Before the birth

drawing of stork carrying baby

As a responsible mother-to-be, I went along to the last ‘parent craft’ class at my local health centre as a matter of course. The main theme of the class was feeding your baby. Or, more precisely, breastfeeding your baby.

Breastfeeding, as anyone who has recently had a baby will know, is STRONGLY ENCOURAGED by the National Health Service, World Health Organization, National Childbirth Trust, Unicef … in fact, pretty much any health/baby-related organization you can think of. As the midwife taking the class pointed out, she officially isn’t allowed to say anything that might encourage you to start on the formula instead.

I wasn’t worried. For me, there was no question about it: my mother and mother-in-law had both breastfed, and obviously, I would do the same. As the other conscientious first-time mothers and I sat in the class and discussed the copious advantages of breastfeeding, and disadvantages of formula, we all smugly agreed that it was the obvious option. So cheap and convenient, not to mention fantastically healthy for both you and your baby. This was all provided you got your baby to ‘latch on’ properly, but really, how hard could it be?

‘I did actually find breastfeeding quite difficult,’ said my mother. Well, I can understand that, I thought. In those days, women were actually discouraged from breastfeeding, and as Mum had frequently reminded me, she was the only woman on the whole ward who did it. Given this complete lack of support, it isn’t surprising she had a bit of trouble. I had NHS leaflets and helplines coming out of my ears, so I was obviously well equipped to deal with any of the minor difficulties that might arise. My friend Zara had mentioned a few problems too, with bleeding nipples etc. Well, that sounded pretty extreme – hardly likely to be an issue for many people!

And so I naïvely began my journey into the world of pain and paranoia that constitutes the early days (or should that be weeks?) of breastfeeding. Ultimately, with incessant, dedicated research into what was going wrong, and stubbornly gritted teeth, I made it through to the happy point where feeding no longer hurt, and was a genuinely convenient alternative to the bottle. What I discovered along the way however, was a society ill-equipped to support breastfeeding mothers, and a patronizing health service unwilling to be honest with them.

2 Responses to “Before the birth”

  1. Rosie Says:

    This is a great blog – I wish I’d had it to read when I was bf my baby last year. What you describe above is very familiar. I was really lucky: my daughter learned how to suck quickly, the latch was always good and she gained weight well. But it still hurt like mad for the first 10 days or so, including bleeding nipples. After that it improved, then it was lovely, and we carried on until she was 15 months. If I’d been warned it would be likely to hurt, that wouldn’t have put me off. Instead, I wouldn’t have worried I was doing it wrong. I think women need to be told the truth, not told that it will all be easy.

    • Elizabeth Jay Says:

      Hi Rosie – it’s so interesting to hear from other mothers who say they wouldn’t have been put off if they’d heard it might be difficult for a time. Women have a whole range of experiences, and focusing solely on the positive ones runs the risk of alienating those women who find it harder. It would be interesting to see whether being a bit more honest at ante-natal classes has any effect on a mother’s breastfeeding experience – not so much whether she is more/less likely to try it (I suspect it wouldn’t make much difference), but whether she feels better equipped to cope with any problems that do arise.

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