Breastfeeding in the Middle Ground

I hesitated a lot before writing this post. It’s not like me. I don’t hesitate in telling you what my boys and I ate for breakfast, packed lunch, dinner or tea, usually posting photos and recipes of it on twitter and facebook. (I probably should hesitate more about that, but that’s a whole other blogpost.)

But I’ve never really talked about breastfeeding before in a public forum. I don’t even like using the word “breastfeeding” but here I am. And I’m slightly terrified.

I recently joined the Irish Parenting Bloggers Group and decided, since I’m currently breastfeeding to take part in my first ever blogmarch to mark World Breastfeeding Week. To read the other contributions check out mama.ie.

Talking about breastfeeding, it’s not the done thing really is it? It’s like the whole TIME magazine cover, “Are you Mom enough?”. I think that if I share my views I’m going to unleash endless wrath from all sides. I imagine that people will either think that I’m a slacker for giving my baby a bottle/soother/formula/weaning at 6 months or they’ll think that I’m a hippy treehugger who just wants to show the world her boobs/is too mean to buy formula/ and that I should go sit in a toilet cubicle rather than feed the baby at a café or in the sitting room and offend them by letting baby feed in their presence.

I’m neither. I’m here, in the middle ground, and there are lots of us. We’re the forgotten breastfeeders, the ones the stereotypers forget, the silent majority. We look and sound just like normal people (who are covered in baby puke), we just happen to feed our babies ourselves.
Ireland has a very low breastfeeding rate in international terms and according to
Breastfeeding.ie only 47% of infants are breastfed leaving hospital and this drops to a tiny 10% at 6 months.

My experience

I fed both my boys to six months (weaning to formula gradually from 5 months) and hope to do the same with my baby girl, in the interests of equality for all, and the overpowering Mammyguilt.

Like most babies born in the 1970’s I wasn’t breastfed myself and only vaguely remember being aware of one aunt and one family friend breastfeeding during my childhood, but I decided to “give it a go” with my first baby. I convinced myself that my attitude was one of “if it works it works” and despite a difficult delivery and a three day stay in the SBCU at Wexford General my eldest latched for the first time at three days old and took to it like a duck to water. His younger brother and sister clicked from the first attempt. It worked, so I did it. Who knows what would have happened if it hadn’t just worked?

Now, we’ve had hiccups, thrush on baby 1, agonising bleeding nipples on the other two, not to mention countless stinging letdowns and plugged ducts but nothing serious. (I have had three colicky babies though, in case I sound smug, so cut me some slack)

I know that I’ve been lucky, and have friends who would love to have fed and it just didn’t work out for them. I’ve amazing friends who pumped for months on end when their babies wouldn’t latch. They, in my eyes, are the superhero Mammies, pumping is tough going. (take a bow ladies if you are reading this, you know who you are)

What I found helpful

What I found helpful on my breastfeeding journey was the support of other women. I remember sending two friends with babies a tearful email when my first baby was 3 weeks old asking if things ever got better and receiving two emails and followup phonecalls in return, one from Limerick, the other from Norway reassuring me that I was normal and giving me survival tips. I feel they have passed the baton to me and I find myself encouraging pregnant friends or new mums I meet at the clinic to ring me or email me at any time day or night if they need a chat or to bounce something off someone who has had more sleep, and they do, mostly during the day thankfully.

The midwives in Wexford Maternity Unit were very supportive in helping me to pump colostrum and get established feeding, and having read some of the other posts on this blogmarch I realise how lucky I was to have my babies in Wexford where the staff really did look after me.

I confess that I was afraid to go to any of the many breastfeeding support groups (Office Mum has a list of resources here) as I felt that I wasn’t hardcore enough, that they would scoff at my baby’s soother, declare him deficient of gut flora thanks to the formula that kept him alive in the incubator and expel us from their pure milky midst. I did attend my local public health centre breastfeeding clinic, and through chatting with other Mums there I learned so much and made some great friends.

I felt isolated and tired on long nightfeeds which I used to do in a dark empty room upstairs, alone (this was pre smartphone, nowadays you’re never alone) so I started doing my nightfeeds downstairs, on the couch with the TV playing series that I had recorded earlier, it made the nightfeed experience much easier. These days I read articles I’ve bookmarked on my phone and catch up on twitter and facebook messages.

Also, chocolate digestives and my Mammy’s scones with Kerrygold butter on top contributed greatly to my breastfeeding success. On my second baby a friend recommended the “Total Baby” iphone app which I wouldn’t be without, so much so that as soon as I need to feed the baby I look for my phone and my boys now think that it’s a remote control for my boobs.

What I found unhelpful

What I found unhelpful was the raised eyebrows or looks of disgust when I fed my baby in public, people asking how long I intended to feed, people constantly suggesting that my eating X Y or Z may have been the reason that my baby had colic (enough with the mammyguilt), judgey people when I gave my baby a bottle, judgey people when I breastfed and bizarrely the literature that is supposed to encourage you to breastfeed but instead makes you think that you have been duped.

I remember my husband and I, exhausted from minding our colicky newborn Iaughing looking at the breastfeeding leaflets that mention only the positive. A complete absence of tender sore breasts, nippleshields, nightsweats, of smelling of sour milk all the time, of waking up on sheets drenched in milk, of bleeding nipples or engorged breasts or thrush or mastitis. This is simply unhelpful, new mums are unprepared when they meet these challenges and in “survival mode” with a newborn so struggling to keep it all together. Keeping it honest and real would be more helpful, although the authorities are unlikely to adopt the approach of the Scarymommy blog- 10 mildly shallow reasons to breastfeed which I think would be more successful.

The bottom line from the middle ground

Along with my attitude of “If it works it works” I’d add “Do what’s best for everyone”.

I believe that a baby needs a well and happy mother more than he or she needs breastmilk. A bottle of formula to supplement or to cover when you have some baby-free time will not do any harm in my experience (I have no medical evidence but my kids are doing fine) and if continuing to breastfeed makes life harder for everyone it is OK to stop. Do what’s best for everyone and easy on the Mammyguilt.

53 Comments

  1. Lovely post Sinead. Down with the judgeyness!

  2. Wonderful post. Middle ground great way of putting it. Here’s to the middle ground mammies!

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  5. I was/am adamantly for breast feeding…but, I have known many people who find it challenging. Each situation is different but to each of these friends I have said “Do what you think is best for you and your family. One friend insisted she couldn’t achieve a let down of milk…whilst I don’t believe this is possible, I knew my friend was very young and very uptight and very modest. I did all I could to help her, but let her make her own choice. She chose the bottle. Another friend had a seven year daughter and then twins. She came to La Leche meetings and fully intended to breast feed them. However her mental attitude, her family circumstances and the fact that other people could lend helping hands at feed time, including the other child, led her to feel more relaxed bottle feeding. When she persevered with the breast she was up tight, and the two babies picked up on this, as babies do! So, for her, the choice was to bottle feed. I always add: the first colestrum feed is most important. One day’s nursing is better than none. One week’s nursing is better than one day…one month better than a week etc. Every added breast feed is a bonus. And I know from experience that it is possible to nurse babies discreetly. So thank you for your support of others. I do as much as I can too. We may not achieve many successes individually, but together what a difference we can make…by going up to nursing mothers and telling them what a wonderful job they are doing…and by not judging our bottle feeding sisters.

  6. You are so right about a baby needing a happy and healthy mother more than anything else. Great post.

    Also, I don’t think my mother has ever said the word “breast.” “Are you still feeding her?” she’d ask, with a nod at my front.

  7. Elizabeth Grogan

    Thanks for posting this Sinead, you know I had a similar experience to you and thank you for being on the end of the phone when I needed you. I think the full truth of breastfeeding needs to be put out there more and then people won’t feel that they are ‘doing it wrong’ or ‘this is not working, they are still feeding one hour later’. If we know all the ups and downs we will know we are doing our best and will more likely continue to breastfeed.
    You are doing great Sinead, your kids are very lucky.

  8. Ah the mammyguilt, there’s nothing like it! I think that, regardless of how we choose to feed our babies, the most important thing is that we’re supported and informed in our choices, both within and without the healthcare system. We could do with more honest, real discussion around breastfeeding (positive and negative) in particular here. Posts like this are a great jumping off point!

  9. I adore this post Sinead! I think there is not enough at all out there about the middleground and yet as with most things in life, that’s where most people are. I think that sometimes that high expectations can put people off even trying to breastfeed. And I also think a lot of people are afraid of joining a bf group – I was too, until close to the end of my third maternity leave when I went to my first LLL meeting. It was fantastic, I met such a wonderful group of mums all just chatting and drinking coffee. I was even brave enough to dig out the soother that I’d hidden on the way in, as I was far from the only one using one 🙂

    • Yes, the middle is bulging I think!

      I still haven’t braved a group other than the PHN weighing on, good to know that soothers aren’t contraband, and also that you had the same fears as me. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  10. Mammy sounds a lot like mammary… ever noticed? 😉

    So it’s mom/mommy in the US, mum/mummy in the UK, and mam/mammy in Ireland… so interesting. Thanks for the link to the post. This was hysterical. I loved it:

    “…soon as I need to feed the baby I look for my phone and my boys now think that it’s a remote control for my boobs….”

  11. Mary Frances Ryan

    It was lovely to read your honest, very real account of breastfeeding your baby – I am a big fan. I fed my first baby myself, going from the trepidation of wondering would I be seen in the car to six months later discreetly feeding in cafes – even with my father-in-law present. I came to know the tricks of getting my little girl latched on without anyone really noticing what I was at… Some awkward moments when well meaning people leaned in for a peek of baby before realising I was feeding, not just cradling. It was difficult at the start – little girl wouldn’t open her mouth to latch, kept biting at her lower lip. A variety of kind mid wives saved me – especially the one who listened to me when I said I didn’t think my baby was really sucking. After over a day I don’t know if she had got any milk, she was a great little pretender! That midwife persevered with my great want to breast feed. She helped me express once and suggested a nipple shield. I think I got my first milk into my baby girl from a little cup, and she got the hang of opening her mouth properly better with the shield. For me it was a far better option than giving up. After three weeks I managed to get her onto my breasts without the shields, another struggle and another milestone. Perhaps I was lucky, maybe she could have got too accustomed to the shields, maybe my supply might have got affected… There are so many detractors to shields – but they got me there. I fed little girl from breast and expressed breastmilk for eight months until I weaned her gradually as I returned to work. Now I am pregnant again and wonder what lies ahead, I am probably more worried that the breastfeeding works out than about the actual labour! For me it was fundamental in my mothering experience, in my bond with my girl. I feel I wrapped her in all I could give her of me, her own little protective forcefield. The choices I made along the way were all because I wanted to do this for her and for me. I know this is a long reply but I know so few people who actually breastfeed – a few friends and new friends I made at the cuidiu/ public health nurse weighing baby group in wexford. All mums doing it their own way, plenty of soothers around! But in my day to day life breastfeeding women are so few and far between. That peer support is very thin on the ground unless you really seek it out. So much so I find women think what I choose to do is a major level of difficulty, even a bit embarrassing. It is not simple, it is a learned skill – like so many others. And it can have its difficult days – blocked duct days etc. But I don’t think overall difficult is the right word when for most of the time it was so very easy. I hope more women open up about it. As for feeling embarrassed, well my boobs don’t in the least!

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply Mary Frances, what you wrote about your little girl and the forcefield is beautiful.
      I found nipple shields a lifesaver on my 2nd boy, without them I’d have quit, no question.
      It’s difficult if there’s nobody in your social circle feeding or who has recently fed, and you’d never know it was even possible from watching TV!

      I hope all goes well for you and that you have a happy and healthy pregnancy. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  12. I’m always amazed at the raised eyebrows. I rem being asked in a shopping centre ( I was feeding 3 month old discreetly) if I wanted to use the room by a cleaning lady. I looked at her in amazement ‘ what room?’ She explained and I replied ‘ no I’m fine here’ and she smiled and went on. After that, I heard of women having to leave shopping centres for feeding their babies

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  14. This is a super post Sinead, I think that “middle ground” is where a lot of Mammys sit 🙂 I struggled at the start with feeding my first baby and had v.poor support from hospital and PHN. In fact, she said on her second visit to the house, “oh I had fully expected you would be onto the bottle by now”. If it wasn’t for the support of my amazing husband and my super sister-in-law posting me nipple shields I wouldn’t have been able to continue.

    I got to six months with my first and a year with my second. He was a big baby and people were taken aback that I was breastfeeding “sure look at the size of him, he couldn’t be getting enough, poor child must be starving, should be topping up with a bottle etc, etc…..”. I was aware that the fact I am no “Pamela Anderson” is neither here nor there when it comes to milk supply but the implication was that I was starving the poor wee man which was hard to deal with. That’s when the guilt starts to creep up on you, all we want is to do our best.

    I saw a great post recently on a blog that I follow, not sure if it may be one you have come across:

    http://babyccinokids.com/blog/2013/07/11/breastfeeding-in-public-2/?awt_l=9cn5l&awt_m=JqcKfimukbJM2K#more

    There is a link there to a video an English poet called Hollie McNish, amazing stuff.

    http://www.phdinparenting.com/blog/2013/7/7/in-this-country-of-billboards-covered-with-tits-i-think-we-s.html

    Congratulations to you on your Bumble of Pink, looks like you have a gorgeous little family!

    • Thanks for commenting Catherine. Isn’t it amazing what ridiculous things people say when you’re breastfeeding? I hadn’t seen that website thanks for sharing. Hollie’s poem is powerful. Glad you enjoyed my post.

  15. Lovely post and I love the term “Middle Ground” 🙂

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  17. Great article Sinead! I always have to use shields on my nipples!

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  19. Well written Sinead. Almost brought a tear to my eye (in a nice way!). I still to this day remember the sheer agony I had with almost ever feed I had with G, due to all the things you mentioned, mastitus, thrush, latching difficulties.. I was devastated that I “only” managed one month with him, but looking back, I think I did good!! ( I also remember contacting you, a near stranger at the time for advice 🙂 ).it really should be written about more. Well done!

    • Thanks Susan, it means a lot when people I know in “real life” take the time to type a comment. You did BRILLIANTLY 🙂 See what a beautiful relationship comes from giving strangers your phone number at clinics 🙂

  20. Thanks for this; love an honest take on breastfeeding. Expecting my first any day now and am overwhelmed with breastfeeding literature,

  21. Thanks for sharing Sinead, it’s always a tough topic to write about. I breastfed my son and I’m in the middle ground too. I try to encourage my friends and family to breastfeed but at the same time if it’s not working out for the Mum then it’s better for the baby to be bottle fed “Happy Mummy = Happy Baby”. One thing that you mentioned I completely agree with is that more information needs to be given to women on how tough breastfeeding is going to be not to put them off breastfeeding but to prepare them. I was lucky that my older sister breastfed and she was more than honest with me about the pros and cons!! Finally I think if anyone is going to consider breastfeeding they should find someone they can call when they start breastfeeding who can provide support. This makes a big difference. Fiona

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Fiona. I’m with you on all that, if people know the bad bits they’re prepared and don’t see themselves as having failed. Let’s keep spreading the word 🙂

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  23. Hi Sinéad
    Thanks for following on Twitter. It was nice to come across your blog as a result. I must admit, this post was a little long, so I skimmed through some of it 🙂
    However I did want to share something I found a week or 2 ago, and shared with my wife, who is also breastfeeding (or nursing as it is more commonly called here in the US). It has a few tongue-in-cheek responses to some of the negativity shown towards breastfeeding. I hope it results in a few chuckles
    http://www.mommyish.com/2013/08/06/8-things-not-to-say-to-an-extended-breastfeeding-mom/
    I must say, we don’t hear those types of comments much here in America, but when we’re back home in Ireland, I definitely notice a difference (and I’m just the dad 🙂 ). It’s quite common for people here to nurse past 12 months (I think that’s actually what the American pediatric association recommend, but I think back home, it’s 6 months.

    Congrats on your little one 🙂 Our new arrival is a June baby too!
    Liam

  24. Hi Sinéad
    Thanks for following on Twitter. It was nice to come across your blog as a result. I must admit, this post was a little long, so I skimmed through some of it 🙂
    However I did want to share something I found a week or 2 ago, and shared with my wife, who is also breastfeeding (or nursing as it is more commonly called here in the US). It has a few tongue-in-cheek responses to some of the negativity shown towards breastfeeding. I hope it results in a few chuckles
    http://www.mommyish.com/2013/08/06/8-things-not-to-say-to-an-extended-breastfeeding-mom/
    I must say, we don’t hear those types of comments much here in America, but when we’re back home in Ireland, I definitely notice a difference (and I’m just the dad 🙂 ). It’s quite common for people here to nurse past 12 months (I think that’s actually what the American pediatric association recommend, but I think back home, it’s 6 months.

    Congrats on your little one 🙂 Our new arrival is a June baby too!
    Liam

  25. I just read your article on the Independent website and thank god for a reasonable and realistic article on breastfeeding in the media for once! I couldn’t believe the amount of judgement and guilt I felt after having my first baby last year when she didn’t just crawl up my belly and latch on like the baby in the antenatal class video. I pumped for her for an exhausting 7 months until I found out I was pregnant with my next baby. I would never now judge any woman for how she chooses to feed her baby.
    Thank you for your lovely and balanced article.

    • Thanks so much for finding the blog to comment Dearbhail. Mums need more people like us I think to make them know that it can be hard and to go easy on themselves. Seven months pumping is amazing, well done. Hope your family is thriving with or without the pump:)

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