Look at this photo! What are we missing?

This is a photo of my friend Vanessa's great-grandmother, publicly breastfeeding her son,Vanessa's grandfather, ninety years ago. How amazing is it that she is in possession of such a photo?! What a snippet of social history right there!
When I looked at this photo, there were a few things that jumped out at me immediately, so I decided to take a look at a few historical images of breastfeeding.

Look what I found:


Looks pretty similar, eh? And then there are these ones:

Notice anything?
Firstly, women are holding their boobs! In at least half of all historical artworks that I found featuring breastfeeding, women were holding their boobs! It is so rare that I see a breastfeeding mum holding their breasts when feeding nowadays.
And secondly, what on earth is going on with the baby's positioning?! Goodness, she is doing everything wrong! I mean, what about all those 'rules' about your baby's chest and tummy being snugly held against you, with ear, shoulder and hip in alignment, feet wrapped around you and arm tucked under? No? Certainly not in any of these images! And you know what, every single one of these ladies all look pretty relaxed to me!
These women have probably spent their lives surrounded by other breastfeeding women. Family sizes were much larger, communities were close-knit, and women were subconsciously absorbing breastfeeding knowledge from their sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, etc., who were all modelling breastfeeding.
I have no idea what kind of breastfeeding information was being spread from woman to woman hundreds of years ago, but images like this give us a few clues.
1. The 'Sandwich' -- Vanessa's great-grandmother and the woman in the first image are doing what we call a 'sandwich', which squishes the breast and assists the baby to latch deeper, reducing nipple pain or discomfort and increasing the efficacy of milk extraction. Handy, and easy when you see everyone around you doing it! If you have never seen it before, it might never occur to you to try this.
2. The 'Cigarette Hold' -- The other images show mothers using what we call (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) the 'cigarette hold', with one finger above the nipple and one below, as if the nipple were a cigarette and you were Grace Kelly. Mums whose babies have difficulty coping with a forceful letdown can find that this action, when the fingers are pressed against the breast, reduces the rate of milk flow during letdown and can help.

3. Find a position that works for you, and go for it. Trust yourself and trust your baby. If everyone around you tells you that it looks wrong, but your baby is gaining weight, is producing wet and dirty nappies, is feeding comfortably and you are comfortable and relaxed, that's the holy grail! Go with it! If it causes problems with nipple pain or your milk supply is struggling, or if you baby appears uncomfortable, then you obviously should be trying something else.
So, next time you are thinking about using your breastfeeding cover, really think about it. Are you using it so that you feel more comfortable and at ease? Then brilliant, go for it! And high five for finding a way that works for you! Are you using it because your baby gets easily overstimulated, and it helps them to feed effectively and contentedly? Then brilliant, go for it! And high five for finding a way that works for you both! But... are you using it so that the people around you don't have to watch you breastfeed? Then all the young women that may catch a glimpse of you are missing out on valuable snippets of information that can lead to their success and confidence later down the track. Normalising breastfeeding is important.

11 comments

  1. Really an important distinction, isn't it. That these women weren't ashamed. The painters weren't ashamed. The natural was not sexualized. Can we ever put that worthless genie back in the bottle? I hope so.

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    1. Indeed! Incredible how things can change so quickly...

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  2. What a fascinating selection of images. The twentieth century has a lot to answer for.

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    1. There are SO many! It's incredible! It was such an ordinary part of family life!

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  3. I've seen plenty of (old) painting depicting breastfeeding and some recent photos (friends and acquaintances), but never an old photo like that! What an amazing heirloom to have.

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  4. The women who sat for the painters probably positioned themselves on purpose so the baby was visible?
    Wow for your friend's great-grandmother. Films and pictures must have cost a fortune back then.

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    1. Gah you are totally right! Hahaha :D I'm foiled!

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  5. It's funny how we often assume that modern times are so much more liberated than the past but these photo's tell quite a different story!

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  6. Loved this post! I actually never saw these historical portraits but instinctively used 1&2 when breastfeeding but I was convinced that by doing that Im bfeeding the WRONG way ... because I never ever saw anyone doing it that way or any picture of this. I always tried so hard to change baby position or mine in order not to hold my boob (and so bfeed correctly ������)

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    1. Haha! Wow, it's so brilliant that you just did this with no thought or instruction, and that you found a way that works for you both. It's amazing what a difference an awareness of this could have had on your confidence at that time! I hope this somehow helps you to realise that you are doing an amazing job listening to what your child needs, no matter what everyone else seems to be doing <3

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  7. The Virgin Mary is a top-notch breastfeeder!

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