Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Giving breastfeeding mothers a break

We all know the feeling of desperately needing some time to ourselves. Whether it's time to have a bath in peace, to read a book, to go to an exercise class or just to sit with a cup of coffee, as mothers we often crave a few minutes (or, better, a few hours!) to just be free of the constant demands that small children make on our attention. It doesn't make us bad mothers to want this alone time. Being a parent is hard work, no question. Whether you've got one newborn, or a larger brood, the daily shepherding of little humans through their daily lives can be delightful, but also exhausting, repetitive and - at times - lonely and boring. And in today's society the other pressures on mothers are great - we are constantly bombarded with (often contradictory) messages about what we 'should' be doing: getting our babies into routines, sleeping through, eating solids, so we can get our lives and our bodies back...

This can weigh particularly heavily on a new breastfeeding mother. Even mothers for whom breastfeeding is working beautifully often feel they are somehow not doing 'enough'. I hear a lot from new mothers about 'getting started expressing', not because they need to be separated from the baby, but to give their partner a chance to do feeds, or to allow them to go on a long-planned hen weekend, or because grandma wants to have the baby for a day. Mums often sound ambivalent about this - the hassle factor of expressing and bottle-feeding to please others can seem like an extra burden. I also hear a lot from mums who are tired out from constantly feeding the baby, trying to keep on top of the washing and cleaning, shopping and cooking meals - and their partner doesn't get home until late in the evening. They think their lives would be easier if they weren't tied to the baby by breastfeeding, and expressing and bottle-feeding, or feeding formula, seem (or are made to seem, by others and the media) like the keys to more 'freedom'.

I think we have a problem here that's a real threat to breastfeeding: it becomes the 'fall guy' for the other problems of new motherhood. Feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for your new baby? Blame the breastfeeding that keeps you tied to the baby 24/7. In need of a break? You can't have one if the baby won't take a bottle. Want to keep up with your hobbies and interests, or see your friends? Not while you're breastfeeding! Want to eat a curry, go for a few drinks, have an evening out? Not if you're still breastfeeding! (Note the 'still' - it's part of the not-so-subtle pressure to stop breastfeeding early). Partner won't look after the baby? How can he, if you won't bottle feed? Baby won't sleep at night? Breastfeeding's the culprit. No time to yourself to exercise, get your hair done, go shopping? Yep, breastfeeding's the problem. I say, this is all rubbish. It's not about the breastfeeding. It's about society's attitudes and how they play out in individual families. I truly believe that breastfeeding is more flexible than many people think, and I think it's possible to balance your life as a breastfeeding mother with the other parts of your life that are important to you.


Of course life will never be the same now you have a child (breastfeeding or not). That's not a bad thing! This is a new chapter. You will not 'get back' to how you were before. But you will be able to enjoy the things that made you happy before you became a parent, albeit in a new, different, possibly even better way. Some things may be off the agenda for weeks, months or even years (I loved long tramps over hills and dales before children), but new opportunities will come along to compensate.

It's not selfish to put you, and your little family, at the centre of things for a while. If you want to turn down invitations to distant, child-free weddings, do so; if you don't want to let the grandparents have your child overnight, you don't have to. If you don't want to be bothered with expressing and bottle-feeding, you can forget all about it and just carry on breastfeeding for as long as you like. Be polite but firm when dealing with those who have an opinion about what you're doing. Part of parenting is learning how to make the choices that are right for you and your family and standing by those choices. And the choice to continue breastfeeding, and thus to not accommodate requests that conflict with it, is very valid. 'Can't you just give the baby a bottle?' is an often-heard question, to which 'no' is a perfectly acceptable answer.


So, some practical tips about how to get a break as a breastfeeding mother, that don't assume the breastfeeding is the problem. First, and perhaps most importantly, work out what it is that's important to you. Presumably the breastfeeding is important to you, because you did it (yay!) and you're still doing it (yay again!). But you'd love some time, to just do something. Let's see how that might be achieved. Obviously it helps if you've got some support - a partner, family nearby, friends. But even if you're on your own, there are things you can do to carve out some time for you, while continuing to breastfeed. Marshall your resources: if you've got support, draw on it. Tell people what you need and ask them to help make it happen. If you don't have support, see if you can get any (breastfeeding groups are a great place to start).

When my children were newly born I couldn't bear to be physically separated from them, even if they were only downstairs. This lasted several weeks and seemed to be part of my instinctive response to my baby - along with the gut-wrenching feeling I got when they cried, and the way I sprang awake, fully alert, when they made so much as a murmur. (And the way my boobs leaked at the first cry of hunger, from my own baby or someone else's.) Don't rush the first few weeks. Get what help you can to enable you to just be with your baby, let them sleep on your chest, feed as long as they like, let the house go to the dogs. Read this poem.

However, even in the early weeks, you may want a little time - to take a shower, for example? I remember agonising over how I could have a shower when I was alone with the baby. What if she woke and needed feeding? I put her in a bouncy chair and took her into the bathroom with me, then showered at breakneck speed. I soon realised that wasn't very relaxing and took to getting up early (while my husband was still at home), having a shower and then going back to sleep! Or I'd shower at night. The point is, you can change these things around. Try things out. You'll get to know what works.

With a tiny baby you can feel as though you literally never put the baby down. Slings can be a godsend and enable you to do things around the house and get out for a walk, but it can feel liberating to have a few minutes to yourself without a baby physically attached to you. Luckily, other people can wear slings and carry your baby too - so get your husband or partner to go out for a walk with the baby in the sling (or pram, if the baby likes the pram) while you do... whatever you like. Watch telly, do chores, paint your toenails. Or go out for the walk too, just not holding the baby! I used to love hanging up the washing while someone - anyone! - held the baby for ten minutes. I was outside, in the sun, with my arms temporarily free, alone with my thoughts. I learnt to savour those moments.

When you're up with the baby in the night, and doing a lot of night feeds, it can feel as though you never get comfy in bed or have space to yourself. When my second baby was not sleeping well my husband would take him downstairs when he got up for work, and look after him for an hour so I had the bed to myself for a much-needed extra hour of sleep. I loved him for it.

It can be helpful to focus on what you can do. You have lots of 'thinking time'. You can plan, make lists, decide what you will do in the future when you get chance. (That future comes sooner than you think!) I wrote two-thirds of a novel while on maternity leave with my second baby - when he napped, I typed. I imagined and planned the scenes while breastfeeding, then wrote them up when he was asleep. It's not a great novel - it's not even finished! - but it's a testament to the fact that I managed to keep a little bit of head space for myself and my ideas while at home with a small baby.

I missed reading when my babies were small. Either I was too tired to read, or I couldn't hold the book and turn the pages while breastfeeding (other mums I know were more adept than me!). A friend having her second baby deliberately made the choice to sit up and have the light on during night feeds so that she could read while feeding at night, reasoning that she might as well make best use of the time if she had to be awake. Now I have a smartphone I would browse and read on that if I were spending hours on the sofa feeding a newborn. (Sadly my breastfed baby is now 23 months old and she wants to play on the smartphone while feeding.)



Getting out of the house alone - just for a while - can really make you feel as though you've had a break. At weekends I used to feed the baby, hand her to Daddy, then go out for an hour or so, often to buy something for lunch. It needn't have been shopping - it could have been a haircut, a walk round the park, a coffee with a friend. Leaving a breastfed baby for an hour with a trusted friend or family member is definitely doable.

Often there are breastfeeding-friendly ways round even quite complicated arrangements. In my book Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform, one mother tells how she attended her sister's wedding in South Africa when her breastfed baby was just 12 weeks old. She planned in advance, pumped a stash of milk, got the baby taking bottles, then flew out to SA for the weekend, attended the wedding, pumped while she was there, then came home and carried on breastfeeding. A friend of mine had evening Paralympics tickets but her baby point-blank refused to drink from a bottle. We talked it over and in the end she brought her daughter's bath and bedtime earlier over a few days beforehand so that the baby (who sleeps well at night!) went to bed earlier and my friend could get to the Olympic Park in time for the event. As mothers, particularly first-time mothers, it can seem difficult to adjust routines that seem to be working well - but breastfeeding, and babies, can be more flexible than we think, if we give them chance.

This post has covered a lot of ground - but it boils down, again, to the importance of support for breastfeeding mothers. Sensitive support, that addresses the real issues and doesn't shift the blame onto breastfeeding, can make all the difference.





12 comments:

  1. I too feel there is immense expectation from society and parents that life will return to 'normal' after a few weeks once the baby is born. This is totally unrealistic and I think it is one reason parents feel miserable- they are expecting to have their old lives back and it is never going to happen! As you say choose a few things you can still do and postpone everything else. Raising your kids is way more important than anything else- enjoy the new and wonderful experiences it brings.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a fantastic article, agree with you whole heartedly. This kind of post gives me the confidence to carry on with breastfeeding, and ignore all those who keep asking me when I am going to stop feeding. Thank you x

    ReplyDelete
  3. A great article -it really captures how I've looked at breastfeeding my babies -everything else works around that for me.....not always easy but there is usually a way, there is certainly a will.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The pressure *not* to breastfeed??! Are you kidding me?! It's this kind of overbearing pompous propagandist fantasy that puts people off even trying it in the first place.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you all for your comments - glad the post has resonated with you. And to Anon at 22.56 - I work with a lot of breastfeeding mothers (I'm a peer supporter). I agree that there's pressure to breastfeed in the first place and some people do opt out of that by deciding it's not for them. I'm not really trying to convert people who've made their decision, although my perspective is very different. My main interest is in helping those who want to breastfeed to carry on - and how we can support them to do so. And it's simply not supportive to say 'put the baby on a bottle and then you can do all these things', because it doesn't take account of how important mothers feel breastfeeding is.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Surely breastfeeding is about the child and not the mother? I would never condone just sticking a child on the bottle for the sake of convenience but you're not only promoting breastfeeding as the only unselfish option but now knocking expressing too?! You aren't going to get a medal for becoming a slave to the demands of your child. If it suits a mother to exclusively breastfeed for as long as it suits her child then great but let's not pretend that that would leave time for anything else. Your message is "you can have time for yourself while breastfeeding, but only in your head or on your smartphone". Brilliant. Breastfeeding is the best health option for children but not every child can do it with ease and nor can every mother, it won't get you a sainthood and it is a full time job. Let's stop pretending anything else is true.

    ReplyDelete
  7. To Anon at 9.39 - sounds like we'll have to agree to disagree. I'm not knocking expressing - it enables mothers to continue to feed their children their milk when they can't be there and can mean that babies get more breastmilk than they might have otherwise, but it's not the answer to all the problems I mention in my post: for one thing, not every woman can express, and the added hassle of sterilising, expressing and storing milk is a chore for some. My aim with this article was two-fold: to paint a realistic portrait of how breastfeeding can look in reality (based on my own experiences and those of other women), and to point out ways in which, even when it seems overwhelming, you can feel as though you've had a bit of 'time off' without the focus being on stopping breastfeeding. I also don't agree that breastfeeding is only about the child - the risks to health of not breastfeeding apply to both.

    ReplyDelete
  8. jeez anonymous at 09:39 you seem pretty angry. I've always felt breastfeeding was about the child AND the mother. It seems very clear that the authour is not knocking expressing but rather hoping that mothers make that choice at a time that is right for them and not because they feel pressured to do so. I felt the article had some very practical suggestions and was written in a sympathetic and dignified tone. Unlike some of the subsequent comments, unfortunately.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What's undignified about my comments? Its a discussion, are different opinions not allowed? I'm not angry at all just weary of breastfeeding evangelists peddling the same messages. There's never as much discussion about nappy changing or sleep, the use of dummies isn't repeatedly politicised, why should breastfeeding be? Parenthood is an extremely personal journey and therefore different for each one, I just would rather the lactivists backed off and let people get on with it without the constant pressure. If women who are breastfeeding wish to carry on and are able to then they will. It's as simple as that. When my child was tiny nobody popped round to see if I was bathing her correctly or if I had her dressed appropriately for the weather but the local breastfeeding coordinator never left me alone!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Different opinions are of course allowed, but your tone does come across as quite judgemental of breastfeeding supporters. Referring to us as 'lactivists' and 'breastfeeding evangelists' does make it seem as if you think we're all on some sort of crusade. I can only speak for myself but my position is much gentler than that: I would like to see more mums and babies breastfeeding, but I'm aware that life is far from simple and just want to do what I can to help those who want to breastfeed to carry on. You say that if women want to carry on and are able to then they will: but there are actually lots of potential obstacles to that sort of happy breastfeeding relationship, and many of them can be overcome with good support. I support every woman's right to make her own decisions; if her choice is to breastfeed then I aim to give her the support she needs to carry on. If her choice is not to breastfeed, that's fine too, and I talk to many of the mothers I support about things other than breastfeeding (sleep, dummies etc), although the health visitors do answer questions about that type of thing too. I think there's an emphasis on feeding method because we know that breastfeeding is normal for our species and there are risks in not doing so (thus we try to ensure that those who want to breastfeed get support), and we also know that good breastfeeding support increases the rate of breastfeeding and its duration, with real health implications for both mothers and babies. If women don't want support, they don't have to access it, or could say politely that it's not welcome - but my experience as a breastfeeding supporter is more that we struggle to deal with the demand for our services, which we provide in a voluntary capacity, suggesting more breastfeeding support is needed, not less.

      Delete
  10. I loved this article! Well written with excellent suggestions on how to have some "me" time if you want/need it, without compromising what you feel is right for you and your baby. I am still nursing my 23mo old and still feel the need to find ways to get a little "me" time. It's easy to be made to feel guilty for it, but it's normal and healthy! Anyway, thank you to the author for a great article, and to the Anonymous person that obviously has a problem with it, why were you here reading it in the first place? To start an argument? Moving on.... :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for commenting Jaie, and glad you enjoyed the post - I wrote it a while ago but it's still getting a fair amount of traffic, so it must have struck a chord with other breastfeeding mothers. Which was of course the point - I feel the interests/needs of the breastfeeding mother are sometimes minimalised/overlooked.

      Delete