By Wendy Pearse
My three children are now aged in their thirties and forties. My first born was bottle fed from the start. I was alone in a foreign country, and scared and ignorant about baby matters. There was no encouragement to breastfeed, and of the five mothers in my maternity ward, only one chose to breastfeed. I was so besotted by my beautiful baby though, and so overwhelmed by everything at that time, that as long as he survived and thrived, the method of his nourishment didn’t seem important. Despite my inexperience he has grown up to be a fine, well adjusted, healthy man.
I was very keen to breastfeed my second child. Because I have a fair complexion, I suffered from painful cracked nipples. The go-to treatment of the day was to apply lanolin to the nipples. Understandably my daughter disliked the smell, taste and texture of this greasy ointment, but we both persisted and breastfeeding became established. That was until several bouts of mastitis. Mastitis was miserable. I felt like I had a big dose of the flu with fever, headaches and pain. I was advised to continue breastfeeding during antibiotic treatment as the baby’s suckling was the optimal way to drain the blocked ducts. My daughter didn’t like the taste of the tainted milk but still enjoyed the suckling as I winced in pain.
We both ended up in the Queen Elizabeth Centre for Mothers and Babies, in Canberra (now the QEII Family Centre) an excellent residential facility with knowledgeable, unhurried professionals who helped us both learn good feeding techniques. The nursing staff were very encouraging, we were well looked after and could rest and recover between feeds – something we may not have been able to do if we were at home, looking after other children and worrying about household chores. I breast fed her for twelve months. She has also grown up to be a fine, well-adjusted, healthy woman.
My third child arrived in a hurry. He was a voracious feeder and as a result I produced milk profusely. Soon after we came home from hospital I again suffered from very painful mastitis in both breasts. I was given penicillin for the infection, but my baby boy had a severe reaction to this drug which had passed into my milk, and once again I was admitted to the Queen Elizabeth facility.
My experience the second time around was equally beneficial. Because I couldn’t take an antibiotic, a very old fashioned method was used. A poultice of cabbage leaves was placed against my breasts to reduce the swelling and hardening, and it seemed to work. The cabbage leaves combined with the lanolin for my bleeding cracked nipples created an interesting aroma, but combined with formula top-ups for a few weeks led to a well fed, contented baby and an increasingly relaxed and happy mother.
I continued to breast feed for 16 months because he had developed chronic severe eczema and a lactose intolerance, and breastfeeding was recommended by the medical professionals to help with these two conditions.
I cannot remember how many bouts of mastitis I suffered, but they were frequent and numerous. I think fatigue played a part as I had two other children to care for and worked part-time. I found acupuncture very helpful. I could treat the blockage and infection without antibiotics. The relief was almost instant as the engorgement, swelling and redness would lessen before my eyes as I lay on the treatment table.
Providing milk for my baby while I was at work was problematic. I had to use a hand pump in the ladies’ toilet during the day, and choose my outfits carefully to disguise the leakage towards the end of the day. On the drive home the letdown would start in earnest. By the time I arrived at the babysitter’s, I was dripping. My baby latched on and drank voraciously. He refused the bottle during the day no matter if it was expressed milk or formula, preferring to wait for the real thing.
Just like his siblings, he has also grown up to be a fine, well-adjusted, healthy man. His eczema has gone and his lactose intolerance has abated. He’s still an enthusiastic feeder and as a result is a good cook.
And the third baby I breastfed?
When my youngest was about ten months old, my very dear friends entrusted their two month old daughter to my care for a few hours. They were having their first outing without her, and were going to see a movie. Their daughter had been fed before they left, but she only slept for a short while and awoke very distressed. Nothing I did could calm her. My family were all feeling a bit desperate and concerned for her. These were the days before mobile phones of course, so there was no way to contact her parents. She was nuzzling into my breast area, so I decided to see if some suckling could help settle her. She attached enthusiastically, and after a few suckles, she paused, looked up at me – I think a little puzzled – and immediately started suckling again. Her suckling was so gentle compared to the vacuum cleaner suction of my hungry baby boy, and she soon settled and went to sleep.
When her parents arrived home, I had to report my method of calming their baby. I knew them very well and didn’t think they would mind, but of course I was a little apprehensive. To my relief they laughed, but were also very grateful that I had been able to help their baby. They are now in their 70s, and we still fondly remember the occasion. That baby was also apparently unscarred by the event and is a healthy adult.
As for the facility for mothers and babies that helped me when breastfeeding my own babies, I cannot stress enough the value of this facility. I think many mothers and babies are discharged from hospital before feeding has established and can become exhausted and confused, losing confidence as well as sleep. I stayed for about five days each time, and even though I had help and support at home, my time in the facility allowed me to concentrate fully on establishing feeding and getting to know my baby’s needs. An added bonus was being able to rest and eat nutritious, delicious meals. There was at least one mother in residence at the same time as me on each occasion who was learning how to bottle feed with the full support of the nurses.
There are many and varied reasons for not breast feeding. We need to support all mothers and fathers in their decisions during those challenging early weeks and months.
Wendy is the mother of two sons and a daughter, the grandmother of three granddaughters and two grandsons, and the step grandmother of two granddaughters. She has only ever breastfed a friend’s baby once… and has never breastfed any of her grandchildren.
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