05 Feb

A new year’s revolution: take time to enjoy the stillness.

Kirsty Cummins is one of our National Breastfeeding Helpline Link Workers. She has written this post about changing the perception of new year as a time to make huge changes or rush to achieve unrealistic goals. Instead, she’s championing a more laid back approach, taking cues from nature to rest, reflect and prepare for the excitement of warmer months ahead – a near-perfect analogy for the sometimes intense experience of new parenthood.

A New year makes me uneasy. I dread all the slimming programmes on TV, the ‘how to get yourself in shape’ articles, whether physically or mentally. I struggle in January and February and the last thing I need is more media making me feel I am doing a bad job of it. That the left over 12 boxes of mince pies (yes I DO bulk buy my favourite winter treat) cannot be touched because I should no longer be indulging, and that I should be making health choices (whatever they are) or else I am failing. I feel it unfair that it is the end of January that heralds the release of the small chocolate gooey filled eggs that are my favourite treat, when the guilt of having done nothing still lingers. Why is it now that I feel I am being told to don a stretchy outfit and be physical when I would much rather do that when the nights are lighter and I feel more alive? My head, if I let it, can be so full of what I am not achieving in this murky, dank, cold time that I forget what IS actually going on.

I have always dreaded that certain time in September when you know the summer is over. I would feel bereft that the summer was all but lost to me and all I had ahead was winter and cold and having to pretend that I love Christmas and New Year, when I would much rather carry on enjoying the warmth and the hope that truly fills my soul in summer. I would ignore the beauty of autumn because it heralded the coming of the cold.  I would tell anyone that would listen about my woes in winter. I did exactly this to a lovely lady who was treating me with acupuncture last January. And her reply has turned things upside down. She mentioned the Chinese, as she often does with little snippets of Chinese beliefs and said quite simply that January really should be a time to slow down and make things as simple as possible and really enjoy the stillness before the spring slowly starts to sneak its way in. In that pause you might think about what it is you wish to achieve over the whole of the coming year.

Thinking about it now I am guessing this would be connected to Chinese New Year which is sometime between 21st January and 20th February, depending on the New moon and building up to the New Year in the quiet, sleepy weeks gives you time to reflect. Perhaps it was her own ideas and not Chinese beliefs but either way I listened and remembered what she said to me.  It seemed important to remove the need to take quick, drastic action in January and the guilt that I hadn’t done that sulking away to itself in the corner in February.

She was suggesting that if I stopped hating the supposed emptiness of this time of year I might start to find the time to reflect and truly listen to what I do want and what I do appreciate.

Whilst simple and glaringly obvious somehow it was a jolt to my own beliefs and I decided to really try very hard to do just that. To find the beauty in the weather and the land and the lack of much to do. I decided to remove things from my life that made me unhappy and to think what would really make my life feel better all year round.

 I really took time to ponder that the earth beneath my feet and all around me is resting. That the trees and other such magical beings are sleeping, conserving their energy for greater moments when the Sun begins to linger for a little longer each day in the sky. This whole hemisphere is on a well-earned break from the busy busy of ‘getting it on’ except it would seem us humans.

Over the coming months I acted upon those things I had fully absorbed and appreciated during my rest and reflection.

 I am doing the same again this year without the feelings of dread and despair I have suffered in the past. I am enjoying the dark evenings while I can so I can prepare myself for an energy boost and throwing some shapes in the warmer months, when I don’t mind leaving the house after the kids are tucked up because it is still warm and light out there. I always aim for the clocks changing because then I know things are really on the move – including me!

I am using this time to think about what I would like to give to others. I am not failing if I am not giving now – I am preparing myself to do it the right way for me. Volunteering has a huge part to play in our lives but it has to ebb and flow like the seasons and we should never beat ourselves up when our own lives get too full to support others. Perhaps for you this quiet time IS your time to support. When the busy of the world slows, is it that you have more space to hear the thoughts of others. In the stillness of these months can you can give others the wisdom of the benefits of slowing down, listening to themselves and what their instinct is telling them, that it is ok to take time to make decisions or to practice rather than be immediately perfect?

Winter (especially that January panic) sounds a bit like a new mother doesn’t it? In that scary time when all is new and we are expected to do so much in the right way when actually perhaps what a new mum needs to hear is bed down, listen, reflect and trust that life as you knew it will return in some recognisable form at some point in the future but it doesn’t have to be now. That the early unfurlings of motherhood is a time to slow and snuggle and make choices without all the background noise of life.

The comfort of knowing things are ever changing, like the seasons, can bring comfort to us whether we are new parents or volunteers choosing our next adventure or women going about our ever changing lives from maiden to mother to grandmother. Sometimes the still bits are just what we need.

And now we are in February and every snowdrop lifts my heart.

19 Oct

Facing Fears

Kirsty Cummins is one of our National Breastfeeding Helpline Link workers, who has written this post about her own experience of anxiety and how she is beginning to overcome it in her role as a breastfeeding supporter.  

Fear. It’s a funny thing isn’t it. Most of us live in fear of something. Chest squeezing, breath taking fear tucked away inside our breast, kept on a low burn as much as possible it can rear up and get you when you least expect it. Taking the wind out of your sail and putting you firmly in your place.

I have lived in fear nearly all my life. From small person wobbles such as the squirmy, unknown feel of the sea bed under my feet when my Mum forced me to paddle, to the terror I felt when I happened upon “Jaws” being viewed in a neighbour’s living room in all its terrifying splendour at the age of 5. (I haven’t been able to watch it since.)

As I grew older I developed an anxiety disorder. I didn’t know that’s what it was.  I just thought I was mad and panicked all the time that I couldn’t control life. Would someone die if I didn’t turn the light on and off a certain number of times, would something terrible happen to a loved one if I didn’t wash my hands in a certain way? What I didn’t realise at the time was that in trying to control life and death, stuff that I actually couldn’t control, I was unable to deal with the things that were my responsibility, such as study and relationships and other such teen angst. I would never socialise and talking on a phone has always been difficult because of the fear of the unknown and the need to keep myself tiny and unnoticed.

I have had treatment. I sought help when I couldn’t look after myself any more. And that was and is a long term project but also a wonderful thing. Through years of up and downs, undiagnosed post natal depression and other such low jinx I wished of a way to take control.

This insight into a life of worry and nervousness has made me wonder often about our fears. What fears we have as parents and how our modern life affects those to a lesser or greater degree, with instant access to answers or opinions that we used to have to seek in other ways. The need for us all to go back to trusting our instincts, hidden under a huge pile of ‘other’. The voices that live inside us, and the knowledge passed down from Grandmothers and from inside the cells in our bodies, carried through the generations, is still there but no longer encouraged in quite the same way.

Recently I have been pondering the fears we carry as volunteers supporting other parents through times of worry or uncertainty. What makes some people fearless and certain they can make a difference, whilst others hide their knowledge and instincts, terrified they might get it wrong?

My reluctance to be a helpline volunteer has always been based around fear. The fear that I am not good enough to support another person. That if I get it wrong something terrible might happen. In a bid to avoid manic light switching or some such antic aimed at being the high master of control, I avoid. Avoid. Avoid. In talking to people who wish me to support I feel unable to be honest, with them or myself and have always talked vaguely about my true feelings out of embarrassment.

A plethora of excuses may come up that loosely express my fear, but not enough to convey just how terrified I am. Our greatest defence in the fight against fear is, more often than not, knowledge. If we know more we may fear less. When the terrified abseiler is gently guided through moving themselves down the rock face passing the rope through their hands, they are guided by the words of the instructor. That knowledge from another gets them down and the feelings of elation when reaching the bottom make it all worthwhile.

When I look down into the pit of worry and feelings that I am not good enough, I don’t believe in my knowledge, or intuition or listening skills. They don’t feel good enough to guide me.

Someone very brilliant recently talked to me about voicing those helpline fears out loud. As I said how I felt it made total sense. “It sounds so silly but it isn’t silly” I said as I expressed my fear that it felt like a baby’s life was in my hands if I took a call. The ugly face of not good enough was there again, taking control and making me feel useless. But actually as I said it I realised that I do have the tools to support and with that added bonus of modern tech allowing us to signpost instantly, we have so much to give.

Fear, my old nemesis, can be thwarted if I use my greatest weapon. Honesty. Being truthful to myself about my fears and using the support I know I have available could actually get me past this block.

The warm hand of support from a helpline volunteer can and does make all the difference to new families. And that is possible over the phone. Your love, warmth and ingrained desire to be part of the supportive community – the grandmother full of wisdom just for ten minutes in someone’s life – is what you have control of and what changes lives. Yours and theirs.

04 Oct

Guest Blog by Smita Hanciles – The Power of Peer Support

Smita Hanciles works for Central & North West London NHS Foundation Trust and leads the Camden Baby Feeding Service. Here’s a taster of her presentation at our conference this Saturday (6th October), on the power of peer support. If you’ve been unable to get a ticket, follow #BfNConf18 on social media to catch our updates throughout the day.

There is evidence that establishing breastfeeding can be protective of maternal mental health and aids with bonding.  When establishing breastfeeding is challenging or even unsuccessful, particularly when a mother really wants to breastfeed, the mother can be left vulnerable and at increased risk of post-natal depression. At points of such vulnerability, does having access to a trained breastfeeding peer supporter in addition to her own network of relationships provide a source of emotional co-regulation and co-learning?  Does this help increase resilience and possibly decrease the risk of anxiety and depression and any negative impact on bonding?   These are the questions we have been asking in Camden as we introduced a group of new volunteer breastfeeding peer supporters into the Baby Feeding service.

We often think of support for breastfeeding and support for perinatal mental health separately and services generally focus on one or the other.  There are peer support projects for mothers who need help with feeding their baby and there are now separate peer support projects for mothers experiencing mild to moderate postnatal depression and anxiety. However, this way of delivering care doesn’t factor in that one impacts on the other and can’t easily be addressed separately.  What would happen if we supported new mothers in a much more holistic way?  Or maybe we already do this as peer supporters but just don’t describe it as such.

Having reflected on what we actually spend our time doing in the Baby Feeding drop-ins in Camden and on the stories of mothers we support, we recently decided that instead of describing ourselves as solely providing peer support for women experiencing difficulties with feeding or establishing breastfeeding, we would emphasize that we also provide listening support to those who had intended to exclusively breastfeed but were experiencing challenges or were not able to for various reasons.  We added the Baby Feeding service to the Camden Perinatal Mental Health services register under services for the ‘mild /moderate’ end of mental health concerns. We hoped this would help with the recognition of our role in providing emotional as well as practical feeding support and as a place from which referrals to more specialist help could be made if necessary.

I recently saw a poster with the words ‘I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief’. Mothers struggling to breastfeed can feel angry with services that failed to provide the right support or even at themselves or their baby. However, the anger could be borne from a sense of grief over the loss of the breastfeeding relationship they had wanted or looked forward to.  They are unlikely to seek help from other mental health services in this situation but still need to be listened to and for their feelings of loss to be acknowledged as a normal response and justified.  They don’t want to be told their feelings are unreasonable because they can always just give a bottle and as long as the baby is fed, it’s all ok.  They also need support to accept and embrace a different feeding relationship from the one they had anticipated whether it is mixed feeding or bottle feeding with EBM and /or formula.

We approached the Maternal Mental Health Alliance and began a discussion about how to join up different elements of support for new mothers and how we could best train and develop our volunteer peer supporters to work in a more holistic way. This resulted in a diverse and knowledgeable working group coming together including all the main voluntary sector organisation that train peer supporters to develop competencies for the Infant feeding workforce in relation to perinatal mental health.

We know from countless stories of mothers we have supported that breastfeeding peer support has the power to change a mother’s story and experience of care. Those of us who provide peer support have the privilege to hear a mother’s story, to become part of her story as we come alongside to help empower her to find the way forward that is right for her.  Can receiving peer support help a mum change the way she views her own story?  Providing peer support can often help reframe our own stories and see them differently.   If our story was one of painful experiences or even trauma, we can often realise the pain wasn’t in vain but has provided the backdrop to another mother feeling supported and empowered.

We are now looking for ways to collect evidence of the impact breastfeeding peer support has and how it contributes to perinatal mental health. We are still very much on a learning curve with this piece of work and I hope to share more during my presentation.

14 Nov

From new mum to Peer Supporter: BfN volunteer stories

Children wearing 'ask my mum about breastfeeding' topsAs part of our 20th anniversary parliamentary reception in Westminster tonight, two of our breastfeeding supporters will be sharing their breastfeeding journeys from new Mum, to qualifying as Breastfeeding Supporters for BfN. We like their stories so much, we want to share them with you too! So here they are.

Gosia’s story
I’ve always liked to think about breastfeeding in two ways. First one, more personal, related to my own experience and second more social.

I think I’m blessed to have breastfed my children for as long as I wanted. My older daughter for 50 months and going strong with my 15 month old boy.

There were a couple of factors that had an impact on fulfilling my breastfeeding wishes. I gave birth to my babies in this country, which at least partially implemented protective law for breastfeeding couples. Moreover, all women in my family breastfeed and this prepared me for the idea that breastfeeding can be associated with some pain in the beginning, although it shouldn’t be. Also my husband and sister were a great support when I most needed it. Possibly this support was the most important part.

On the social level I hope for every child to be healthy and content. This wish pushed me to take action and promote, protect and support breastfeeding.

A lot of supporters are using the comparison of bike riding and breastfeeding. You don’t know how to ride a bike unless you see someone doing it and then practising. So often I feel like a caring tutor who shows women how to ride, shows which path may be less bumpy, gives options for balancing wheels or a bar and most of all encourages and motivates.

I am grateful for volunteering with BfN, making a difference to individuals and the future generation.

A baby's hand pulling at a mother's topMarion’s story

I became a mother at the young and tender age of 41. Medically, I was considered a geriatric mum. However I thought of myself as a lazy mum because I wanted to breastfeed. There was no way I was going to get up in the middle of the night to prepare a bottle or sterilize equipment when all I had to do was lift my top up and feed my baby. My younger sister prepared me – go through the pain and after 3 weeks it will be fine. I never knew that I could access support.

What I did learn was that my newborn baby cried when I put her down and stopped crying when I put her to my chest. It just made sense to keep her close whilst I was also recovering from the birth. A quiet life in the early days whilst I rest and recover.

I have also read that some cultures stay at home for 40 days and 40 nights, partly to recover from the birth and to build a baby’s immune system. I decided that’s exactly what I should do. I was in no hurry to meet the world.  My world was with me, feeding and sleeping safely together.

I read so many baby books but my maternal instinct kicked in. What do animals do? They keep their young close – cuddly and warm, what I now know as skin to skin. Allow them to feed as often and as much as they want . Babies, when they have access to food can not only feed themselves but control how much they want to eat. All I had to do was to sit and learn how to maximize the best feeding position so that I was comfortable and my baby fed efficiently. In fact that can take from 2-3 days up to several weeks to learn.

I found out that there was a local breastfeeding drop-in run by The Breastfeeding Network a charitable organisation that I could attend on a weekly basis, which I did.

What I never realized at the time was how many other women struggle with breastfeeding and that I could help and support them. After a while I took a course to become a breastfeeding helper, and I was soon helping out at my local breastfeeding drop-in.

I live in Islington and I feel lucky that the London borough of Islington commissioned the Breastfeeding Network to run local breastfeeding drop-ins.  I volunteered for 2 and half years. Soon I found myself on another course training to become a Breastfeeding Peer Supporter and I was then paid to support mothers in both UCLH and Whittington hospital. I was trained to visit mothers at home and qualified to run my own breastfeeding drop-in in Islington.