Cracked nipples. Mastitis. Breast pads. I left out all the gory details when I discussed this topic on breakfast radio this morning. I wanted to talk about breastfeeding today because some new research has come out looking at the public health impacts of early weaning. 90% of 35 – 45 year olds were weaned before 6 months, and that’s impacted our overall health as a nation.

One reason for early weaning today is women returning to work, but the other is that there’s not enough breastfeeding support and expertise in the general community. Before I breastfed my daughter I’d never seen anybody attach a baby. We’ve lost that communal passing on of knowledge. I know a few mothers who chose not to breastfeed because they didn’t like the idea of it. I think the sexualisation of our culture is partly to blame – young women just aren’t used to thinking of their breasts as a functional piece of equipment for feeding.

Personally I had a positive experience of breastfeeding. I absolutely loved it. I loved the closeness and the bonding – the skin on skin contact with my baby. But, I also remember one phase at about six months where I got sick of it and wanted to quit. Sometimes I felt like I did nothing else for that entire year. But fortunately I never had any problems with my milk supply – actually I had so much milk I felt I should be bottling it.

So what made breastfeeding work for me? I don’t think there was any one thing, but some things that helped were:

– I found out as much as I could before I gave birth. They ran a breastfeeding course at my hospital and I did it twice – once before I gave birth and then again afterwards. I’d really recommend that to anyone who’s having their first baby or who’s wanting to breastfeed for the first time.

– When I was in hospital I rang for the midwife every time I fed to make sure I had her attached correctly. If you don’t get a good attachment then you can really do some damage and it affects your confidence as well. I think it’s really important to get as much help as you can in the first few days.

– I also asked lots of dumb questions. Every midwife has a slightly different opinion on how often you should feed, whether to wake your baby, how long to feed for, but the more you ask, the more you learn how to make those decisions yourself.

– Also I had a goal for how long I wanted to breastfeed and I was determined not to introduce bottles until I was ready to wean. So many Mums I knew were disappointed when their milk dried up after a few months, but they’d been substituting breastfeeds with bottles and then their milk supply dropped. So don’t substitute or supplement with formula until you’re ready to wean (unless of course your baby’s starving. That’s a different kettle of fish!)

People have very different ideas about how long to breastfeed for. I don’t actually have a strong view on when is the right time to wean. In terms of health benefits, the first 6 months are the most important. But extending breastfeeding does extend the health benefits. My goal was to breastfeed for 12 months, because that’s when you can introduce cows’ milk. So I started weaning at 12 months and had her totally weaned by 14 months. That felt natural to me because that was when Birdy started walking and it was a clear time of transition from baby to toddler. But some babies just wean themselves and there’s nothing you can do about it. Finally, I think it’s valid to consider the mother’s social, physical and mental needs when deciding when to wean. After all, it takes two people to breastfeed! Both parties have to be happy with the situation.

PS.  I received a wise piece of advice once.  When you meet an adult, you can’t tell whether they were breastfed or not!  So if, with all your best efforts, it didn’t work out, don’t stress too much!

Did you breastfeed your babies? Was it easy for you or did it take practice and persistence? At what age did you wean and why? Would you have preferred to breastfeed for longer? Did you breastfeed in public or were you too embarrassed?

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