One of the most tender and precious moments of my life so far, was the moment I held my daughter, Helena, in my arms for the first time and began to nurse her.
It was a moment of pure instinct and love, and the sense of well being and comfort that I derived from this single act was something beyond compare. It was simple joy and contentment.
For Helena herself, snuggling into me clearly provided her with the comfort, security and nourishment she so desperately needed after the trauma of birth.
Six months have passed since that moment and Helena is now a robust, healthy, happy child thanks in no small part to breastfeeding.
For aside from the physical sustenance that she derives from her mother’s milk, there is clearly a major psychological aspect to breastfeeding that is beneficial to her health and well-being.
In those first few months of life, when the senses are still in development, the warmth of skin on skin, the touch of a mother, the familiarity of that comfort in an unfamiliar world, is a source of security and love that can be relied upon as a sanctuary.
I am fortunate, of course, that Helena took so well to breastfeeding and that I did not require the help and support of medical experts or lactation consultants to ensure she fed well.
As a result I have managed to maintain a relaxed “on demand” feeding routine that has seen Helena take her nourishment in a weird and wonderful variety of locations: on a ferry sailing to Denmark; in the car park of a department store; sitting on the grass in the park; on the beach; on a mountain pass in the Alps; in a cafe on a busy Sunday afternoon.
No location has been out of bounds and no destination too fantastical, too adventurous or too public that breastfeeding couldn’t be accommodated.
For without the cumbersome paraphernalia of bottles, formula, sterilisation units, bottle warmers and whatever else is required to bottle feed a baby, Helena and I have been free to roam as we pleased and to eat as and when we felt like it.
And because there were no limits, I found that I took to motherhood a lot more easily than I had anticipated, given that my freedom was not curtailed by feeding schedules, bottle warming or the need to burp away the indigestion that formula milk seems to induce.
Not to put too fine a point on it, breastfeeding makes motherhood a whole lot easier.
So it came as quite a shock the other day to have my blissfull, well-nourished little cocoon punctured by the disdainful tut-tutting of a passerby who was clearly uncomfortable at the sight of a mother nursing her child in public.
Sitting as I was, tucked away on a park bench, Helena discreetly snuggled up under her nursing blanket, I could hardly have been accused of indecent exposure.
Nevertheless, the sight of us there, sitting quietly on our little bench, was clearly enough to provoke a disgusted squeamishness within him that he felt righteously obliged to express.
At the time I shrugged the incident off and simply felt a little sorry for the guy that he should find something so natural so offensive.
I imagined to myself that, perhaps, there were other, more deep-rooted issues in his psychological make-up, that would cause him to react in such an un-natural, prudish fashion.
For in an age when mammary glands (for let’s face it, that is what they are) have been reduced to titilating appendages, to be admired, leered at or lusted over, perhaps it is not really so strange that people tend only to view breasts aesthetically and sexually.
A female accessory to be pumped up, squeezed up and thrust out, the spherical declaration of femininity and fecundity – but only up to a point.
For while breasts can be flaunted sexually in public, with little or no complaint or outrage, it appears that these self same glands become offensive and disgusting when put to the use for which they were designed, namely, nourishing a baby.
Why is that?
Perhaps it really is a simple case of conditioning. We have become so accustomed to viewing breasts as decoration, as a show of sexuality, that we have forgotten all about the evolutionary reason for their existence.
The female nude has become the background image in a world of rampant imagery. From television screens, to advertising billboards, to magazine covers, to film screens – cleavage is what is required to keep the system running and the money flowing (try to imagine a world without such images, and you’ll see what I mean).
And because the conditioning is so deep, because this is the most frequent, if not the only manner in which we are accustomed to encountering the female breast, we find the sight of it, transferred to the unfamiliar scenario of breastfeeding, confrontational, even a little disturbing.
The furore that ensued last year after the parent’s magazine “Baby Talk” used the image of a nursing baby (nipples tastefully airbrushed away to ensure no offence) on its cover to illustrate an article on the low levels of breastfeeding in the USA, demonstrates just how offended some people can be at the sight of a baby attached to its mother’s breast.
That the complainants in this case were mainly mothers, some of whom were nursing their own children, highlights how far removed from our bodies we have become, as women and as a society.
A naked breast is now so overtly sexual that the sight of a suckling child seems utterly perverse. It is something dark, something unacceptable. Something harmful even.
Our sense of disquiet, our underlying discomfort when confronted with the sight of a nursing mother no doubt comes from the fact that, instead of seeing nurturing and love, instead of seeing nourishment and health, we see sex and nothing more.
And any association of a small child with sex is, of course, deeply disturbing.
Given this, it becomes difficult to imagine then how the sight of a nursing mother can ever be separated from our ideas about sex and, more importantly, sexual perversion.
But perhaps all it takes is exposure.
Perhaps if we were to see more women actually breastfeeding, our discomfort at the sight would be lessened over time and we could learn to associate breasts with their biological function.
That’s certainly what a growing band of “lactivists” believes. A conviction which has seen mums in the US take to the streets to breastfeed in locations where they have been removed for their offensive behaviour.
Warming people to the sight of a lactating woman and her nursing child requires more than the protest actions of a few motivated and mobilised mothers however.
It requires that women have the opportunity in the first place to be able to nurse for the minimum one year period recommended by the World Health Organisation.
It requires adequate lactation consultations for women experiencing problems, workplace rooms where mothers can express breastmilk after they return to work from maternity leave, laws which enshrine a women’s right to be able to nurse in public free from harassment (laws which even in England have yet to be introduced).
Optimally, it would require extending the period of paid maternity leave available to women, allowing them the time to breastfeed their children for at least 6 months if not longer.
It is no surprise to learn from the WHO database that in countries with generous maternity schemes such as Norway and Sweden, more women breastfeed their children and breastfeed them for a longer period, compared to countries with less favourable maternity care such as the UK and the US.
Given the opportunity then, it seems women would prefer to nurse their children as long as possible especially given the overwhelming health benefits that a child derives from such extended nursing.
In days when even much criticised baby formula manufacturers openly acknowledge that babies whould be exclusively breasfed for at least the first 6 months of their lives, surely it is time to break the taboo of breastfeeding in public and for us to confront our squeamishness about it, if only to ensure the good health of our children?
As for my wandering tut-tutting critic, well I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear that Helena is now enjoying her first delicious spoonfuls of solid food. I can only assume that, should he encounter us again some day, as we tuck in to a nice sandwich or savour a sweet biscuit, that he will be slightly less inclined to comment on our nourishment of choice and will afford us the opportunity to sit quietly and enjoy our little meal in peace…