Thursday, 28 June 2012

Susan Last's talk for the launch of Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform

Talk delivered by Susan Last at the launch of Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform on 27 June 2012, during National Breastfeeding Week.

Good evening ladies (and token gentlemen), and a special welcome to Ivy and Emily, our nursing babies. Thank you very much for coming along tonight to help celebrate the launch of Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform during National Breastfeeding Week. It’s really great to see so many of you, and from so many different backgrounds - we’ve got mums, contributors to the book, peer supporters, IBCLCs, NHS health professionals, independent midwives, doulas… all with a common interest in breastfeeding and supporting women.

I thought I’d start by saying a few words about how the book came about. When I had my daughter Evie, back in 2006, I didn’t give much thought to breastfeeding. I intended to breastfeed and I assumed that it would be easy enough. As it turned out she had silent reflux which went undiagnosed for nearly six months and feeding was a struggle throughout that time. I did a lot of learning about breastfeeding to try to sort it out and it was while I was doing that research that I thought it might be useful to write up my story so that others could benefit from it. A friend of mine, then a student midwife, had put together a book about Home Births, and I asked her if she thought a similar approach would work for Breastfeeding. That’s how the idea  got off the ground, but the book was a long time in the making. I invited contributions and conducted interviews in snatched moments over the next few months  - and the months stretched into years as I had two more children, moved house, trained as a peer supporter… life was very busy! Then in 2010 a friend and I set up Lonely Scribe, our own publishing company, and I became determined to finish the book so that Lonely Scribe could publish it to sit alongside Home Births, and our other breastfeeding book, Fit to Bust. (I must just say at this point what a pleasure and an honour it is to have the author of Fit to Bust, Alison Blenkinsop, here tonight!)

So here it is [holds up book]. It’s a book that I hope adds something new to the breastfeeding literature. I think the approach, giving women space to discuss their breastfeeding journeys at length,  is very powerful: these stories, peppered though they are with breastfeeding challenges, are overwhelmingly practical and positive. I hope that they are, as the book’s subtitle suggests, both inspiring and informative. When I explained the book to my neighbour, a former midwife, she exclaimed ‘Oh, it’s like a group session in a book!’ And it is, in a way, except that with a book you can pick it up and refer to it again and again when you’re in need of a boost. I very much hope that the book will be read by pregnant women and new mothers, because the women who contributed are such fantastic role models for breastfeeding (although they probably don’t think of themselves that way!). It’s great to see so many of them here tonight. Thank you again, ladies, for making the book possible.

While my initial motivation for putting the book together was to help other mothers, since I began the project I have become more of a political campaigner for breastfeeding. I had my eyes fully opened by Gabrielle Palmer’s book The Politics of Breastfeeding, and I now hope that this book can, in its own small way, be part of the campaign to support breastfeeding in the face of the aggressive promotion of formula milk. We live in a society where breastfeeding is often undermined, whether that’s by advertisers in magazines that influence editorial content, by big business lobbying government, or by your Aunty Sheila telling you that you’ve got to drink milk to make milk and your baby should be on four-hourly feeds.

My own firm belief is simply that the more babies that get breastmilk, the better, and the more breastmilk those babies get, the better. So I’m trying, in a very personal way, to make that happen - I’ve breastfed my own children conspicuously in public, I work as a peer supporter, and my book aims to normalise breastfeeding and really make it seem possible for women. In some ways an awareness of the political landscape of breastfeeding has made me a better breastfeeding supporter, because I now realise that mothers are not only struggling with breastfeeding on a personal level, with whatever problem they are presenting us with, they are struggling in a society that can at times be downright hostile to breastfeeding. However, I don’t want to overstate the political side of things! When it comes down to it, this is a very gentle book that leaves most of the political debate to one side.

This isn’t meant to be a long speech, and there are many people in the room more expert than me when it comes to talking about breastfeeding, but I would like to draw out one or two threads from the book that might be of interest to us all when we are talking about and supporting breastfeeding in the community.

I’ll start by reading you a quote from the book, from Laura’s story:
‘Having reached my lowest point I went to BIBS, a local breastfeeding group, in the hope they could tell me what I was doing wrong, but it turned out I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Newborn babies are meant to feed a lot, and when someone said that as long as she was on my breast the tigers wouldn’t get her, it somehow made sense to me. At that group for the first time someone told me I was doing well. I’d breastfed my baby for four weeks.’
I think we can all recognise this new mother’s struggle - it’s one we see a lot as breastfeeding supporters.

Also, I was talking to my husband’s grandmother last weekend. I was telling her all about the book and the aim of it, and she said ‘I never had a word of encouragement from my mother-in-law, or my husband. They said I should use a bottle to see how much they were getting.’ That was in the 1950s - Ray’s grandma is well in her 80s. It reminded me again just how important breastfeeding is to mothers: these memories are still clear even after so many years. What these two examples show is how vital words of encouragement are, and how easy they are to give.

The women in the book talk about lots of different types of support - NCT, La Leche League, websites, health professionals, friends and family, peer supporters. It’s clear that a supportive environment makes all the difference in moments of doubt. And all of us in this room are doing our best to make our society more supportive of breastfeeding, which is something we can all be proud of.

An idea that became clearer to me as I worked on the book was that breastfeeding is both a practical and an emotional experience, and new mothers learning the ropes need support on both fronts. Examples of the practical side might include techniques for position and attachment, how to disengage by means of a finger in the corner of their mouth a baby that is not latched on comfortably, how to feed in public and knowing how to tell that breastfeeding is working well (all those pooey nappies!). On the emotional side are the sometimes overwhelming feelings of new motherhood: being the one responsible for nourishing your child, and keeping them safe, and having to rejig your family life and relationships to take account of the new baby. The stories in the book are a fascinating insight into the way that these two aspects of breastfeeding interact. It’s why as breastfeeding supporters we learn about the importance of asking open questions and listening, because it’s then that you can work out how best to support someone on both a practical and an emotional level.

Another idea that I mention in the introduction is something that becomes clear when you look at a wide range of people’s experiences of breastfeeding in some detail. The differences between babies, and people’s situations, are enormous, and people’s expectations of breastfeeding are also often badly skewed. Many expect that there will be breastfeeding answers, when in fact there can be a frustrating lack of them. There are just so many variables, and each mum and baby pair is unique. One of the strengths of breastfeeding support, and of this book, is that it offers mothers a range of suggestions to try: these may solve the problem, or may allow the time required for the problem to solve itself. We need to remember that new mothers’ expectations of their babies behaviour may not match with the reality, even when technically the breastfeeding is working fine, and to support them accordingly. Women need to understand how their experiences can vary significantly from those of others but still be very valid. I hope that this book will help with that kind of understanding.

I’d like to just finish off by saying that I hope you will all read the book, and enjoy it, and find it helpful when talking to new mothers, either in a personal or a professional capacity. I’d love to have any feedback about it, so by all means email me about it! If you like the book, do tell your friends, family and colleagues: we are a tiny company with tiny budgets for advertising so we rely on word of mouth. If you can, get online and post on Facebook, or review the book on Amazon, or blog about it… anything that helps spread the word. There’s also the possibility of a second edition in the future, so if you or someone you know has a story worthy of inclusion, let me know. I’m also beginning work on a new book, Water Births, in the same format, so if you’re interested in that project, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

That’s it from me now, I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening. Do see Alison Blenkinsop about her book, Fit to Bust - it’s a great resource for anyone involved with breastfeeding and it’s very funny. BEARS have their stall over there and are happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in the work we do as peer supporters in Amber Valley, and they are also doing a Breastfeeding Millionaire quiz - I expect you all to get full marks!

Once again, very many thanks to you all for coming, and I hope to get around to speak to everyone. But I need to have a glass of wine first. Thank you!

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