Books that make a difference
Excerpt from Breastfeeding: Stories to inspire and inform
I began work on this collection of breastfeeding stories when my first daughter, Evie, was around six months old. She's now five, has a three-year old brother called Marcus, and I'm breastfeeding their younger sister Ada, who is a year old.
I realised while feeding Evie that the best support I had for breastfeeding (and parenting in general) came from other likeminded people who had 'been there'. I was fortunate to have a very pro-breastfeeding health visitor, but the support of my peers - friends I'd made at NCT classes, a particular friend who was training as a midwife, and a very good friend made at a baby group - was the most critical when things were tough. I realise that, by luck, I had excellent support around me - I'm all too aware that not everyone has the good fortune to have such wellinformed and supportive friends and acquaintances. Parenting can seem very lonely when those around you do not understand or appreciate your struggles, and it can be very demoralising to have your firmly-held beliefs swept aside with casual, misinformed advice: who hasn't heard someone or other say, as if it were the answer to everything 'You could always give him a bottle'?
As time went by the value of peer support for breastfeeding became clearer and clearer to me. When Marcus was breastfeeding I informally supported a couple of mothers who lived near me. My health visitor put me in touch with them and I visited, with Marcus in tow, to chat about breastfeeding. I gave a few tips, and, perhaps most importantly, let them know that what was happening with them and their babies was normal, and that it would get easier. I found it very rewarding, over several weeks, to see people who'd been on the point of giving up breastfeeding really getting to grips with it and overcoming the hurdles they'd been facing.
Shortly after I had Ada I did a course to become a volunteer peer supporter, and for the last year I've been supporting women to breastfeed by taking my turn to answer calls to our helpline, and by attending the baby clinic held in our village. I also run an informal coffee morning for new mums at my house each week. I find supporting other mothers, who are going through many of the struggles I have experienced myself, very satisfying, and the groups and coffee mornings give them chance to create supportive networks of their own. It's great to see them weeks and months down the line, still happily breastfeeding, becoming positive breastfeeding role models for the new mothers that join the groups when their babies are born. All this - rightly - seems a very long way from the unhelpful 'breast v bottle' debates that seem to crop up all the time in the papers and on television. Peer support is not about judging mothers' choices, or breastfeeding evangelism - it's about positive ways of helping those who want to breastfeed, for whom it matters, to continue for as long as they want to, and supporting them to make informed choices for themselves and their families. The central ideas are providing accurate information and offering encouragement, reassurance and support - and these are also the aims of this book.
Over the years it has also become clearer to me how much of a cultural issue breastfeeding is in our society. Reading Gabrielle Palmer's thought-provoking book The Politics of Breastfeeding taught me a lot - but it is all around us, and once you become aware of it you can see why we need more effective breastfeeding support in this country. Breastfeeding does not make much in the way of profits for the big baby-feeding companies, and it has virtually no advertising budget. The importance and value of breastfeeding is easily overlooked in a sea of advertising for follow-on milks, first-stage baby foods (badged as suitable from four months despite Department of Health guidelines recommending the introduction of solids from six months), dummies, comforters, baby monitors, expensive pushchairs and all the other paraphernalia new parents are encouraged to believe they need. The increasing availability of breastfeeding accessories: gel-filled breast pads, nursing covers, electric pumps and 'reminder' bracelets, may seem at first glance to be benign, or even useful - but their existence can also be seen to be subtly undermining of breastfeeding's convenience and simplicity, and women's rights to feed their children whenever and wherever they need to. Add into the mix unhelpful media coverage of breastfeeding, our collective angst about feeding in public, the fact that infant feeding is most often characterised by a bottle symbol, and the myths that persist about breastfeeding, and it is not surprising that in our society women can find initiating and maintaining breastfeeding difficult. For much, much more discussion of these issues, please do peruse the further reading lists at the end of the book. It's a fascinating, though at times deeply depressing, issue to explore. My own attempts to bolster a counter-culture of breastfeeding friendliness have been characterised by determined feeding in public to help normalise breastfeeding, by my work as a peer supporter, and, of course, by the production of this book.
Breastfeeding my three children has given me a much deeper understanding of how complex an issue breastfeeding can be. It is not only a physical process, but also an emotional one, for mother and baby, and while it is often both pleasurable and rewarding there are also plenty of potential challenges, which is where good-quality support really comes into its own. One of my main motivations for putting together this book was that I found a gap in the information available to women about breastfeeding. There is plenty of 'how to' material out there. A quick search will turn up endless books that will claim to tell you all you need to know about breastfeeding, with step-by-step diagrams, expert opinions and plenty of sound reasons why you should make the effort.
But what I needed, on my dark days when the baby wouldn't feed well and I wondered whether it was all worth it, was real-life experience. We don't all have mothers, sisters and grandmothers on hand to help us out. We don't all have supportive networks of breastfeeding friends, or understanding health visitors, or concerned partners or husbands. I found great comfort from using online forums, such as Mumsnet, where helpful and experienced mothers could offer a range of solutions to problems I was facing, and in some ways this book is an extension of that idea. It's naive to say that breastfeeding is 'easy, cheap, convenient - a no brainer', which is what I thought before I had my first child. Since then I've become very aware of the fact that breastfeeding is, as the La Leche League's famous book on the subject acknowledges, 'a womanly art', with all the variability that implies. There are many ways to achieve 'successful' breastfeeding.
Indeed, while compiling this book my own definition of what constitutes successful breastfeeding has changed dramatically. I once thought (uncompromisingly, and before I had children) that successful breastfeeding was defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) advice: it recommends exclusively breastfeeding to six months, then continuing breastfeeding to two years and beyond. Anything less than this ideal seemed somehow lacking. Time, more children, contact with breastfeeding mothers and personal research has led to me to a completely different, much more sympathetic view. I would argue now that all breastfeeds are valuable - every breastfeed counts, whether it is just one feed of colostrum in the delivery suite, or the last night feed that a walking, talking older child just can't do without. And 'success', for me, is measured by the feelings of the babies and mothers themselves - happy, confident mothers who know that they've made informed decisions that are right for themselves and their families are the best advertisement for breastfeeding, whether they stopped feeding after six weeks, six months or six years. That is not to say that the WHO's advice is wrong, or should be changed: it is an important evidence-based guideline that gives valuable health information, and is not a stick with which to beat breastfeeding mothers who for whatever reason did not continue breastfeeding that long.
In this book, more than twenty women tell their own stories of breastfeeding. There is a wide range of experience among them. For some it was an easy, relaxed relationship with the baby from the start, for others it was almost a trial to be endured for the sake of the baby's welfare. Yet all the women have overwhelmingly positive feelings about breastfeeding and are proud of their achievements. In some cases they have overcome extremely complex problems, and have been empowered by their success. Many of the women express surprise at the strength of their own feelings about breastfeeding, or by how much they enjoy breastfeeding - they find something almost primal about it (which is logical, when you think about it, as breastfeeding is the normal behaviour of our species).
It is very clear from the stories that the differences between babies, and people's situations, are enormous - and our expectations of breastfeeding are often badly skewed. Rather than thinking of breastfeeding as something with concrete answers, or dos and don'ts, it can be more helpful to think of the existence of a range of normal breastfeeding behaviours, with each mum and baby pair ending up somewhere on the spectrum. For example, you may breastfeed exclusively and have a baby who sleeps for seven hours at night and is sick after every feed, while your neighbour may breastfeed exclusively and have a baby who wakes every two hours to feed and poos every seven days or so. Your experiences are very different, but in both cases the breastfeeding is working fine, even if the patterns of behaviour might not seem ideal to the mothers.
Wherever you fit in along the spectrum of breastfeeding experience, there are bound to be feelings and situations in this book that will strike a chord. My hope is that these women's stories about the realities of breastfeeding their babies will help others to see how it could work, or continue to work, for them. I'm also very aware that sometimes, for mothers who are struggling, it's just one person, saying one thing at just the right time, that can make all the difference, and I hope that mothers in need of a word of encouragement may find what they need in these pages. As for inspiration - for the subtitle of the book is 'stories to inspire and inform' - I encourage you to look out for the many beautiful moments described by mothers in their stories. Whether it's the incredible feeling of closeness during night feeds with a tiny, snuggly newborn, or the immense feeling of pride (mixed with a little sadness) when an older child finally stops breastfeeding, there are such genuine emotions expressed here that they can't help but touch others.