When I was pregnant with my son Theo, I was asked by my GP at my first pregnancy screening appointment if I wanted to breastfeed. My answer to my GP was “I’m not sure”, to which I got a quick, “oh but you should, it’s hard but good”. This response became a familiar one with the idea that “Breast was best but hard work”.
I was open to either option of feeding my baby as I thought I would find everything to do with caring for a baby hard, so I had no strong preference between formula and breastmilk! When I had my son, I started to breastfeed with some prior knowledge from antenatal classes and books and found it went well. However, I soon became aware of how everyone from health professionals, friends, family and strangers had a comment, suggestion and advice (not always welcomed advice!) about breastfeeding. All these comments were different and sadly not very encouraging. I was enjoying breastfeeding my son but I was often left feeling that other mothers who had not breastfed their child/children felt I was judging them or they were surprised I was enjoying breastfeeding and choosing not to use formula. There were even suggestions that my husband, who was very supportive of our son being breastfed, would be feeling left out as a Dad because I was breastfeeding. I didn’t understand how to me, something so simple was so contentious and loaded with emotions.
When we found out were expecting twins, at first, no one suggested breastfeeding as an option. Once again, if breastfeeding was hard and twins even harder, than the two together would just be unthinkable. I had breastfed my son until he self-weaned at 14 months old and I was hoping that, as when I had my son, I would give breastfeeding a try first. I gave more time to reading about how to get breastfeeding off to the best start. And as we were informed by health professionals that having twins increases the risk of complications and premature birth, I learnt about expressing colostrum, syringe feeding and even asking my local hospital if they had a milk bank for donated breastmilk. I was more prepared but was disappointed that so many around me did not consider breastfeeding as a viable option.
Abigail and Sophia were born at 35 weeks, and we were very thankful they were healthy, and we were happy with the care and support from all the health professionals during the birth at hospital. We were told that Abigail had slight jaundice, but this was not a concern. I felt like to get breastfeeding off to a good start, I didn’t want to overthink all the positions, frequency of feeds or their weight. I just wanted to try and enjoy them, keep doing skin to skin, feed on demand and take one day at a time. Theo was a toddler and my Mum had stayed to help for a few weeks but after this, it was the five of us just trying to figure it all out.
Once again, the advice about breastfeeding was very contradictory. This time round this was harder to digest and frustrating. I had a midwife tell me to give the same breast to the same baby every single feed. When I told her how I was offering both breasts, she gave me a look of disbelief and asked to examine my breasts and squeezed one of my breasts to check the milk. I felt exposed and not given the opportunity to discuss approaches to breastfeeding. I had a baby book tell me to feed on a schedule and I read in another book I should feed on demand. I remember one night when a friend came round to see me, the girls were in cluster feeding mode. She kindly asked me what she could do to help, but all I was doing was feeding my girls as they cried, fed, settled… repeat for two hours. My takeaway had gone cold and my friend seemed awkward about how much the girls were feeding. I felt like no one was understanding me and I was beginning to doubt I was able to do this.
I was also having to deal with the attention when I went with the twins and a toddler who was like a mini Usain Bolt whenever I left the house! Most people would offer, (here we go again) their unwanted comments “Twins must be hell” (yes, some people said this to my face, with my babies present!), “How do you cope”, “Who do you have to help you” and my favourite one “I knew a couple who had twins, oh they’re divorced now”. Many people, unless they saw me breastfeeding, presumed I was formula feeding. I was too tired to say I wasn’t, and one time I went along with their reminiscing about sterilising bottles and the cost of formula.
I also had to deal with stares and questions about what ethnicity my babies’ Dad was. I wondered if this was because I was breastfeeding a baby with a different skin colour to mine or if this was just questions that every breastfeeding mother is asked?! I also had to endure odd reactions when my answer was not what they expected. For the record, my husband’s and my children’s ethnicity is not relevant to how I feed my children. If anyone is curious about the different skin tones babies can have from when they are born and how these change, feel free to do your own research.
I was starting to feel upset with all the unwanted attention and different opinions about breastfeeding. I remembered there was a LLL group in my area so when my son was with his childminder I went along to a group meeting, which was held at one of the Leader’s homes. I walked in, feeling ready for the comments and questions and was pleasantly surprised. I usually fed my girls individually as they naturally fed at different times and if I was out and about, I could attach one baby to a breast quicker than tandem feeding. However, I was noticing that now 3 months in, if one baby was feeding, the other would then wake for a feed. As I found a spot on in the lounge full of mothers and children aged 0-11yrs I started to feed them both. No one said anything and it was wonderful. For the first time I didn’t feel odd or like I was making some anti-formula protest by the mere fact I was just feeding my baby. I felt included and I enjoyed the open style of mothers sharing their thoughts and experiences.
I also found the experiences seemed more baby-led but also recognising that a mother will have the best knowledge of how their baby was doing, more so than a book (I know, crazy right!). I decided I would make the effort to go again next month as, even if I didn’t have any issues or questions, it was lovely to be amongst people who were either breastfeeding or supportive of breastfeeding in a relaxed way. I also could have a hot drink and cake so I went home happy!
I had started to think about being a breastfeeding peer supporter when I saw an advert in my local children’s centre. I was concerned that because I hadn’t experienced many problems with feeding my son and didn’t find it very hard, I wouldn’t be a good peer supporter. After I had started breastfeeding my girls, I told myself that after all the negative comments and contradicting advice, I would like to train as a peer supporter. I liked the idea of being someone to show encouragement to a mother, regardless of how long they had been feeding and support to whatever decisions they had made with feeding. I also want to learn more about what can help mothers to breastfed as opposed to just referring to it being hard. Going to LLL I had seen how breastfeeding wasn’t a chore that mothers and their babies hated but felt pressure into, but that it was a choice many were happily engaging in. Leaders were friendly, understanding, and great listeners which I valued.
I managed to complete my original peer supporter training in 2017 after completing a 4-month course, but it was a slow start to supporting mothers. Some of it was delays with administration procedures and then when I was at a clinic, many sessions had only one or no mothers turn up. I felt there was also a struggle between the health visitor drop-in clinics feeling like trouble-shooting place, instead of being a space for mothers to come along and breastfeed and then ask questions if they needed. I was thankful to be able to attend the training with all of my children attending with me though it was extremely hard. I did not want the knowledge and skills I had gained to go to waste so I discussed options with Louise who was one of the LLL Leaders of the West London group. As I had enjoyed being a part of LLL group meetings and agreed with the LLL philosophy I agreed to start the process to become a Leader.
It has taken longer than I initially planned as balancing the accreditation activities with family life and other work was harder than I thought, but I am still very glad I continued and I have now accredited as an LLL Leader. I am looking forward to joining Louise, Kerrie and Hannah as a co-Leader, as they are a brilliant group. They are all so dedicated to supporting mothers and families, have a great sense humour and have an honest and child-centred approach in their parenting. They listen to and value the diverse experiences and backgrounds of mothers and families and support making LLL more accessible to mothers who may otherwise be excluded from receiving support.
If anyone of you are reading this and wondering about becoming a Leader, especially if you feel like you’re not sure if you “fit” in within LLL, I will say take the next steps to find out more and go for it. Even though as Leaders we don’t mix our other personal interests or affiliations into breastfeeding, but who we are, in our values, in our bias, in our own experiences shapes how we treat other people. LLL needs mothers from a variety of backgrounds not to fill quotas but to be in the best position to support the mothers and families who contact LLL for support.
As a Black British mother, I cannot speak for all the other mothers who identify as Black British, in the same way that none of us, whatever communities or categories we or society places us in, can represent everyone who identifies in that community. However, we should not underestimate the impact that all of us can have towards those who access support from LLL. It is a step towards mothers knowing they will be accepted and Leaders who are willing to listen, learn, reflect and put into practice a commitment to equality and challenging discrimination is what needs to be the standard. If this is what you are about than I encourage you speak to your local LLL Leader about leadership. You can not only be part of mothers receiving fantastic breastfeeding support but being treated with fairness and fully respected as a mother.
Natasha Harding, LLL Leader, August 2021