Mamma Mia!

Bundesarchiv Bild 135-KB-12-087, Tibetexpedition, Tibeterin in Tracht mit Kind

I was recently asked by my midwife to feed a friend’s newborn baby who didn’t seem interested in the breast.

(A male of the species, not interested in the breast?! Unbelievable, but true.)

I remembered the first time I fed Shamsie, the surreal experience of having a food product (correction: a dynamite liquid gold superfood) coming out of a body part that had previously not enjoyed so many public appearances. I didn’t realise how lucky I’d been, with two babies who latched on like pros and were little squidge monsters within a couple of months.

This baby, on the other hand, was a tiny little thing, only a week old and weak from hardly drinking any of the milk his mother had been pumping.

(An electric breastpump, for those of you who haven’t been initiated, is a weird sort of proboscis that attaches to your nipple and slurps away at a slow, rhythmic pace with a faint whirr, sucking like some sort of sleepy, extraterrestrial hoover. Enough to make any new mother feel like a commercial dairy farm.)

The baby’s mother was doing admirably, not remotely stung at the thought of another woman breastfeeding her baby, even with that tsunami of hormones that usually makes first-time mothers a bawling wreck merely watching an advert of golden retriever puppies chasing toilet rolls down stairs.

Was it weird, breastfeeding another woman’s baby? Not in the slightest. I was surprised; it happened so seamlessly, him nestling into the crook of my arm like he’d always been there, before I even thought about the strangeness of it.

He latched on fine, opened his sleepy eyes in a concentrated, slightly frowning stare directed at a freckle on my collarbone, fed for ten minutes solidly, then lapsed back into that glorious doze that newborns do so well. Still floating in the miniature ocean in their mothers, coccooned in an absolute peace not yet broken by car horns and sirens and snappy voices.

Job done, I headed home; I had absorbed some of his bliss. The rough track seemed wide and sunlit, I glid over the cracks etched by acequia overflow, now filled with concrete rubble, as if they were a clover lawn. A donkey and her fluffy, doe-eyed foal watched me passively from the next field. Rosa bobbed happily in her sling, not knowing – or not minding – that her food source was being shared.

According to Islam, babies who are breastfed by the same mother are considered ‘milk siblings’ and aren’t supposed to marry. Now, I don’t know if just one feed counts, or if – as was the case in medieval Arabia, where cities were so riddled with diseases that babies were sent to be fed by Berber women in the countryside until they were two – this law only referred to children who were raised and fed along with a wet nurse’s own children.

In either case, what it means is that Islam considers breastmilk to be as important as genes. Something of your body has entered the bloodstream of another person (wow, doesn’t that sound intense!) and gone to build their bones and muscles and brain tissue.

The whole experience gave me a flicker of inspiration towards becoming a breastfeeding counseller. That bliss, the two-way bond that mother and newborn experience that is so out of this world – as well as replete with health benefits – is the most incredible gift I could imagine giving to a new mother.

However, the length of the training involved (and the 4,400 pounds NCT course fee!) are slightly off-putting. On top of that, it seems that some women have had such difficulties with breastfeeding – sore, cracked and even bleeding nipples, mastitis) that any advice from breastfeeding counsellers came across as unsympathetic, impractical or just plain wrong.

Poor bedside manner might account for much of it, but the truth of the matter is that we are only coming back to breastfeeding as a society in the West after quite a prolonged period when it was deemed immodest, unhygienic, perverse or even (as my cousin’s wife put it) ‘disgusting’.

In the UK, despite a huge NHS-backed push to encourage breastfeeding to at least 6 months, there still prevails a bit of a ‘Wahey! Tits out for the lads’ attitude towards it. Under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, breastfeeding mothers in the UK have always been able to breastfeed in public (despite concerns in 2008 that babies older than 6 months wouldn’t be protected by an amendment to this law). Nevertheless, our shrinking violet genes dictate a bit of a stuffy, corseted, Victorian approach to feeding our cubs.

I’d like to conduct a bit of research. What have been your experiences of breastfeeding? Did you love it, suffer for it, get weirded out at the idea? Have you ever been asked to leave restaurant for it? Amusing anecdotes about accidentally squirting long-range milk into an unsuspecting waiter’s eye are also much appreciated. Do you get ’em out while buying broccoli on the market, or shy away in quiet corners? Partners, what did you think of your lady’s new food-producing boobs?

Just think if it as keeping abreast of the issue…(sorry, had to be done.)

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4 thoughts on “Mamma Mia!

  1. Hi Medina
    Your post is fascinating. I am really pleased that, firstly, you were able to help your friend and her child is such an important way, and that you got something special from the experience too. Secondly, I think it was a very enlightened midwife who encouraged you, I wish that practise went on. Forget brocolli, wheatgrass and all that, Breastmilk is the only thing I think deserves the term ‘superfood’.

    I understand that you live in Spain now and the situation with Breastfeeding is different to the UK but I wanted to respond to your interest in being a breastfeeding counsellor from my own experience as a recently trained ‘Breastfeeding Peer Supporter’. I don’t know if its a scheme you know about, but if a similar thing is available (or set- up-able), you’d be great at it, and it would be great for you. Basically the scheme is aimed at mothers like me and you who have had first hand experience of breastfeeding. It was started by La Leche League but when I did it, it was run by the local health authority and taught by NHS breastfeeding counsellors, nursery nurses and midwives, following a basic curriculum and using LLL materials. You undergo a twelve week training process, which is very thorough. Although the idea is that you are not an expert, but understand the reality of breastfeeding, you are well equipped to answer technical questions. Then (after a lengthy CRB check, grr) you work in the community alongside proffessionals in clinics and baby cafes helping and empathising with women.

    I just thought I would let you know, so you didn’t feel like the NCT huge fees were an insumountable barrier to you helping out other women. In answer to your poll, I hated breastfeeding for first two months but was dtermined to do and got some good help (after rubbish advice post partum at the hospital) and then loved it and did me and my daughter the world of good for the rest of th 15 months until I weaned her off. Was expecting a mixed reaction to feeding in public but got an overwhelmingly positive vibe to anyone who noticed. Having said that, i stopped soon after my child turned toddler shaped. I think women do get mixed reactions when the child is approaching 2 and over.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks so much for your response Lizzy, that sounds exactly the sort of thing I am looking for! Stuff lengthy courses to turn you into an encyclopaedia on legs (or boobs) – we need a cave level of groundedness!

      I have definitely noticed how much of a divide there is in Spain these days; the younger generations view it as something backward and unsexy, while the old ladies make a point of cooing and making approving comments. Unfortunately if you have a caesarian here you are likely to have your baby whisked off while you are being stitched up, and a bottle of glucose water stuffed in the poor thing’s mouth!! There are lots of soft-lensed pictures on the neo-natal ward with slogans like ‘her best food is you’, but the practise on the ground doesn’t seem to be so encouraging.

      There is an amusingly titled book about long-term breastfeeding (like, seven year olds) called ‘the drinks are on me’! I agree, the image of an older child breastfeeding is a bit strange, although perhaps that’s because we’re just not used to seeing it. A family friend recalls being at a very swish cocktail party once when a boy of three or four came charging in, his mother suddenly whipped out a boob, dropped to her hands and knees, and the kid (‘scuse the pun) came and suckled like a baby goat!! Horse for courses, like they say…

      Thanks for your contribution! Love to N and J xxx

  2. Hi Cavemum,

    I am in the UK and have a boy of 3 years old (just turned). He still nurses and I nurse him wherever and whenever. I remember in the first few months of breastfeeding I was very conscious of my surroundings, having not perfected my skills I did tend to try to keep out of the lime light as such in regards to feeding him. However as I got better I didn’t care who saw. I struggled the first week and did get mastisis but never gave up.

    I have had looks from people at toddler groups when he was 2 and probably get them now but don’t notice. My Austrian Grandmother is very proud that I have been breastfeeding so long and the rest of my family are used to it.

    My partner is also very supportive and its really a non-issue. My breasts were made for feeding a little one so thats all there is to it.

    I can’t imagine feeding him when he is 7 but we will see!!!!! I guess they are called milk teeth for a reason 🙂

    A lot of people I know haven’t even tried to breastfeed which I find saddening. It is really an enjoyable experience for the most part. I remember one time when I was ill and my son was 1 and a half. It hurt to feed him so I said to him I couldn’t feed him before bed because it hurt. He laid down next to me and went to sleep with a cuddle instead. It was really upsetting but lovely. I cried about it because he hadn’t fed all day as well but had eaten things instead because I was ill. He just accepted I couldn’t feed him right now. It was lovely he did that and the next day when I felt better he was on full course again but it made me realise I have no idea how people just suddenly break that connection off. It is a deep connection that needs to be weaned over the course of a few years and not abruptly.

    I think its great you were able to give someone your breastmilk. My sister didn’t breastfeed for very long and I wish she had asked me to help her by giving it the way that you did. But as the UK goes – everything is weird. 😦

    • This is really heartening, that you are happy to be breastfeeding at 3 and potentially even later, no matter what some people might think. It is, after all, the most incredible boost to a child long-term health and as long as it feel lovely, then why the heck not?

      I weaned Caveboy (now 2 and a half) at 15 months, when I discovered I was pregnant for the second time. It was a very hot summer, I was feeling violently ill and on top of everything else I’d become stick-thin, so I didn’t feel I could handle the additional physical burden of making milk. Weirdly, though, Shamsie took so easily to being weaned – from one day to the next, and even travelling to England that day! – which makes me think that the old wives’ tale is true and the taste of the breastmilk changes in pregnancy. Or the older child just intuits that it’s not really for them any more.

      Having said that, I do have a friend who breastfed very happily right through her second pregnancy, having become pregnant when her first was only 3 months old (!!! So it’s not true that you stop being fertile while breastfeeding…). I would be interested to find out once and for all if the nutrients in the breastfeeding mother’s bloodstream get diverted away from the foetus or not.

      Slightly graphic side-note: this same friend, after giving birth to her second baby, grabbed her raw placenta and bit a huge chunk out of it! Obviously needed the iron…

      Thanks again for contributing your story, and good luck! Mamapower!

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