05 Aug

No experience needed, but prior knowledge advantageous: What I learned about breastfeeding second time around – by Alyson Spicer

“Mmm, you’re feeding him like a multip.”

The midwife preparing to discharge me gave a satisfied nod. I wasn’t sure what she’d said. “Like a what?”

“A multip. You’ve had a baby before, haven’t you?”

Oh Christ, was it that obvious? Had parenting a toddler really left me looking so noticeably haggard? Did I have Weetabix in my hair? But then I looked down. I was (slightly wonkily) cradling my not-quite-a-day-old son in one arm, while making notes with the other hand and occasionally pausing to guzzle more peppermint tea or tweak my top out of the way. He was doggedly cracking on and doing his thing.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t really paused in my conversation, and that it probably looked like I wasn’t paying much attention to what he was doing. It was pretty clear how this contrasted with my first days of learning to breastfeed three years before: constantly questioning, “Am I doing this right? How do I know?”; watching like a paranoid hawk for every possible feeding cue; requiring all body parts at exactly the right angle, precisely the right arrangement of pillows, no distractions…it was all a world away from the sort of casual lolling that baby number 2 and I were currently engaged in.

So I took her point.

But, previous time served in the breastfeeding trenches aside, I also had another secret weapon that she wasn’t aware of. When my first baby was a year old, I’d trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter, with the Breastfeeding Network. I’d volunteered at drop in groups for parents and their babies, offering information and support to help establish and maintain breastfeeding – everything from explaining how milk supply works to practical tips on positioning the baby at the breast…even ideas for gently handling well-meaning but clueless family members.

So when it comes to breastfeeding I should, on paper at least, have a fair idea what I’m doing.

Working as a peer supporter and then going back for another crack at breastfeeding myself has been an interesting experience. At almost 6 months in, it feels like it’s come easily this time. In some ways that’s definitely true – no cracked nipples, no worries about supply, no issues with baby’s weight, no mastitis. But there have also been times when it is the most challenging and frustrating thing in the world (Newsflash: being a trained peer supporter does not make you immune to all breastfeeding issues. Who knew?). Oversupply. Screaming baby. Sleepy baby. Uncomfortable boobs. Always being on call. Cluster feeding. Sleepless nights. Exhausting days.

Not to mention the fact that, when my baby was just nine weeks old, lockdown was announced thanks to COVID-19. The prospect of getting out to a breastfeeding cafe to get support or meet other mums – something I was particularly looking forward to, having just moved to a new area – disappeared faster than you could sing Happy Birthday (twice).

These were all challenges to push through, with the aid of hundreds of biscuits and gallons of tea (and a few glasses of wine along the way). Not because I’m supermum/a martyr/a masochist. At one point I found my hormone-addled brain thinking I must have been blessed with some sort of brilliant talent for breastfeeding (My calling at last! Are wet nurses still a thing?) – but that’s nonsense.

Why does it feel easy this time? Because I was armed with knowledge about breastfeeding. That’s all. So when I hit those challenging and frustrating times (which are so often just a normal part of getting breastfeeding established), I usually knew what I had to do to fix them. Or at least how to push through until they fixed themselves.

I knew that babies usually feed incessantly for the first few days, and I knew it didn’t mean I didn’t have enough milk. I knew the difference between a bad latch and a good one. I knew that a sore spot was a warning sign of a blocked duct, and I knew how to clear it before it got worse. And most crucially, if I didn’t know what to do, I knew where to go for support and information.

Sure, the local group was closed, but the breastfeeding community is an incredibly committed one, and nobody was going to see parents left in the lurch if they could help it.

Within days of restrictions being imposed, virtual support groups were set up on Zoom. Lactation consultants increased their Skype support offerings. Midwives posted how-to videos on hospital Facebook pages. Breastfeeding supporters on maternity wards donned layers of uncomfortable PPE and soldiered on. I even heard of peer supporters coming out of retirement to volunteer on the National Breastfeeding Helpline, where demand rocketed. Support was out there, even if it couldn’t always be offered face to face.

But what about first-time parents – not just those raising their babies under the shadow of a global pandemic, but anyone who doesn’t know what to expect or who to ask. Who have been told “breast is best” (a truly unhelpful phrase, but that’s a whole other essay) but not offered any follow up support, and have expected everything to just naturally fall into place.

Looking from that perspective – without the knowledge that it could and would get better, and working on the assumption that if this natural process didn’t come naturally, then it just wasn’t meant to be – there were many points where I could very easily have thrown in the towel, very quickly.

Even with the knowledge that I have, there have still been days when it’s bloody hard. It has become blindingly obvious to me why many parents have a tough time breastfeeding, and why breastfeeding rates aren’t higher (only 1% of babies in the UK are being exclusively breastfed at 6 months of age, as recommended by the World Health Organisation).

I’m not saying that every breastfeeding issue can be solved by reading a leaflet or spending half an hour with a peer supporter. Of course it’s never going to be that simple (and Professor Amy Brown explains the reasons for that far more eloquently than I ever could). But the right information and support can truly make the difference between having to stop breastfeeding, and being able to continue.

It allows every parent to make an informed choice about how to feed their baby (and if parents choose not to breastfeed, as is their right, at least that decision would be based on knowledge of the facts rather than an automatic adherence to prevalent bottle feeding culture). As a bonus, better breastfeeding support could save the NHS billions, through prevention of future health issues in both the child and the mother.

Information on breastfeeding isn’t a secret – but it’s not always easy to find, and not everyone has access to the same level of care. Every GP and midwife in the country will likely tell you the benefits of breastfeeding your baby and will encourage you to do so. Not all of them are able to support you to actually do it, or even point you in the direction of someone who can – usually because of cuts to local authority funding.

It’s cruel, when you think about it (Emma Pickett, chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, calls it “inhumane”): to dangle the carrot of how brilliant breastfeeding is, but then snatch it away again if you don’t live in the right postcode. This isn’t a criticism of GPs or midwives, who do a fantastic job – it’s just often the case that they don’t have enough time, resources or training to offer the support that is so badly needed.

So what can we do? If you’re about to have a baby, you’re probably (understandably) preoccupied with the matter of safely getting another human out of your body. But try to also focus a little further down the road – find out as much as you can about feeding your baby, as soon as you can. It can feel daunting, but even a little bit of knowledge of what to expect will help.

Follow the Breastfeeding Network and Association of Breastfeeding Mothers on social media, and check out their websites – they have so much amazing information available. They also jointly run the National Breastfeeding Helpline – save the number in your phone, and call them whenever you need to speak to a mum who’s been there, and has been trained to help you out.

There are some really helpful books out there – head to the library if you don’t want to buy your own copies. Ask your midwife or health visitor about support available in your area – make a note of where drop-in groups are held, which days they run and contact details for the organiser. Consider checking them out before the baby arrives – if it’s a face to face group, at least you’ll know where you’re going if you need to pop along again with a baby in tow.

As previously mentioned, under the current circumstances many groups are now online and are offering virtual support – from the comfort of your own sofa! Arm yourself with the knowledge that breastfeeding may be difficult in the beginning, but that most issues can be resolved. Perhaps most importantly, make it clear to your family and friends that breastfeeding is important to you and that you’ll need their support. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

We all have a part to play in creating a society that supports breastfeeding. Look out for your breastfeeding friends and family members. If they’re struggling, don’t reflexively tell them it doesn’t matter – ask them what support they need. You could also write to your MP, asking them to attend meetings of the APPG on Infant Feeding, to help make sure infant feeding support is on their agenda. 

You don’t need to be an all-knowing guru, or be blessed with a magical talent for feeding babies. There’s no flashy product or clever gadget to buy. Just knowledge, kindness, support, perseverance.

For most of human history, it would have been passed to you by your mother, your sister, your aunt, your friends – cultural shifts mean that this is often no longer the case, so we can all step up to fill the gaps. A little information can go a long way towards helping to achieve breastfeeding goals – whether that’s feeding for a week, a month, a year, or longer.

As I finish writing this, I’m so grateful to everyone along the way who has supported my breastfeeding journey, and allowed me to reach a point where I can type with one hand while my baby nods off during his bedtime feed.

The midwives on day 1 in hospital; my husband helping me stick to my guns through the tough bits; my breastfeeding friends who gave me tips; the peer supporter who went above and beyond to help me; the tutors and supervisors who trained me and taught me so much (not just about breastfeeding!); and, through it all, my two sons who have somehow shown me the ropes even while learning alongside me.

I obviously couldn’t have done it without them, and I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together. Even if they do leave Weetabix in my hair.