Breastfeeding plays a huge part in how I parent Quinn, my youngest child, and whilst I’ve taken a break from blogging this last year, I’ve been very active on Instagram – a platform which I’ve used on many occasions to normalise breastfeeding, and share my own breastfeeding experiences. So it made total sense to start this new blog with a breastfeeding related post.
Breastfeeding is incredibly important to me. My entire approach to raising Quinn is founded on the solid, shared experience that we have of breastfeeding. I don’t simply use breastfeeding as a means to deliver a nutritionally rich milk to my child – and in that sense, I never seek to compare breastfeeding to formula feeding, because breastfeeding is so much more than my chosen infant milk. I use breastfeeding as my main mode of communication with Quinn, it is useful in helping her with pain, frustration, tiredness, upset, confusion, fear and anxiety. Whether she’s fallen and scraped her knee, or a loud noise has made her jump, regardless of whether another child has taken a toy from her that she was playing with, or she’s had to accept that there are no more biscuits left in a packet, I can soothe her through breastfeeding, and in that sense, I use it as my method of communicating my support and sympathy when she’s struggling.
The reasons that I’ve breastfed Quinn are so numerous. I couldn’t possibly explain, succinctly, all of the reasons that I chose to breastfeed her from birth; and beyond infancy. My first child, Seb, was formula fed from birth – so I’ve had two very different experiences.
When I was pregnant with Quinn I felt more informed about the risks associated with infant formula use (such as the increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and also the ingredients present in infant formula (when I formula fed my son I never really paid much attention to packaging and had no idea that the main ingredient in formula wasn’t even milk, but modified corn starch!). So I didn’t feel comfortable with formula feeding, and felt that if I could breastfeed, it would save me a lot of worry about the potential health implications for us both. I always appreciated that I’d have access to formula if I needed it, and that if I couldn’t breastfeed it was a perfectly adequate substitute – but knowing that I could risk both our lives by simply choosing not to breastfeed seemed alarming, having only had experience of formula feeding in the past.
I’ve been vegan for two years now, and as a vegan Mum, I preferred to give Quinn human breastmilk, as it meant we didn’t need to buy a cow’s milk based formula. At the time of writing there are no vegan breastmilk substitutes on the market in the UK. There are soya based formulas but they do contain an animal derived source of Vitamin D, making them non-vegan. If I had to give my baby a cows milk based formula to keep them alive (or a soya formula containing non-vegan Vitamin D) then I absolutely would — but again, because I was physically able to breastfeed effectively, this wasn’t a concern.
When Quinn was born, I knew, almost immediately, that she had a tongue-tie. I found breastfeeding immediately painful, from the very first feed, and knew that something wasn’t right. I myself looked into her mouth and could see a visible tongue tie so it wasn’t difficult to get it confirmed by my midwife. Luckily – I had great contacts. I gave birth to Quinn at home, with support from a doula; and my doula, Marika, had friends who worked in breastfeeding support. It meant that a trained breastfeeding counsellor was contacted and arrived on my doorstep less than 24 hours after Quinn arrived Earthside, and she able to help us a little with positioning and attachment solutions whilst also referring me to an IBCLC lactation consultant within the same week. When Quinn was less than a week old, we saw the lactation consultant and had a referral in place to the hospital for a tongue tie division – which meant I only fed Quinn through a tongue tie for less than three weeks.
They were an arduous and distressing three weeks none the less, and any Mum feeding a tongue tied baby has my absolute unending sympathy. I had so many dark, dark moments in those first few weeks, and every day I hit a point where I couldn’t imagine getting through the next couple of hours let alone a couple of weeks. My nipples were cracked and bleeding, and the open wounds would stick to my nursing bra so that I’d have to peel away the fabric and rip them open again at each feed. At one point I even tried wearing bottle tops inside my bra to stop anything from touching my scabby nips. I felt as though I’d reached breaking point by every afternoon, and cried so much in the first couple of weeks of Quinn’s life that I began to severely question my mental health.
After Quinn’s tongue tie was divided (by the wonderful Dr. Shah who was at that time based at Benenden Hospital, but now runs a private tongue tie practice from the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford), I continued to struggle with breastfeeding. I was heartbroken. I’d only ever imagined breastfeeding Quinn throughout pregnancy, and whilst I was well informed about tongue tie, nothing had prepared me for what a challenge we would face. In the week following the division, Quinn had to basically relearn how to feed from me, and just when I felt we’d turned a corner and things were beginning to improve, I was struck down with my first episode of mastitis, which made me horribly poorly.
The mastitis was treated, and cleared, but was closely followed by a thrush infection so aggressive, it reached my milk ducts where it caused unimaginable pain (worse, I remember, than feeding Quinn with a tongue tie) and it could no longer be treated by topical creams but with a round of strong medication (in such a high dosage, no pharmacist kept it in stock).
Looking back now, I’m filled with awe that I stuck at breastfeeding. How I continued to put Quinn to my breast every couple of hours when the pain completely consumed me from one day into the next, I don’t know – but continue I did. Eventually, thanks to determination, fantastic support, and a wealth of knowledge, I turned a corner. The thrush was finally gone, Quinn was feeding like a “normal” baby, and my milk supply (and hormone levels) had settled. We fell into the swing of things and I finally found that sense of ease with breastfeeding that I’d naively expected from the beginning.
Eventually, I looked back at my previous formula feeding experience and felt that breastfeeding was the easier and more convenient route. No sterilising, no worrying about temperature of feeds, no concerns about running out of powder, or having enough milk to last when out of the house – and no ongoing cost.
I still say now, that the first few weeks are easier on a Mum if she formula feeds (ignoring the fact that not-breastfeeding can be a huge contributing factor in developing PND and formula feeding Mums tend to be hit a lot harder with those baby blues) – but the first year, overall, is so much less labour intensive for the breastfeeding Mum. Once you’ve found your groove, as I did at about 6 weeks, it can be pretty plain sailing.
My non-negotiable goal when Quinn was born was to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, although I always said that ideally I’d like to still be breastfeeding at 1 year. As is often the case, the first year came, and then went, and I was feeding a toddler, who took her first steps at 16 months, but was still waking 3-4 times each night to feed from me. Two years would, when I was pregnant and imagining how my breastfeeding journey would go, be my limit. I couldn’t imagine myself feeding a child beyond their second birthday.
Of course Quinn will be 2 in a few weeks and I have no intention of ceasing our breastfeeding journey just yet. Now I say that I’ll feed her for as long as it’s working for us both. It needs to be a mutually beneficial relationship, and at the moment, I find it convenient and really positive in enabling me to bring Quinn up the way that I want to. I see so many positives to breastfeeding a toddler – I mean, for a start, I can diffuse a “tantrum” before it’s even begun. The minute I see Quinn becoming frustrated or annoyed by a situation, I offer to breastfeed – telling her that I understand her feelings, and comforting her before her emotions get the better of her. I don’t want to lose this valuable parenting tool just yet!
If there comes a time that I no longer enjoy breastfeeding and I don’t feel as though it’s working in my favour any more, then that’ll be when I begin to wean Quinn from breastfeeding. Perhaps she’ll decide that she’s ready to move on before I have to initiate that process – let’s wait and see.
The last infant feeding review found that around 1% of British babies are exclusively breastfed at 6 months, which is quite a tiny percentage and one that I was proud to be included in (it’s worth mentioning that whilst this 1% were exclusively breastfed, around 34% of babies were being breastfed alongside either formula or solid foods.) There are no figures for breastfeeding at 12, or 24 months (despite the NHS and World Health Organisation recommending breastfeeding for all children for a minimum of 2 years), but the figure for breastfeeding at all at 24 months is thought to be alarmingly low.
When Quinn was 6 months old, I began training as a breastfeeding peer support worker at my local children’s centre. I’m now one of a team of peer supporters who provide valuable support to women at all stages in their breastfeeding journey, to ensure that they’re able to meet their own breastfeeding goals. It’s the most fulfilling voluntary role I could imagine. I give three hours of my time a week to help run a breastfeeding clinic, where parents can see an IBCLC lactation consultant for free (just as I did), to get the professional, highly qualified help they need. As a peer supporter I advise and assist parents who don’t need a consultant, and carry out initial assessments to see what help they need to access. I come away every single week, without fail, knowing with absolute conviction that we’ve made it possible for a Mum to continue breastfeeding when she’d probably not have carried on without that support.
This week, a report was published which had found that a severe lack of peer supporters in the UK is contributing to a breastfeeding crisis, where women aren’t reaching their intended breastfeeding goals, and aren’t able to access help from peer supporters like me. I’m passionate about trying to increase the help available to pregnant and breastfeeding Mums, not just locally, but on a national scale too – so expect to see a lot of passionate lactivism on my blog in the future!
Have you breastfed your own children, or are you hoping to in the future? What access do/did you have to dedicated breastfeeding peer support, and did you meet your own breastfeeding goals? I absolutely love hearing from other Mother’s about their experiences, so please leave a comment and share your own journey if you’d like to.