Breastfeeding our babies is something so many of us want to do, yet it can often feel a bit mysterious, surrounded by anxiety and the question of will I be able to?
I’m beginning a series of posts The Beginner’s Guide to Breastfeeding to share information to support new mums in beginning your own breastfeeding journeys inspired from the discussions we have in my Pregnancy Yoga and Birth Preparation classes. I draw from my own experience of feeding my three children full term, breastfeeding research and organisations, training as a Breastfeeding Mother Supporter plus experience from running the breastfeeding friendly Beautiful Beginnings Natural Playgroup and my forthcoming book Milestones of Motherhood which explores mothering as a process of transformation for us as women as we learn to love and nurture our children.
The Socio-Cultural Background of Breastfeeding and its Invisibility
It helps to understand a bit of the social background surrounding breastfeeding to help understand where we are now as mums preparing to feed our own babies. Breastfeeding is the way mums have nurtured their babies for millennia, so in the past as children we would have grown up seeing infants feeding as just a normal part of life…nothing different to making our own food, serving a meal, pouring a drink, getting dressed, settling down to sleep, caring for our homes and our personal hygiene.
Yet over about the past 200 years social and cultural changes caused breastfeeding to all but disappear from our everyday lives and communities, being replaced by scheduled formula feeding which was falsely advertised and promoted as being superior in quality and status to breastmilk. You can find out more about this social history in Gabrielle Palmer’s iconic book The Politics of Breastfeeding.
Whilst research now confirms the many, lifelong health benefits breastimilk and the breastfeeding process conveys to babies, mums and the environment, breastfeeding remains muddled with much misinformation, with many well meaning family, friends and even sometimes professionals offering advice and information borne out of the scheduled formula feeding culture, much of which undermines the breastfeeding process.
As a mum, it is great to start to learn about breastfeeding during pregnancy if this is something you’d like to do. Attending Breast Feeding antenatal workshops is really useful, as is finding out details of your local breastfeeding groups and even going along to meet the group in pregnancy and see other mums feeding their babies.
Often in my Pregnancy Yoga and Birth Preparation classes we talk about breastfeeding, the basics of supply and demand and caring for ourselves in this process, we also explore exercises and postures which can support the breastfeeding process, help keep us relaxed and release tension from our shoulders and backs. Mums find these conversations useful, as we are just not used to seeing breastfeeding day to day, so the more we can find out about it the better.
The two books I recommend in our classes are The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League and The Food of Love by Kate Evans. They’re both loaded with wonderful, accessible information to help you understand the process and are great investment of your time during pregnancy. I discovered the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding when a friend gave me her old copy on a Yoga retreat during my first pregnancy, I’d never given it much thought other than I would do it, and reading this book was so valuable, for when my daughter was born, she had dreadful reflux, and without my understanding of the supply and demand process, I would have really struggled to get through those early days and weeks. And trying to read and learn with a squally, hungry sicky baby on your lap is very challenging!
Understanding the Basics
Understanding the basics of how breastfeeding works can give us a good foundation for beginning our own learning journey (for we can only really learn how to do it by doing it, learning about our own baby’s preference, for they all have their own style and understanding what works for us) and can also help us decipher our way through the information and advice we receive, working out what is helpful and what is well meaning misinformation.
Breastfeeding is a Supply and Demand Process
Our milk production is stimulated by our baby’s suckling. Therefore the more our baby feeds directly from our breast, the more our brain receives the message to produce milk. This is one of the reasons why babies feed such a lot in the early weeks. They are establishing their supply. So the BEST way of establishing our milk supply is bringing baby to the breast as often as they want to, and letting them feed for as long as they like. Lots of time skin to skin resting in bed is wonderful too both for our supply and for our post natal healing and recovery.
Therefore knowing about supply and demand we can then understand that limiting our baby’s suckling at the breast is misinformation and will only serve to decrease our milk supply and potentially causing other difficulties too.
So any advice to get baby on a feeding schedule, to restrict times of feeds, to restrict length of feeds, to give breasts time to ‘fill up’ is going against our supply and demand process. Similarly, bottles of formula and dummies also mean our babies are investing their suckling time on other things rather than our breasts, therefore potentially disrupting our supply and the breastfeeding process.
Babies want to feed lots and lots
Understanding that our babies will want to feed lots is great preparation for when they arrive, and it doesn’t mean we are doing anything wrong. Breastmilk is highly digestable, leaving much energy for our baby’s growth, therefore they do need to feed often. And because we know about supply and demand, we know that feeding often is building our supply, for the more they suckle, the more our milk production becomes established.
Growing up in formula visible cultures, we are used to babies being fed every few hours, according to a schedule, then sleeping in between feeds. Yet our breastfed babies have not read the manual and are instead being directed by their biological needs rather than decades of cultural conditioning. They will signal to feed as and when they need to, there may be hours between feeds, or they may cluster feed seemingly constantly over a few hours…. As we learn to go with the flow and as they grow and our supply becomes established, things tend to settle down. We learn to recognise the signs that our babies are getting enough … weight gain and plenty of wet and filled nappies. Yet in the early days and weeks, we don’t know any of this… we are beginners as much as our babies are and it can feel extremely overwhelming. Understanding the value and wisdom of the supply and demand process can be very reassuring, as can reminding ourselves that sitting or lying feeding our babies is absolutely THE most important thing we can be doing at this time. We are nurturing a new human life.
Accessing information and support from breastfeeding organisations is always a good idea and can provide much needed information, suggestions, support and reassurance from experienced breastfeeding counsellors.
Association of Breastfeeding Mothers https://abm.me.uk/
Clare’s first book Milestones of Motherhood explores how mothering is a journey of change and transformation for us as mothers as we learn to love and care for our children. Available from Mother’s Milk Books soon, Milestones of Motherhood includes women’s experiences of breastfeeding and the transformation, learning, joy and sometimes difficulties this journey brings.