Breastfeeding support is inconsistent at the best of times. Now the clinics where volunteers helped mothers with their queries are closed. The breastfeeding clinic at The Royal Berkshire Hospital (and I assume at other hospitals, too) is now closed. The hospital’s weekly tongue-tie clinic is also shut. Throughout the years, this clinic enabled dozens and dozens of mothers who were experiencing pain and damaged nipples, lengthy feeding, and slow weight gain in their babies to overcome these hurdles and to enjoy pain-free, gratifying breastfeeding with confidence. Often these clinics are a game-changer, whether it’s the tongue being released to help feeding, or just a word of reassurance and encouragement. And for those who have been helped, I very often hear that it changed everything for them—how they responded to their child, bonded, and even went on to help others (I myself fit in all of these categories). The feeling of regret and failure last a lifetime for the mother who is unable to meet her own breastfeeding goals.
Seeking out where the help is, and then asking for it is a minefield in itself. We don’t know why it’s so hard, perhaps it makes us feel vulnerable and already like a failure on some level. Other times we just don’t know where to find the help. Social media has both helped and hindered. There are loads of Facebook groups dedicated to breastfeeding mothers and mothers giving birth during lock down. The struggling mother reaches out, asks a question, and might have thirty or more experiences from other mothers, some with varying and very strong opinions, and almost no one formally trained on the subject, or those who are, often cannot mention it because of the group’s rules.
Once upon a time, a mere hundred or so years ago, women’s primary role was to get married, bear children and manage a household. Giving birth although risky, was not thought of as something difficult, and in the rare case that a mother could not feed her child for whatever reason, someone else would. Life was simpler. There were no breast pumps, shields, shells, pacifiers, milk storage, and so on—a woman had to trust it would work without any of these things to ‘help’. Most likely, she rested after giving birth, and was served meals and drink while she snuggled with baby, her new and most important role as a nurturer of another human being her primary concern. Guests were likely kept at bay, until the mother felt ready to ‘reveal’ her baby at the time that suited her.
Today, exacerbating the problems connected to breastfeeding after a medicalised birth and lack of support are the sometimes-endless streams of guests who want to meet and hold the baby. Often hunger cues go ignored on the maternity wards when grandparents or friends come to visit, babies mere hours old being passed around from person to person, each one smelling extremely unfamiliar to the newborn, who takes no pleasure in the arms of those who are not her parents. With the bonding between mother and child being interrupted again and again, by medicalised checks and enthusiastic guests, it is a miracle that any mother gets a good start to breastfeeding!
In our current situation seems to be full of doom and gloom, but there is a silver-lining to having babies during lockdown—BREASTFEEDING UNHINDERED, or shall I say ‘less’ hindered. Sadly, the lack of face to face support is inevitable, but as one mother who called the national breastfeeding helpline said, “I have time to give to this,” when the suggestion was made that she forget the housework and sit skin-to-skin with her baby. The ‘babymoon’ (honeymoon with a baby) no longer requires having to clear a calendar in order to give ample time for establishing breastfeeding norms. It is now a given. Pre-Covid-19 quarantine, caught up in the busyness of manic-paced life, often made this suggestion near to impossible. The knock-on effect of no visitors means not having to be sure the house tidy, giving even more time to this precious mother-baby lie-in.
Hopefully, breastfeeding rates might increase; wouldn’t this be a welcome side-effect to lockdown?
Mothers can easily access support from the avenues still functioning such as The National Breastfeeding Helpline 0300 100 0212, social media pages for The Breastfeeding Network, La Leche League, and the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, as well as from professional consultants and infant feeding specialists who are still working digitally. Additionally, peer support must not be dismissed, as it also has its place, helping mothers to feel less alone. Parents are still able to reach and access this current support that might carry them through and establish breastfeeding and meeting their own personal goals.
I’d like to think that this pandemic has given us all time to reflect and realise our priorities. In the case of breastfeeding, it has provided many overwhelmed and exhausted new mothers with an unlikely respite from so many other cares so that nursing their babies can take precedence. Who could object to that?