Dot writes: Hugh is over eight months old now, and jolly large (as recent pictures on this blog have illustrated); moreover, he has at least four teeth, two in each jaw and possibly another starting to come through in the top one; so we are getting to the stage when people ask not ‘are you breastfeeding?’ but ‘are you still breastfeeding?’. I’m not just still breastfeeding, I’m still feeding at night, because around the time I went back to work Hugh made a decisive move into our bed. (He did this by the simple expedient of refusing to sleep in his cot.) Fortunately the new flat has a very large bed, and I don’t usually lose much sleep by night-feeding because it is simply a matter of turning over and reattaching before we both slide back into slumber. But right now it’s very hot in this flat, so no-one is sleeping very well; and for the last twenty-four hours Hugh has been fidgety both day and night and prone to thrash around while feeding, kicking and pushing me with his legs, slapping or scratching me with his hands, and sometimes coming off and twiddling my nipple (which is less painful than you’d think – my nipples have grown pretty tough after eight months of the human hoover – but I can’t say I like the sensation). In short, I am feeling a bit bruised and cheesed off.
In a day or two I will probably have cheered up again. Hugh is, after all, an exceptionally adorable little boy, and mostly happy and charming if rather stubborn. But I thought I would jot down some of the things, good and bad, that I didn’t know before I started on this breastfeeding lark.
1. Despite all the leaflets, breastfeeding is not just about food. There are an enormous number of reasons why you might give your baby a feed, and only one of them is that he’s hungry. You will feed your baby: because he’s tired and it’s the one thing that (fairly) reliably gets him to sleep; because he’s just bumped his head on the floor; because your breasts are engorged after a day at work when you didn’t have time to pump enough; because you haven’t seen each other all day and you want to connect; because you are tired and want to sit down and keep him occupied for a while; because you need him to shut up in a meeting; because he is crying and you don’t know why and it’s the most comforting thing you can do for him; because he’s thirsty (after all, milk is also his main drink). People will tell you not to feed for any reason except hunger and thirst, but unless you are a woman of steel you will ignore them. (And who wants a steel mother?)
2. Despite all the leaflets, breastfeeding is not just about food. It does impact on your whole parenting style. Some people can breastfeed to a timetable, but the fact is that you have to trust your baby to tell you when he’s hungry, and he may not have fed as much as you thought last time. A bottle enables you to survey and control your baby’s intake, but breastfeeding means surrendering a certain amount of control. I’m not saying it has to be anarchy. But you do have to be flexible.
3. Moreover, you, the mum, are always on. Even when you’re not with your baby, you have to find time (and space) to pump. (At the Leeds conference I was finding it very difficult to get in proper pumping sessions and spent the whole week with painful breasts. I was lucky not to have another bout of mastitis.)
4. Pumping is in many ways more troublesome than feeding directly. I keep being caught out by one particular aspect of this: transporting the milk home. There’s a fridge at work and I put the milk straight into the freezer compartment and at the end of the day take it home in an insulated bag. But recently I’ve often forgotten the insulated bag, resulting in a stock-pile of breastmilk in the departmental fridge. I also have to time my departure so the milk from the afternoon pumping has cooled down sufficiently to be transported. It’s all surprisingly complicated.
5. Breastfeeding takes longer than bottle-feeding, at least at first. It’s hard to conceive before you start quite how much of the first few months of a baby’s life are spent at the breast, and you just have to get used to it and adjust your expectations accordingly. I think this must be a big difficulty for women who don’t have much of a tradition of breastfeeding in their family, because it must mean people have quite unrealistic ideas of how much they can do in the way of e.g. housework.
6. You will expose your breasts to your father-in-law and it won’t even occur to you until several days afterwards that he might find this odd.
7. It feels marvellous. The feeling of having full breasts, breasts that are beginning to ache with fullness, and then attaching your baby and feeling the tug, tug of his little mouth, and cuddling his warm little body, and listening to his happy noises – when it’s going right, it’s one of the most sensually and emotionally satisfying experiences you can have. When you say ‘sensual’ people think about sex and get uncomfortable, which must be why no-one mentions this. It’s not sexy. But it’s wonderful.