10 things they don’t tell you about breastfeeding
Knowing what to expect, as well as better support, is key
At a breastfeeding support group meeting in Lusk, north County Dublin were, from left to right, Emma Lericque with son Colin; Suzanne Webb with daughter Lucy Niland; Karolina McKittrick and son Jack; Anna Clarke with Jeremiah; Michelle Cannon with Leah-Joy; and Aine Conneff with Oisin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Irish mothers will breastfeed in public en masse in at least 14 different venues around the country this Saturday, as part of the international Quintessence Challenge to see how many babies can be fed simultaneously in one place.
A voluntary group, Friends of Breastfeeding, co-ordinates the event here, in an effort to promote the importance – and normality – of this way of feeding babies. Other events with a similar aim are taking place during National Breastfeeding Week, which starts today.
Despite extensive evidence of health benefits for both baby and mother, Ireland continues to have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world – only 55 per cent of mothers are feeding their babies this way when they leave hospital (47 per cent exclusively) and, by three months, this has dropped to almost 39 per cent (24 per cent exclusively), according to data from 2011.
Among mothers who decide against it from the start, embarrassment and unfamiliarity are cited as the principal factors, according to the HSE’s national breastfeeding co-ordinator, Siobhán Hourigan.
The main reasons women give for deciding to stop, earlier than perhaps they intended, is exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed.
Hourigan attributes this partly to women not understanding what to expect – particularly if they are not getting support from family, friends and the community.
For instance, it’s perfectly normal for a baby to want to feed between eight to 12 times in 24 hours, as is “cluster feeding”, when the baby keeps coming back looking for more.
It doesn’t mean you can’t produce enough milk; frequent feeding builds up the supply, whereas supplementing with a bottle has the opposite effect.
So what else do they not tell you about breastfeeding in advance – or, at least, you don’t hear because, as a first-time mother, you are so fixated on what is going to happen in the labour ward? Take this list of 10 for starters:
1 It’s natural but that doesn’t mean it’s easy: Visions of maternal bliss as an angelic baby nuzzles into your chest may be shattered by piercing nipple pain when the baby latches on.
Like any new skill, it may take a bit of practice to get it right, says lactation consultant Sue Jameson. But that doesn’t mean you should put up with discomfort beyond what she describes as being “a bit got at”, without looking for help.
There is a perception that breastfeeding is going to hurt and that’s normal – it’s not, stresses Hourigan.
While in the first fortnight you might feel a pinch when the baby latches on, you should not put up with prolonged pain.
2 You should look for breastfeeding support before you have the baby: While it is near impossible for first-time mothers to think beyond the birth, once you have a baby plonked on your chest, it is going to be a very steep learning curve.
It is a good idea to have met the people whose help you may need – such as your public health nurse and members of your nearest breastfeeding support group.
There are nearly 200 support groups around the country (see breastfeeding.ie for one near you) and counties with particularly low breastfeeding rates, such as Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim, where less than 8 per cent of mothers continue after three months, are being targeted for more support.
Under a new initiative in Kerry, Hourigan reports that public health nurses are now visiting mums before birth.
They find it saves time in the post-natal period because, having met the mother, they can really focus on her needs during the first visit within 48 hours of discharge from hospital.
3 It’s really much handier: There are no bottles to sterilise or feeds to prepare and you just need to chuck a nappy or two into a bag when you leave the house. What’s more, it is the perfect excuse to sit down and enjoy time with your baby.
4 You are your baby’s dummy: Soothers are not recommended in the first few weeks because babies may find it difficult to attach to the breast after using them.
But they don’t need them anyway – you don’t get a better pacifier than the breast.
5 Breastfeeding in public is no big deal: If you haven’t done it before, you think everybody is going to stare. In fact, they are unlikely to notice – an artfully draped scarf or specially designed breastfeeding top provides all the cover you need.
6 Dads can make or break breastfeeding: Studies show that the more supportive partners are, the longer the mother is likely to continue.
The father can be doing everything except breastfeeding – bathing, changing nappies, providing meals, suggests Jameson.
“Dad’s relationship with the baby is really important,” she adds, “because it teaches the baby that love and nurture and warmth can also come from the non-food parent.”