We all like a good birth and baby horror story, don’t we? There’s nothing like scaring new parents about rare or even impossible eventualities that probably didn’t even happen in the first place.
‘My birth lasted 27 days’ claims Auntie Pat.
‘That’s nothing,’ says Linda. ‘My baby swallowed my nipple whole. Both of them’.
‘Pah! You’re BOTH pathetic,’ says Colin. ‘My wife had to feed our baby 24 hours a day. One day I came home and there was just her shoes and this giant, ravenous baby in her place. She had literally had all life sucked out of her’.
Try not to pay too much attention to breastfeeding horror stories. People like to share stories – it makes them feel better – without thinking about the consequences for you. A few months down the line, once you know more about breastfeeding, you’ll see that many of these stories arise from women being utterly let down.
Maybe they weren’t supported, or maybe they were given bad advice. In countries such as Sweden, where breastfeeding rates are higher (and support is much better), horror stories are much less common. That’s not because Swedish breasts are magical, but because their society is very supportive of breastfeeding and therefore very breastfeeding friendly.
Unfortunately, in many countries, although things are gradually improving, we have a long history of not being very supportive of breastfeeding and breastfeeding mothers at all. Only a couple of generations ago, formula milk was marketed as being scientifically best for babies, and the idea that babies should only feed every four hours was really common.
This meant that many of our mothers and grandmothers would have formula-fed, and knowledge about how to breastfeed (and the importance of responsive feeding) was lost, while formula milk came to be regarded as normal and acceptable. Fast forward 60 years and we are still picking up the pieces: bad advice, coupled with a lack of understanding and support, means many women are set up to fail.
One of the key parts of getting breastfeeding off to a good start is being armed with knowledge about how it works, what to expect (including what might be challenging, or signs you may not be able to produce enough milk) and where to get support if you need it – both practical and emotional.
Who will you go to if you’re not sure what you’re doing?
Do you know how to tell if something’s not quite right?
Who will offer a shoulder to cry on if you’re feeling exhausted, rather than a bottle of formula?
Thinking about all these things in advance can help stop bigger problems occurring. We talk about breastfeeding being natural, and this leads to many people thinking breastfeeding is natural like breathing, which most people can do automatically, without effort or thought. But it’s not. Breastfeeding is natural like walking. Something we can almost all do (although some will have a physiological issue that makes it not possible), but a skill we need to master, something we need help and guidance with.
And just like with walking, in the early days it can take a while to find your feet, and there will be times you fall on your bum. But that doesn’t mean you can’t breastfeed, any more than falling over means you can’t walk. It just means you need to reach out and get the right help and support to get you back on your feet, and before you know it, it will be second nature.
I am not going to lie and say that breastfeeding is the easiest, most natural thing you will ever do and your entire experience will be absolutely blissful. You will likely have times when you are uncomfortable, worrying about whether it’s all going right, or just feel fed up.
Is there anything in life – particularly if it’s worth doing – that is really easy all of the time? You might absolutely love your partner, but I bet there are times when you want to throttle them. You might love your job, but you still have days when Bob from finance has driven you to drink. You might love cake, but apparently some people even find there is a limit to that.
So breastfeeding can be a challenge, yes. But when they look back, few people regret doing it. Most people who have regrets over breastfeeding have regrets that they had to stop before they were ready – usually because they were not supported or given the information needed – rather than regretting breastfeeding itself.
Difficulties can arise, and sometimes you can be utterly exhausted and wishing someone else would just latch the baby on for an hour or so. But it’s absolutely fine to dislike breastfeeding, but still really want to carry on. You might want to do it for you and your baby, but loving it or even enjoying it is not a prerequisite. It’s ok to have a moan and expect someone to listen, not tell you to stop – they wouldn’t immediately tell you to quit your job if you were having a bad day!
But also remember like many challenges, the start of it – the earliest weeks – often feel the toughest. When you get past them, it often gets much easier. Many mothers say that once they crack the early weeks, it all become so much easier and most definitely worthwhile.
Also, bottle feeding isn’t necessarily an easier solution. In fact, it takes more time overall, there is more stuff to buy and remember to take out, and babies, despite what you might be told, do not miraculously start sleeping better. Turns out it’s really just caring for a baby that can be tough, whichever way you do it –and for that mothers need and deserve to be cared for in return.