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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