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.