feed, day and night. And that's before the pressure to get back in shape and regain your social life comes into play.
Unfortunately industry has jumped on this vulnerability and recognized a gap in the market for isolated, exhausted mothers looking for a solution (and a good night's sleep). Despite the fact that research shows that breastfeeding mothers often get more sleep overall, the subtle and not so subtle messages coming out of formula promotion are that it will help your baby sleep (nope) or that someone else can feed the baby (missing the fact that they rarely want to do this at 3am). But these messages are pervasive and you can see why many an exhausted mother considers a bottle at that 3am feed. Unfortunately many make this move, it doesn't affect sleep and they can feel even worse.
But it's wider than just messages to move to formula. Baby care books promise to get your baby into a sleep and feeding routine and countless devices are arriving on the market promising hands free feeding or to rock your baby to sleep for you. These products are not the answer. Following a strict routine for feeding is linked to stopping breastfeeding, often due to problems with milk supply, as it interferes with everything we know about the importance of responsive feeding for building a good milk supply. It's unsurprising that routines often don't work and sadly leave many mothers feeling even worse than when they began, even tipping them into postnatal depression.
So what is the solution? Simple. We need to care for our new mothers better. Mother them. Love them. Invest in giving them the time and support they need after the birth and throughout those early months and years. Think wider than breastfeeding and ensure that new mothers are as rested, supported and yes, cherished, as much as possible.
Work with partners and grandmothers where possible to explain why new mothers need to be mothered and what that might look like. And no, it doesn't look like a bottle, even though that might seem like the perfect solution when your partner or daughter is exhausted and desperate for a break. Do some housework. Cook her a meal. Sit with her. If she's happy to let you, take the baby for a walk between feeds, perhaps in a sling - but always check first. Separating her from her baby might make her feel anxious.
Investing in our future
To really make this work though government must step up and ensure that mothers, babies and families are truly invested in. After all, they are our future and ensuring the best possible start in life reaps rewards for all of us. Mothers (and partners) need and deserve extended well-paid maternity and paternity leave and flexible working on return. Promote the importance of men taking time off and being their for their partner No one should need to go back to work for financial reasons when they are still nourishing and caring for a baby.
Where family cannot be there, invest in creating networks and support groups for new mothers. Enhance access to doulas and invest in high quality support from professionals throughout pregnancy and after the birth, from professionals who have the time to sit and support. Caring for mothers should be seen as a public health responsibility and not something that simply happens if they are lucky.
Having a baby will always be life changing and exhausting but it needn't be so overwhelming to the point where breastfeeding feels incompatible. With the right support and investment we can nurture a generation of new families and show them just what a valuable role they play. And with it, create an environment and support network that really supports new mothers to breastfeed. Mother the mother and she has the time, energy and peace of mind to get breastfeeding off to the best possible start.