When I stop and think about infant feeding situations I’ve encountered over the last 25 years they are all very different in experience and outcome, but do seem to have common ground.
They are all affected by the same 4 Feeding Factors
These factors can interact in any combination to impact your infant feeding journey. They may enhance, complicate or derail, but most importantly, any negative effects can be massively reduced by thorough preparation.
What Do I Mean By Preparation ?
This can mean different things to different people but for me, the first step in preparing for anything is always to educate myself, not just on how to do something right, but also to be aware of what can go wrong so I can plan ways to cope if the worst happens.
In order to build my website I had to start from scratch, and approach the whole business of trying to create a brand from a position of humble (but hopeful) ignorance, and so set about educating myself.
To do this I hunted around blogs and tutorials, read everything I could find with an open mind, and gradually found sources that seemed well balanced and informative, but which explained things in a way I could understand.
I have learned an amazing amount, and am still learning, but most of my light bulb moments have come after reading ‘how not to’ or ’10 most common mistakes’ blogs etc because that was when I realised what could go wrong with what I was planning to do, and what I could do about it.
I am extremely grateful to those bloggers who shared their disasters so openly because they allowed me to learnt from their mistakes. (Neil Patel and Blog Tyrant are great for this, if you are interested)
They allowed me to prepare myself.
Crazy though this may sound, I actually think learning to build websites and master social media can sometimes seem easy compared to figuring out how you want to feed your baby ( and coming from a technophobe like myself, that is really saying something !)
When it comes to whether or not to consider breastfeeding, many people find themselves caught between the ‘it is wonderful, natural, anyone can do it, and nothing ever goes wrong’ brigade, and those in the ‘oh my god it was awful, cracked, bleeding nipples, oozing pus, sleep deprived’ camp. Neither of these are of any use if you want to properly prepare and give yourself the best chance of success for whatever feeding plan you are considering simply because they focus on polar opposites of experience/personal bias, and ignore the middle ground, which makes up the majority of infant feeding journeys.
Your Plan A (and why you need a Pan B)
As soon as you announce your pregnancy one of the first thing people ask you is ‘Are you going to breastfeed ?’ and this intense focus on feeding is where possible future problems or successes are rooted. This is where the 4 Feeding Factors come in to play.
I have started with luck (or fate) because it can influence every step of your feeding journey and, though I hate saying it, the truth is that you are pretty much at its mercy. Like it or not, luck is going to play a huge, possibly even a defining role in your feeding journey. The only thing you can do to arm yourself against it is to find ways to be as flexible as possible and, by all means, have a Feeding Plan A (your preferred choice) but also have a Plan B, a Plan C and even a Plan D, E, F etc.
Why ? Because you may have your heart set on breastfeeding, or have beautiful mental images of giving your baby their first bottle but if fate decrees your baby is premature, or that you end up having a long, tiring labour, losing a lot of blood, or having an emergency C-section, the reality may be that someone else gives your baby their first bottle whilst you are in surgery or recovering. It may be that the physical toll of the birth means your milk onset is delayed so temporary supplementation is required, or your baby could end up in an incubator for weeks and then your whole life will revolve around hospital visits, and pumping.
Whatever happens, if for any reason your original plan doesn’t work out, you need to have a back-up plan in place. If things start to go wrong, it’s the middle of the night and you are tired, confused and stressed, which scenario is more empowering…to have to start reading books and madly google for answers whilst your baby screams next to you ? or to think ‘ok, this isn’t working, switch to plan B, I know what to do and I have everything I need to hand’ ?
Everyone feels differently about infant feeding, and unless there are medical considerations, as far as I am concerned, the only ones qualified to make any decisions are the parents. Some parents have strong feelings about breast, formula or combination feeding, and their choices come easily, but many are somewhere in between and struggle to decide. Wherever you stand, the very best thing you can do for yourselves, your baby and your family is to keep an open mind and plan for every eventuality.
If you have to change your feeding plan it is much healthier mentally to be able to accept the necessity and focus on the practical challenges rather than dwell on feelings of guilt and failure, or to waste your time worrying about what other people might say.
This is often the case when there are problems with breastfeeding, and formula has to be considered, but sometimes goes the other way, when a woman who was certain she was not going to breastfeed suddenly changes her mind and wants to give it a go. In both cases, the more prepared you are beforehand, the easier it is to make changes.
It is important that both parents are equally educated and prepared for the unexpected so they can support each other, but it is even more important for a single parent, because you may have to deal with a suddenly changing situation on your own.
I know that seriously pro-breastfeeding people peddle the idea that any woman can exclusively breastfeed if she just tries hard enough and has the right support but, speaking as someone who has no bias or agenda, your degree of breastfeeding success is heavily influenced by biology.
This may be the luck of the genetics draw, such as having IGT (Insufficient Glandular Tissue) where you just don’t have enough breast tissue to make enough, or any milk, or it may be something less tangible such as delayed lactation or simply insufficient supply.
It may be that you have a pre existing medical condition such as diabetes, PCOS or hypertension that means you are at risk of having insufficient supply, or the mother has to take medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding.
Sometimes the problem may lie with your baby. They may have a tongue tie, or be premature and too weak to suck, or simply just struggle to latch, or there may be a mis-match between mother and baby, such as a baby with a tiny mouth and a mother with big breasts and nipples where baby struggles to feed.
Sometimes, persistence and support can make a big difference in the short, medium or long term, but even here, you need to be aware of potential problems, know where to get support, and have strategies and equipment at hand to tide you over until whatever problem is overcome.
Other times, however, no matter what you try, breastfeeding may just not be possible. If this happens, all you can do is accept the situation, realise you have done your own personal best, and move on with your next chosen plan of action.
What I’m talking about here are all the other factors that may affect your lifestyle e.g. income, housing, location, siblings, other family members, jobs, school runs.
As all these factors interact and possibly pull you and your resources in different directions, your feeding expectations may not match the reality around you.
You may be doing well breastfeeding, but find the restrictions of breastfeeding incompatible with having to look after other siblings, do school runs and after school activities.
You may feel that breastfeeding really isn’t for you, but find you can’t afford the formula so have to continue breast or combination feeding.
You may be loving breastfeeding but have to go back to work so need to pump or combination feed, or you might find that pumping just isn’t practical in your particular job so have to switch to formula.
You may really want to breastfeed, but find the demands on you physically are affecting you mentally and edging you towards depression or anxiety so end up pumping or using formula.
The Bottom Line.
As I hope you can see, your actual feeding journey may be much more complicated and unpredictable than you first thought, with many factors interacting to create something totally unique, but this needn’t be a bad thing.
I haven’t told you all these things to frighten you, but to try and prepare you to the point where you feel confident you have every angle covered, and everything you need at your fingertips.
In this case ignorance is NOT bliss !
It is actually pretty easy to prepare properly.
Just keep an open mind, seek to educate yourself on all the different risk factors and the different feeding methods, and make sure you have all the support and equipment you could possibly need, or at least know where to source it.
Look at yourselves honestly, assess your situation and personalities, and challenge your mindset until you can imagine yourselves facing different challenges.
Anticipate as many different scenarios as you can, and make back up plans to deal with all of them.
This is your baby and your journey as parents, and it is up to you to arm yourselves with everything you need to make it a safe, practical and wonderful journey.
I help parents work through feeding difficulties on a daily basis so I know the difference the right Mindset and good preparation can make when having to deal with Luck, Biology and Situation.
I also know that there is always a solution to every problem if you look hard enough so have faith in yourselves, and Good Luck on your feeding journey.
If you need more information please check out my blog Blog at www.babydetective.co.uk, and if you feel you need more support please come and join the newly formed Baby Detective Support Group on Facebook.
Sarah Norris is one of the UK’s most accomplished maternity nurses, with over 25 years experience caring for hundreds of babies and families in the UK and internationally.
She treats all babies and families as individuals, and respects all forms of parenting and feeding, aiming to help and empower new parents with sensible, practical tips and advice that is always non judgemental and non biased.
She is the author of ‘The Baby Detective’ with Orion Books, out now.