Once you and your baby have got into the flow of breastfeeding, there are a whole host of positives – health benefits for your baby and a bonding experience for both of you, plus there’s nothing easier than tucking a littl’un under your top when you’re out and about rather than faffing around with sterilisers and bags of bottles.
But what isn’t talked about enough in the early days and weeks of breastfeeding, is that feeding your baby is often not all it’s cracked up to be. It can be uncomfortable to downright agonising, stressful (is my baby getting enough?), relentless (seriously, again?) and isolating (when you feel like the whole world’s contentedly sleeping while you’re awake at 3am feeding).
To coincide with World Breastfeeding Week, which runs from 1–7 August, we asked mums what they wished other breastfeeding mothers, midwives and health care visitors had told them. Some of these mums’ advice may be unexpected, but it’s all born from experience.
Around four in five (80%) of new mums intend to breastfeed but, according to Unicef UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative, only one in six (17%) of babies are exclusively breastfed by the time they are three months old. Many of us believe ‘putting the baby on the breast’ will be the most natural thing in the world – the reality can be dramatically different.
“I was literally having to brace myself to feed it hurt so much when my best friend came round on the second evening,” recalls Janet Kelly, 34. “She reassured me my milk would come in the next day and it would all be much easier. If she hadn’t been so confident, I’d have sent my husband out that night to buy formula.” Instead she ended up breastfeeding her son Josh, now 18 months old, for six months.
This is advice echoed by all the mums we talked to, who wished they had been better prepared for the initial pain and persevered only because of supportive family and friends. “What I wish I’d been told is breastfeeding your baby does hurt at first - but it gets better,” says Claire Anais, 44, from Worksop, who fed each of her two sons for a year. “I had so many talks about breastfeeding from professionals when I was pregnant but the first week was a huge surprise.”
“No one one seems to mention the sheer pain in the early days - or the night sweats,” says Suzanne Locke, 44, from Surrey, who breastfeeds her nine-month-old son Rafferty.
Hannah Fry, 30, who breastfed one-year-old Jasmine for nine months, agrees: “I had NO idea about the night sweats. I texted a friend with two kids and she was, ‘Oh yeah, totally normal.’ Why didn’t she warn me? I thought I was dying!”
There are times when simply breathing in the scent of your baby’s head is the most relaxing experience, and there are other feeds when you crave entertainment and distraction or simply some sleep.
It’s all about planning for comfort. “Don’t sit on the sofa with a newborn who feeds forever with the remote control out of reach and no phone,” says Emma Wilkinson, 38, who breastfed each of her three children for more than a year. “Being stuck watching Doctors is torture.”
“Invest in Netflix and a repertoire of one-handed forkable dishes because you will be eating your dinner when your baby needs a feed,” says Danielle Jones, 32, from Portsmouth, who has two children and is still breastfeeding her youngest.
Laura Williams, 35, from Bristol, who is still breastfeeding four-month-old Carter, recommends: “A footstool so my legs don’t get swollen when I’m sitting feeding for ages - post c-section it was a must.”
Claire recommends finding a position that suits both you and baby. “With my second he was almost upside down but that worked for him,” she says. While For Sarah Montrose, 37, from Oxfordshire, her approach to feeding her 11-month-old Nansi is slightly unorthodox: “I shove a rolled up pair of baby booties under my breasts. It makes the angle of nipple-to-baby much better. I refuse to believe it’s because I have saggy boobs.”
Sore Breasts And Milk Flow Solutions
From feeding evenly, to some rather unusual ways to soothe sore breasts, here are some tried-and-tested remedies that mums swear by.
“Make sure you breastfeed evenly - I ended up with one super boob and one like the bag it came in, because my daughter favoured one above the other,” says Scheenagh Harrington, 46, from Scunthorpe, who breastfed for seven months. “Luckily they just about evened out in time.”
Rachel Silvestri, 33, breastfed her first child until she was two and has a somewhat more memorable approach to milk flow woes. “I’m a massive fan of ‘the milkshake’ - giving my boobs a good old shake up before a feed,” she explains.“I’ve been told this has no basis in science, but as far as I’m concerned it cured a lot of my daughter’s oversupply-caused digestive problems. The theory goes that it mixes up the fatty milk with the more watery and lactose-heavy foremilk. Whatever works!”
Laura Hitchcock, 44, from Dorset, who breastfed her fourth child for three years, swears by fridge fresh cabbage leaves in your bra, adding that they are: “heavenly relief if you’re swollen and sore.”
And for mastitis prevention, there are hot shower and massage recommendations - or Laura’s novel approach. “If your breasts start showing blocked ducts or early mastitis, lay your baby on his back on your bed for a feed. Then kneel over them on all fours while topless and dangle your boob into their mouth - they get 360º suction around your nipple, it clears the blockage and it feels heavenly on those sore ducts. You just have to hope your older children don’t wander in and ask what the hell you’re doing.”
Surprise Squirting (yup, it’s a thing)
“Watch out for overactive letdown and carry a muslin in the early days to stop the squirting,” advises Danielle Jones. “I accidentally ‘got’ an elderly man in Costa once when my eldest pulled off suddenly. To his credit, the man pulled out a hanky, wiped his face and never once looked up. I was dying from embarrassment.”
“The biggest surprise to me was the jet force,” agrees Laura. “I presumed nipples would drip, I honestly never expected to spontaneously squirt at high speed at a weird angle like a blocked shower head nozzle, spraying all available surfaces.”
The first time you feed in public, go out with a friend who’s breastfed so you feel supported, not hot and embarrassed with a thrashy baby. Rachel Smith, 41, who breastfed her son Jim, now 12, for 18 months, says: “Forget fancy nursing bras - the two-top trick of a vest top under a looser top is the best combo for feeding in public. You can keep all your belly and boobs covered apart from the bits you need to get out.”
Weaning and Bottle Refusal
There’s just one more challenge - how to stop or combine with bottle feeding. “Breastfed babies don’t always like bottles so don’t rely on weaning them quickly if you need to,” says Clara Wiggins, 49, who breastfed both daughters for five months. “I introduced a bottle a day very early with my second after struggling with my first.”
Liane Baddeley, 36, from Cheadle, who is mum to eight-month-old Emily, says: “I didn’t know bottle refusal was even a thing... I wish someone had bloody warned me! Our baby was fine switching between breast and bottle for the first two to four weeks of life, so we got complacent and didn’t use bottles for about a month. When we tried reintroducing a bottle at eight weeks, she hated it. If we had another baby, I’d breastfeed morning and night, but use bottles of breast milk and or formula during the day.”
Liane adds women need support from health services to help with the difficulties of breastfeeding: “There’s a huge focus on encouraging mothers to breastfeed – and I agree it’s a wonderful thing – but bottles are truly the best option for some families.”
Caroline Perry, who breastfed her children until they self-weaned, took advice from an experienced doula, who told her to introduce a bottle of pumped breast milk between six and eight weeks.“Apparently any earlier and they can get nipple confusion, later and they may not be interested in the inferior silicone teat. It was a faff pumping every day for a couple of weeks, even when I was home, but her advice was golden as all three of my babes switched between breast and bottle with no issues at all. I kept a stash of frozen breast milk for times when I had to be out working.”
And Some Final Words Of Wisdom From Women Who Know
Sarah’s words will resonate with many women who have breastfed. She says: “It might be ‘the most natural thing in the world’ but it’s damned hard at the beginning. Pretty much everyone finds it super tricky so don’t beat yourself up about it. Get the help you need and don’t be brushed off!”
Eve Dugdale, 37, from Manchester, recommends taking up all offers of help with no qualms when nursing a newborn. “Let everyone help you in those early weeks. People will offer so, pardon the pun, milk it... you’re busy feeding and probably up alone in the night so you deserve a rest. Let your partner do the household chores, your mother-in-law sort the garden while you just chill out. I was a hero with my first baby and wanted to do it all, all with a baby hanging on to me. I will not be like this when my second arrives in September. Oh no, I will not be like that again.”