Lactation Consultant Nicola O'Byrne shares what breastfeeding support really looks like from her perspective, and the impact this support has on mothers.
I got two very different messages from Instagram followers last week. Both had listened to my stories, and I was struck by how they had experienced very different breastfeeding support after their baby’s birth. Both had what could be considered traumatic births but the outcome for breastfeeding was very different.
The first message:
“I’d a miserable start with my first baby - I had HELLP syndrome so was in intensive care for 27 hours, then on blood pressure medication for 6 weeks which lowered my milk supply. I got to the point after a few weeks where he was fully breastfed and continued until he was 9 months. My husband and mum were hugely supportive in that they knew it was important to me to reclaim some control, given the way the birth had gone, and did everything they could to encourage breastfeeding. My mother in law was fab too and also my GP and PHN. No one ever pushed me to give formula. Friends were so important too.”
The second message:
“I had a preterm baby last year, I wanted to breastfeed. I was in shock as he was born 6 weeks early after a C section I hadn't planned for. My doctor told me not to get too excited about being able to breastfeed just because I had big boobs. The nurse in the special care baby unit told me my nipples were too small and she couldn’t see it working. She pointed me in the direction of the pump room but didn’t show me how to use it. Needless to say after pumping and trying to breastfeed, while spending almost a month in the SCBU, it did not work. I had been bombarded with such negativity all the way that I just couldn't lift myself out of it. My baby is perfect and healthy and I gave him every tiny drop that came out of me for 8 weeks. But I still feel anger that I wasn't strong enough to keep out the negative comments. First-time mum and I thought everyone else knew better! I didn’t need a group or friends; I needed someone to believe in me and show me how.”
So we hear the word “support” around breastfeeding a lot. What does it really mean? In the Cambridge English Dictionary,the definition of support is “to agree with and give encouragement to someone or something because you want him, her, or it to succeed: For breastfeeding families this means…
- Supporting the mother who intends to breastfeed
- Supporting the mother and baby/babies to establish and keep breastfeeding for as long as they wish.
- Supporting the breastfeeding family in the community.
This is everyone’s responsibility. It begins in the hospitals and it’s not just the midwives job to help latch the baby on. Mothers who have someone sit and observe a full feed while being taught about what's happening are filled with confidence and self-efficacy. Out in the community, services such as public health centres, GP surgeries, pharmacies (they are often the first port of call for new parents) all need to know and encourage breastfeeding families.
Living in a culture that supports breastfeeding means it’s actually not even noticed at all. It’s unremarkable, similar to breathing – it’s just how babies are fed. Families can do so much to support breastfeeding and having a conversation before the baby is born can make all the difference. Most negative comments come from a place of love and concern or fear of the unknown. This is one area where partners can help by speaking up if someone makes a negative comment.
Sometimes here in Ireland support might be confused with giving a mother a break - People don’t understand that it’s not generally helpful to separate the mother and baby in the early days. Breastfeeding babies can feed 10 times a day, others might feed 20 times a day. Some take a feed in 10 minutes where others are more leisurely and might take 40 minutes, with a few breaks. There are no hard and fast rules.
The mother will thrive if she’s supported and encouraged to sit and feed her baby. There needs to be no expectations of her other than caring for the baby. The supporters feed the mother and don’t forget to praise her for doing a great job- she’s growing a human after all! Lastly, we need to remember to praise the supporters for helping the mother and baby. True support comes from knowledge about breastfeeding and non-judgemental advice to help with issues.
There are many ways to access support outside the family unit – the HSE website has some excellent information on all the professional and voluntary supports available. Looking at those two mothers experiences of support, it’s very clear that it starts from pregnancy and extends for a long time after birth. Mothers tend to blame themselves if breastfeeding isn’t supported and guilt sets in. Breastfeeding was never something that was meant to be done alone – remember that saying “It takes a village to raise a child”