Like many mothers, I spent much of my daughter’s early days fretting about breastfeeding. Was her head at the right angle? Did she have enough of my breast in her mouth? Was enough of her lip rolled out? I also struggled with the usual discomforts as my nipples adjusted to their new role, as well as the sheer amount of time my baby needed to feed. Having previously used mindfulness to help teenagers manage their emotions as part of my job, I began to use it as a mother to help me meet the challenges of breastfeeding.
One of the principles of mindfulness is bringing attention to what is going on in the moment, without judgement. When I am in pain, I am often angry; I cast about desperately for a solution or escape from the situation which is causing me pain. Releasing myself from this process by just accepting the sensations without judgement or emotional response greatly lessened the discomfort I felt in the early days of breastfeeding.
Noticing the breath and listening to it is the start of many mindfulness practices. When I started to pay attention to how I was breathing, I found that I had been tensing up and holding my breath before bringing my baby to the breast, partly because I was anxious about getting the latch right and partly in anticipation of pain.
I found that consciously breathing out my tension before bringing my baby to the breast helped me to move more naturally and achieve a more comfortable latch. At really challenging times, it was useful to say a single word like ‘calm’, ‘peace’ or ‘love’ to help let go of anxiety and stress.
Slow, calm breathing can help lessen the experience of discomfort as it reduces the release of stress hormones and can promote the release of oxytocin, the ‘feel good’ hormone. Focussing on breathing deeply and evenly meant that I wasn’t fixating on the less pleasant sensations of early breastfeeding. I kept reminding myself that this phase would pass, and so it did.
Using the senses
Using my senses to explore my contact with my baby as we feed is the tool I find most useful. In the beginning I started by focussing on each sense – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – for three breaths. Now I find I can spend a lot longer on each one, really exploring the detail of what I experience. I start with touch. I notice my baby’s soft weight as she rests against me, feeling her small movements and the texture of her skin against mine. Next I listen to the noises she makes as she feeds. If she is making eye contact with me, I try to meet her gaze calmly and with love. If her eyes are closed or she is looking elsewhere, I take the time to pay attention to the shapes, colours and textures of my baby. The sense of smell is sometimes the most challenging, especially when it comes to the scents of my own body; I have to remind myself that the aim is to notice, not to evaluate or judge. I remind myself that to my baby, I smell of comfort and security.
A gentle practice
Mindfulness is a practice, it isn’t something one gets right immediately. Practice implies experimentation, trying out different things, a willingness to get things wrong in order to find what works. It is relaxed and playful, because even if things aren’t great this time round, you can have another go later on. I found that thinking of breastfeeding as a practice as well was helpful because it gave me permission to be less than perfect. It helped me to stop stressing about my baby’s latch and to be more receptive to what my daughter was able to do for herself. I realised that we were practicing together, that breastfeeding was a shared journey. It may sound obvious now, but at the time it was a revelation.
Gentleness is also a key concept in mindfulness. Being gentle with my baby is easy, but I have to work at being gentle with myself. Very often my inner voice says harsh, critical things. When I bring gentle, forgiving attention to my actions, my inner voice has to soften and be more patient. When I notice that my attention has wandered off, or I have absently picked up my phone and am getting angry over the news, I don’t beat myself up over it, I just bring my attention back to what we are doing.
When I have managed to be mindful about feeding my daughter I feel like I have nurtured myself and our relationship, as well as providing physical nourishment. Being attentive to what is happening for me and my baby as we breastfeed has strengthened the bond between us and has enriched my experience of mothering. I hardly ever manage, or even attempt, to be mindful throughout each feed, but I do try to include at least a little mindful awareness each time.
Jo Bardsley, LLL Waltham Forest
This article was originally published in Breastfeeding Matters