What I Wish I Knew
It has been ten years since my first child was born, but I still have very vivid memories of that time. Certain sounds, smells and images are burned into my mind. I remember being more tired than I had ever been in my life, something I hadn’t thought possible after previously working as a junior doctor. My overwhelming impression of those early days was of feeling completely raw and vulnerable - physically, emotionally and mentally.
The thing that struck me most was how unprepared I was for it all.
Throughout this very wanted, longed-for pregnancy I had read many books about labour and birth. I attended the classes at the hospital, hired a TENS machine, carefully packed my bags and made relaxing mixed CDs. We had a lovingly prepared nursery with cute little outfits pressed and hanging in the wardrobe. In the final weeks of pregnancy I would find myself sitting in silence in the rocking chair, looking at the soft toys and wall decals, dreaming about this little person who would be arriving soon.
Somehow I had just thought I would know what to do once the baby arrived. It couldn’t be that hard, right? Surely babies are born knowing instinctively how to breastfeed? I saw so many photos and images of sleeping babies that I figured they would just fall asleep when they were tired. I knew babies cried sometimes, but my baby wouldn’t be like that.
I look back on photos of myself with my first baby and wish I could go back in time and give that poor, exhausted woman a big hug and some help. The reason I started this journey of training in lactation medicine and helping unsettled babies was because of what I went through as a first time mother. I have never forgotten how tired, scared and vulnerable I felt.
If I could go back in time and change one thing, it would be that I wish I had learned more about breastfeeding before my baby arrived. A lot of what happened was out of my control, but I feel that for me it would have helped in feeling less overwhelmed. I had a difficult delivery and there was a long delay before I was able to try and feed my son for the first time. He had a big area of bruising on his head and was distressed by being touched there, and so I struggled to find a comfortable position to feed in (I had no idea what good positioning was). I was confused by the well-meaning but contradictory advice I was given. My son reached the point where he would scream and fuss for over thirty minutes every time I tried to attach him and I dreaded every feed. I remember my whole body tensing up whenever he cried because I didn’t know how I was going to face it. I had no idea how I was ever going to leave the house or get out of my pajamas.
Somehow we survived this period and my amazing son is now ten years old. I even went back and had three more babies, in spite of swearing I was never going to go through that again. I want to emphasise that if you are reading this and were unable to breastfeed or had to stop before you felt ready to, please be gentle on yourself. We mothers can be so hard on ourselves and blame ourselves when things don’t go to plan. There should be no place for shame or judgement in postnatal care. I see so many mums getting up and carrying on every day when it seems impossible. I see the fierce love you have for your beautiful babies and how you cuddle them and smile at them when you are bone tired. You are not failing, you are heroic.
For those who are pregnant or contemplating another baby after having a difficult time breastfeeding – please let me offer you some words of hope. There is a lot more pre-natal education available now than there was ten years ago. Every mother and baby pair is different, and there will always be a period of learning for you both, but you can certainly go into your birth more prepared than this young doctor was.
Most hospitals run prenatal antenatal classes and there will usually be a session devoted to discussing feeding and what to expect after delivery. Use this time to ask lots of questions and take notes. Our local hospital in Portland runs classes for this throughout the year. Portland District Health also have a great program where mothers booked in for delivery here are gifted a 12 month free membership to the Australian Breastfeeding Association.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association have a huge range of resources that are helpful for preparing for your baby. They run antenatal education classes, have a volunteer helpline, local gatherings and a wealth of online resources. Some of these events have been altered due to COVID regulations, so please check in with your local group to see what is happening. When you join the ABA you are given a copy of their book ‘Breastfeeding…naturally’ which is very easy to read and is a wonderful reference when you are seeking help in the middle of the night.
One of the biggest challenges new mothers face is in learning how to attach and position their babies comfortably at the breast. If you are keen to learn more about this I highly recommend the Possums Online Module on Gestalt Breastfeeding. I promise I have no personal financial interest in recommending this, I just think it is awesome. This gentle approach to feeding is strongly evidence based and utilises new research into the anatomy of breastfeeding. I use this approach in my clinical work and it enabled me to have a trouble-free start to breastfeeding with my two youngest babies.
If you are expecting your first baby or you have had a difficult time with feeding a previous baby, it can be very helpful to have an antenatal breastfeeding consultation. This enables a personalised approach and gives you an opportunity to ask questions or debrief about struggles you have had in the past. It can also be an opportunity to discuss how breastfeeding preferences could be included in your birth plan, learn about antenatal expressing and practice positions using a demonstration doll. If you have had issues in the past with nipple damage, mastitis or low milk supply it may be helpful to talk about this and help support you to hopefully have a better experience this time around.
Finally, if you have a friend or relative having a baby, please surround them with love and support. Warm meals, grocery deliveries and loads of laundry can make a world of difference to a new family!