Breastfeeding in public: why do we need to see it?

Sing and Sign over, I tied Talitha into her woven wrap, chosen because we were asked to wear something red, and rushed for the bus. I could not have possibly missed my stop. It was marked by a crowd of mothers (some reports say 200, others 300) and their babies and placards out on the pavement and filtering into the Park Street Café in Bristol.

Their placards read: “Lactavist”, “No one puts baby in a corner”, “Freedom to Feed” and “Bristol Mother Suckers”. We were all there because a woman named Kelly Schaecher told us that she’d been asked to move to a corner while breastfeeding in the café. She said that the incident started this way and ended with her being verbally abused as she walked up Park Street. The café manager has publicly apologised and put up a “Breastfeeding is welcome here” sticker on the café’s window.

So we were there, breastfeeding our children, having our photos taken and uniting in saying that a woman’s right to breastfeed her child publicly and her child’s right to be breastfed publicly need to be protected.

Yet it occurred to me when I was feeding Talitha to sleep last night that not everyone who passed by yesterday would have understood why this is so important or, even perhaps, why these are rights. Why do we need see women breastfeeding out in the open?

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Breastfeeding beyond one is not “just” for mum

The toddler walked up to his mother, climbed into her lap and asked for milk. She lifted her shirt, latched him on and continued to chat with us. “How old is he?” I asked. Two. That seemed too old to me a few years ago.

I thought breastfeeding beyond one year was weird and pointless. It was a thing some mothers did but why? I couldn’t tell. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the way breastfeeding seemed to attach children to their mothers to begin with. It seemed so limiting for women. They couldn’t go anywhere. Why would you prolong this?

Then I got pregnant. As my baby grew I realised that attachment was in our biology. We were meant to be close from the beginning. Of course I would breastfeed her. I went to an NCT antenatal course and came away with a flyer on the benefits of breastfeeding. To two years. You mean, a recognised body had cause to call “extended” breastfeeding normal?

Then I had the baby and though breastfeeding was difficult, it felt right. Breastfeeding for a year made emotional and logical sense. Then breastfeeding got really, really, really complicated and I desperately wanted to do it. At least for three months. At least for six months. At least until next month. Oh if we could only get to a year.
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Why learn to hand express?

It’s National Breastfeeding Awareness Week here in the UK. It’s got me thinking about why breastfeeding awareness is important and what it’s important to be aware of.

Call it a bit niche but I think women need to know more about pumping and hand expressing because chances are, if you’re lactating, you may need to do one or both of them at some point.

In fact, I honestly can’t think of why they’re not given so much as a mention in most antenatal breastfeeding classes other than that teachers have enough of a challenge trying to convince women to give breastfeeding a go without mentioning something that sounds like hard work.

A lot of women have a hard time expressing. It’s never going to be quite as effective at emptying your breasts as a healthy full-term baby with a full oral function will be. Yet many women find that, with the right conditions and some decent practice, they can get things going.

I’ve pulled together a few ideas on why I think all pregnant and breastfeeding women should get some information on hand expressing.
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Win a Babybeads breastfeeding necklace

As part of National Breastfeeding Awareness Week 2012, I’m giving away a Babybeads breastfeeding necklace. It’s also a smaller giveaway I’m running as part of the Keep Britain Breastfeeding Scavenger Hunt. “What is breastfeeding necklace,” I hear you say? Well, take a look at this…

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What breastfeeding support isn’t

Support. We keep hearing how important it is. Research – and logic – would tell us that most women physically can breastfeed. A lot of the women I’ve met want (or wanted) to. Yet for so many, the story just does not play out that way. Support. It seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle. But what does it even mean?

I finished training to be a breastfeeding peer supporter a couple of months ago and have been volunteering at my local breastfeeding group. My own breastfeeding experience over the past year, my short time spent supporting and other women’s stories have hugely impacted my understanding of what breastfeeding support means and why it’s so valuable to protecting breastfeeding relationships. (See why I think support is so important in Six ways to prepare for breastfeeding)

It’s also given me a pretty clear idea of what it isn’t.

Breastfeeding support isn’t aggressive
Get enough parents in a room and you’re likely to hear at least one story about feeling “bullied into breastfeeding”. It will usually involve the Breast is Best tagline. I cringe whenever I hear that phrase. It may have worked once upon a time but we no longer need to hear a message which idealises breastfeeding (if breast is special then maybe it’s only for some – the rest of us have to make do with formula).

What’s worse, ask the questions “Did you feel listened to? Did you feel empowered with information to make your decision?” and the answer is usually “No.” We have to wonder who benefits from this kind of approach – slating parents if they don’t keep going but then not actually helping them find the solutions to do so.
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Six ways to prepare for breastfeeding

“I wish I’d prepared in advance for breastfeeding.” I’ve lost track of how many times I have said this over the past year. People usually respond: “You can’t really get it until the baby comes.”

To an extent, they’re right. It’s one thing to familiarise yourself with an NCT diagram and another to actually introduce your newborn to your breast. Yet I disagree. You can prepare for breastfeeding. In fact, I think you should if you want to give yourself the best chance of meeting your breastfeeding goals.

My own breastfeeding success is a mixed story. I would rather not have introduced formula supplements from two months until six months but I’m grateful for being able to continue to breastfeed. I don’t beat myself up about this but being completely realistic, I could have benefited from some preparation.

In a perfect world, we would not have to prepare for breastfeeding. It would just happen. For many women it does. It probably could be that simple for more of us if we saw more women breastfeeding, preferably – dare I say it – with breasts exposed.

We’re certainly not helped by the fact that we no longer trust our bodies, or our babies, to do what they’re designed to do. I thank a number of things for that but off the top of my head, thank you, formula advertising and misogyny.

Here are a few suggestions for what pregnant mothers can do to prepare, in no particular order. Please add yours in the comments.
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How breastfeeding shaped our first year

My Talitha,

We breastfed through painful contractions which shrank my uterus, my terror and shock from the birth, your discomfort from a long and difficult labour, and my exhaustion from days and nights of no rhythm.

It taught me that you are mine. I am yours.

We breastfed through a late diagnosed tongue-tie, repeated plugged ducts, low milk supply, a hundred efforts to make things right, a score of deadlines which came and went without me being able to bring myself to stop, breastfeed after breastfeed which I left me stressed, worried and confused and supplements of formula.

It taught me to look at you carefully, to trust my instincts when I think something’s wrong, to fight for what is ours. It taught me not to judge others. It taught me to accept help, to take one moment at a time, to rely on God for strength.

We breastfed through frequent night wakings, car cryings, clingy periods and a transatlantic airplane journey.

It taught me to hold you close. It taught me that your wants and needs matter, that I have more to give than I ever imagined I did, that my life is no longer just about me.
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