This blog is written from a very personal point of view – from the perspective of a new mother struggling to feed her baby and from the perspective of a midwife in training. If only I knew then what I know now.
First things first. Breastfeeding is not easy.
Some find it punishingly hard: swollen, sore breasts; leaky, cracked nipples; milk tinged pink with blood as evidence of the agony and pain gone through to produce this golden elixir, rich in goodness that scientists can only dream of reproducing in a laboratory. Mothers are told that it is the best start for your baby, as student midwives we learn about the statistics and the science behind the production of breast milk, how it nourishes the baby and how the milk adapts from feed to feed to provide the child with the optimal hydration and nutrition. It really is incredible stuff.
When I had my first baby I was looked after by wonderful community midwives wearing lanyards emblazoned with Breast is Best! I attended all of the antenatal classes and paid to attend other, privately run breastfeeding groups in the run up to the birth of my precious baby. I had read every report, book and article on breastfeeding, and armed with all of this information, and being in possession of two (normalish) breasts, how could I go wrong? The reality was nothing like anything I had read about, there didn’t seem to be any milk in my breasts, my baby ‘latching on’ felt like someone was passing my nipples through a meat grinder and however many minutes I endured this agony my baby did. not. stop. crying. This went on for approximately 48 hours, the worst 2 days of my life, until my husband – worried and sleep deprived – screeched to a well known supermarket and bought every piece of bottle feeding equipment on the market, including formula milk. With swollen breasts (up to my armpits – no one ever told me about that!), swollen eyes and a guilt complex the size of the NHS deficit, I popped the bottle into my son’s mouth. This ended my experience of breastfeeding.
Since becoming a student midwife I have heard many similar stories, along with plenty of success stories. What made the difference between success and failure? How could I help women to avoid the experience I had endured? We have wonderful midwifery lecturers at Coventry University, full of enthusiasm and passion for their profession and eager to pass on their knowledge, experience and wisdom to the next generation of future midwives. I was so excited to begin the module about breastfeeding. I was ready with my knitted breast in hand and, after practicing with dolls and then real women on real postnatal wards, I felt equipped to offer support and advice to women who wanted to breastfeed. There isn’t a magic formula, that is the first thing I learned. As a society we have unlearned the skills required to breastfeed – most of us do not grow up in families where we see mothers, aunts or older siblings and cousins breastfeeding their children, so the skill has been lost. Midwives are the experts in breastfeeding, yet there are not enough of them, they are busy and struggle to give women the real support, the hours of support, that some women need to establish breastfeeding. The wonderful thing about being a student midwife is that our supernumerary status means that we do have the time. I advise women that want to breastfeed to stay in hospital until it is established, as they have support and help at the end of the corridor – wonderful! I have sat with many women watching them learn the correct attachment and positioning, key to preventing cracked nipples. I have loved advising women about the importance of skin to skin contact, regular, unrestricted feeding, and just being there to sit and listen while they sob and try again to latch their baby on successfully. Having one to one support is the crucial aspect that women need if they are to breastfeed. As a student I am able to provide that support, the midwives appreciate it, the partners appreciate it, but most of all the women love you for it. The care and support I can give really can make the difference between a baby going home breastfeeding or bottle feeding. Success stories give me a spring in my step at the end of my shift. Our university is working towards UNICEF Baby Friendly accreditation, and as part of that I will be setting up a drop-in feeding clinic run by students.
Exciting times are ahead, student midwives should be leading the way in breastfeeding education and support, if you are having a baby soon and want to breastfeed – ask if there is a student on shift, you won’t regret it. If only I had stayed in hospital a little longer and found myself a willing student midwife, my own experience of breastfeeding may have been different.