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Breastfeeding education – where angels fear to tread?


Just before Easter, I spent a pleasant hour talking to a young woman whose first baby was four weeks old. I was supposed to be talking to her about her experience of antenatal classes but we didn’t, in fact, do much of that. Her little boy lay on a pristine changing mat at her feet and she gazed at him endlessly, only occasionally making eye-contact with me.

She was a perfect example of Winnicott’s ‘primary maternal preoccupation’. The bond between her and her baby was so close, so intense, so all-consuming that it left little space even for the usual social nicety of looking at the person to whom you’re speaking. This mother was literally in a world of her own, a world comprised of just two people. I found it quite wondrous.

So it made conducting a rigorous evaluation of the antenatal classes she had attended rather difficult – my long list of questions became utterly irrelevant in the face of the magical connection between mother and baby that required their full attention. And, of course, the mutual gaze between mother and child affected me so that I found myself, as one does, becoming fixated on the baby as well, so that all three of us ended up ‘in the zone’.

The experience certainly made me question the validity of asking new mothers to complete questionnaires and participate in interviews! However, the small amount of conversation that we did have turned out to be fascinating. This mother could remember little about her antenatal classes – not, I think, because they had been poor, but simply because she didn’t have the mental space to remember them at this stage of her new motherhood – but she did talk to me with some passion about the infant feeding aspect of the antenatal course.

She and her partner had decided in advance of attending classes that they wanted to bottle feed their baby. This was a considered decision and one with which they were both happy. They attended the class on infant feeding because they wanted to learn how to bottle feed safely and enjoyably. The focus of the class had, however, been solely on breastfeeding with no invitation to ask questions about bottle feeding or to share their feelings about it.

Although the facilitators were friendly and skilled in enabling discussion, this mother left the class feeling very upset and questioning her decision to bottle feed. Her partner, who had not been affected in the same way, was surprised that she was upset and then, became upset because she was. When the baby was born, the mother put him to the breast for 24 hours and then reverted to bottle feeding. This brief period of breastfeeding enabled her to feel that she had ‘given it a try’ and assuaged her guilt.

Now, I am firmly of the opinion that the best start in life for a baby is to be breastfed. However, I was and am disturbed by this mother’s account of how the last weeks of her pregnancy were disrupted for her and her partner by the infant feeding education they had received. While a part of me is pleased that her beautiful baby boy received some colostrum, another part of me is concerned that the mother and baby were in some way at odds during the first day of his life – although this had clearly not had any long-term effect.

There is certainly room for all of us committed to providing the best support and education we can for mothers and fathers across the transition to parenthood to question whether we sometimes rush in where angels fear to tread?

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