By Anna Le Grange, of Mindful Breastfeeding.
I always get excited when I find myself working with doulas (I have a not-so secret ambition to become one myself one day!) There’s something so beautiful about the gift a doula gives to new and expectant families. What a wonderful time to be supporting families whilst they enter into parenthood for the first, second or even tenth time! All of that time you get to spend with them, getting to know them and supporting them with whatever it is they need, I know it is a gift for you too – it really does warm my heart. I know that you get asked a lot about breastfeeding both before and after the birth and this can certainly get complicated at times! I wanted to share with you that although nothing beats referring breastfeeding problems to a specialist, I have a whole host of simple tools that you can use to support families whilst they prepare and learn to breastfeed. These mindfulness and positivity-based tools are simple, yet very effective in supporting families at this time.
About 4 years ago, after becoming a lactation consultant, I wrote an online breastfeeding preparation course for expectant parents and included principles of relaxation, neuroscience, self-care and mindset into the course. It soon became popular, especially with other birth workers and health professionals, supporting stressed and worried families. Since May 2018 I have been teaching others to provide these techniques themselves in their own practice. One thing that is fed back to me time and time again is that they are bowled over at just what a difference such simple techniques can make, not just to the mental wellbeing of their clients but to how well breastfeeding goes too – even in the most challenging of circumstances. These are some of the things we focus on at The Mindful Breastfeeding School.
Infant Feeding Mindset
Everyone comes to parenthood with their own infant feeding story and their own expectations on babies and themselves. I help expectant and brand-new parents to uncover their feelings and beliefs. It’s often something that they haven’t discussed or even thought about. Journaling prompts can be a great way to get the conversation going. Once they have an awareness of their expectations and fears, we break them down into any negative thought patterns that they may be experiencing or even hiding away deep in their subconscious mind. Research shows that negative beliefs can have a big impact on how breastfeeding and early parenting goes. These negative thoughts that we all have tend to be on repeat, often without us knowing it. For expectant or new parents it might be:
“I don’t believe I’ll make enough milk for my baby”
“I’m terrified of feeding in public”
The good news is that we can use what is known about mindset and neuroplasticity to rewrite those negative thoughts into positive ones. Through writing personalised affirmations and then showing parents how to use them, infant feeding and early parenting mindset can soon become more positive, having a more positive effect on their experience.
Calming the Nervous System
Stress is normal and part of everyday life. In small amounts it’s part of our normal physiology to go in and out of stress – early humans needed this part of their nervous system to keep them safe from predators and other life-threatening events. And of course, we still come across threats and dangers ourselves, just different ones. The problem is that our brain doesn’t really know the difference between a real threat and the stresses that we feel in modern day life. Our body still kicks into emergency mode. The issue with being in this mode too much is that our bodies don’t function optimally. It’s called the sympathetic nervous system and when we are running this system energy and oxygen are pumped to our heart, lungs, arm and leg muscles. Our body gets ready to fight, flee or freeze. At the same time areas of the body not needed in an emergency are slowed down. This includes our digestive system and the hormones that we need for birth and breastfeeding such as oxytocin.
In Mindful Breastfeeding we teach parents how to calm their own nervous system to keep themselves out of the sympathetic nervous system when it is not required. This is such a useful thing for any of us to be able to do and it’s a relatively simple once you know how. Tools such as breathing exercises and guided relaxations or visualisations are what we teach parents to help bring themselves out of moments of stress so that they can enjoy the feelings that come with calmness and relaxation and connect more deeply with their baby and themselves. This leads to improved breastfeeding outcomes and a more fulfilling parenting experience.
Breastfeeding Support & Education
Support comes in many forms and as doulas you know how vital it is. When I work with expectant families we talk about 3 types of support:
– Partner/co-parent support
– Community support
– Breastfeeding support
I encourage parents to be to talk about and plan how the breastfeeding parent will be supported in the early weeks and months and to put a plan together for what this might look like over the first 6 weeks.
When it comes to breastfeeding education, before the birth is best. So many people believe that after their baby arrives breastfeeding will just happen naturally and if it doesn’t it can feel like a real shock or like they are failing at this first step in parenthood. Truthfully, breastfeeding, like all other developmental stages in life, is a learned skill. And in a society where most of us see very little breastfeeding in our lives, most expectant parents don’t have a realistic idea of what it will be like.
Good breastfeeding education includes understanding normal infant behaviour and development, as well as how breastfeeding works and when and where to get breastfeeding help. Breastfeeding support telephone numbers or group contacts are hospital bag/home birth kit essentials. If any problems arise at all, families should know who to go to and not to wait until things get worse. Finding breastfeeding-friendly solutions to feeding problems is, sadly, not always forthcoming in our society, so having the details of a local, trusted breastfeeding specialist to be able to share with parents is vital.
It’s such a privilege to work alongside brand-new families at this time in their lives. The road for them doesn’t always feel easy and breastfeeding is often named as a particular challenge. I hope I have inspired you to consider a more mindful approach to breastfeeding support. I truly believe that if we help prioritise calm and connection, so often the breastfeeding follows – it’s certainly a good place to start.
Anna Le Grange is a Mum to 3, IBCLC, Paediatric Nurse and meditation teacher. She is the author of the Mindful Breastfeeding Book and runs breastfeeding education courses at The Mindful Breastfeeding School.