Warning: This post contains breasts!

When Ruskin was born (1996) in my bath at home he was placed directly on my chest and I just stared at him in dazed wonder. After some time he was wrapped in a towel and handed to his father to hold. This is the last moment you could have taken him away from me without it feeling like ripping my heart out, because the next thing I did was breastfeed him. I felt surprised for days afterwards that the overwhelming, terrifying love that I have for my eldest son began not at the moment at which I saw him, but as I fed him for the very first time. This is, of course, not coincidental, by breastfeeding I began to release the hormones that have bonded me to Ruskin from that day forward. I then breastfed Ruskin on demand through the rest of my degree and the first year of an MA without a moment of difficulty or doubt that wasn't caused by other people.

My university department was great and people were happy for Ruskin to attend lectures. Most of the students had no idea he was there. When he was five months I did some research at a Buddhist monastery and Ruskin fed his way through meditation sessions. I breastfed Anton during many days in court so that I did not feel divided between the needs of my two children. Breastfeeding has enabled me to study, write, to manage several dozen flights without worry, to never feel panic when plans change, to feel free while making Ruskin, Anton and now Neve feel secure.

Anton's first few weeks, spent in our first (and very small) apartment on Heybeliada were quite a challenge. Ville was at the office all day and, speaking no Turkish, I felt fairly powerless against the inquisitiveness of the neighbours. In front of our apartment was a small courtyard where the neighbours congregated. I felt under siege. Women would lean through the window to see Anton and check on my milk supply by squeezing my breasts. Seeing him dressed only in a babygro in the 38 °C (100 °F) heat they would come into my house to wrap him in blankets. Later (once I was in the safety of the new house) it was easy to reflect that this was their way of showing kindness, but it was tough at the time.

Breastfeeding is still the norm in Turkey and no one has ever even frowned at me breastfeeding in public. However, when I got pregnant with Neve I was still feeding Anton (he was a year and a half) and a really shocking thing happened. Once people on the island knew I was pregnant some women began to tell me that breastfeeding while pregnant might damage my new baby. At first I thought it was a couple of daft village women, before realising that it was a widely-held belief. On three occasions, once I was noticeably pregnant, women came over to me on the boat to inform of this. One of them even pulled a feeding Anton off my nipple in order to make her point felt. I was told that I might miscarry or give birth to a deformed baby. Though I found this idea completely ridiculous, pregnancy is a time so laden with hope and fear and uncertainty that once or twice I had the awful image of the "we told you so's" I would face if something was actually wrong with the new baby.

The medical advice today relies on research that shows there is no harm to the mother, to the breastfeeding baby or to the foetus from continuing breastfeeding during pregnancy. But would it not have seemed quite implausible to think otherwise anyway? Until the last century we had no mass scale access to contraception or mother's milk substitutes, so pregnancy and breastfeeding must have commonly occurred together. One would imagine that if this had been a problem at the time, it would have been clearly known to everybody in the world, not only here in Turkey.

Summarily checking web sites from different countries on this topic, it first of all seemed a much bigger concern among users of web sites in Turkish than among users of English-speaking web sites. Overall, the expert opinions that were expressed were in both cases that there is no harm to it, although there was more of the "but..." language on the Turkish sites. Peer advice on Turkish sites was predominantly the same as I had received, with all kinds of theories of milk becoming poisonous, and what have you, flourishing.

I felt utterly convinced that I was right to continue and also very sad that there may be women that felt compelled to give up feeding their babies using a method that is safe and free, for some ungrounded superstition. My heart sinks when I consider the feeling of utter powerlessness that has brought about suffocating layers of superstitious practice. A lack of free healthcare and decent infrastructure has brought such a cost to individual lives. I imagine those who have faced the reality of infant mortality have to believe something, feel they can do something, to keep it away, and that this has created lots of rules such as this and the rule that the mother and child should not go out before the 40th day. And so babies are kept inside, too warm, too clean. The society here being much less individualistic than I am used to, these kinds of commonly held beliefs are also difficult to root out even when there is no need for them.

When I returned to the UK for Neve's birth I asked one of my midwives if there could be any harm from breastfeeding a baby while pregnant and was given a look that meant 'Is that a joke?'. The explanation for why breastfeeding might be considered a risk for miscarriage is because it releases oxytocin which is one of the hormones that begins labour. This is the love hormone and is also released when you hug, kiss and have sex. It helps bring about labour when your body and baby are ready for birth and not before. Despite Anton breastfeeding throughout this time I was 5 days overdue before giving birth to Neve. In the 4 days prior to her birthday, feeding Anton (which I only did at his bedtime by then) brought about an hour or so of contractions which, given that I had such an easy birth, may have helped prepare my body for labour.

I gave up feeding Anton soon after Neve's birth as he no longer needed it, but I had a few lovely experiences of feeding them both first. I have been reading a great blog written by another English woman in Istanbul who also talks about these issues. Luckily for me Anton and Neve have been born at a time when there are plenty of hip, beautiful, breastfeeding, baby-wearers out there on blogs like Marvellous Kiddo and Gregarious Peach to help me shed my fear of being a frumpy lactating lump! If it goes to plan I will have breastfed for over six years of my life when I finally stop feeding Neve (I am aiming for two). Sure there have been times when it was a bit draining or I just wanted to sleep without interruption or wear a dress without working out access. But it will be a bitter-sweet moment. It has been such a pleasure to nurture my children towards physical strength and emotional independence.

Anton breastfeeding in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Anton breastfeeding in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

Anton breastfeeding on Burgazada
Too big? Anton breastfeeding on Burgazada.

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One thoughts on “Warning: This post contains breasts!

  1. Julia, firtsly thank you for the supportive comment you left on my breastfeeding post (and all the lovely comments you leave on my blog!) It is so encouraging to hear that other mothers are out there feeding their toddlers.
    Secondly, I read this post a few days ago and I have been thinking a lot about your words and the feelings you had surrounding the support you gained in Turkey. I am so sorry that the women who surrounded you at that time made you feel like you were harming your unborn baby in some way. As mothers we always aim to do what is best for our childre, so when someone claims that our choices may be have a negative effect, well of coarse it hurts and makes us second guess our decision/s.

    What you went through in Turkey is quite similar to how I feel most of the time in Australia. I surround myself with support from other women who feed into toddlerhood but really when I look outwards the majority of my peers/family believe that once a baby hits one/or can walk/or can talk they should stop breastfeeding. It is hard sometimes, but the thing that keeps me strong in my decision is that feeding Harper affects only Harper and I (...well maybe my husband too ;) ) No one else. If judgement is passed on me, I do not take it on board.

    I am too trying to figure this all out. Feeding an almost 3 year is new for me.

    It was so lovely to hear your words on this matter. x


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