An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Monday, August 08, 2005  

Breast is best etc

Why breast can be such a test

The winter vomiting bug a few years back was a godsend for new mothers trying to breastfeed in maternity hospitals. When the virus struck, it was necessary to ban all but essential visitors. The wards were cleared of overbearing aunts, unruly children, enthusiastic colleagues and sniffy mothers-in-law. Traumatised mommies could weep in peace, and breastfeed in private.
The one thing a breastfeeding mother doesn’t need is an audience. Particularly an audience ignorant of the true needs of a new baby.

I recalled this last week as we were reminded, to mark World Breastfeeding Week, that Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe.

This problem of visitors is the same at home. The mother has no control and I have heard many a sad story of breastfeeding being abandoned not because of a biological problem but a psychological one caused by bad visitors. I’ve heard of feeds being interrupted to greet well-meaning friends; of breast-feeding mums feeling guilty because visitors are waiting in the other room; of mums going through the misery of pumping so they don’t have to feed in front of people.

A good visitor will arrive having provided plenty of notice, preferably by text, since answering the phone is a big source of pressure when there is a baby around. A gift of lasagne, Irish stew or other carbohydrate-heavy meal should be proffered instead of a four-foot bear or a ridiculous outfit. Lactating mothers need food, not polyester.

When tea or coffee are offered, the good visitor will refuse, order the mother to bed, and make her a cup instead. A confinement of six weeks used to apply to new mothers and I am a firm believer in the benefits of this enforced rest.

After the births of each of my babies I remained in my nightdress for a full fortnight and accepted no invitations for the first 40 days. Some people thought that this was over the top and there were more than a few raised eyebrows when I received visitors in my boudoir. My view was that having recently expelled another human being from my body, I was quite entitled to allow myself a complete recovery. It takes about six weeks to settle into breastfeeding and you can only do this when you are rested.

The modern view is that good mothers quickly return to a normal routine. When I heard of a mother of just one week heading off to the supermarket, I shuddered. The strange thing was that report came to me as an example of a “great woman”. I didn’t think it was great at all.

Anyway, the poor babies have just spent 40 weeks tucked up tight in the womb and are appalled to find themselves in a bright, cold, noisy world. The only place they want to be is snuggled under their mother’s arm, a nipple within easy reach.

The good visitor will admire everybody and depart within 15 minutes, taking a pile of towels to launder on the way out. Should a breastfeed take place in the presence of the visitor, their behaviour is absolutely crucial to the success of the feed.

Any woman who has struggled to latch-on a new baby will know the feeling of immense pressure. Within 10 seconds both can be crying and if baby goes on wrong, there will be more tears from the pain.

The bad visitor, chatting into their second hour, will sympathetically comment that “sometimes they don’t get enough”. The bad visitor masquerading as a good visitor will announce that were there a bottle in use, mommy could have a sleep and she would feed the child. Doubt added to a lack of confidence equals a sense of inadequacy. If the dreaded bottle is tearfully introduced, the woman can thus embark on the lifetime of guilt that goes hand in hand with motherhood.

The good visitor will be calm and reassuring and offer to phone the hospital or La Leche for advice. There are always solutions to breastfeeding problems that don’t include a bottle. The sad thing is that the most negative comments a woman will hear about breastfeeding are from mothers who tried themselves and couldn’t manage it. The truth is that most women can, they just don’t know how. Breastfeeding isn’t just a particular skill, it involves an entire philosophy of minding babies that has been destroyed by the corporatisation of child rearing. Up to three months, babies require 24-hour care and the almost constant presence of an unpressurised mother. These days, praise is reserved for how quickly she can get her figure back, not for her devotion to her baby.

I loved breastfeeding. Anybody can change a nappy, but I was the only one who could indulge in this free, hygenic, perfect method of nourishing my child.

Unfortunately, since two generations of Irish women have been convinced that breastfeeding is unnecessary, the skill has been lost. Pregnant women attend lots of childbirth classes and stock up on books on how to have a baby, which will come regardless of how many books she reads. The lessons mothers-to-be should be attending are those about breastfeeding.

So if you know a pregnant woman, buy her The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, not What to Expect when You’re Expecting.

posted by Sarah | 10:51 7 comments
keep up the crusade Sarah! Colette will be delighted.

I must say that after Ernie's birth you were the PERFECT visitor, I never properly thanked you.

All great advice - did you get it from somewhere or someone or just figure it our yourself?
aw, thanks Tom.
I have been extremely fortunate to possess one of the few mothers of the 60's-70's who breastfed and was a nurse and grew up in rural Cavan where she witnessed the old traditions. Moving to Dublin for her nursing she was appalled at the way mothers were treated. She worked in the Rotunda and the Meath, amongst the poorest women and some of the rising middle classes and had huge compassion for both. Anyway, it was drummed into me from the earliest age that cows milk was for calves and mother's milk was for babies and mothers need to be minded. Also, whilst my wonderful granny (my father's mother) had many qualities, she and her daughters belonged to that "better class" who thought that mothers should be up and about. As her own mother was quite elderly and unable to help, I think my mother had the most dreadful time battling the new snobbery about feeding and being completely exhausted. She longed for the 'Cavan' way of doing things when an unmarried cousin came to mind the new mother instead of a mother in law assuring her she'd feel better if she got up and 'did her jobs'. I benefited greatly from all of this. Then I witnessed countless of my middle-class career women type friends having babies and thinking they could project manage them as they did everything else in their lives. I went to visit one and met her on the way out - she was going to get her nails done. I begged her to let me come down to the house and mind the baby while she had a sleep. She refused point blank and claimed everything was under control. After a month of 'doing her jobs' both mother and baby ended up back in hospital. The baby has a severe chest infection and her immune system just completely broke down. She got everything going and it was 6 months before her health was restored. Needless to say, breastfeeding got ditched early on as being 'ridiculous' and I doubt if she'll even have another child because of the tear and the trauma. But then, you can say nothing because then you are JUDGING! and we must never JUDGE.....
On a final note, my aunts (on the paternal side) are grannies now and when they saw how I managed things I think they were a little sad because they remembered how hard things were for them and how they were made believe bottles and getting up were the only way. Sometimes I see deep regret in their eyes..but of course we never speak of such things.
"Unfortunately, since two generations of Irish women have been convinced that breastfeeding is unnecessary, the skill has been lost."

Unnecessary? No. Impractical? For sure. The numbers of women in employment today compared to their grandmothers'/mothers' time has made all the difference. Not because mothers feel that breastfeeding is unnecessary. I think that, if asked, most mothers of newborns would agree that breastfeeding is of huge benefit to the child's health.
But impractical for whom? Employers or babies? Anyway, there are 18 weeks statutory maternity leave now. The best 'initiation' rate we have is 40% and most of these give up within two weeks. The ones who do give up do so because its painful and they are knackered. It's painful because they're not doing it right and they are knackered because they are getting the wrong kind of help. That's why I tried to address the community in my article instead of the guilt ridden mother. Anyway, its impractical that you have to bring the bottle fed babies to the doctor all the time because they keep getting sick because they have no immunity. The only time my lot were at the doctor was for their vaccinations.
one more thing...I know it can be irritating to seem like the smug earth mother type but one of the reasons I try to preach this lesson is because I know exactly how hard it can be. Just a few weeks after the last little guy was born we moved into the new house, then I was offered the ST job and between everything I was climbing the walls. When the baby got to the 6 weeks stage I got it into my head that I absolutely had to get some very important household items in B&q. Off I went completely mad, and trailed around B&Q looking for something that I can't even remember now. When I got back, I went to feed the baby and my mother noticed that my boobs were slack - they hadn't filled up again even tho I'd been away for hours. All the stress and needless running around was effecting my supply. I was totally traumatised that my own failure to prioritise was resulting in the disappearnce of my milk. I was distraught. My brill hubby (who I know I slag off on occasion) really knows what is important and he took the next day off work and I stayed in bed for 24 hours letting the baby suck away. We got the milk back BUT I know that voice in your head telling you that you MUST put on a wash and you MUST phone soandso and you MUST go to the shop. Most of the time, you don't need to do those things at all and all you should do is sit in a chair and feed the baby. Also I am CONVINCED that the rise in post-natal depression is linked to mothers not being allowed to spend more time with their babies. That's the advantage of breast feeding - you have to be there. Bottles might give a woman the choice to be off somewhere, but is that a choice she really needs? All it does is make her feel like she should be off shopping, buying things for the baby that actually, the baby couldn't care less about. It's the same philosophy that says you are spoiling a baby by picking them up. pick them up! They're lonely!
Being a member of the male species, I know very little about breastfeeding. Would it not be a good idea to try and promote the use of the pump? Might cut down on the pain experienced by mothers.
Pumps are funny things Colm. Some have great success with them. For example, one mother of twins I know got mastitis because the babies were sucking at different rates. Once she got over the desire to cut her breasts off, she got an electric pump and got on brilliantly with it. Pumps are also great for getting supply up. And it is brilliant if you can pump and then leave a bottle of the precious milk while you go off for a few hours. On the other hand, I, for example, never had success with pumps. My boobs just failed to respond or 'let down' the milk. I tried milking myself my hand, which is a very weird thing to do and had the most success with this. But I also tried the hand pumps and the battery ones. Apart from frightening the life out of my toddler, I could only ever get about 2oz out in 15 minutes. So if I had to go somewhere I had to plan about 3 days in advance. But others can get out 8 or 9oz in a couple of minutes which is brilliant. I did hear one story of a mother who gave up 'breast' feeding when she was pumping in the middle of the night and blood came out instead of milk. As she was at home full time with her baby who was only a few weeks old I couldn't understand (and was terrified of asking) why she was pumping in the first place. However, the answer to your question is, yes, sometimes pumping can be a lifesaver.
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