This article was first published in La Leche League GB ‘Breastfeeding Matters’ magazine, number 185, September/October 2011.
When I was pregnant I was asked whether I would breast or bottle-feeding. This puzzled me because there was never a question, to me breastfeeding is simply how you feed your baby. Luckily, I come from a family who support breastfeeding, including my Nanna who fed twins at a time it was ‘normal’ to bottle-feed, my Aunty who fed her children until they naturally weaned, and my mother who breastfed me and my brothers. I therefore felt supported in embarking on feeding my own baby.
I planned on having an active natural birth, feeling physically and emotionally prepared to give birth, after months of yoga, swimming, walking and research into giving birth naturally. However, because my baby was ‘back to back’ I was unable to deliver him naturally. After a long labour and failed forceps delivery I was rushed to theatre to have an emergency c-section under general anaesthetic. My husband held our healthy baby boy, Ewan James, for almost three hours before I was able to see him. The moment my eyes locked with his is etched on my mind; I felt an indescribable feeling of love for him, as well as utter amazement he was mine, he was such a beautiful, perfect little being. When the midwife placed him on my chest, he latched on and fed immediately. He knew exactly what to do, as he has ever since.
For the first few days the midwives brought Ewan to me every time he needed to feed because I was too weak and full of drugs to do this myself, recovering from the caesarean, as well as suffering from post-operative bowel complications, which meant I couldn’t eat or drink. The first time I was able to pick-up and feed Ewan independently was wonderful. I soon got used to breastfeeding, and apart from feeling a little sore and full when my milk came in, there were no problems. After four days in hospital I was relieved to be transferred to a local birthing centre, to recuperate in more peaceful surroundings, before arriving home almost a week after giving birth.
To begin with, I fed Ewan sitting up, even at night, and felt unsure about feeding in public. Over time I learnt to feed Ewan lying down, which enabled me to have a much better night’s sleep as I wasn’t continually picking Ewan up to feed him, then half falling asleep in a slumped upright position before putting him back in his moses basket. Although co-sleeping had never even occurred to me whilst I was pregnant, we naturally progressed to this arrangement over time. Whilst my friends were fighting against their babies frequent needs to night nurse, attempting to make their babies sleep through the night, I felt more relaxed and more confident I was meeting Ewan’s needs to nurse by sleeping next to him. It is also lovely to snuggle up next to my baby, to have that close skin-to-skin contact, and to wake up next to a smiling baby.
I also developed the confidence to nurse in public, after considering how ridiculous it was to nurse in hot, smelly changing rooms and toilets, no place for a baby to feed or for me to feel comfortable. I also feed Ewan in what some may consider the most unusual of places; as mountaineers my husband and I have continued to venture into the mountains with Ewan in tow, carried by Daddy, feeding him whenever necessary. In the cold this has meant feeding Ewan being sheltered in a survival bag (a very lightweight tent), or in warmer weather thoroughly enjoying the view with my baby. This is one of the many beauties of breastfeeding; you can feed your baby wherever and whenever you need to, without the need for special equipment or set schedules.
Breastfeeding soon became the main way I mothered my baby. Whenever Ewan has been ill or unsettled, I have nursed him, which instantly calms him down. Our breastfeeding relationship has become one of symbiosis, a two-way form of communication and need for each other. Leading such an active, busy life as a young parent, I have come to rely on those quiet moments when feeding him to sit back and relax. It has also given me the opportunity to read about ways of parenting, especially learning from the wisdom of other cultures and nature, and to meditate on this.
Equally, in those early months to see Ewan’s utter bliss after a long feed, lying full of milk, content, and later as he twiddles with my hair, stares into my eyes and gives me a huge loving smile, these are moments that are priceless. To know my child has grown because of the milk I have provided, to have nurtured him in this way, has made me appreciate the true value of breastfeeding. This has encouraged me to support my friends with breastfeeding, to attend La Leche meetings, and to start researching this vast topic.
I feel passionate about this subject as well as angered and saddened by how many people have been culturally conditioned into accepting that feeding our babies artificially is somehow more appropriate than feeding them milk which has been personally tailored for our babies. The sexual, political, social, historical and economic factors are too many, to complex and to emotive to venture into here. Safe to say, I know I am very fortunate to have a very supportive family and network of friends who have enabled me to feel confident in my own body and know what I am doing is right. As a woman who has also made the decision to not return to work I also feel no pressure to wean Ewan until he is ready. This is in stark contrast to friends I know who have made the often heartbreaking decision to wean their babies from the breast early in their bid to feel able to return to a workplace separate from their babies, or who have felt pressure from their partners and/or family, as well as from wider society, to feed their babies formula. Without a network of support where breastfeeding is normalised, it is no wonder so many women either do not breastfeed at all or do so for such a short period of time.
Recently this breastfeeding relationship was briefly disrupted because of Ewan teething. He refused to feed because he had developed a tongue ulcer which meant it was too painful for him to suckle. I found this quite traumatic as it made me realise how much I rely on breastfeeding Ewan as my way of mothering him, soothing, calming, nurturing him. From this experience I have learnt how to express and Ewan has learnt how to feed from an open cup, both of which will be useful in the future.
Because we have chosen the baby-led weaning route Ewan has very gradually, in his own time, learnt to eat food with his fingers, and now also using his own spoon and bowl. He eats what we eat, or if he chooses not to I breastfeed him. Again, this has felt the most natural, gentle and easy route to follow for us all, like co-sleeping, as we listen to what Ewan really needs.
I am looking forward to continuing to breastfeed Ewan, who is now 10 months old, as he grows into a toddler; as he ventures more into the world he shall be able to return to me for nurture, for comfort and for reassurance. Like all journeys I am not aiming for the destination but the experience along the way. This journey so far has taught me more than I ever imagined, about myself, my baby, our amazing bodies, our culture, and opened me up to new ways of seeing.