Early days

drawing of baby crying

Before giving birth, I heard somewhere that babies should start to suckle in the four hours after birth, and ideally straight away. When I was handed my tiny, startled daughter, I was pretty zonked, but I seemed to recall her little mouth seeking out my nipple. Or me putting my nipple near to her little mouth. Or something like that. Anyway, within a few minutes of ‘skin on skin’ she seemed to have something breast-like in her mouth and was happily sucking away.

The midwives were all suitably impressed. ‘Ooo, look she’s latched on already! That’s great. I’m sure you’ll be a natural.’ Well, of course – surely breastfeeding was the most natural thing in the world? If you were happy to let your intuition govern your actions, and you responded to your baby instinctively, then it seemed pretty straightforward. I should point out at this stage that I’d just had a calm water birth, without major trauma or pain relief, and was therefore feeling pretty earth mother about everything. Breastfeeding was the next obvious step, and I was going to be great at it.

Over the remaining hours spent in hospital, my daughter C and I slept, interspersed with periods of the suckling we were both so fantastic at. If I was honest, it was starting to sting a bit, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The next morning, I overheard a conversation between a midwife and the woman in the bed opposite me on the ward. ‘Are you breast or bottle feeding?’ the nurse asked. ‘Bottle’ she replied without hesitation. ‘He’s had loads – two lots of 30 mils just last night’. God, you had to make up that formula from scratch each time, I thought. What a pain! How can you have dismissed breastfeeding so quickly?

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.