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Pay me?

November 13, 2013

A PERSONAL AND VERY LONG POST WHICH CONTAINS BREASTFEEDING PICTURES
(just incase you might be offended by them … at the very end … so you can read the post and then look away)

The song Hope asks for at the moment when she’s in her car seat and wants to sing along to something has changed. It was, “row row”, then it was “quack quack” (5 little ducks went swimming one day) and then it was “yukky nappy” (yucky mucky nappy on the baby oh) … now it’s “Pay Me” by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Bande. Not as sing song but huge fun, she chortles as she sings, very precisely in Queen’s English, “pay mi, pay mi, pay me moni”.

It struck me as kind of funny that this became her favourite song the same day that it was announced that tax payers money is to be used in a pilot scheme to pay new mothers in parts of the UK to breastfeed their babies. £40 for 2 days, another £40 for 10 days, another £40 for 3 months to £120 at 6 months and if they’re still breastfeeding at that point they will end up with £200 in shopping vouchers.

My initial reaction to this scheme was an angry,”this is absurd”, the money should be spent on supporting breastfeeding advisors, helping those who are unable to breastfeed and even an advertising campaign to ‘normalise’ the sight of women nursing their small folk.

I’ve reflected, I’ve read, I’ve asked many people their opinions and I’ve been saddened, humbled, fascinated, and in one case horrified by the comments. The comment that horrified me was around the idea that breastfeeding is a middle class activity, this in the Independent, that most middle class of middle class newspapers.

The general response to the news is that it is ridiculous and the money could be better spent in many other ways, that it is typical of what seems to be an increasingly Nanny State and it is ill thought through.

Personally I decided I wanted to breastfeed if I possibly could and sent about it with a single minded determination. I shed bitter tears when I couldn’t get the ‘nose to nipple’ technique to work, when the ‘rugby ball hold’ failed us and when the whole task seemed bigger than the both of us could handle. My nipples, when she was first born, looked almost as big as her face. I only managed to express a tiny drop of colostrum to start with and the many hours spent with a sighing breast pump on the side of the hospital bed didn’t produce a whole lot of milk. I was never a spurty breasts new mother, I didn’t even have to wear breastpads.

Hope was premature, I was ‘geriatric’, she was born by Cesarean, she was fed through a little tube up her nose for the first few weeks … all in all it seemed to me that there was little chance of success.

A much younger friend gave birth to a little girl a few days before Hope was born, she had long since decided that breastfeeding wasn’t for her, her mother didn’t breastfeed and she felt that it just didn’t suit the kind of mother she wanted to be. She is an inspiring and wonderful mother with a beautiful, healthy, bright little girl. She made a decision and she stuck with it. It wasn’t the decision that I’d made, but I totally respected her decision and the reasons she’d made it, she headed home from hospital the day after her daughter was born. I stayed in for 9 days as Hope and I both needed extra care, but also because I was so determined to breastfeed and really wasn’t getting it as right as I needed to.

It was while I was in hospital that one of the midwives spotted that Hope had a bit of a tongue tie. This couldn’t be treated in our hospital, and we had to go all the way to Bedford hospital when she was about 15 days old to have the tiny bit of skin holding her tongue too low on her palette snipped. Apparently in days of old, midwives used to have an extra long finger nail and they would quickly severe the tie, the procedure wasn’t difficult and apart from an initial yelp of surprise didn’t seem to bother Hope at all. Hope started eating better immediately her tongue was untied.

I still didn’t feel confident and a week or so later, I took Hope and went to a breastfeeding drop in session. The advice, the calm non judgemental advice I received there transformed our experience and we are still going strong at 22 months. I gave Hope formula milk early on when I wasn’t able to produce enough breastmilk to put in her little tube, when I couldn’t fill the tiny bottles her father and Grandmother fed her with, we filled those with formula, but I didn’t let that put me off and the gentle advice I was given didn’t make me feel uncomfortable about mixing and matching. Gradually the formula was decreased and the breastmilk consumption went up. Hope was a little soul and grew steadily, if slowly, along her centile. After she’d had meningitis at 10 weeks I as advised to give her more formula to boost her growth, I did, but I also breast fed her more.

At just over 5 months she stopped taking a bottle or a cup, from then on it was just Hope and I and I really loved, really relished feeding her myself. It became a private, personal time and I fitted feeds around meetings, in with work and Hope flourished.

I have another friend who had a baby earlier this year, she desperately wanted to breastfeed him, she tried and tried, his weight dropped, her milk supply was erratic, she had horrible mastitis and in the end she decided that for both of their sakes she should make what was for her a very difficult (and emotional) decision and switch to formula. They haven’t looked back and her son is a healthy happy soul, I know she feels wistful and frustrated when people get on their high horses about breastfeeding … she tried and it just didn’t work.

Britain has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe, especially in ares such as those targeted by this scheme. Financial incentives have helped with other health related interventions, maybe this will work … I think probably the early £40 payments will be more useful in encouraging people who are ambivalent to give it a go, and that’s no bad thing, I’m not so sure about the longer term payments, and if I’m proved wrong and breastfeeding rates do go up in deprived communities because of this kind of project then that’s all for the good.

I believe that in isolation this scheme won’t have major impact, but alongside advertising to ‘normalise’ breastfeeding, a change in the media’s attitude to breastfeeding mothers, a raised awareness as to all the benefits (cost benefits as well … obviously breastfeeding is free and formula feeding costs alot … and on that I wonder what the figure is for formula feeding the average new born for 6 months?) and most importantly support to all new mothers which might enable them to get over (as I was lucky enough to be able to) initial difficulties, or to cope with being unable to nurse when they wanted to and to gently support younger (or older) mothers who might be self-conscious, are surrounded with people who breastfeeding socially unacceptable, don’t have the confidence or don’t have the support from their partners or family and so on. It is also important to ensure the support is there for paying for midwives and lactation consultants … they are already overstretched and underfunded and will need support if they’re to monitor financially incentivised projects. They will be the ones to hit the headlines and be vilified when just one new mother cheats the system and claims their full £200 without having breastfeed for the allocated time.

The La Leche League and their local leaders and other members (both here locally and when we were in America recently) offered, on a voluntary basis, incredible support and I was lucky to be in a hospital where their volunteer was made available to me… the big difference I guess between me and many of the new mothers targeted by the pilot scheme was that I really wanted to breastfeed. They were not the middle class “breastapo” they are portrayed as, but sensible, kind women who care about other women, their health and their babies.

So … alongside financial incentives, lets lobby and look for physical support and for a sea change in the national perception of something that is instinctive, natural, not always straightforward but when mastered can be a remarkable time.

We’re happy enough as a nation to look at breasts uncovered and pert in newspapers, magazines, on  supermodels, the beach and in the movies … I wish we could be as comfortable with seeing breastfeeding mothers about the place. Personally I’ve never had any negative comments, and if there have been disapproving glances I’ve been too absorbed in the task at hand to have noticed them. Again I think the more mainstream media have a role to play here, I’m old enough and resilient enough not to care, other mothers may not be the same way. I wish I could give them confidence from my own experience.

One thing that really struck me was the lack of images of breastfeeding in children’s books … there are a few but generally there are pictures of broccoli, apples, carrots, ham and bottles of milk, why not add in a few of a mother nursing as well.

It is also so important not to generalise, I say that based on the fact that the mother I became closest to in the States was 19, with virtually no money at all, but she was determined to breastfeed, she had researched foods to eat, relaxation exercises to benefit her and the child and was one of the most inspirational mothers I’ve ever met. She’d have taken the £200 and spent it on something for her daughter or banked it to invest in her future, but it would have had absolutely no influence on her decision to breastfeed (any more than it would have encouraged my friend here to breastfeed when she’d decided not to). Both these women are incredible, brave and wonderful young mothers and have my utmost respect. I have another friend in the US who is breastfeeding her second child whilst continuing to hold down an incredibly high powered marketing job, she pumps at work, she freezes milk, she plans and she has continued to exclusively breastfeed her daughter for over 6 months … not easy and adding to an already huge workload but something she believes is important and is prepared to do.

As to the mastitis, the bleeding nipples, the spurty breasts, the soggy smelly milk logged breastpads that many experience, breastfeeding isn’t always easy but in at least (if you want to and are able to) giving it a go to start with you’re doing something natural and positive for your child.

And to the tabloid and broadsheet journalists that poo poo the opinion of “Mummy bloggers” and the mothers questioned and interviewed on the TV, we have as much right to our opinion as you do, and frequently many more readers / viewers.

Right … a long long and somewhat rambly post, and one that’s been far harder and more intimate than any other to write, with no chance to review, abridge or hone it as my hungry little person has woken up and is standing up in her cot calling for “yummy milky”.

I hope in sharing my very personal thoughts (and opinions), our difficulties and subsequent joys and a few images of us nursing we might help someone else go for it or persist or even think about breastfeeding, just as I hope that this controversial pilot helps at least a few new mothers and does’t alienate or unfairly pressure someone who wanted to nurse but was unable to.

Ultimately the most important element in all this and something that must not be overlooked is the love and care a new born baby (and his or her mother) require, and the crucial part that love, nourishment and nurture play in the development of a healthy little person.

In the meantime I’m going to try to work out how much money might be saved by nursing fully or alongside using formula to top a small person up for the first six months… and I wonder if women are to be paid £200 for 6 months how much Hope and I, and many other women and children who carry on nursing far longer, would be paid for almost 24 months!!

As Hope’s favourite song says, “pay me my money down” and then I can donate some of it to the La Leche League to help fund some of their wonderful work and buy a new feeding bra with the rest.

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