How do we prepare women to breastfeed?

Women at the hospital where I work are scheduled to receive breastfeeding information at their 26 week check-up visit.

It’s my favourite visit even though it can be tricky getting through all the information required to be imparted during this time. I make up for this by talking fast!

The midwives have a checklist we have to work through (another of my not-favourite thing) but it covers the essentials – benefits of breastfeeding to mums and babies – (don’t forget dads! They can get better sleeps for years if things pan out…) rooming-in policy, non-giving of formula to babies being breastfed without a medical indication, non-use of dummies in hospital, resources for support after leaving hospital and so on…

We are meant to start by asking how women are “choosing” to feed their babies. Seriously, about 99.9% of women we see – from very varied communities and backgrounds want to breastfeed. Sometimes I would breach protocol and ask “how are you going to breastfeed your baby?”

A Norwegian-born woman in my ABA group told me how the question astounded her: “in Norway no-one would ask – there is only one way to feed a baby!”

Then we are meant to chat about the benefits of breastfeeding. From my days of teaching breastfeeding education classes in the community I know that everyone (and their dog)knows the benefits of breastfeeding (especially the dog, right?). “Breast is best” is a health message breathed in like air. It doesn’t keep women breastfeeding, but it probably starts them thinking that its something they might like to do.

I skip this info – “you will be well aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding to you and your baby”. Lots of nodding…

Then I tell a story to them. It’s the story of what happens when their baby is born and they start to breastfeed.

My plan is to normalise the experience and to be realistic about what the first days with a  newborn are like. Prospective parents are unlikely to hear about this from other people… in fact the families I look after post-natally seem to generally be overwhelmed by their experience in the first days. It is such a short and stunning period of time for new parents that it is quickly forgotten. But this moment is an opportunity to consider what a baby’s first days are like – physiologically, and then to relate this to the experience of breastfeeding in the early days. which we know as midwives is a cruel, intense but life-changing time for parents and their babies.

Here are some things I say:

After your baby is born he or she will be handed directly to you and placed skin to skin with you. Your baby will be dried off while lying on you and be closely observed in the important first minutes as she breathes air into her lungs for the first time.

We know that skin-to-skin is not just a nice thing to do, but actually helps your baby transition to life beyond the placenta. Babies in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers stabilise their breathing and their heart rate and their temperature better. And something else happens too…. babies start to look for the breast. Babies will literally crawl towards their mothers nipple, attach and feed if left undisturbed after birth. I get to see this all the time in my job.

If you want to see babies do this too you can search “breastcrawl” on YouTube and see lots of newborn self-attaching.

We like newborns to self attach if they can because when they do it themselves, they do it properly. Not only that, when they get it right the first time – they go on to do it right time after time from then on.

I talk then about how that first feed should take an hour or even two hours. And about how babies are awake and alert for the first hours after birth – so that they can breastfeed well.  I also mention how oxytocin in the mother’s circulation is making more colostrum available to the baby in that first feed than it will over the next 24 hours – oh, and also how the breastfeed will help to contract the woman’s uterus during this time – to deliver the placenta and limit her blood loss.

Nothing beats the faces of parents-to-be at 26 weeks listening to all this – I think this is often the first time they have really thought about the nuts and bolts of this almighty adventure they’re embarking on! And then we talk about how babies usually have a giant sleep after this – maybe for six hours. More nodding.

How often do new babies need feeding? More is more in the colostrum world – small amounts frequently is key. Thick gooey colostrum – more medicine than milk at this stage.

Every feed is also a good learning time for mum and bub. Also extraordinarily comforting and reassuring for a new baby in a giant world of weirdness.

Sleep? I hear you ask… mmmm – not so much. Here’s what the postnatal ward is like on any given night – it’s party time!

Newborn babies are more like teenagers than any other group I can think of. They behave like angels all day and evening through visiting hours and then at about ten o’clock they all wake up and want to feed. Not once, not twice, but continuously – until about 4am. Then by 6am they are all fast asleep. When the morning shift starts at 7am they find a ward full of sleeping mothers and babies. It’s natural.

Mornings are very settled times. Then the feeding frenzy begins again after lunch…or at least we’re all trying to get babies to feed again in search of that holy grail – more sleep overnight. Good luck.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Everytime your baby wriggles is a good time to try a feed. Don’t wait for your baby to cry.

Expect lots of sticky black meconium nappies in the first few days. Not much wee until your baby’s digestive system and kidneys start to fire up – and the colostrum increases in volume (that’s happening all the time by the way, as you keep feeding). Black tar poo is replaced by darling green numbers and then mustardy slops that smell like fresh mown grass! yum! Now watch out for the wee fountain on the change mat. Not just for boys!

Now your baby’s tummy is expanding as the volume of feeds increases. And then…..your milk comes in and Everything Changes.

But I tell them not to worry about all that just yet.

The most important thing that I mention is that through all this time there will me midwives like me supporting them.

We are mostly friendly dragons who love babies.

We midwives know lots and lots of things about lots of different babies – but probably very little about your baby. In eight hours you will know more about your baby than us. We can give you info about some principles and tick off important tasks like teaching you to bathe the critter (after 48 hours) or showing you the phone number for the ABA breastfeeding helpline or teaching you “what to do when you get home” (my script for that one still needs work). So just ask us. The questions will start to really flow when we visit you at home in the first week.

A lot of the time we do a version of cheering you on from the sidelines. Cause it’s hard and tiring and being in hospital is mostly crap. But soon you will go home and your milk will come in … and Everything Changes. So now you know.

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