Ask any mother about her breastfeeding experience and she’ll tell you.
You’ll hear about cracked nipples, lonely night-feeds and how excruciating mastitis can be.
She’ll tell you about low milk supply and leaking breasts and being too tired to remember how many heavy nappies she changed in 24 hours.
You’ll hear about how she stayed at home for weeks, naked and crying, trying to get a baby to latch.
There will be candour and crying and regrets and happy endings.
Most will have battled through, and come to love it, or at least got into their stride with it. Some will admit they had to give up: too much pain, too many tears, too many disapproving looks. Some will say they didn’t try hard enough, or that mixed feeding worked for them, or that they never wanted to, or couldn’t, in the first place.
But the common thread running through all these stories is that, by then, these women will know their topic well. They will have read blogs and forums, and have compared notes in 4am WhatsApp groups. Most of them will have a better idea of what to do if and when they have a second baby; how to detect tongue-tie, whether to dream-feed, when to top-up with formula.
First-time mothers don’t have this information the first time around. So tense is everyone about the dwindling breastfeeding rates in Britain (latest figures from Public Health England and the NHS show, shockingly, that less than half of babies born in the UK are breastfed beyond two months), that it seems they’re too scared to say anything which might put us off.
We’re handed leaflets on the benefits of breastfeeding (Healthier! Easier! Cheaper!), and shown a series of photos which make getting a baby to latch on to the boob seem like child’s play. We’re told that cold cabbage leaves can soothe mastitis and that it can take six weeks to establish breastfeeding.
All this is true (apart from the latching bit – no newborn babies I know formed that perfect ‘o’ with their mouths unless they were crying..), but it’s not enough.
The inconvenient truths about breastfeeding need to be spelled out for new parents (dads too, because they need to know what might happen). Go on, we can take it. Because the more informed we are, the better we will cope when the milk comes in.
Yes it might scare us a bit, but at least it will mean that we can tell the difference between sore nipples in need of a thin layer of Lansinoh and sore nipples wounded and bleeding due to undiagnosed tongue-tie. We’ll know how to sterilise a bottle safely if we have to top-up our premature or hungry babies. And we’ll know the difference between a cluster-feeding baby and one which is dehydrated due to low milk supply. One baby in the US died because of confusion over the latter.
Now that’s scary.
Some great websites about breastfeeding and/or bottle-feeding
- An NHS list of common breastfeeding problems
- Unicef guide: ‘How Can I Tell If Breastfeeding Is Going Well?’
- The Milk Meg, Lactation Consultant, has lots of good advice
- The NHS guide to safe bottle-feeding
- How to do ‘responsive bottle-feeding’
- First Steps Nutrition Trust’s guide to infant formula milks
:: Lisa Williams is co-founder of The Hotbed Collective.