It’s the mother of all myths – that breastfeeding puts paid to perky breasts. But if you want the real culprit for any post-baby droop, it’s pregnancy itself – mainly the effects of gravity, weight gain and stretched skin followed by weight loss after the birth, says lactation expert Dr Jennifer James. Other factors could be older age, having a higher BMI or a history of smoking, according to a small 2008 study by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery which concluded that breastfeeding wasn’t to blame.
But rather than working against reclaiming your shape after pregnancy, breastfeeding is an ally, helping to shed extra fat stores laid down for breastfeeding, adds James, senior lecturer in Midwifery, Breastfeeding and Human Lactation at RMIT University.
Along with the breastfeeding-ruins-breasts myth there’s what James calls the ‘yuk factor’ – the attitude of 18 to 24 year olds who, in a survey commissioned by the Australian Lactation Consultants’ Association last year, were the age group that was least supportive of breastfeeding in public. James believes this younger age group finds it hard to reconcile breasts as both sexual assets and sources of baby food.
But she doubts these attitudes are the main reasons why so few Australian women do what the World Health Organisation and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council urge women to do - give babies no food other than breastmilk for the first six months.
If there were pills conferring the same benefits as breastfeeding, they’d be hot sellers. Besides giving babies the best nutritional start, breastmilk lowers the risk and severity of common illnesses like ear infections, gastroenteritis, respiratory and urinary infections, thrush and conjunctivitis, says James. According to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, babies who aren’t breastfed have a higher risk of asthma, insulin dependent diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease – so it’s no wonder health authorities want women to keep it up for six months and then continue for two years or more if they can. As for women themselves, breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, while some research also suggests that women who breastfeed are less likely to develop diabetes.
Yet although about 90 per cent of first time mothers start off breast feeding, only about 20 per cent are still feeding their babies with breastmilk alone at six months. The rest have either given up or are combining breastmilk with other foods – even though breastmilk provides all the nutrients a baby needs until six months.
“I think body image is low on the list of reasons why - the real barriers are a lack of understanding of how breastfeeding works, its importance for babies’ health, and how breastfed babies behave. There can be unrealistic expectations that babies sleep a lot and regularly wake for feeds and then sleep some more. That’s not the way babies are designed, but if a baby’s more wakeful then breastfeeding can get the blame. There’s also pressure to return to work and the fact that women don’t get enough support to keep on breastfeeding,” James says.
You might think breastfeeding comes as easily as breathing, but one of the shocks of new motherhood can be discovering that some babies take a while to ‘get’ breastfeeding. That’s fine if you’re in hospital for a few days with professional help, but many women are discharged in 48 hours and may go home not knowing what to do if breastfeeding doesn’t go smoothly. Nor can new mothers just walk into their local maternal and child health centre for advice and reassurance as they did in the past – they now have to make appointments, James says.
We’ve come a long way since 1950s when breastfeeding was seen as something nice women didn’t do. The pro-breastfeeding movement that swept in on a wave of feminism in the 70s promoted a more natural approach to both childbirth and feeding babies, and since then breastfeeding’s approval rating has grown. But with more women returning to work and lack of support to put it into practice, breastfeeding hasn’t got any easier, says James.
“Mothers and babies need two to three months to establish breastfeeding and feel they have it under control. The proposed 18 weeks maternity leave for all women is good – but we’re still lagging behind Scandinavian countries like Sweden which offers six months.”
What’s been your experience with this? Has breastfeeding been difficult, a breeze – or just impossible because of pressure to return to work?