THE REALITY OF BREASTFEEDING

 

SUPPLY AND DEMAND

 

The amount of milk a breastfeeding mother produces is dictated by the sucking of the baby, or babies, she is nursing. Whatever the baby takes is replaced. The feedback mechanism is direct and the response fairly immediate. It relies upon the baby having access to the breast when it asks either by sucking its fist or opening its mouth hopefully and turning towards the mother (rooting reflex). The baby needs to be able to spend as much time as it wants to at the breast as often as it wants to. The normal variation for this is enormous. There is a certain amount of flexibility in the timing; you don’t have to get it right every time. But the practice of regulating feeds over the last thirty years has caused many women in Britain to believe that they cannot breastfeed. For example it has been discovered by research that the minimum number of breastfeeds a day to maintain a supply is five. For many years women were told to feed four hourly. This means that they were only just above that minimum level, and many found their supply dwindled. They were then advised to supplement with formula which reduced the baby’s appetite at the breast and lowered the supply of breastmilk further. The solution when there is not enough milk is to nurse the baby more often until the supply increases to satisfy the baby. Many people find it hard to believe that when a breastfed baby has had enough to eat it will come off the breast of its own accord - usually with a wonderful look of blissful satiation on its face.

The use of dummies or anything else other than the breast to suck on can affect the supply of breast milk. Therefore if you wish to fully breastfeed, you are advised not to use them. Since the word dummy means pretend, and a baby’s dummy is a substitute for the breast, you will see that it makes sense for a breastfed baby not to need one. However some breastfeeding mothers do use them once their milk supply is well established (ie after several months), or if they wish to wean before their baby has outgrown his need to suck. The problem is that you do not know beforehand what the effect of using a dummy will be on your supply - and some babies will refuse the breast after being offered only one bottle. A recent article in a breastfeeding newsletter describes how a fully breastfeeding infant, gaining weight well, became reluctant to breastfeed after being given a dummy. The mother was disturbed to find that her baby preferred the dummy, stopped gaining weight as well and changed her feeding technique, so the mother now gets sore. She has worked hard to reestablish her supply several weeks later. She wrote the article to warn other mothers.

 

It is common for young babies to want to nurse somewhere between one and three hourly, and not with the same gap each time. Unless the breasts are stimulated they will not continue to produce milk. This is why women without children do not have milk and why a mother can relactate if her recently weaned child becomes ill and returns to nursing.

It takes at least three weeks to get used to being a parent, to learn your baby’s communication signals and to establish what your baby’s feeding habits are. All this whether you are breastfeeding or not. Breastfeeding also takes about this length of time to establish and many worried new parents find the extra responsibility of breastfeeding more than they can handle on top of everything else. First I would say that it is best not to make any major life decision during the first few weeks with your new baby. I believe that breastfeeding is one of those decisions that you live with for the rest of your life. I say this because as a breastfeeding counsellor I speak to many grandmothers of grown children, often of the mothers I am counselling at the time, and it is something they always remember - and often regret if they didn’t persevere (in getting the help they needed - many tried as well as they could, but received incorrect information). This is an important time in the rôle of supportive ‘breastfeeding’ fathers. If you know your partner planned to breastfeed before your baby was born and you are having difficulties, resist the temptation to dive for the most expedient solution to getting the baby fed today (a bottle of formula?), and find help. You do not have to struggle on alone. She may be cross with you months later if you don’t. This can be an emotional roller coaster of a time for you both and it is the dad’s job to stand between the mother and the outside world at this time, to support her in what you know she will be happy with in years to come. Traditionally childbirth is a time when families rally around and support the new parents. Often couples live a long way away from their families. Sometimes their families have only unsuccessful experiences of breastfeeding and feel that it is pointless to try.

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