The art of breastfeeding

Comedian Robin Williams describes how, after six months of pregnancy, the most wondrous thing happens — the Breast Fairy comes. Both men and women are surprised, curious and delighted by the rounding and ripening of the mother-to-be’s breasts and nipples as pregnancy proceeds. However, these changes are mild compared with the changes after the birth, when breasts seem to take on a life of their own.

A few days after your baby is born, you wake up to find two rock-hard mountains where your soft, comfy breasts used to be. Your milk has ‘come in’. In the few days prior to this, your baby will have been practising sucking and getting small amounts of the incredibly nutritious, golden colostrum. Your baby has been building an appetite, and thank goodness for that, because you very quickly discover you need each other! Often, a new mother finds herself watching her sleeping newborn and hoping madly that they will wake up soon and help relieve her of her abundant milk supply. This supply and demand link-up primes you to stay close and have frequent and regular contact through the breastfeeds.

Women have varying reactions to breastfeeding. Some find enormous pleasure in the whole process and are reluctant to wean their toddlers off the breast. Some are happy to nurse their baby, but pleased to stop. Others are unable to breastfeed because of difficulties, while others prefer to give the whole thing a miss and feed with a bottle of formula. Many factors affect whether you start and how long you continue. You will be trying for a balance between what your head and heart dictate.

The sensations accompanying breastfeeding are surprisingly strong at first. The ‘letdown’ reflex is triggered just after the baby has begun to suck. There is a feeling of release in both breasts simultaneously; the nipples become erect and the breasts fill with milk from the storage ducts deeper in your chest and underarms. Sometimes, in the early days, your baby’s suckling will stimulate cramping feelings in your uterus, called ‘afterpains’. These are caused by the uterus contracting back to its pre-pregnancy size.

While your baby is busy on one side, the unoccupied breast may squirt milk, so that you need a pad or towel to catch the overflow. You will come to know the characteristic, slightly metallic smell of breastmilk, waking and sleeping.

You get used to being damp, changing shirts a lot and getting around padded up like a teenager with socks in her bra. After a while, you learn to take all this with good humour — what else can you do when you discover you’ve been out in public for a couple of hours with two wet patches on the front of your blouse!

All this has the positive effect of slowing you down and keeping you around home for a few weeks, while you recuperate from the birth and get into a rhythm with your baby and your own body. Things soon settle down and it becomes easier (and less messy) — a natural part of the tempo of your days and nights.

Nature equipped women with breasts and the amazing capacity to produce living nourishment for our babies. Breastfeeding not only passes food to the baby, but also immunity — something no formula is ever likely to contain. However, women are fortunate that, when breastfeeding is prevented by circumstance, substitute milk formulas are available.

We urge you to maximise your chances of breastfeeding with comfort and confidence. Breastfeeding is an art and many of us need a little help to get started. Seek information and support, such as ideas for adjustments to your feeding pattern and techniques, which will make the process pleasing and satisfying to both you and the baby.

The National Childbirth Trust has breastfeeding counsellors at a local level throughout the country. They can be contacted by phone or in person. They are experienced and caring mothers who will offer free advice on many aspects of looking after babies. Hospital nurses and child-health sisters can also help to make breastfeeding easy and successful.

Iris, 28 ‘My mother breastfed five babies and she was really helpful. She’d tell me what

Sterilising feeding equipment’

If you are going to bottlefeed your infant, either from birth or after you wean them off the breast, it is important to make sure the equipment — teats, bottles, caps — is sterilised before each feed to prevent a build-up of harmful bacteria. From the age of about one year, when they are mobile and, therefore, picking up all sorts of germs from the floor, the garden and so on, you can simply wash the equipment in hot water.

Some parents opt to use chemical sterilants, steam sterilising in a unit, or microwave sterilising, again in a special unit. If you have six to eight bottles and teats, you will only need to sterilise them once or twice a day, instead of after each feed. Wide-necked bottles are easier to clean. Steps 1 to 5 apply to either sterilising method: 1. Rinse bottle and teat in cold water immediately after the feed. Leave to drain. 2. Before sterilising, using hot water, detergent and a brush kept specially for this purpose, wash bottles, jugs, spoons and any other equipment you use for mixing formula. 3. Rinse thoroughly. 4. Turn teats inside out and wash. Remember the insides get dirty too. 5. Rinse thoroughly. 6. For heat sterilisation, submerge equipment — except teats — in cold water, making sure spoons and so on are heat resistant. Remove any air bubbles before heating. 7. Bring water to boil and boil for 10 minutes, adding teats for the final two minutes. Dummies can also be added at this stage. 8. Wash your hands with soap. 9. Using clean plastic tongs kept for this purpose, remove equipment immediately. 10. Fill bottles with made-up formula straight away. 11. Cap teats. 12. Refrigerate bottles until needed.

Note Even if your baby has taken very little from a bottle, never save leftover formula for the next feed, as it will be contaminated with saliva.

Worked for her, like: “Be careful with your breasts, keep them warm, try to relax because getting upset stops the milk supply, eat nuts and have a glass of stout occasionally.” I don’t know if all these were the right advice, but knowing that they worked for her made me feel I was on safe ground.’

Opting for the bottle

If you’ve chosen to bottle feed, have a talk with your midwife or health visitor about the type of formula to use and be aware of the content of the various brands. Also, ask about the different types of bottles, shape and material of teats, and how to sterilise the equipment. Mothers who bottle feed can make this as close as possible to the breastfeeding experience by holding their baby close, stroking them, making lots of eye contact. The close and beautiful experience of having the baby’s skin against your own bare skin is also important, at least some of the time.