It’s touted as the magic cure-all for all infant ailments, the key to a perfect mother-baby bond and the only way to shed the pregnancy pounds with true success.
But, in truth – and whisper it – sometimes breastfeeding is a drag.
From sore nipples to engorged and painful breasts, the struggle to get a screaming newborn to latch on at 3am and the boob-flashing nightmare of trying to feed a wriggly infant in public, the reality can be far from an idyll.
So is breastfeeding actually worth it? And, if you do plump for the boob over the bottle, how can you make it as smooth a ride as possible?
Despite a rash of recent newspaper headlines battling over the pros and cons of breastfeeding your baby long-term – that is, beyond six months to a year – the weight of medical evidence shows that breastfeeding from birth for at least a short time can have highly beneficial effects.
For your baby they include:
- Protective effects against infections and diseases
- Reduced risk of severe diarrhoea and vomiting
- Reduced risk of constipation
- Less chance of becoming obese later in life and therefore developing type 2 diabetes
- A unique composition of nutrients that changes day by day and feed by fed to fit your infant’s changing needs
- Evidence that breastfeeding reduces the risk of cot death
And for mothers they number:
- Reduced risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
- Less chance of developing postnatal depression
- New studies suggest breastfeeding for six months reduces the risk of high blood pressure in later life
That’s not to mention the handy fact that breastfeeding costs nothing and, when it all goes according to plan, is free from the sterilising paraphernalia and bottles that formula feeding requires.
In theory, you can feed a baby any time, anywhere – although as any new mother will testify, it’s not always a doddle.
And breastfeeding burns around 500 extra calories per day. (However the weight loss benefits may well be counteracted by the raging hunger that accompanies breastfeeding and the sudden overwhelming desire for cake.)
On the flipside, though, the pitfalls that accompany breastfeeding are often glossed over – meaning new Mums can be surprised and distressed by the difficulties they encounter, leading many to quit before they intended.
While breastfeeding will not be for everyone, for those who aim to give it a shot, here is a guide to dealing with some of the more common complaints:
This discomfort is most commonly caused by excess suction, when a baby has not latched on to enough of the breast and areola surrounding the nipple. Try to ensure your baby takes as large a mouthful as possible and is not latched on to the nipple alone.
Sometimes, sore nipples occur in the early stages of breastfeeding as your body gets used to the new experience. Squeezing a little breastmilk out of the nipple and allowing it to air dry can help, as can thick nipple creams such as Lansinoh – safe to use while a baby continues to feed.
In some cases, where nipples are also red or cracked, you may have developed thrush. See your doctor for treatment.
Engorged and painful breasts
Some tenderness can occur in a normal full breast – particularly in the first week or so after birth when the milk comes in. Giving your baby frequent feeds can minimise the pain and swelling. Sometimes expressing a little by hand in between fees can provide relief.
Later on, temporarily blocked ducts can create swelling and red, sore spots. Having a warm shower and angling the spray on your affected breast can help, as can ‘combing’ the breast with a wide-toothed comb to help move the milk along the ducts.
But an intense pain, hardness, redness or swelling - sometimes accompanied by fever – can indicate an infection called mastitis, for which you will need to see your GP for treatment.
Breastfeeding in public
The first time you breastfeed your infant in public can be traumatic – even if nobody is looking you will feel like a spotlight has been planted over your head and a fanfare is directing passers-by to gawp at your boobs.
The first thing to remember is that it is highly unlikely that anyone has even noticed – and if they have, research shows the vast majority of people are unconcerned by women breastfeeding in public. And even if some are not, tough - it is your legal right to do so under the Equality Act.
If you are concerned about being discreet there is a wide range of specially made nursing tops out there that can allow you to feed without exposing yourself. See www.boobdesign.com or www.seraphine.com for some ideas. A large scarf or pashmina can also be a valuable tool, draped over one shoulder allowing the baby to snuggle beneath it. There are even some special breastfeeding ‘scarves’ available, for example at www.mamascarf.co.uk.
Dealing with a wriggly baby
Once your baby is a few months old and starting to become nosy about the world around him, you may find it virtually impossible to keep him latched on as he feeds – he may constantly break off to have a look around, leaving your nipples waving in the air.
He may even be reluctant to let you cover him with a scarf, preferring instead to tug it away so he can see out. Don’t get distressed – it’s a phase that soon passes. By four or five months your baby will be fine if he only takes a few mouthfuls of milk – you can make up for the feed when you’re in a quieter place, or back at home.
Following official guidelines
Official advice is there to help new mums cope with the chaos of first-time breastfeeding, but sometimes advice can be so rigid as to hamper your efforts. If the usual ‘nose to nipple, tummy to tummy’ guidance does not seem to be helping, it’s OK to let your baby find his or her most comfortable position. Sometimes tummy to tummy isn’t what they want – if they’re feeding and happy, let them stay in the position they choose.
While midwives and NHS booklets and health visitors are all there to offer help and support, sometimes new Mums need a little more expertise. If you are having difficulties La Leche League helpline is manned 24 hours a day on 0845 120 2918 and the Breastfeeding Network (0844 412 4664) or Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (0844 122 949) are also there to offer help and support. The Breastfeeding Network runs local breastfeeding centres and you may find your local children’s shop or health centre has information on breastfeeding support groups in your area.