Confession time. This is a scary blog to put out there. I’ve dithered posting it and re-drafted it a million times because it is so personal. But here goes. I struggle with social anxiety. Some close friends and family already know this about me. Some people might be surprised I guess. It is something I have lived with to varying degrees since I was a child. Over the years I have developed coping strategies, and mostly, I get by. I can usually play the part of a functional adult. However, still, on very bad days the idea of the smallest interaction with someone else can make me feel pretty stressed.
My anxiety was probably worst during my pre-teen years and adolescence. At its peak, during my first year at secondary school, I barely talked to another person, aside from my teachers, or family. Not an exaggeration. It was a really unhappy time for me. I am amazed now, that not a single teacher spoke to my parents about it. This was during the ’90s. I hope social anxiety is more recognised now, that young people get more support than I did.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety isn’t simply shyness. It’s intense fear that can affect everyday life. Lots of people feel uneasy in social situations. However, for someone with social anxiety, those feelings can be very difficult to manage.
According to the NHS, you may have social anxiety if you:
- dread everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
- avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company, and parties
- always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing
- find it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you’re being watched and judged all the time
- fear criticism, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
- often have symptoms such as feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
Personally, my anxiety manifests in a few ways. Much of the above is very familiar to me. For example, in a conversation with another person, I am often half listening, wondering how I am coming across to the other person. What are they thinking? Do they like me? What should I say next? Did they just give me a funny look? Am I boring them!? This distraction isn’t a lot of fun for the other person either to be fair. On bad days this internal narrative is so overwhelming my mind goes blank, and I cannot think of a thing to say. Sometimes, I respond almost defensively to the most innocuous of questions. A simple, “How are things with you guys?” can send me into a panic. I desperately try to think of something interesting to say, and fail, awkwardly shrugging “Oh well, you know, nothing really”. Then I spend the rest of the day (even days) berating myself.
I apologise to all my friends who have endured these painful interactions with me. Thank you for seeing past it all and being kind. In truth, I am luckier than some. I have a loving husband and family, I have had help, my anxiety is always there, but mostly under control. I can go to a party where I don’t know people well. I have some good friends. Held down a career in freelance design. I do volunteer work that I love. You see, I do actually want to be around people. People think socially anxious people don’t want to socialise, and that’s just not true, at least not for me. It is just we also find it incredibly difficult.
Parties or gatherings of large people can be most difficult for me to navigate. I make sure these days, that I don’t allow my anxiety to control whether or not I go. I used to just turn down invitations to parties. I still get that white-hot fear though, when I walk into a room full of people even if I know most of them. How I feel the event went can have a profound impact on my mood. If I think I managed to navigate it with more ease than usual, I am happy. If I have an awkward moment, not only am I anxious about how that must have looked, but it descends into this horrible feeling of shame and embarrassment about who I am as a person later. The self-loathing sometimes lasts for days. Regardless of how the event went, I am often exhausted afterwards.
At 35, when I had my baby, I was thrown into a new world. I suddenly had to have adult conversations in a room full of parents I didn’t know, a situation which scares the pants off me. I didn’t do many classes and groups. I often found myself making an excuse to avoid them. “Those classes more stress than they are worth” (true, but not entirely the truth). I went to one baby group where not one person spoke to or made eye contact with me. It was such a triggering experience, I didn’t ever try another local village group. Despite tons of breastfeeding issues, I think my daughter was months old before I managed to get to a breastfeeding support group without a friend. The kindness of peer supporters and mothers there made that group my lifeline really. Thank goodness for boob group, NCT friends and Facebook because I think these things actually saved me from acute loneliness in the early days of motherhood.
People sometimes don’t believe me when I say I now do volunteer work yet am socially anxious. Especially when I say I also do telephone support and they are familiar with me dithering around, taking a week to call a plumber! However, my support work is so much easier to navigate than a baby group. It is like putting on a costume. I have conversational tools from my training to support women. There are some questions you always have to ask, some issues which are so very common, these things form a kind of familiar script, so I always have something to say. Silences are encouraged so it gives me time to think. I am often asked about specific issues and have a bank of knowledge I can draw from to move the conversation forward. Crucially, I am not focusing on myself, but on someone else. I can largely forget about what people are thinking about me. I don’t have to worry about making the mums I support my friends. In fact, it is actively discouraged. The tools I have gained in training have been immensely helpful to me in ‘real life’ social situations, however, and it has really built my confidence.
As my daughter gets older I now find myself often scrutinising her interactions with other children. My biggest fear is that she ends up like me. The maddening thing is, I know the more anxious I am around people in front of her, the more likely this is. This encourages me to navigate situations I would have previously avoided. My daughter drives me on to be my best self. While she is a little shy as a child and often overwhelmed in busy situations, I have seen how well she interacts with other children at nursery or smaller groups. I try to reassure myself she’s doing fine, and no different to many of her peers. Next year she starts school. I cannot articulate how worried I feel for her. I desperately hope she does ok, that she makes friends and has a “normal” experience.
If you are a parent with social anxiety but you push yourself into situations which make you anxious try to remember this: it takes guts. Finding the courage to go to that group is amazing. Even if you don’t speak to anyone, feel proud. You were brave. Being a parent with social anxiety can be hard. You may lose the “crutches” or coping strategies you had developed pre-children. On top of this, as parents, we may be dealing with a loss of our professional identity and other parts of ourselves. You are navigating a new beginning. Like many new starts, if you lack confidence, it can be even more stressful. So give yourself credit where it is due.
I still remember the girl who finally befriended me at school during my worst period of social anxiety. I don’t think she knows what she did but she made a lifelong impression with her kindness. My appeal to everyone is, please say hello to that quiet mum in the corner of the playgroup if you can. Make eye contact, smile, reach out, be kind. Sometimes, someone is standoffish because they are anxious. Please be forgiving. Engage that scared looking person in a conversation. It might not be the start of a beautiful friendship, but you might be the person who helps them get through the day smiling or encourages them to come to the group again. They may actually make a friend or two eventually. Small gestures count. Make them a cuppa. You never know the difference your kindness might make to someone.
Social anxiety support:
If you can relate to the issues raised in this blog, first and foremost, seeing your GP might be helpful. You may also have local counselling services you can self-refer to. CBT is considered one of the most effective interventions for social anxiety.
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Author: Wendy Jones
Publisher: Pinter and Martin
“There is evidence out there for the vast majority of drugs that should enable mothers to continue breastfeeding while obtaining the medical treatment they need… none of this is difficult. If we value breastmilk for its wonderful properties, practice evidence-based medicine, and respect mothers, we could transform women’s experience of seeking treatment.” Wendy Jones “Why Mothers’ Medication Matters”
A while ago, I had the privilege of reviewing this wonderful book, my review has now been published, so I am excited to be able to share it with you all here.
Wendy Jones is an inspiring figure in the field of lactation. A massively experienced Breastfeeding Supporter for the Breastfeeding Network and a qualified pharmacist; Wendy has tirelessly worked to help parents who breastfeed. Any breastfeeding supporter or counsellor should be aware of the brilliant “Drugs in Breastmilk Information Service”. This wonderful resource tirelessly gives information to lactating people about medications they may need to take during breastfeeding.
Prescribing medication for breastfeeding parents can be difficult for health professionals yet parents often need medication, whether it is short-term use of painkillers, antidepressants, or drugs to treat chronic conditions. Women are often given misinformation about what medications they can and cannot take.
In this book, Wendy Jones sets out to give mothers and health professionals information they need to make decisions about medication and to reassure fears that parents may have about adverse effects on babies of drugs passing through breastmilk.
Wendy Jones opens her book with an introduction to her subject, providing heartstring tugging examples of why better support around medications and breastfeeding really matters. Putting a human face and empathy on what could easily be quite a dry subject matter is something she continues to do throughout the book. The case studies are really moving, covering examples like postpartum women on a maternity ward being told they could only take paracetamol while recovering from c-sections or episiotomies and mothers dealing with weaning decisions after being given a cancer diagnosis, among many others.
Further chapters explore topics like why prescribing for lactating people can be so fraught with confusion, drugs during pregnancy and birth and their impact, treatment of chronic health conditions and depression as well as looking at ‘lifestyle’ drugs including alcohol and recreational drugs. The chapter on over-medicalisation of common issues like infant reflux, CMPA and colic are a must read for any peer supporter, particularly those among us who provide support on online forums where suggestions of reflux and CMPA are common. Some of the facts and studies Wendy discusses are truly eye-opening and the book is well referenced with a focus on remaining evidence-based.
Wendy ends her book with a discussion about where women can go on to get support around prescribing issues, and talking about milk donation. The final chapters are a heartfelt overview of the differences between breastmilk and formula milk and why we shouldn’t be assuming “formula milk is fine” if a lactating parent needs medication and her conclusions about why medication matters for breastfeeding parents.
This book is about so much more than medication; it is a wide-ranging overview of issues breastfeeding parents may face dealing with their healthcare. The ideal length and level of detail for a breastfeeding peer supporter, as well as a good introduction to the topic for training breastfeeding counsellors and health professionals I would whole-heartedly recommend “Why Mothers’ Medication Matters to anyone.
Buy “Why Mothers’ Medication Matters” by Wendy Jones and other excellent titles from the ‘Why it Matters’ range, over at Pinter & Martin
*I draw no income from my writing, my blog features no ads, be reassured links given to purchase this title are completely independent and not affiliate! #adfree
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Enjoying the holidays, and breastfeeding your baby are not mutually exclusive
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Soon many of us will be spending time with friends and family, and while we may look forward to the holiday, some may find the idea of breastfeeding over the Christmas break brings up a few anxieties.
First of all, in my view, there is one brilliant advantage to breastfeeding over the Christmas period, You have the perfect excuse to slip away and get some quiet time (hopefully with a box of choccies to keep you company) because “baby feeds better without distractions”. Another bonus- you also have the perfect excuse for turning down events you don’t really want to go to. Maybe that’s just me. I am happiest in PJs with a glass of wine.
Other people may prefer to drink their wine wearing their party gear, and worry that this breastfeeding malarkey means they are going to miss out on all the fun.
I know often concerns revolve around family members, particularly breastfeeding in front of them. Some people worry that Auntie Lynda will go on (and on) about how she thinks the baby should be on bottles/formula/Christmas dinner and all the trimmings by now.
So here are a few of my thoughts on how to make life easier as a breastfeeding mum over the Christmas holidays.
Worried about baby being passed around like the tin of Roses, during peak cold and flu season? Wear your baby! You will be surprised how much less well-meaning relatives will demand a cuddle when they see a baby all cosy in a sling.
Wearing Your Baby has the added advantage of keeping them close, which leads me onto my next point…
Expect Baby to Change Their Feeding Habits
Often over holiday periods, things are busier and babies are more stimulated. It is easy to miss feeding cues, or breastfeeds. During long journeys, a baby might sleep more than usual. Lights and music and new people often mean distracted babies that don’t feed as well or cue for a feed less. Quite often babies are being passed around for cuddles. Sometimes Uncle Gary might decide he can soothe the crying baby himself rather than passing them back to Mum. Sometimes mum is distracted entertaining friends and family or making food.
Building in times during the day to breastfeed might be a helpful way to combat this, or alternatively see above; Wear baby more so they stay close! If you are undertaking long journeys build in some rest breaks to allow time for boobin’.
Alternatively, baby might be out of sorts, cranky, overstimulated and want boob ALL THE TIME, also normal! In fact, in these situations, nursing can be a godsend. It is often much easier to calm a baby with a breastfeed.
Nursing also gives you an excuse to get out of peeling the sprouts or doing the cooking. I may or may not have personally used this as an excuse to sit on my bum eating Christmas cake (“It’s for the baby!”).
Make time to express if you are apart from your baby
If you are away to a party, or out for the day Christmas shopping you may want to build in some time to express. This is more important the younger your baby is. Not removing milk from your breasts may lead to engorgement and blocked ducts, and eventually lowered milk supply.
If you do find you develop some blocked ducts or engorgement, following self-care is important, this is great information from the Breastfeeding Network.
If your baby is having bottles while apart from you, making sure responsive feeding methods are used can be helpful. Click the link for a video demo.
Alcohol and breastfeeding
Most sources suggest a moderate intake of alcohol while breastfeeding is fine. You can still have a glass of wine or two and breastfeed. However -and this would be true however you feed- as a parent you need to be careful you are still fit to care for a small child. Bedsharing after drinking alcohol is also a no-no. If you fancy a blowout, expressing some milk in advance might be helpful, as well as enlisting a babysitter.
Some useful links:
Pass the stuffing, please!
Christmas is often a time when the food police come out to tell you that you can’t eat your veggies because “baby might get windy” or that you need to avoid the stuffing or after-dinner mints because the sage or peppermint might “lower your milk supply”.
The good news is, there is no evidence-based research showing foods themselves will make your baby gassy (unless they already have a known allergy or intolerance to a certain food), and you would need to be eating absolutely VAST quantities of stuffing/mint for there to be any effect on your milk supply, so tuck in, and don’t worry.
In case you overdo things, many indigestion remedies are safe to take while breastfeeding. All on the link there. You’re welcome.
Don’t feed the baby!
I’m not talking about breastfeeding here of course! However, older babies that have solids may be filled up with Christmas ‘treats’. It can be helpful to put aside some time for boobin’ toddlers too unless you are planning on weaning.
Sometimes, you may need to watch out for relatives trying to feed younger babies solids. Remember, some relatives may be from a generation where babies were given solids much younger than they are now, and may have no idea this isn’t OK. If you suspect this might happen, it might be helpful to be upfront; for example saying something along the lines of “It is important to me that the baby is closer to six months before giving them food, the research now suggests this is best for babies, and this is also what our health visitors have recommended”.
You may even want to think about ‘recruiting’ any prime suspect onside, have them “watch out for anyone who might give baby solids accidentally”. It is amazing how well giving people some trust and responsibility can work in your favour.
If well-meaning relatives are convinced giving baby Christmas dinner is the key to a full nights sleep- show them this!
Dealing with criticism
Make sure people know that you are proud of your breastfeeding relationship and that you see it as a good thing. If your relatives don’t see this as a chore they can relieve you of, you might find their attitude changes.
If you feel your choice to breastfeed is questioned, or that those surrounding you aren’t supportive, the “pass the bean dip” approach can be useful: https://twolittlegrasshoppers.com/tag/the-bean-dip-method/
If you have an older nursling, and you are worried about people questioning why you are “still breastfeeding”, Kellymom has some useful suggestions here too: https://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/criticism/
Family members are generally well-meaning. They may be basing their ideas on outdated things they have been told. They might be open to learning about how recommendations have changed if you approach the subject gently.
Remember, you are the advocate for your baby/toddler/child. They cannot stand up for what they want. Give yourself permission to be unashamed. You do not have to answer to anyone else about your feeding relationship. Your boobs, your baby, your choice.
Choose clothing that provides easy boob access
Worried about feeding in front of family members? Consider practicing in front of a mirror, seeing how little is exposed might reassure you a little, especially if you use the “one up, one down” technique.
If you don’t feel comfortable getting your boobs out in front of family (maybe you have an inappropriate drunken uncle or two), the muslin trick is an inexpensive tip. Using a large muslin, tie one corner to the strap of your bra, and use the loose cloth to cover up any exposed areas. Or employ your partner on distraction duty to get uncle Roy into the kitchen for another sherry if that’s what makes you feel happier. Or, if like me you like a bit of a breather, use it as an excuse to get a bit of peace and quiet. When it comes to feeding, it is about what makes you feel more comfortable first and foremost.
If you need a party outfit or even some new fashion ideas for breastfeeding friendly clothing, why not join Can I Breastfeed In It? They are a UK facebook group, which have fantastic tips and ideas for feeding fashion (and they even have a selling page so you can grab yourself a bargain too).
So there you have it, some helpful tips for enjoying Christmas while continuing to breastfeed. Is there anything you think I have missed? What are your tips for breastfeeding over the holidays?
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When advice and help isn’t all that it seems
Boots, it seems, want to help you to breastfeed. They now produce a leaflet which you can pick up in store, and have a section on their website devoted to it. I see photos of this leaflet shared on breastfeeding groups, usually with the caption “Found this in Boots, isn’t it brilliant they have this?”
As someone who volunteers in infant feeding, this sort of thing sets off my cynicism alarm. Retailers are in business to sell you things, altruism usually isn’t high on their list of priorities.
Confession time: I’m going to be picking on Boots a bit here. They are one example in truth, they certainly aren’t the only brand to do this sort of thing. Other companies also like to give out information about breastfeeding. Infant formula or bottle companies, for example, often do this too.
Let’s dissect the website information on Boots.com a little and see what we find.
The first sections: “Why is Breastfeeding Good For Me?”
Boots have chosen not to linger on the well-documented child health reasons to breastfeed, with a ‘blink and you’d miss it’ section, but they do have time to mention our appearance.
“There are lots of really good reasons to breastfeed, including benefits to mum. These include: “It helps you to regain your old figure“.
Here we are, in 2018, with Boots suggesting weight loss is a top three reason to breastfeed. Talking about our body image before they mention the reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancers. I’ll leave you to think about that.
“How Do I Start Breastfeeding?”
Then we come to the next section “How do I start Breastfeeding”, where Boots have some advice from Clare Byam-Cook, a controversial figure* in breastfeeding support due to her lack of any breastfeeding specific qualification.
“Hold the baby close, facing the breast, with its shoulders and body in a straight line and it’s neck supported but the head free to extend (use a feeding pillow if more comfortable), offer your breast to the baby…”
I am wincing reading that description. “Facing the breast” implies a “mouth to nipple” position to me, something most breastfeeding professionals will tell you is a recipe for a painful latch. This is a good demonstration as to why that is (thanks to the Empowered Birth Company for the video). It also says “head free to extend”, a clearer phrase I feel would be: “head free to tilt back”. Thirdly, “Offer your breast to baby” conjures images of a mother holding her breast and smooshing it into baby’s face, this would likely encourage an uncomfortable feed for the mother in an unsustainable position. Finally, we see them suggest “use a feeding pillow if more comfortable”, with a link taking you a range of pillows. I have nothing against pillows as long as they work for the mother, but this should be your first clue this isn’t a selfless exercise on behalf of a retailer.
“Common breastfeeding niggles solved”
The second passage is “Common breastfeeding niggles solved”. If you used the first section to give you information on how to attach your baby, you may need the information here.
My first problem with this section is it is so negative, it almost seems to scream “Breastfeeding will cause you excruciating pain!”
I am not going to sit here and tell you breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt. That would dismiss the lived experience of many mothers. Breastfeeding has a learning curve, and getting to grips with attaching a baby to the breast when hardly any of us see it on a regular basis can be hard. Sometimes, while establishing breastfeeding, mothers experience pain. What I would say is, if this is you, don’t feel like you have to wait for things to “toughen up”, or that the answer is expensive nipple creams. The research just doesn’t support that. A bit of support with attachment or a tweak may make it feel better.
I do question why, in a limited space, a large portion of this leaflet is devoted to pain? Surely some diagrams of attaching a baby instead, might help their mothers prevent some of these issues in the first place?
Well, reading further it becomes clear. They can sell you stuff to help with pain. We see links to nipple cream and a range of nipple shields. I have no doubt nipple shields are useful for some mothers, I know for some mothers, they kept them breastfeeding. However, they can be an absolute faff to use all the time, especially in public. Babies can get overly reliant on them. They also don’t solve underlying issues the mother or baby may have.
Moving on to “engorged breasts”. Here, we see suggestions that using breast-pumps and bottle feeding until the engorgement subsides is a good course of action. This is the section I find most shocking.
Engorgement is most common in the first days after birth. So why encourage parents to pump and bottle feed instead of using simple techniques to soothe and resolve engorgement, such as hand expressing, nipple stimulation and cool packs? Pumping is known to overstimulate supply in the early days (parents are usually advised not to pump unless necessary in the first few weeks). Using a bottle instead means possibly going longer between breastfeeds with engorged breasts! This is not a good thing for breast health or milk supply. Not everyone can effectively remove milk from their breasts with a pump, at least, not as well as their baby. No mention of how early introduction of bottles may be detrimental to breastfeeding in some cases and that the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative advises against bottles and teats in early breastfeeding.
Then we come on to the last “common breastfeeding niggle”, mastitis. Hardly a ‘niggle’, is it? Mum is instructed to go straight to the GP, sensible. A bizarre choice though, I feel, to spend so much time encouraging pumping and bottle feeding through engorgement, but offering no well-known self-care methods for clearing a blocked duct.
“Do I have to breastfeed all through the night?” & Other Anxieties
Not content with suggesting you use a pump once, Boots move on to trying to sell you them again (with handy links to their range of pumps). This time it is to get dad involved in night feeds while mum sleeps. Now, I know this is a strategy some parents will try, and if it worked for your family, great. However, they have omitted the facts that:
- In the early months of breastfeeding, a mother will usually need to pump around the same time in the night, in order to avoid engorged breasts, blocked ducts, and mastitis.
- Quite often a baby will drain the bottle, but still want boob, because breastfeeding is not all about the milk.
- Night feedings can be important in supporting milk supply.
Then there is a section talking about new mothers breastfeeding in public. It’s OK though. Boots have a cover for that they can sell you. Oh and don’t forget about all the leaking. Boots can sell you stuff for that too.
This all seems to me, rather than helpful information, to be a fabulous example of how brands who sell you formula, pumps, bottles, and teats may complicate, or even sabotage breastfeeding, knowingly or unknowingly, in their quest to sell you ‘stuff’.
“What Can I Eat and Drink While Breastfeeding?”
So we come to the final section. The way this is written reads as if a mother needs to be hyper-aware of her diet: “good nutrition is more important than ever”. I find this paragraph pretty undermining. A good diet is important for everyone, it is not a necessity for breastfeeding. If it was I would be worried about my own child, since my early breastfeeding diet was 70% cake, 30% toast. Breast-milk is robust, and will in nearly all cases, still be the healthiest option for your child, (even on a 70/30 cake/toast diet). A mother would need to be malnourished for her breast-milk to be impacted.
“The occasional sweet treat is fine too- goodness knows you deserve a slice of cake”: Wow. Breastfeeding mothers of the world, quite frankly, if you want the whole bloody cake, eat it. Nobody needs permission from a shop to eat cake!
Finally, the article ends with some links showing us more bottles, talking about pumps and baby food (we haven’t even managed to breastfeed yet and Boots are talking to you about baby food? Seriously?) Sadly, no links to any organisation which may help you establish breastfeeding (you can find these at the end of this blog).
Companies like Boots may want you to start breastfeeding. Shops want you to buy stuff for breastfeeding from them. Let’s face it, this is how they make money. I imagine they want to sell you some expensive pumps, nipple creams, covers, bottles, and shields. Unfortunately for some, following this sort of information may mean their breastfeeding journey is over sooner than they hoped.
Luckily, if you do have to stop breastfeeding, Boots have a large selection of infant formula they can sell you, often on code-breaking special displays.
I do wonder what is in it for companies, to suggest things like mothers need to follow a healthy diet to breastfeed? Or to give out information which might make breastfeeding painful for a mother? Or lower milk supply? Why devote so much time to suggesting that breastfeeding usually comes with pain and problems?
I can’t answer these questions for Boots or any other retailer. I don’t explicitly know their intentions. I do think we need to be careful where we choose to get our help from, and that the first question we should ask ourselves when a retailer tries to give advice is- “What’s in it for them?”
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This is an opinion piece, and all opinions expressed here are my own.
*For an example of said controversy Byam-Cook’s last appearance on ITV sparked a petition for them to use qualified breastfeeding experts in future. The petition was signed by nearly 5000 people.
Are the images we see of parenthood realistic?
Back in 2014, I remember it quite clearly, I was sitting in an antenatal class with other expecting parents, who later went on to become good friends. We have often talked about those classes, but one memory which stands above the rest for me is one of the exercises, where we planned “24 hours with our new baby”. I remember filling in hourly slots on the flip chart with stuff like “going to the coffee-shop with the baby” and occasionally saying things like, “Ooh, it has been four hours, so we probably should be feeding the baby now too?” or “Perhaps baby will need their nappy changed now?” It always makes me chuckle when I remember it. I honestly don’t remember if the antenatal teacher tried to question this chilled out picture of the day we painted. I do wonder now how much she was laughing internally at our naivety. The perception some of us had, after babies, was this: the realities of parenting were a well-kept secret, and not to be discussed, at least not until after you have the baby.
Culturally we are all influenced by the image of “happy motherhood”. The commonly sold narrative is that all parents will naturally transition to life with a baby with ease, and will innately understand all aspects of parenting, especially if we buy the right “stuff”. In reality, we are social creatures, and what we learn about parenting, comes from what we absorb, from our wider lives, childhood, and culture. Many of us simply are not around babies and children much, except as children ourselves. We may have had a sibling, but chances are we do not really remember them being babies. We often grow up in small nuclear families, rather than extended families or small communities. We might see a lot of babies on the screen, but many UK parents have rarely held a baby before the day comes when they hold their own.
The societal norm of not really talking about how parenting can be unless you are talking to another parent, of not admitting to our real feelings, of not discussing widely how normal it is to find it difficult, perpetuates the “big secret” about what it is really like. Search an image site, or google for the term “motherhood” and what you will find is similar to the photo above; a gallery of soft focus images of babies being cuddled, smiling mothers and heartwarming memes talking about how amazing mothers are. And we are amazing, but that doesn’t mean we feel like we are. Yet we are constantly bombarded with this stuff. “Enjoy every minute, it goes so fast!” the memes cry, or they say things like; “Motherhood is messy, and crazy, and challenging, and sleepless, and giving and still unbelievably beautiful“. And just sometimes, seeing this stuff can make you want to scream; “I don’t feel the bloody beauty! I am tired, I am fed up, I want to shower without interruption, I want to pee by myself, I want a full nights sleep and I want my old life back, just for a day”. It can be especially hard to be a new parent in a world where we can be bombarded with “insta-ready” images of parenting. We see smiling parents in adverts for “stuff”. We see lovely snippets of life with kids on our social media feeds, a place where we compare the best parts of other peoples lives, to our everyday.
Amidst the “pre-baby” expectations of what we might gain- a lovely cute ‘bundle of joy’, love, fulfillment and happiness (all of which may be true) we may feel ashamed to admit if we feel a “loss” too. A loss of our old identity, our autonomy, our old body, our professional selves, our time and our sleep! I clearly remember having the realisation myself that my life had completely changed now. It was never going to be what it was ‘before’ and that there was no break from this, no holiday, no time off- and in that moment the responsibility I felt was completely overwhelming.
When you ask new parents what they feel is the most unexpected aspect of caring for their baby, quite often the knee jerk response is: “no-one prepared me for the sleep deprivation”. Our cultural norms do not prepare us for what normal infant sleep is and fears around bed-sharing, can mean more exhaustion for western parents, who are frequently trying to get babies to “go down” in a separate sleep space or even a different room. Their small human often has an entirely different agenda. When we see babies on the television, or in movies frequently we are shown a picture of a newborn, alone, in a lovely crib, while they sleep soundly. In fact to prove this point, here are the top images from a google search for “sleeping baby”.
No wonder it can all come as a bit of shock when the reality for many is not a baby who is happy to sleep alone, but is in your bed, latched on. You are in a fleecy M&S onesie with one boob out because you know you shouldn’t use a duvet, and any sheets that do remain have a few dubious stains on- “Is that breastmilk or baby vomit?” you briefly wonder, before turning your attention to other more pressing matters, like getting your baby back to sleep. Again.
And while we often focus on only how the mother is doing after birth, the same difficulties are often true for the other parent too.
Before we had our baby, my husband often remarked he didn’t see how it would change things a great deal. I remember having a conversation with him about how I wanted to make sure I got my hair done before having the baby, as I might struggle afterward. He was confused by my worries, in his mind, of course I would have time. In reality my baby was 6 months old before I got to the salon. The transition to fatherhood was equally hard on him, and I remember he was also emotional and overwhelmed at times. I’m ashamed to say, I resented him for this at the time, I was dealing with my own struggles to breastfeed, and my transition to motherhood. Where previously we would have shown each other empathy, instead we were often in conflict. Having had a very happy relationship ‘before’, the strain we came under came as a shock to me, we hadn’t anticipated it at all. Our experience felt dramatic at the time, it was our first maritial “rough patch” but we weren’t unique. I only realised this a couple of years later, having a lunch date with an old friend, who confided in me (after a few drinks) she had a really similar experience. Difficulties in relationships after having children are well documented, and also backed up by research. Yet it seems like the huge upheavals to relationships and subsequent difficulties are only alluded to in passing conversations, rarely discussed openly, if at all.
Obviously I love my daughter with a passion, I would never change a single thing about her (ok that is a lie, I do kind of wish she would sleep but that is another story). I don’t want to paint a negative picture because I have gained far more than I ever lost, and being a parent really can be so very wonderful. I think parents are amazing, and that we often are far too hard on ourselves. But I think we need to be telling real stories. Parenthood isn’t trite memes. It isn’t soft focus images of cuddled up babies and tiny feet. Breastfeeding isn’t always smiling down lovingly at a suckling baby, especially at first. Sometimes there is pain involved in becoming a parent, physically and emotionally. Often it is hard work. There is a learning curve. We might not be able to fully prepare for it, but we can be prepared to be surprised. And as we shed our old skin, and our old lives, and become something forever changed, we should reflect on the stories we tell to others who might be next. Our real stories deserve to be told. The truth is rarely “insta-ready”, but sometimes it is good to get a little bit real.
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Why supporting a breastfeeding parent with their diet is really important if their child has CMPA
- Eating other calcium-rich foods.
- Getting plenty of sunlight, particularly between March and October in the UK.
- Taking a vitamin D supplement as recommended by the NHS, especially if you have a darker skin tone.
- Replacing those lost dietary fats-think about things like olive or coconut oils, fish, avocado, or other animal fats (if you eat meat).
- Making sure some foods you eat contain iodine.
- Including more Omega 3 rich foods into the diet may be helpful, to balance any increased intake of Omega 6, this means including in the diet foods like oily fish or eggs (remember the NHS suggests no more than 2 portions of oily fish a week for breastfeeding mothers).
Navigating the world of online groups and forums
Lots of people feel passionate about the world of online breastfeeding support. It’s easy to recognise the value. I’m a member of several groups myself, I’ve been an admin in an online breastfeeding support group. Mother to mother support is so important. Many of us have found groups immensely helpful. There’s no doubt for me these online communities save breastfeeding relationships in a world where breastfeeding support groups, and even other breastfeeding parents can sometimes be thin on the ground.
The admin teams of good online support groups are amazing too, they give up so much of their time, for free, to support women. It is an incredibly generous thing to do.
An online support group should ideally be a complement to, not instead of, in real life, face to face support. The best groups know this, and you will often see those asking things like “do you have a local breastfeeding support group?” or “have you thought about seeing an IBCLC?”
Online we often don’t have the full picture of what is going on for somebody. Many of us may have also been unknowingly given ‘advice’ which isn’t always evidence-based when it comes to breastfeeding. And when we start to pass that ‘advice’ onwards, that can be a problem.
Examples of commonly heard phrases in online support groups which may be detrimental to another’s feeding journey:
- “A gain is a gain, don’t worry about the charts- they are based on formula fed babies anyway” (Incorrect, charts in the UK have been based on breastfed babies for years now, and a gain, unfortunately, is not just what’s important, lower than average gains over a consistent period of time = faltering growth and failure to thrive).
- “Breastfeeding really hurts at the start but just power through!” (Imagine you are a mum with severe nipple damage hearing this).
- “Just feed, feed, feed” (What happens if that baby isn’t producing enough wet and dirty nappies? Or has faltering growth? Most of the time cluster feeding is normal, but we need to be sure we have the whole picture).
- “I used formula top ups/bottles/dummies/weaned early and it was fine! No effect on my supply at all!”
So how, as mothers, do we protect our breastfeeding relationship while still making use of the support and information from an online group?
Identifying a good online breastfeeding support group and making the most of it- 10 tips!
1. If you are seeking breastfeeding support consider the audience. Is this a breastfeeding specific support group? If not, the responses you will get will be wide-ranging and reflect the nature of the group, and not everyone will feel positively about breastfeeding. Are they selling a service, or affiliated with a brand name? If so, consider the information you get might not be impartial. This is particularly true for parenting groups affiliated with infant formula or baby food companies.
2. Ask for evidence if you feel unsure. Never take something at face value, especially if it doesn’t feel ‘right’. There are evidence-based sources out there you can check in with too, a reliable source will be run by a national body like a breastfeeding charity or in some cases a lactation consultant. Alternatively, the national helplines are on hand to talk things through with.
3. Who are the group admins? Are they active? Are there enough of them for the size and activity level of the group? Do you see them addressing misinformation regularly? Importantly- are they nice? Do they treat the members with respect? All of these points are important for keeping groups a positive place to be.
4. If it is a breastfeeding support group, are the admin trained peer supporters or above? If the admin running the group aren’t trained in breastfeeding it might be wise to be a bit wary, as they may not have the knowledge base to know the good from the bad.
5. Is it a closed group, and do you have to go through a screening process to get into the group? If you are going to discuss intimate details of your life, make sure they don’t let any old random into the group. Some popular parenting websites use an open forum format, where anyone can comment or join in, and the results are searchable and completely open to the public. It is worth considering if that is a safe environment to get breastfeeding information.
6. Do they have group rules? Do they seem well thought out? Are the rules enforced?
7. This might be a controversial point, but it is something I feel is important. If we undermine health care professionals in an open forum we breed distrust among breastfeeding parents when it comes to their healthcare. This, in turn, means we see people disengaging with their healthcare services, and this isn’t always a good thing. Nurses, doctors, dentists, and health visitors can also be participants in the group, seeking breastfeeding support themselves. It’s nice to be nice. So thinking about this point, is the group generally respectful towards health care professionals?
Health care professionals are people who take a lot of responsibility for child health if we aren’t in the consultation we do not know the full picture, and we do not know how what was actually said was interpreted or understood. A good group will ensure the members pass on evidenced-based information without insulting the mother’s health care team, and if they are concerned by the actions of a HCP they will pass on details of the appropriate channels to pursue a complaint.
8. If you have a lactation consultant or are already under the care of a real life breastfeeding specialist, remember they are absolutely best placed to support you effectively. It can be sensible to think twice before you throw out a plan from a professional based on advice you get online. Remember you can always go back to discuss it with the trained person supporting you.
9. What rules are in place about recommending other groups? Some support groups will have recommended groups which they know are safe. If there is a free for all around groups, those groups suggested may not be totally evidenced based. It might be worth asking the admin for their opinion on the groups they prefer.
10. Finally, use normal internet caution within a group. Don’t post identifying information, be cautious with your photos, even with a well-run group, trolls can infiltrate.
Make sure that when you are out there in the big wide internet world of breastfeeding support, you keep yourself safe, and remember you are the advocate for your baby-so if in doubt- check it out with a reputable source or seek out a trained breastfeeding professional.
Breastfeeding helplines and websites
Your health visitor or midwife should know details of local groups in your area, or you can search here for information on your local group.
- National Breastfeeding Helpline – 0300 100 0212
- Association of Breastfeeding Mothers – 0300 330 5453
- La Leche League – 0345 120 2918
- National Childbirth Trust (NCT) – 0300 330 0700
- The Breastfeeding Network and the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers provide breastfeeding support and information.
- La Leche League offers mother-to-mother support with breastfeeding.
- LCGB can help you find a local IBCLC
- The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) is a charity that provides information and support on all aspects of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood via their branches and helpline (above)
- Best Beginnings have a wealth of information about breastfeeding premature babies.
- Breastfeeding Twins & Triplets have a brilliant website and a supportive Facebook group for breastfeeding parents of multiples
- UK Association for Milk Banking can help you with enquiries about donated milk or becoming a milk donor.