Are Hospitals Setting Mothers Up To Fail At Breastfeeding? with Amberley Harris
Are Hospitals Setting Mothers Up To Fail At Breastfeeding?
By Guest Writer Amberley Harris
It’s dawn in Uganda and the golden sun is slowly sweeping over the bright green volcanic mountains.
A female Gorilla has just given birth to her infant. She scoops her baby boy up, cleans him for a few moments then lays down amongst the lush undergrowth with him in the centre of her chest.
In his own time, her infant begins the breast crawl and finds his way to his mother’s breast and self-attaches for his first breastfeed.
How does the infant know to do this?
Because just like other mammals, he is hardwired to do so.
Mammals share many features including hair, being warm-blooded, having a four-chambered heart and feeding their infants milk from their mammary glands. There are sub classifications of mammals and we humans reside in the primate’s category.
The breast crawl and the ability to self-attach to the breast is a process a primates’ offspring are very capable of doing and given we humans share 98.3 percent of their DNA, so too are our offspring.
So, if we trust that clever infant gorilla in the wild which I just described, is adept at finding his own way to the breast without a room full of professionals facilitating this, then why don’t we trust our own babies can also?
The “breast crawl” is a term to describe the process where a newborn baby is placed skin to skin with its mother following birth and instinctively finds its own way to her breast.
Whether you know about the breast crawl or not, I’m here to tell you it’s real and it’s AMAZING.
I’ve seen it unfold time and time again and every time it blows my mind in the best possible way.
I’ve witnessed babies just minutes or hours old, inch themselves to their mother’s breast and self-attach, even though babies can’t actually crawl until many months after birth.
I’ve watched on in admiration with new parents, all of us sharing a deep sense of reverence while witnessing their baby demonstrate his or her genetic blueprint for breastfeeding.
But here’s the thing, if I know anything about breastfeeding it’s this: the ONE thing a mother and baby need at that very first breastfeed post birth is … time … and that’s the one thing busy maternity wards simply don’t have.
The breast crawl takes on average 30-60 minutes. Some babies can find their way to the breast in less than 30 minutes, while others take two hours to get there.
It’s standard practice in hospital birth suites that following the birth of the baby, the Midwife will give the baby a brief period of time skin to skin, before “helping” the baby attach to the breast; the breast crawl sequence is interrupted, the baby is manually lifted to the mother’s breast and the Midwife will facilitate the attachment by shaping the mothers breast and guiding it into the baby’s mouth.
And the main reason this is done, putting aside well-meaning intent, is that it saves time. Because let’s be honest, hospitals are busy places, they don’t have time for all babies to complete the breast crawl, they need the Midwives to free up beds for the next labouring mama on her way in.
Now I’m not throwing shade at the Midwives here — Midwives are my heroes — but those who work in hospitals must succumb to the system (even if it pains them) and in many ways it’s a system as altruistic as they come.
While most babies are capable of the breast crawl and self-attaching, I want to mention there are some who do need a helping hand.
This is because there are many influences on the breast crawl, like medical interventions (which luckily Gorilla’s don’t have to deal with) including drugs in labour or surgical births, just to name a few.
There are also variables such as the mother’s anatomy (breast and nipple shape) or the baby’s anatomy (mouth, tongue and palate) which we must consider.
All of the above can create challenges with attachment and in these instances, support from a Midwife is essential, but ONLY if a baby hasn’t managed to self-attach after at least one hour, or more, of attempting (remember that!).
I’m not exactly sure when this happened along the way, but it’s happened. A combo of the hospital system majorly under the pump, plus so many clinicians who seem to have stopped recognising and appreciating what our remarkable species is capable of following birth. This has all slowly but surely seen the breast crawl following birth reach near extinction.
The breast crawl and first breast feed are SUPREMELY important and when we rush this, it effects a mother’s breastfeeding journey in enormous ways. Not necessarily in ways beyond repair, but it does undeniably put new mamas and bubbas seriously behind the eight ball.
Breastfeeding is challenging enough, so we must set women up to succeed, not fail.
So, if you’re planning to birth in hospital, clearly list your wishes for your baby to do an uninterrupted breast crawl and self-attach, in your breastfeeding plan.
Tell your partner, support people or Doula so they can guard you and your baby while this happens.
At the end of the day, your baby is like every other mammal. They are evolutionarily and biologically programmed to crawl to the breast and breastfeed after birth, he or she just needs to be given the essential time to do so.
And what’s more, watching it organically unfold is going to be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life.
About Amberley Harris
Amberley Harris is a Melbourne based Registered Midwife (Endorsed) in private practice with her own breastfeeding consultancy business. Amberley has over 12 years experience working as a Midwife in both the public and private hospital setting and is a proud co-producer of two small humans. With a highly engaged audience of over 20k followers on social media, Amberley is also a micro-influencer in the world of motherhood & maternal wellness. Amberley’s move to entrepreneurship was for two reasons. Firstly, because it was where she knew she could make significant, impactful change to global breastfeeding statistics and secondly because she could be philanthropic every step of the way.