Breastfeeding is like learning to drive – only harder

Mother breastfeeding newborn baby in hospital ward, first breastfeeding

Professor Claire CollinsClare Collins is a Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics and National Health and Medical Research Council Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Health and Medicine at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research focusses on the impact of eHealth nutrition programs on food-related health across key life stages and chronic disease conditions.

We hear lots about the science on how good breastfeeding is for babies and mothers. That’s a given! Everyone recommends that you SHOULD breastfeed your baby – from health departmentsacademies of paediatrics, to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Cancer Research Fund.

And you’ve probably heard that breastfeeding lowers a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer and conditions like type 2 diabetes, including for women who have previously had gestational diabetes.

For babies breastfeeding supports their growth and development, protects from infection and if you were breastfed as a baby, it lowers your risk of developing asthma and type 2 diabetes.

All great news!

Breastfeeding challenges

What we don’t hear much about is the practical challenges associated with establishing and maintaining breastfeeding. I breastfed all three of my children till they were over 12 months. BUT I remember when my first baby was born that desperate feeling of trying to feed a sleepy baby, my body aching, hormones travelling on a post-birth rollercoaster, engorged breasts, no sleep and a lot of tears.

Why had no-one mentioned that breastfeeding was hard work, and painful? It felt like someone had stolen my breasts and replaced them with buckets of boiling lava.

Having good information about breastfeeding before birth is really helpful, and the first step. Even among women who are certain they will breastfeed their baby, the process does not necessarily happen smoothly from the get-go. It can take weeks for mothers and babies to get the knack and overcome the ups and downs of the breastfeeding process.

Breastfeeding is more akin to learning how to drive a car. Just because a learner driver is very keen to get their driver’s license, it does not mean that if they jump in a car they start driving like a pro first go. They need to know road rules, have some lessons, get lots of practice and take advice about challenges, like driving when it is raining or foggy.

More could and should be done to ensure women and families get the support they need to successfully breastfeed their babies.

The WHO goal is to exclusively breastfeed for six months and then partial breastfeeding to two years or for as long as mother and infant desire.

Getting practical

To successfully breastfeed, women need the best advice and support, before and after the baby arrives. Most children’s hospitals and maternal health services have fact sheets available. Community organisations such as the La Leche League and the Australian Breastfeeding Association have helplines and Facebook groups.

They also have fact sheets for common problems including low milk supply, cracked nipples, engorgement, latching difficulties and mastitis. They also have resources for specialised situation issues such as how to breastfeed following a caesarean birth or breastfeeding twins.

Mother breastfeeding newborn baby in hospital ward, first breastfeeding

What can we all do to support breastfeeding?

The global economic loss of not breastfeeding has been estimated at about $302 billion annually. Actions to support breastfeeding are needed across all levels of society, WHO have summarised it in this infographic.

As individuals, health professionals and organisations, we can all do more. Here are some ways we can support women to breastfeed their infants.

  1. Offer women encouragement to continue.
  2. Ask women what practical support would be helpful. Can you assist with some meal preparation, chores, errands or provide a listening ear?
  3. Ensure the workplace has a hygienic and appropriate place for women to express and store breast milk.
  4. Advocate for policies to promote breastfeeding, including appropriate maternity leave and encouragement of breastfeeding.
  5. For health services, ensure the baby-friendly hospital initiative and the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes are adhered to.

Breastfeeding can be a challenge. But, just like learning to drive, it doesn’t mean giving up the first time you are unsure of the road rules. Help, patience and support make all the difference. Mothers and babies around the world need our support so that everyone gets the full benefits that come with breastfeeding.