If breastfeeding is natural, why is it so hard?!

Picture the scene – you’re a new mum, holding your beautiful newborn baby in your arms, when you notice that she’s starting to stir and her fingers have briefly brushed against her cheek causing her mouth to start searching for a nipple. Remembering your antenatal class, you recognise this as an early hunger cue and you bring your baby close into your body, gently assisting her to latch comfortably onto your breast. With your free hand you snap a quick photo of this loving moment and send it to your husband. “Bliss…” you write. Does this sound anything like your early moments with your newborn? No? Mine neither!

You are not alone – did you know that 92% of women with a 3 day old baby reported having at least one breastfeeding problem[1]? And that this is true for women around the world. Yet in some areas (notably remote villages in Namibia like Himba) 98% of women are still breastfeeding their infants when they reach their first birthday. In the UK, the comparable figure is a mere 0.5%...

So we can see that although breastfeeding is indeed natural (in fact up to a century or so ago, humanity’s survival depended upon it), it is also a learned behaviour. At first, this may sound like a contradiction, but imagine for a moment that instead of breastfeeding, we were speaking about walking. This too is a natural behaviour, universal to humans around the world, and also very much learned. If we approached our learning curve in breastfeeding with the same attitude that we approach our baby’s learning curve in walking, we would feel totally differently about it. When our baby takes his first wobbly two steps before promptly falling on his cute little bottom, we immediately tell everyone “he walked!” We would never dream of looking at him with disappointment in our eyes and say dismissively “he fell over”.

Success in mastering a new skill is not marked by immediate excellence in that skill but rather through supportive instruction, perseverance and time. In the African model mentioned above, the supportive instruction is given by the new mum’s own mother and other women in her community who instinctively share their early challenges and how they overcame them. By normalising these challenges and demonstrating that they can be overcome, the new mum has her confidence raised and, together with the practical assistance, now develops the perseverance and patience necessary to work through these early issues and come out the other side.

Unfortunately, the support offered to new mums in the UK looks rather different. The vast majority of us no longer live with (or even close to) extended family, and as the breastfeeding rates are so low, the communal wisdom of her “tribe” is not able to offer encouraging tips or perspective on getting through this learning curve. Instead, with our natural instinct to “fix” problems, the new mum is more often than not simply offered the alternative of “if you’re finding breastfeeding hard, then maybe just give him a bottle of formula”.

That’s where I (and many others like me) enter the picture. I have the daily privilege of providing the encouraging, practical support necessary for mums and babies to learn the natural skill of breastfeeding. And it is very much like riding a bike – hesitant and complicated to start, but rewarding and pleasurable once you get going.

If you are still on your learning journey and would like a warm and supportive guide to help you take your first wobbly steps then please do get in touch.

Wendy Lever IBCLC



[1] Erin A Wagner, Caroline J Chantry, Kathyrn G Dewey, and Laurie A Nommsen-Rivers. October 2013

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