You don’t have to look too far in the antenatal bumpf, sorry I mean ‘literature’, that we’re given these days to see a list of the ‘benefits of breastfeeding’. When I first read these during my first pregnancy, I was encouraged to see that I would be able to take advantage of many good things, for both my baby and me, if I breastfed him. But it wasn’t until Andrew arrived and we started breastfeeding that these really struck me, even though it was by no means all plain sailing (you can read our breastfeeding story here if you haven’t before.)
But before I go into details about what particularly struck me, I’d like to just share a thought that was shared at my local La Leche League (LLL) breastfeeding support group. The perspective that the good things about breastfeeding are ‘benefits’ or ‘advantages’ is a sign of the society we live in, in which feeding formula milk in bottles became the norm and breastfeeding was the less common alternative option, though many people are now working to reverse this by pointing out the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding over bottle feeding. If we step back from this society, and imagine that breastfeeding is the norm, the perspective is different: what we see instead are the ‘disadvantages’ and ‘risks’ of bottle feeding as the alternative option if breastfeeding, the norm, doesn’t happen (for whatever reason), and the ‘benefits’ or ‘advantages’ of breastfeeding are simply what’s ‘normal’ from a biological point of view. I hope that makes sense – I’ve found it useful to have that change in perspective when thinking of the good points about breastfeeding.
The most positive thing about breastfeeding Andrew that I have noticed on a practical level is how little he has been ill. He’s had the odd runny nose and cough, but nothing that’s particularly bothered him. We’ve only got through one bottle of paracetamol suspension in 16 months, and that’s been used mainly for teething-related minor temperature and pain. Twice there has been a classic tummy bug with vomiting and diarrhoea in the house, but both times Andrew got away very lightly with just one vomiting incident each time and a quick bounce back to normal, whilst Tom was incredibly sick for a couple of days and I was somewhere in between my boys in terms of how sick I was. (Note that since I wrote this – typical! – Andrew has had one more vomiting incident which was probably a bug but Tom and I weren’t very sick (apart from my usual pregnancy sickness) and Andrew has seemed absolutely fine in himself otherwise.) We are convinced that this lack of illness in Andrew is down to the breast milk that he has, and in the case of the tummy bugs, both he and I, the breastfeeding pair, fared much better than Tom.
Breast milk contains antibodies that pass from mum to baby, and these help to fight off illnesses; this is something that formula milk just does not provide – antibodies are something that can only come directly from another human, i.e. mum! The even more amazing thing that I’ve learned through reading about the good things about breastfeeding is that when an ill baby sucks on the breast, traces of the pathogen (what’s causing the illness) are left on the breast, and this prompts the mum’s immune system to make even more antibodies, which then get passed through to baby when he feeds later. It’s like a tailor-made medicine ordering service, which happens without us even realising it. As a brand new newborn baby, Andrew drank the colostrum, the first milk full of antibodies, from my breasts, and this gave his immune system a good start in life outside the womb. Since then, as I continue to feed him breast milk, he continues to receive antibody help from me, and I think this has been a great help particularly in the second year of life, when he’s come into contact with lots of bugs as he mixes with other children at groups and with the childminder. So this help with immunity is just as important for him as a toddler as it was as a baby.
The second positive thing that hit me about breastfeeding compared to formula feeding is the cost. Breast milk is absolutely free, and formula is soooo expensive! When Andrew was a baby I did have to supplement my breast milk with formula, because my supply was not sufficient for his needs (this was caused by specific factors in our breastfeeding journey, and was advised by medical professionals as well as an independent lactation consultant; you can read about this here). In our case, I really resented having to pay for formula because it was so expensive and I knew I was contributing to a business that ultimately does not support breastfeeding. I would have given anything to be able to exclusively breastfeed, and the way I saw it, any way that I could increase my supply meant that we would spend less and give less money to the formula companies. Babies cost a lot of money in general over the years, so I really didn’t get why I would want to pay for something that my body could make for the baby for free, and make a better job of it at the same time (it’s just that my body didn’t make enough of it for Andrew).
Besides the physical benefit of good health and practical benefit of saving money, I have definitely appreciated the emotional side of breastfeeding too, far more than I realised I would. Before Andrew was born, my take on breastfeeding was something like: ‘I know it has lots of good things about it, and I’ll give it a good go, but if it doesn’t work out then nevermind, I’m sure we’ll both cope without it.’ But after the birth and into the first days with Andrew, it was like some kind of instinctual emotional hormonal switch was turned on inside me, that made me feel very passionately about wanting to breastfeed him. I’m not normally one for such ‘airy fairy’ ideas, but it was something that just happened in my thoughts and actions, and I don’t know the where/why/how of where it came from, I just know it was suddenly there! There was something about having him so close and sucking from me that seemed so natural, like what was supposed to happen, and when he was feeding, I felt so happy, even though it wasn’t always easy – it’s hard to describe.
But I’m not weird (honestly!): this feeling is also reported by other breastfeeding mums, and we know that it comes from the hormone oxytocin being released whenever the baby sucks at the breast. I knew I didn’t want to give up on this amazing feeling that nothing else could give me, which is why when we knew we had to supplement with formula, I was so glad that I was shown a way to do it that meant Andrew could still suck from me – I’ll talk more about that in my next breastfeeding post. This emotional positive has meant a lot to me as mum, so it shows breastfeeding is not all about what’s good for baby. Now that Andrew is getting old enough that his emotions are easier to figure out (most of the time) compared to when he was a baby, I can tell that breastfeeding means a lot to him emotionally too. It’s what he turns to whenever he’s feeling tired, grumpy, hurt, or sad in any way. And as his mum I can definitely recommend it as an effective way to help him get through these occasions – to be honest I don’t know what I’d do without it sometimes and I know I will have to confront this and find alternatives when his brother/sister takes over the role of breastfeeder in the family 😉
Now that you’ve read my experience of what’s so good about breastfeeding, why don’t you head over to some other participating blogs and read what they have to say? Below are some links for you. There are some common themes, but not everyone has the same experience of what’s good about breastfeeding, so you’ll find things other than what I’ve written here too. For example, I know lots of breastfeeding mums say how it helped them lose the ‘baby weight’, which wasn’t the case for me as I didn’t put on loads and what I did put on I’ve kept, probably because I was previously underweight and my body has said ‘hold on, I’m keeping all I can in store for the nursling in case you decide to lose it again!!’ We’re all different, and that’s one thing I find fascinating about hearing others’ experiences of breastfeeding. Anyway, have fun reading them! And don’t forget to enter the competition below to have a chance of winning the grand prize!