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Learn to breastfeed

Imagine for a moment that you have never ridden a bike (actually, I hate bike-riding so I have no idea why I chose this analogy, bear with me, I’m sure it’ll get us there!). Imagine now that you have decided to go on an adventure, across an unexplored moutainscape, winding roads, some bumpy and uphill, some smooth and peaceful, some full of traffic and a little off-roading without a map just because you might have to to get where you want to go.

But by bike.

Which you have never ridden.

Okay, are you still with me? Now, you would probably be wise to take a course in how to ride this bike I would imagine. Ask friends how they learnt, watch a video about riding a bike and so on. Hopefully you would gain an insight from an experienced bike-riding teacher. In the real world (not my bike-riding-weird-analogy-spinning one) this is your antenatal preparation and I think you would argue that it’s vital in grasping the skill of riding a bike…er, I mean birthing your baby. Cripes, I’m even losing myself in this one now.

Okay, to take this tenuous link further, most people at this point, having gained all the information they could about how to ride that bike would consider the job done and set off on their crazy adventure. And most of us make sure we learn every thing we can about birthing our baby, making that one (or two) days as empowering and positive as we can. Because we all know that a positive and gentle birth experience (whatever that means to you) can change us and our bodies in ways we can’t even yet imagine. That it offers our new family the best start for bonding and post natal recovery.

But (and we’re back on our bike now, stay with me!) what about maintenance? A flat tyre? The chain comes off? Do you oil it or grease it? What tools should I take with me and what do I do if it just won’t work?! My bike saddle is REALLY sore, can I stop it hurting before I have to get on the bike again?

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, THIS is your Antenatal Breastfeeding education.

It’s sad but true that most women/couples completely neglect this vital piece of the puzzle. Don’t get me wrong, learning about birth is so important. And I have a particular ‘soapbox’ moment whenever it comes up about how we have lost the art of learning by observing, the inate knowledge passed from mother to daughter, sister to sister, father to son about how it all works, what it’s going to feel like, smell like and be like. But this is exactly the same, in fact even more so for breastfeeding.

Following several generations of increasingly formula-fed babies, the lost art of learning by observing and passed-down knowledge is even more prevalent to this subject than birth in my opinion (imagine, if you will, that giving birth mostly went out of ‘fashion’ completely for a generation or two, as breastfeeding did).

In my 12 years as a birth- and postnatal- doula I have supported women with their breastfeeding relationships from all walks of life. Some of them birth their babies and that clever little bundle docks on to the ‘mothership’ within the first few minutes and they are good to go. But in my experience it is often a skill that needs to be learned by both mother and baby. Why is this when it is supposed to be so natural and inherrant in us?

The other thing to remember about breastfeeding is that all mummy and baby diads are different – big boobs, small mouths, hungry babies, sleepy babies, sensitive nipples, large nipples, quick flow, slow flow – all manner of permutations of boob and baby! So, actually, as with birth and childrearing, how on earth could one book or one shared experience cover all of this?

But why go to all this trouble in the first place? Well, seeing as you asked, there is now a multitude of research to show just how irreplaceable breastmilk is. Yes, formula milk will grow a baby, but it cannot do nearly a fraction of the clever stuff breastmilk and breastfeeding can do (did you know, for example, that a woman feeding a girl baby will make a slightly different milk to that of a woman feeding a boy baby? Isn’t that amazing? No, I don’t know what happens if you have different sexed twins, but I bet the body will do something equally as amazing).

But, whilst the nutrition and bonding information is all fantastic, I personally think this is still selling the gift of breastfeeding a little short. I’m all about the practical in life and making things easy for mums whenever we can. What the books don’t often tell you is that, when you have a crying baby in your arms, whatever the problem, boob is generally the answer. Tired baby? Hungry baby? Bored baby? Baby with an itchy foot that it doesn’t have the words to describe? Boob. It’s always going to fix it, even if it’s just temporary. And, believe me, you will want to ‘fix’ whatever is making your baby cry ASAP!

One of the VERY best perks to breastfeeding (probably only relavant for the first couple of months or as long as you can string it out)? Having to sit down and watch box sets of all the things you have always wanted to catch up on and NO ONE can tell you not to because you aren’t just slobbing on the sofa, you are BREASTFEEDING! (Ditto washing up duty, housework, going anywhere you don’t much fancy – breastfeeding gets you out of so much. And no one can argue! How fantastic is that?!). And burning about a zillion calories at the same time. All whilst sitting down. (Of course, you don’t HAVE to sit down, but do it whilst you can, because when you get really good at this breastfeeding malarky you will find yourself loading the dishwasher, whilst ironing, whilst on the phone to your mummy mates. Whilst breastfeeding. We are seriously clever, us girls with our boobs and our multi-tasking.)

Oh, and one more point (probably there are tons more, this is just my lazy mummy’s guide here), you won’t need a massive baby bag! Nope, just a spare nappy and your boobs and you are good to be wherever you want to be for as long as you want to be. (Can you tell I’m still scarred by the time I spilt the only bottle of formula I had on me 20 minutes walk away from home with a screaming hungry baby, having just arrived at a ‘Perfect Mother’s’ coffee morning convention. *shudders* Incidentally, the ‘Perfect Mother’ blog is next on my list!)

And, if you’re surprised that someone so pro-boob formula-fed my first-born, don’t be. I am living proof of what lack of breastfeeding education and good support can do to a perfectly functioning pair of boobs. I got better at the whole shebang as I birthed each of my three babies, but I want you to know I’m not doing this stuff because I think it’s a piece of cake and can’t understand why no one else can ‘get it’. Far from it! I have battled my own share of boob demons (actually, I would argue I got several of the ‘Perfect Mums’ share too!).

I KNOW all this might still not work. You might still struggle and hurt and need to move to formula. Even if you have prepared your tits off (pun intended). You might simply not enjoy breastfeeding and feel much happier bottle feeding. And with me that is absolutely fine (not that you need my approval, you should need NO ONE’S approval on how you love and feed your baby). But, in my experience, there is a primal drive to breastfeed your baby when it is born. Even if, beforehand, you weren’t all that bothered what it got fed with. And when that primal drive is denied for whatever reason, it can really mess with your happiness in a way that many mothers will still struggle to explain. There can be a genuine grief and trauma to the early interruption of breastfeeding for the mum, but as with birth, it’s not about HOW you do it, it’s about how you FEEL about it, that really matters.

So after a few years of having supported many breastfeeding women in my doula path (I’m not a Lactation Consultant, so much of my support has been signposting or practical and emotional support) I started offering my doula birth clients a pre-baby Breastfeeding Workshop as part of their antenatal education with me. Without fail I noticed an uplift in the amount of enjoyment they got out of breastfeeding after the baby was born, compared to the mums that had done less or no preparation. The mums I had prepared knew how to get breastfeeding off to the best start from the moment the baby was born. They knew how to act immediately if things didn’t feel right and they understood the mechanics of feeding and how to tell if it was ‘working’ or not. Most importantly, I noticed they had more confidence in their abilities to breastfeed their babies and where to go if they needed additional support. For the ones who still didn’t end up breastfeeding, they knew why and they knew they had made the right decision to move on to formula at the right time for them.

As with antenatal teaching and being a birth doula, I can’t promise you the vision of your perfect birth on a plate, but my desire is to give you the skills you need to know before you have that hungry baby in your arms. To feel empowered by your choices, know how to express your wishes and get the right support when you need it. To decide confidently if you need a change of direction, when do you need extra support to carry on and when you need to say ‘enough’ and feel good about that new path.

So now I offer my course How To Breastfeed to groups of mums and their partners, instead of just individually. I am so passionate about this course and what it can teach all of you and, more importantly, hope that it will help you to really enjoy your breastfeeding journey. The course has grown over the years and now includes life from the newborn perspective, new mum hormones, bonding and partner tips. It’ll probably carry on growing if I’m not careful!

To conclude and bring us back to my weird bike-riding start point, learn all you can about riding that bike, but just don’t forget to learn the maintenance basics for the rest of your trip!!


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