Celebrating and normalising breastfeeding

Virginia Sullivan

Home > Celebrating and normalising breastfeeding

A huge thank you to everyone who shared their stories of breastfeeding support during last week’s National Breastfeeding Celebration Week. Lots of women have been sharing their stories, old and young alike, reflecting back on their own very personal experiences about who cared for them and believed in them to breastfeed when they needed it most.

We’d like to wrap up the celebrations with a final guest blog from Virginia Sullivan, displayed in her husband Benjamin Sullivan’s breastfeeding portrait (featured here) which won the 2017  BP Portrait Award and is on display in the National Portrait Gallery. The painting reflects the sense of calm that descended on the new parents, and the judge and broadcaster Kirsty Wark’s comments; “The woman is tired. She is in love. Her life has changed for ever. We know her.”

Virginia continues to feed her daughter, now 15 months old, and shares with us her story on who supported her to breastfeed. She recently organised a “breastfeeding sit-in” at the National Portrait Gallery to help celebrate and normalise breastfeeding. 

To breastfeed, for me, was a natural choice; the default. I come from a family of breastfeeders so it was never in any doubt. In fact, to bottle feed would have been a conscious decision that I would have had to educate myself on. In that respect I feel very lucky. You could say my grandmothers and my mother were my initial breastfeeding friends, then.

In the very first few moments of motherhood I went with the assumption that my newborn daughter’s instincts would guide her. Especially as I’ve learnt to silence or at least question my instincts in so many other areas. But know she did, and we settled into a trusting relationship where she guided me with her feeding cues, her ability to latch and her relationship with my breasts that meant she told them when she needed more for growing.

Virginia Sullivan and her daughter, this year's BP Portrait Award winner

This doesn’t mean it was easy. I mean, for the first week my nipples felt like they were on fire; just for that first second she latched on, each feed. They’d never experienced so much wear and tear! But it was only those first few seconds and it passed within a week.

There were other barriers to my breastfeeding; for example, she was a breech baby and I had to have a caesarean, which rendered me pretty immobile to start with. We had been preparing for a pain-relief free hypno birth and I managed to go through the whole thing honouring those wishes, but in the final stages of delivery my contractions weren’t budging that soft little bottom, so after hours of pushing we decided to go for the c-section. All that pushing, all those hormones had successfully told her she was about to be born, though, and she started breathing all by herself; meaning we could also have our wish to delay clamping and cutting the umbilical cord. Great! But now I couldn’t move and I had our precious baby to look after.

This is where my second breastfeeding friend came in. We don’t live with any family nearby so for the first few weeks my husband was my go-to saviour. He’d leap out of bed at all hours of the night to give me our baby for a feed. He’d pass me her during the day when I couldn’t easily mobilise myself to get to the Moses basket. He cooked meals and kept the cycle of washing going. It wasn’t easy or glamorous and you can feel like you’re a passenger on a tour of CrazyTown, but those cuddles, those hours of time forced upon you to stare at this little thing, to fill your senses and feel her flesh on yours; yum.

After a while it all settled into a routine. The days turned into weeks and those, in turn, became months. My husband returned to his usual work duties and I found myself more alone dealing with things. I didn’t know about wonder weeks, cluster feeding, teething, the first colds. Each brought its own breastfeeding challenges which mainly boiled down to my bubba requiring as much time as possible snuggled up on the boob. In these moments I was grateful for my third breastfeeding friend; new Facebook friends. The virtual mummies I’d met fleetingly at antenatal and postpartum groups. We’d exchanged details over our swollen bellies and car seat carriers and tucked them away with NO IDEA how handy they’d become! At all hours of the day and night we’d send out or receive our distress calls, knowing only us other newborn mummies were likely awake, as the rest of the country slept.

It’s been 16 months now and I’ve no intention of giving up yet. If the World Health Organisation recommends a MINIMUM of two years then who am I to argue? As long as my baby feels she can get comfort and nutrition from it, for as long as I feel at ease doing it, then this is us. We love it.

Would I have been able to do this without the support of my breastfeeding friends? Who knows. Would I have enjoyed it even half as much without them? Never.

Find a friend, be a friend x

It is wonderful to see this beautiful painting of a breastfeeding mother and baby win a major portrait prize. The painting both celebrates and normalises a mother’s everyday experience of breastfeeding. Such images are sorely needed in a society such as ours, where breastfeeding is so contentious that it can be difficult to convey how precious it is for a new mother to be enabled to nurture her child.
Sue Ashmore, Programme Director, Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative