Breastfeeding! It didn’t occur to me that I would learn new tricks to deal with this ancient art. It’s been practised by women for ever, and we think we know all there is to know. But each generation does things in it’s own way, different from before.
We’ve welcomed five new infants into our family in the last eight months, so there’s been much information for me to absorb. In my privileged position of great-grandmother, I’m exposed regularly to new knowledge about all things baby and child care.
I hope I keep up with the challenges!
Last week, I flitted between the homes of three of my granddaughters, where breastfeeding seems to be the preferred occupation. One of the babies in this batch reached twelve weeks yesterday. The other two, born within sixteen hours of each other, are two weeks old.
Baby A at his mother’s breast
Image courtesy of Claire-Helen Linton
These competent women and their remarkable partners don’t need great grandmotherly help, and they welcome me warmly. I try hard not to offer advice. Sometimes, something I know or think slips out accidentally, and I’m quick to qualify.
‘That’s something I found interesting (or helpful),’ I might say. ‘It’s not advice.’
My favourite midwife
My favourite midwife Laura
Laura, a long-term friend, greeted my daughter Jenny and me at Claire’s front door during one of my recent visits. Laura has been an important part of our family’s social atom since long before Claire’s own birth.
In her role as community midwife, she visits newly delivered women in their homes. Her visit to Claire, however, was purely social. Over coffee and a batch of Laura’s still-warm brownies, we older women vied for cuddles with baby Alistair. At the same time, we caught up with news and gossip.
Of course Claire, Jenny and I recounted the dramatic story of Alistair’s arrival into the world. If you missed it, you can read about that here.
Somehow, the conversation turned to breastfeeding. As it so often does these days.
Laura talks breastfeeding
First, one of her throwaway lines:
‘I go into the homes of new mothers. If everything is spotless and tidy and there’s no partner or other adult doing the work, I suspect breastfeeding is not going well. Breastfeeding a newborn takes up too much time for a woman to keep house as well,’ says Laura.
Claire, Jenny and I laughed out loud at Laura’s role-playing a baby with its mother. Screwed up angry face, clenched fists and rigid arms gradually softened. Her rendition of a baby at the breast gave me much to ponder over.
Laura presented this material with nuances that I can’t capture in words. She also told us how difficult her job became with COVID. The disease led to teleconferences for mothers with the infection rather than face-to-face conversations.
Baby E breastfeeding
Image courtesy of Claire-Helen Linton
How breastfeeding works well
These are the stages of breastfeeding, as Laura described them.
- Hungry babies act angry. They cry loudly and their bodies feel stiff. They clench their fists and beat the air. Too distressed to take the breast, they may need wrapping and soothing before they can latch onto the breast.
- After they’ve sucked enough to partly empty it, they relax a little. They may let go or else act sleepy while still attached to the breast.
- When moved they are quiet for a few minutes, but soon wake with a start and begin looking for more milk. Their bodies are less tense, and their hands not as clenched as before.
- When put back to the breast, they suck lustily before stopping.
- If a woman feels her breast now, she may find pockets of milk that she can press gently. This ensures the breast is emptied, which stimulates the production of milk. It also means babies get ‘easy’ milk, which is comforting, with very little effort.
- Sometimes mothers put their babies down at this point, thinking they have completely finished feeding.
- Instead, this is a good time for a nappy change. It’s also time to talk and play.
- After a short break, babies again show interest in milk. Some people talk about this as ‘topping-up’, but it’s an integral part of any feed.
- When put to the second breast, babies suck until satisfied.
- They relax completely. Their arms fall limp and hands open gently as the infants fall asleep, replete and happy after a satisfying feed.
Clear description and model
I enjoyed Laura’s clear description of breastfeeding. Her miming provides a fun (but serious) model for inexperienced mothers. Perhaps some women instinctively understand the process she describes. But to have it so clearly set out would be a bonus for many others.
I trained as a midwife a long time ago. Then midwifes and nurses had no idea that one day others would go to university to learn the art and science of both occupations. No one explained or taught me those steps during my training.
A few years later, I successfully breastfed a succession of children, going by feel, not science. I wish I’d known on a conscious level some of the information that came with the fun as Laura described the process.
The olden days of breastfeeding
Women once relied on each other, on their mothers and sisters and friends, for assistance and help. Some us called on the Nursing Mothers Association (NMA)for advice and help.
NMA developed through the passion of women who had breastfed successfully, and who wanted to assist others. Its practitioners trained, worked and became proficient at supporting other women. They provided a remarkable lay service.
Breastfeeding, in my early days, involved going into a room alone with one’s baby and quietly feeding away from other people. Even when at my parents’ house, I was expected to leave the company and sit alone. That changed as I grew more confident.
A group of women, maybe second wave feminists, helped change the culture at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children in Perth. One woman, breastfeeding a baby with a sick two year old also sitting on her lap, found herself confronted by an nurse citing rules.
The nurse directed her to leave the waiting room and go somewhere else to breatfeed.
My friend declined. She would lose her place in the queue if she could not be seen and her older child needed medical attention as soon as possible. The nurse pulled a heavy white screen around the threesome, cutting them off from sight of the other parents.
Angry, my friend enlisted the help of friends. We protested by writing letters to the Medical Director of the hospital. My friend met with the director and these actions eventually led to changes in the protocols of the hospital.
Thank goodness we’re in a different era, where breastfeeding women are accepted in public. Not only that, they embrace this part of motherhood with grace and considerable aplomb.