I have been on a bit of a blog hiatus; in November last year I gave birth to a beautiful baby and I have been experiencing the roller-coaster of parenthood ever since. I am still on maternity leave and hadn’t particularly intended on blogging while off work, but a couple of things have appeared in the media over the last week or so which started to get the rusty braincells stretching again. For this post I want to concentrate on World Breastfeeding Week 2014, which is this week.
I hadn’t particularly given awareness days/weeks/months any critical thought up till a couple of years ago, probably because I have not been particularly affected by the issues demanding awareness. However, I remember reading a blog piece (I think on Feministing although I can’t find the exact post now) one October about the onslaught of pink that Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings each year. This piece, from the perspective of a woman who (if I recall correctly) had had breast cancer herself, pointed out that for people like her, and her loved ones, they were all more than aware of breast cancer, that merely giving something a pink wrapper will change nothing, that buying pink products may make people feel they have ‘done their bit’ even though they don’t know where their money is being donated, or what proportion of their money is being donated, or whether the charities receiving the funds from the pink goods are focused on research, treatment and/or ‘awareness’. Not to mention the infantilising and gender-dubious nature of a lot of the pink products themselves. I also saw comments from a friend (now cancer-free) who talked about hating the annual promotion of ‘Race for Life’ as it was a constant reminder of the cancer she had experienced and could potentially face again. In addition I think that Dr Margaret McCartney’s concerns in the BMJ about the annual Movember campaign are a useful contribution to the debate about ‘awareness’ and what it is trying to achieve, as well as potentially unintended consequences: BMJ.
As a health visitor I was (and am) always totally committed to supporting breastfeeding. This year though I have the extra experience of being a mother, and not only that, but a mother who has had real struggles with breastfeeding. Without getting into too many personal details, I had poor milk supply from the beginning (I suspect a combination of medication I had to take antenatally till about 8 weeks postnatal, recovery from Caesarian section, stress and who knows what else) meaning that from day 2 I had to start mixed feeding. I have never ever felt guilty about this, as I know that it was the right thing to do for my daughter (watching your baby not thrive is not an experience I’d wish anybody). I have though, always felt so very disappointed – breastfeeding was the one thing I so so wanted to do and for it to go well, and it not going well still makes me really upset. It didn’t help that I beat myself up for it – as a health visitor I have supported I don’t know how many people with breastfeeding, including having mothers telling me they would have given up without my help; I have done the UNICEF Baby-Friendly training; I know what to do, and yet it just wasn’t happening for me. I had a ton of help and support from health professionals (and have to say that the staff at Forth Valley, both in the hospital and community, are an absolute credit to the NHS, I was so impressed with them) and also a breastfeeding support group which was, and remains, a lifeline. It seemed like the whole world had observed me feeding and thought that the positioning and attachment was fine, but even despite the supplementation with formula it took a few months before my daughter started putting on decent amounts of weight, which was a real worry. Although I never experienced problems like mastitis or thrush I did experience awful pain for the first few weeks, and all in all it has to be said that it was nothing like the beautiful Zen-like experience that I had hoped for and (if I’m honest) expected.
Eight and a half months later, against the odds, I am still doing some breastfeeding at each feed. I am also topping up with formula milk at each feed, but I am really proud of myself for getting this far and still giving some breastmilk (most of the people I have talked to have said that they would have given up long ago). I have though been doing a lot of thinking about the messages we send as health professionals about breastfeeding, and I hope that this experience will make me a better and more thoughtful (and critical) practitioner.
Checking out the World Breastfeeding Week tweets on twitter has been a bit depressing, I’ve thought. I appreciate that a 140-character medium isn’t going to be the best for subtle and nuanced consideration of the issues and the message is distilled down in the most part to ‘it’s wonderful, with the right support and correct positioning anyone can do it, breast is best’. But I had tons of support, from both health professionals and certified lactation consultants, got positioning and attachment right (bad habits crept in later, not least thanks to De Quervain’s tenosynovitis which meant that I had trouble bringing the baby to the breast and it is infinitely less painful to do it the other way round), I knew all the tricks in the book (having studied the damn book enough!) but it still just didn’t work the way it is always presented. I never had the sensation of my milk ‘coming in’ on day 3 (or at any point after that), I have never felt any sensation of milk ‘let-down’ at the start of a feed, I never managed to express more than a few mls at any one time (yet another disaster to make me feel even crappier!). In the worst first few weeks I looked up all I could about breastfeeding problems, and found a research paper on breastfeeding idealism which was basically the research project I would have loved to do if someone hadn’t already done it: Hoddinott et al 2012. This research talks about the gap between education messages about breastfeeding and the messy reality. More recently I read Burns et al 2012 which is about how midwives talk about breastfeeding and the effects of the language used. Both have got me thinking about how I could best as a practitioner support women who want to breastfeed without resorting to one-size-fits-all messages or trite soundbites. I think we do parents a great disservice by presenting breastfeeding as easy, natural and ‘best’ while denying that many women find it difficult, heartbreaking, painful and stressful. If nothing else, I really hope that my less-than-ideal experience with breastfeeding leads to me being more use to families I may work with in the future.
But what about breastfeeding awareness and World Breastfeeding Week? This piece by Hollie McNish is a reflection for World Breastfeeding Week on some of the reactions she got to her poem on breastfeeding going viral online earlier this year. I am lucky that I have never (to my knowledge) faced any disapproval for breastfeeding in public, but know that negative attitudes are still common. And while anyone thinks that it is acceptable to compare breastfeeding with sex or urination/defecation, or that breastfeeding will turn baby girls gay and baby boys sex-crazed, then yes absolutely we need breastfeeding awareness, and not just for one week a year. There is work to be done on so many fronts. Let’s just think about how we can do it in a way that doesn’t trivialise, or infantilise, or fetishize, this complex, beautiful, difficult, wonderful process.