Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Ellie Stoneley, Cambridge, UK
Photo: Paul Clarke Photography
Breast not best, it’s normal: Milky Moments
I’ve never been a fan of the word “normal,” since it represents the mundane or the average. But in the context of breastfeeding it’s a great word, as it suggests that breastfeeding is not noteworthy, not something to comment on or criticize. It’s just what happens.
I became a new mum at the age of 47. My daughter was premature and was blue and grunting when she was born, so she was whisked off to the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) to be monitored. When she was brought back to me, she breastfed a little, or tried to, but her mouth seemed way too small for my nipple. That’s about all I recall, other than the sense of wonder that she’d arrived. All too soon, she was taken back to the SCBU, and I was given another epidural.
I woke up feeling as if I was in a dream, not sure any of it was real. My baby had an IV drip into her tiny hand, various monitors attached, and a little nasal feeding tube through which, I was told, she’d had some formula. I didn’t question this as I was still very out of it. I tried again to feed her. She managed a little, but I didn’t seem to be able to hold her quite right. I tried later to hand express a little milk. A minute amount came out, and I mean miniscule, but I felt triumphant in my dazed state and the precious colostrum was rushed to my daughter.
We both struggled with breastfeeding. I put it down to the nose tube, but it turned out that she had a tongue-tie [when the membrane attaching the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too tight], which also conspired to make it harder for her to latch on. We mixed and matched: we nursed and bottle-fed the little I’d been able to pump, and formula as well.
Among the gifts she received was a tiny book entitled Baby Mealtimes. It showed bottles, bottle-feeding, and spoons of mush. I wondered why breastfeeding wasn’t featured at all. It wasn’t in any of the baby books she received.
Some people take to breastfeeding like a duck to water, others struggle, some persist, others give up, and some never start. Sadly there are a few—and it really is only a few—new mothers who can’t breastfeed for medical reasons: I have a friend in this situation and my heart goes out to her as I know she would have loved to breastfeed. She has used both donor breast milk and formula. Another friend, also an incredible mum, decided that she, like her mother and sister before her, didn’t want to start breastfeeding. The midwives respected her decision and showed her how best to bottle-feed formula.
We are all different in our approach to parenting; it’s so important that we respect one another.
We did struggle in the early days, but I felt able to ask for help, again and again, when I needed it. I was encouraged by midwives and by a wonderful volunteer lactation consultant, who patiently helped with positioning and latch, and slowly but surely we mastered the art. After we left hospital my daughter’s nose tube was finally removed, and her tongue-tie was cut. When she was just over two weeks old, I went (very anxiously) to a breastfeeding drop-in center. After that, I felt absolutely confident and we were able to actually enjoy breastfeeding in a really relaxed way. We haven’t looked back.
My daughter didn’t breastfeed exclusively until five months, at which point she started refusing a bottle, be it of formula or expressed breast milk. I was both scared and awed to be solely responsible for her nutrition. The next four months, it felt incredible being able to sustain her myself … At four years old, with a wide and varied appetite, she still nurses at nighttime or in the morning, or if she fancies a slurp from time to time!
The merits of breast milk and breastfeeding, for mother and child, are widely known, but the UK still has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with only one per cent of new mothers exclusively breastfeeding at six months in line with the recommendation from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. According to the most recent figures, 81 per cent of new mothers start breastfeeding, 69 per cent continue beyond the first week, and 55 per cent are still nursing six weeks later. By six months, only a third are still breastfeeding at all. U.S. figures are similarly low, not helped by the lack of paid maternity leave.
After talking to hundreds of new mothers, and considering the fact that the biggest drop-off points are after the first week and between the six-week and six-month marks, I believe two things.
Firstly, that mothers need more support with breastfeeding, both in hospital and once they’re at home. They need to know that help and support is out there and where to find it.
Secondly, that breastfeeding needs to be normalized. It needs to be seen to be normal by society at large, and in the way it’s portrayed in popular culture.
I was born in California, and my mother was an early member of La Leche League in the 1960s, so as I grew up and throughout my pregnancy, the support of this incredible organization was always something I knew I could count on.
I was born in California, and my mother was an early member of La Leche League in the 1960s, so as I grew up and throughout my pregnancy, the support of this incredible organization was always something I knew I could count on. I attended a U.S. group myself for a while in Orange County.
Where I live now in the UK, we’re well served by La Leche League and the Cambridge Breastfeeding Alliance, who offer helplines, drop-in sessions, and tea and cake.
As for popular culture, the kind of news coverage of the furore around a British politician telling mothers to breastfeed in a corner, or a hotel waiter telling a mother to nurse under a table napkin, make many women feel anxious about breastfeeding in public. They needn’t be! The reality is that the vast majority of new mothers get supportive comments, if any. I’ve been offered a cushion, glasses of water, a cup of hot chocolate, even a free meal, and lots of encouragement, while receiving no negative comments at all.
In cultural terms, soap operas and TV generally show bottle- rather than breastfeeding as part of daily life with a new baby. Toy baby dolls come with a feeding bottle and children’s books almost always depict images of bottle-feeding, or simply pictures of bottles.
Children who grow up never seeing breastfeeding at home and only seeing bottle-feeding on TV or in their books are surely less likely to want to breastfeed their own babies when the time comes. They’ll also be far less likely to ask for help with breastfeeding if it has never been a part of their lives.
That’s what inspired me to write Milky Moments, a rhyming picture book for children and their families depicting breastfeeding as a normal part of day-to-day life. The book has sold out several times since its launch in May 2015.
I will strive for my daughter to grow up in a society where breastfeeding is perceived as the norm, where women breastfeeding in public aren’t picked out as ostentatious, where feeding a child the way nature intended isn’t only discussed in schools as part of sex education.
I want her to live in a society where mothers, having made decisions on nurturing their children based on fact and circumstance, are supported, not criticized, judged, or forced to defend those decisions, whatever they may be.
Ellie Stoneley studied Psychology and English Literature at Durham University. She helps small charities and businesses and has worked all over the world, most notably mining opals in the Australian outback and as a volunteer for the Kitchen Table Charities Trust, for whom she traveled to Madagascar to highlight the issues many children face there. She writes regularly about mothering and being an older first-time mother on her own blog and for Huffington Post. She also appears on TV and radio to discuss a variety of parenting issues.