Many moons ago, I was a breast pump agent for the National Childbirth Trust, which is something not many people know about me and perhaps something not many people know about.
I was heavily pregnant with son number 2 and on maternity leave. As a member of the NCT I wanted to do something worthwhile that wouldn’t be too onerous as I already had a one year old to look after. So, I volunteered. For about a year, I was on hand to hire out the industrial-sized, hospital-type breast pumps. New parents would come to my house, often stressed because of a pre-term baby or illness or somehow struggling to breastfeed, and I would show them how to work the pump. I never used one myself but was told that it was brilliant.
At this time, I had a lot of friends who I met through the NCT and other post-natal groups. One of them had so much milk she became a donor for the SCBU at Kings College Hospital, after being screened. This milk was gratefully received as its immunity-boosting components can be life-saving for prem babies.
Yesterday the media was awash with stories about breast milk – if you’ll pardon the pun. A breastfeeding mother had an operation and was unable to breastfeed her son, so she went on Facebook to see if anyone would step in. She had a huge response and several women were able to help, coming to her bedside and feeding her baby. Some people found this difficult. I had to think about it myself for a while as I confess my natural response was to find it a bit weird.
Which I now see is daft.
Wet nurses, cross-nursing, milk-sharing has gone on forever all over the world. But in the modern West, we see breastfeeding as a private thing, because breasts are associated with sex and we forget that the job of breasts is to feed babies. For me, breastfeeding was generally a good experience though there were times when I had to feed my babies in public loos. You wouldn’t choose to eat your fish and chips in a bog so goodness knows why it is acceptable for vulnerable babies.
I breastfed all three of our children on demand. I fed the oldest till he was 8 months when I had to return to work and was pregnant again. I fed number 2 and 3 until they were 14 months old. I’d like to point out that I am not a member of what some of the press call the ‘Breastapo’. I just feel that babies have a right to feed when and where they need to be fed. Who cares if you catch a glimpse of breast? Why does it put some people off their food when a baby is also just having food?
Back in the early 90s, I taught in a nursery unit attached to an infant school in Camberwell. There were many children there from Ghana and Nigeria and it was interesting watching the role play. In the ‘home corner’ they would hold the babies to their chests, as this was what they saw their mothers, aunts etc do. When I had my own children, I noticed them and their friends doing the same thing. Breastfeeding is not embarrassing for children. It’s just some adults that find it so.
WHO and UNICEF both say that milk donating and sharing is the second best alternative to breastfeeding in consultation with your health provider. Yes, there are issues over screening for infectious diseases such as HIV (which all pregnant women are screened for anyway). And I believe from reading about it that it’s better to match the age of the baby receiving the milk to the age of the supplier’s baby, as breast milk changes as the child grows. But these issues can be overcome. Fundamentally, I don’t have a problem with it. Any reservations I had yesterday were cultural.
And I must just add here that it goes without saying that breastfeeding doesn’t work out for everyone due to illness and for all manner of reasons. Giving a baby a bottle is fine and mothers should never be made to feel guilty.
Yesterday’s news item is good because it gets breastfeeding talked about. Hopefully one day boobs won’t be news. They’ll be seen as the givers of life that they are.
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