“The highly intelligent and healthy baby mammal is capable of instinctively breastfeeding with only the gentle assistance of its mother,” says Dr Robyn Thompson. You see this everywhere you look in nature. No forceful or complicated techniques are required. Just instinct. This observation leads to a very poignant question though: Why do so many women struggle with the practice of breastfeeding?
Many a new mother has battled with breastfeeding; something they feel should come naturally. The complications can be many and varied – from nipple trauma and upper back and wrist pain to engorgement issues and mastitis problems. This says nothing of the problems that can occur on bub’s end, such as colic and gastrointestinal issues.
According to Dr Robyn Thompson, these are issues we don’t need to accept as normal. She has dedicated her impressive career to helping mothers and babies start off the best way they can while mindful of individual circumstances. Now having completed her PhD, she is dedicating her time and energy to spreading the word that we can in fact breastfeed without pain.
Her research saw her undertake hundreds of hours observing 653 women in their own homes, analysing photographs of women and their trauma, viewing videos of mammals feeding their babies, while developing and analysing human anatomical models. The result is changing common modern practice to a more ancient method for breastfeeding that allows instinct to do its job and increase pain-free breastfeeding.
It’s called ‘The Thompson Method,’ and it aims to prevent some of the problems commonly associated with breastfeeding, including colic and gastro-intestinal reflux in babies. Thompson is so passionate about empowering pain-free breastfeeding that she has made the entire thesis available on-line, along with a host of other resources free of charge on her breastfeeding consultancy website.
With only around 15% of mothers still breastfeeding at the six-month mark, Thompson is on a mission to educate. Her research shows that breastfeeding doesn’t need to be awkward or painful (as it is for many mothers), and correcting this problem means taking a more natural approach.
It is certainly information every new or expectant mum should have. In fact, it takes aim at a few problems with the usual techniques taught today.
First cab off the rank is one of the most common breastfeeding techniques taught to new mums: the ‘cross-cradle technique.’ Here, the mother uses her thumb and index finger to cradle the head, with her palm placed along the baby’s neck and the heel of her hand resting on about the seventh vertebrae. She holds the baby across her body to the breast. The rest of her forearm travels along the baby’s body. The mother then uses a c-shape formation to hold the breast in place while directing the nipple to the baby’s nose with her other hand.
It’s a firm and almost forceful hold. According to Dr Thompson, this presents a problem: the baby can’t move.
“When it’s restricted, it’s trying hard to release from that restriction. It needs to be able to turn, rotate, bob, seek, find, smell, taste and touch. The (heel of hand) resting around the seventh cervical vertebrae, in my observation, set off the Moro reflex. You could only see one hand rise, because the other hand is underneath, but the baby was almost saying ‘don’t do that to me.’ .“
“Can you imagine someone holding you by your head and neck then shoving you to your dinner plate every time you ate?” she muses.
Among the other technical stumbling blocks is the way most mothers feed from the fullest side first. According to Dr Robyn, this has the potential to open the floodgates, leading the baby to consume milk more quickly than its stomach capacity is able to handle and reducing the time available for the enzymes to break it down. This can then lead to reflux or colic in the baby. Only one breast per feed however, can also lead to engorgement in the mother. When the second breast is not used it is too full by next feed. Over time milk production reduces and by around 3 months milk volume can be low.
It’s easily fixed though, and the answer is as simple as feeding from the softer side first until the volume regulates, and always feeding from both sides.
“The baby with gastrointestinal disturbances is usually the one where the mothers are engorged. One of the most common reasons is that they are told to one-side feed, and to relieve the pressure they feed from the fullest side first. This over-expands the [baby’s] stomach, the sphincters release to let the pressure out and then we have reflux and colic. The enzymes don’t have a chance to break down and curdle the milk before it transfers into the stomach. I see lots of gastrointestinal disturbance babies and it is fixed very easily by feeding from the softest side first, until the volume settles.”
Dr Robyn also recommends a ‘rest and digest’ approach between sides. The first side satisfies the baby with volume and calories, and then the baby nurtures until emotionally satisfied before coming off. The mother then rests the baby on her knee after the first side, the baby rests and stretches out while predigesting the milk, until he or she starts to show cues to seek out the second side. Here, even if the breast is engorged, the baby will move enough milk to fill its stomach capacity and to prevent mastitis or nipple trauma.
It’s a simple solution to a problem many women and babies deal with, and its just one gem that comes out of Dr Robyn’s research.
“85% of the mothers I observed demonstrated how they had been taught to use cross-cradle technique. When I went back to basic mammal mother and baby – it was a matter of hands off, don’t touch. When I was consulting with mothers, I’d sit back and watch, talk quietly to her about what I’ve seen and then ask, ‘would you like to try something new?’ 85% of these mothers were pain free or pain relieved within one session. And many of them were feeding over horrifically damaged nipples.”
Another breastfeeding stumbling block is the notion that the baby needs to tip its head back and get a large mouthful of areola.
“That’s absolutely false,” she says. “The baby has a vacuum system. Once the lips contact the nipple, the baby will locate the nipple with the protruding tongue and vacuum the nipple with a unique amount of breast tissue, depending on the shape and size of the mothers’ breasts, areola and nipple, and the unique oral cavity of the baby. This breast tissue is pliable and it moulds to fit, the nipple is protected by the soft palatal cleft. Then you have full potential oral cavity function with the breast – then it interacts in harmony with the release of pituitary hormones and the whole thing works.”
Perhaps we accept, a little too easily, the notion that breastfeeding will just be difficult or painful for some. But Dr Robyn asserts that it comes naturally – if no one interferes. Instinct is there for mother and baby, and when instinct is a little difficult to connect with, there’s the Thompson Method.
Dr Robyn notes that individual circumstances do sometimes complicate the matter, but offers practical help. For example, babies who have been subjected to opiates and other drugs during labour maybe sleepy and show little interest in feeding. These babies need their mothers rhythmically and gently expressed milk regularly given by small syringe, small cup or teaspoon, until the baby excretes the drugs, wakes and shows interest in breastfeeding.
These are just three gems emerging from an important piece of work, and it certainly makes for a more relaxing experience for mother and baby. It turns out, we don’t have to accept that breastfeeding will just be painful. There is in fact a better way.
Dr Robyn has generously made her work available at www.breastfeedingconsultant.com