Normal is the wrong word for breastfeeding #wbw2014

I’ve been involved, often unintentionally, in some debates on social media this week, often started by mums who had a rough time with breastfeeding. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, just as the “breast is best” campaign does not help mums to breastfeed, we need to remove the word ‘normal’ from any description of how breastfeeding is going.

The non-technical definition of ‘normal’ from the Oxford Dictionaries website is as follows

normal

adjective

  • Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected
  • (Of a person) free from physical or mental disorders
noun
  • [mass noun] The usual, typical, or expected state or condition
  • informal A person who is conventional or healthy.

So when we talk about common breastfeeding problems, it’s easy to see that technically the word ‘normal’ both covers these situations and doesn’t. Because of a lack of widespread good quality support and an awareness of what support there is, breastfeeding problems are sadly not uncommon. They are a part of the ‘standard’ breastfeeding experience, they may well be ‘usual’, ‘typical’ or ‘expected’. But they sure as hell are not a part of a healthy breastfeeding journey. And mums being told that these issues – pain, cracked nipples, mastitis, a baby that won’t ever settle… – are ‘normal’ is extremely harmful, often leading to them not realising that the support they are being given is poor, not calling BS on that crappy support and not getting the help they need. On the other hand, saying these issues are NOT normal suggests that they are not usual and that there is something abnormal about the mum, which is hurtful and off-putting.

Plus, breastfeeding may be the physiological norm for feeding human infants, but it is not usual in our society and it often does not come naturally to mums (unsurprisingly as we see it so rarely!).

So I, for one, am going to stop using the word normal in describing breastfeeding journeys and situations.

Pain when breastfeeding, especially with a first baby, is common. It is not right. It is not necessary.

Cracked, bleeding nipples are sadly not rare. But they are not right and not necessary. They are a sure sign that something is off, either with technique or baby’s mouth and better help is needed.

Mastitis is NOT an essential part of breastfeeding. It is a sign that a mum’s breasts are not emptying well and may have been injured. Recurrent mastitis is a red flag for me that there is something extra going on, and it’s quite possibly time a lactation consultant was involved. Undiagnosed or poorly treated tongue ties can cause recurrent mastitis, for example. As can domestic abuse.

A baby that won’t ever settle is a cause for concern in my book. I don’t mean a young baby that has a few days of being fractious and unhappy. I mean those babies who are rarely ever settled, over weeks and months. Mums seem to often get told that “colic” is something that you have to just live through and mums’ concerns get dismissed. But an unhappy, unsettled baby can have lots of things causing it to be unsettled. A baby that is fed on demand and has lots of close contact with its mother should not always be unhappy. Sometimes there is reflux. Sometimes there are allergies or intolerances. Sometimes eczema. And sometimes tongue tie. A baby that won’t ever settle is not right. And if all possible causes have truly been explored, then that mum needs additional support, just as she would if she had a baby in hospital.

Breastfeeding should not be painful and should not be incredibly hard. That is not ‘normal’. But sadly, that is sometimes typical. However, it is not right and is not necessary.

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