Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Breastfeeding... Yes You Can! (probably)

There's a baby boom going on among my friends this year. More of my female friends are pregnant than not and if they aren't pregnant, they are planning for it soon. I'm excited because I've been almost the only mum in the group for practically all of Ollie's life. I suppose because I've already gone down this road once before many of my conversations with friends involve pretty detailed discussions of the joys, challenges, and generally disgusting/frightening elements of pregnancy and motherhood. If you can't tell by the fact that I use my free time to blog about it, I love talking about this stuff. I'm so interested in how people make decisions about parenting, I like to share what works for me and I'm always looking for answers to my own questions.

Lately the topic of breast feeding has been coming up all the time - in the media I encounter as well as in my personal conversations. There are lots of questions about how much longer I plan to breast feed Oliver, and friendly or/and grossed-out curiosity about breast feeding a toddler. That's something I think about a lot, especially as I edge towards tandem nursing, and I'll probably write about that soon (I just grabbed a copy of "Adventures in Tandem Nursing" from my midwife's lending library today).

The other conversation that I'm always having with pregnant friends always starts the same way. With them saying "I really hope I can breast feed." And then the conversation continues in a way that involves me being as supportive and reassuring as I possibly can be, and 95% meaning it, while 5% of me thinks "what?!"

I know that there are many many women who struggle with breast feeding. And I know that it can be frustrating and heartbreaking and create guilt and shame and worry where there shouldn't be any of those things. I completely respect mums who struggle with breast feeding and decide that it isn't right for them and their babies. And mums who do it, hate it and give it the bare minimum. And everything else that mums chose to do when it comes to their babies and their boobs.

What I can't understand is why so many of the pregnant women I know go through pregnancy genuinely worried about whether or not they'll be able to breast feed. Maybe it is because my mum breast fed and my extended family was totally supportive, or because I live in a really breast feeding positive neighbourhood. It can't hurt that I spent three years working at a health care association literally writing guidelines on breast feeding support for care givers. Maybe it is because I am too cheap to even entertain the notion of purchasing formula for my baby when my body is actually making food, but when I was pregnant with Oliver I never once considered the possibility that I wouldn't end up nursing my child for any reason. Maybe I'm just super cocky.

I think that being so certain about breast feeding helped to make my breast feeding experience a smooth one right from the beginning. I had only one small moment of doubt about nursing in the moments after Ollie was born. When he was whisked away from me instead of placed on my chest, my knowledge of the importance skin to skin contact and establishing nursing immediately after birth suddenly felt like a prediction of failure due to our circumstances.

I was relieved when, four hours after his birth, in my first contact with Oliver the NICU nurse doubtfully said over her shoulder "once you're comfortable holding him, you can try feeding him if you want" and by the end of that sentence he was comfortably latched and eagerly feeding. And I was lucky that I was as familiar with breast feeding best practices as I was and felt comfortable speaking up, because her next comment was "We'll give him a pacifier when you're gone, and I can start supplementing him with a bit of formula until your milk comes in" (both major no-no's).

I was confident in my pregnancy that breast feeding was natural and right for me and my baby, and I was confident enough in my knowledge of establishing breast feeding in that NICU to decline the nurses' (well-intentioned, I'm sure) advice. And I was really lucky that I had that confidence because for me I believe that it absolutely ensured Ollie and my success as a breast feeding pair.

That's not to say that I think my friends who don't have that confidence won't be have positive breast feeding relationships. I'm sure they will  - because they're thinking about it, and reading about it and asking about it, and they want to try. But I just don't understand why they have to worry about it in the first place. Of course things can go wrong. Things can go wrong with everything we do. But why is the overwhelming message they've taken in about breast feeding that it is hard? That it hurts? That it fails so often? Doubt when becoming a parent -and when you are a parent, is totally normal, but none of them are asking "Will I be able to diaper my baby?" or "Will I be able to get my baby to sleep?" (although they probably will eventually be asking that one..)

I'm hesitant to jump on social media movements because I have mixed feelings about their impact (says the blogger), but maybe all the fuss over breast feeding photos on Facebook really does matter. And it probably is that important that breast feeding be portrayed on Sesame Street. Maybe my friends would feel more confident about breast feeding if they saw more of it.   More pictures, more children's stories and more incorporation of positive breast feeding experiences in movies and TV shows (rather than hippy dippy mums breast feeding six year olds as jokes or frazzled working mums strapped into pumps like cows at a dairy).

Maybe I'll sign a petition about Facebook and breast feeding photos, or post some of my own. Or at least re-tweet a few tweets about it. What I will do for sure is try and spread as much positivity about nursing as I can to my friends who are expecting, and those who might be one day, and those who never will be but can support the rest of us. It really is amazing, and most of us really can do it! We don't have to, and it isn't always easy, but we can and that is incredible.


  1. Great post, Meg. I totally get where you're come from. I'm always a bit surprised when women say they "plan" to breastfeed. Why not - "I'm going to breastfeed?" It is so incredibly unfortunate that there is not more support for breastfeeding (case in point - a three month old baby gets kicked out of our House of Commons).

    I do wonder, however, how many pregnant women who read baby blogs (which is likely a lot) are influenced by the experiences of others. I have to admit that breastfeeding (never mind extended breastfeeding) would be really, really difficult if you are a working mother living in the United States with such a limited maternity leave. I constantly have to remind myself of this when I'm reading American blogs and seeing how many give up on (or don't attempt) breastfeeding.

    Anyway - I do agree. We, as a society, NEED to see it more. Like you, I'm lucky to live in a very breastfeeding friendly community, but I realize this is not the situation everywhere.

  2. I'm with you both on this. The only thing I'd add is, I think the support for positive breastfeeding experiences as well as its challenges have to be in place. I've always been in complete awe at our bodies' ability to sustain another life. And before and during my pregnancy, I'd daydream about breastfeeding my baby. I was totally pumped. And I realize what we need is more air time for positive experiences, but there ought to be a way to talk about what challenges may come up without totally turning people off. (It feels like we're in a precarious position given the climate around breastfeeding, which makes it difficult to talk frankly about our challenges without them being used as scare tactics.) We had a great midwifery team, doula, and prenatal instructor who all reassured me that breastfeeding usually doesn't hurt (and if it does, a quick latch fix will do the trick), and that most of us can do it. My story isn't a sad one by any stretch, but given all that I'd heard, it did throw me quite a bit when my expectations were so out of sync with reality. To be brief, it was very painful for me for a good 8 weeks due to extremely cracked nipples (a consult from a few lactation consultants in our area and three trips to the Newman Breastfeeding clinic didn't help - the latch was fine; they really didn't know what the problem was); and, I'd get this overwhelming feeling of sadness every time she latched. Heavy, heavy sadness. I came to resent it. Which saddened me even more because I so wanted it. (I was determined to keep going and can happily report things got a LOT better.) Now that breastfeeding is a breeze, I can see how some women don't understand how it could be difficult at all. I'd promote breastfeeding hands-down over formula 10 times out of 10. But the very best advice I got: be gentle with yourself when things don't go as planned. The second best piece of advice I got: breastfeeding is both a science and an art. What resolved things in the end was balancing the advice from the professionals with my own gut instincts.

  3. Randalin, I totally agree, I can't comprehend how a mother in the US can manage 6 weeks off and breastfeeding.. that is a system designed for failure!

    Michellenicole, thanks so much for talking about your experience. I really don't want to discount in any way the fact that there are very real challenges that can and do come up when it comes to breastfeeding. It is so good that you stuck with it and were able to get support and also trust your own judgement!

  4. Hey Meg - your post was super supportive; didn't get the impression that you were discounting anyone's experience at all. Just wanted to add my two cents. I think there ought to be a way to talk frankly about breastfeeding that is positive, supportive, and, above all, honest. So thanks for creating a forum to do so!


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