This is a question that I'm asked by many pregnant women and my answer often surprises them.
Breastfeeding is a consensual relationship and not something that you *should* do or feel *obliged* to do against your will. However, if it's a relationship that you are interested in exploring then I'm happy to explain some of the reasons that I believe it to be a wonderful part of mothering as well as beneficial to both your and your baby’s health.
The Science Bit
When we examine the differences in each mammalian species’ milk and how they are adapted to best nurture and feed their young, it should be no surprise that human milk is the biologically normal and appropriate food for human babies. I will mention some of the benefits of breastfeeding, but this is not even close to an exhaustive list and is only a small taste, since the bulk of the reasons why I and other women breastfed are more personal and nuanced than this.
Breastfeeding contributes to lower levels of obesity throughout childhood (and probably beyond). We are just starting to understand how breastfeeding contributes towards the infant microbiome, which has implications for gut health and immunity. And in the UK over half the hospital admissions for diarrhoea and over a quarter of the admissions for lower respiratory tract infections could be prevented through exclusive breastfeeding.
It is not only the infant who receives health benefits from the breastfeeding relationship. There is a lower incidence of certain cancers (including breast cancer) for mothers who have breastfed, and a lower incidence of them developing type II diabetes.
The Personal Bit
These are all compelling and impressive research, but if I’m honest this is not why I personally chose to breastfeed my children. For me it was much more down to earth and micro in nature. Putting my baby to my breast just felt like the right place for her to be and although it was hard to get the hang of initially, with the right support it quickly became my favourite time with her. I loved that I could comfort her and feed her in a way that no one else could. I loved looking down at her fat and growing body and thinking “I did this – my body is growing a person!”. Nothing will ever beat the joy of watching your baby unlatch from the breast to look up and smile at you with pure happiness.
The fact that I had a tool that was the answer to almost every need she had in the first few months was a blessing. I only realised how much breastfeeding became my go-to parenting tool when I would watch my husband confidently use a variety of holds and soothing noises to comfort her. Once I even confided in him that I was a little jealous of how well he used all these tools and how I had no idea how to rock her or hold her in that way. His response was that I had no need of these tools as I could always use my breasts for comfort. It was amazing how we both found our own ways to meet her needs (and lazily, mine didn’t involve leaving the sofa!)
Some of my reasons for breastfeeding were also very practical in nature – I had two winter babies and the thought of going downstairs in the dark and cold to make up bottles in the middle of the night would have filled me with dread. I loved that I could simply reach over, scoop up my baby and have a warm, yummy feed good to go. The admin of bottle feeding and organisation required to safely clean and make up feeds would have been more than my tired brain and body could have handled.
The convenience side of breastfeeding was most clearly highlighted when we flew with my 3 month old to visit the in-laws in Australia. The whole flight was a combination of feeding, cuddles, and peaceful sleeps in the bassinet – that baby is now 10 years old and I can honestly say with was the easiest flight I’ve ever taken with him! Managing with bottles, appropriate water temps, cleaning, sterilising, taking enough formula to last through potential delays would have probably meant that we wouldn’t have attempted that trip and our baby wouldn’t have met his family for several more months.
Trying to enumerate the positives of breastfeeding is a little like explaining to non-parents the joys of child-rearing. From the outside it looks like an awful lot of hard work (it is!) and the rewards are intangible and hard to appreciate from the outside. Imagine trying to explain how baby’s first smile at 6 weeks makes all the sleepless nights and challenges worth it – but somehow it does.
Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily – and while learning to breastfeed was certainly a challenge, the empowerment I felt at being able to sustain and nurture my child will remain the highlight of early parenthood.
Finally, (and this is important), remember that you don’t have to decide right now – no one is asking you to commit during your pregnancy to how you will feed your baby. You can start with some skin to skin after the birth and take it from there. Whatever you decide, remember that early support can make all the difference to your journey.