Introducing Leanne Pearce's "Breastfeed" Series - Encouraging Conversation Through Art

Before I start this post I want to make it clear that this is not a breast vs formula debate, rather an opportunity to encourage a healthy conversation about the choices we make as parents. I truly believe that no two parents experience the exact same thing and so with this in mind I have reached out to other mums and asked for their thoughts on this, which you will find within the post. I hope that this will provide a much more inclusive background than I could have written alone.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a UK-based artist who is currently working on a series that fascinated me. As so often happens in these situations, I can't quite remember how I came across Leanne's work, but when she reached out and asked if I would consider sharing her work here on the blog I felt honoured.

Leanne's project "Breastfeed" is an incredible concept - by working alongside breastfeeding mothers, Leanne has produced some stunning portraits that showcase the diversity of ways in which breastfeeding mums nurture their children. The purpose behind it all is to both encourage healthy conversation about breastfeeding and empower those who choose to feed their babies in this way. 

The Story Behind "Breastfeed" & Why I Support It

Image courtesy of Leanne Pearce (self portrait).

When I asked Leanne to tell me more about the project and how it began, she told me the following:

I have a little brother and sister who are much younger than me, so in my teenage years I was witness to breastfeeding in the home… many years later, when pregnant with my first, I was asked if I would breastfeed. I thought this was a strange question, my answer was ‘yes of course’ - I didn’t know people did not breastfeed. Oh how naive I was!

I now realise some mums breastfeed and to varying levels of success (success in their own measure), some mums wouldn’t even contemplate breastfeeding and some breastfeed until their baby is not a baby any more.

My own breastfeeding journey started off very rocky and painful, but Josephine loved it. However she was so rough with me, at about 11 weeks old she tugged so hard that she tore me internally and was feeding on blood for 24 hours before I had realised. At this point I went to the supermarket to look at baby bottles and formula milk… this idea made me unhappy and deflated, so I persevered and continued on our breastfeeding journey. It definitely got easier, once we both learnt how to do it.

I stopped feeding her at 13 months in order to have another baby and 9 months later Boadicea was born. Josephine is now 4 and Boadicea is now nearly two and a half and this is a little girl who loves the boob!

It was about a year ago now I was looking at Boadicea feeding and I felt a great compulsion to paint a portrait of us both. After completing this I then began to ask other women if they would like to be painted breastfeeding their young, as part of a bigger collection of work. I have gone on to paint 10 large-scale portraits. During this time I knew it would be beneficial for the work be to be exhibited in various places, not just art galleries, in order to start dialogue about this maternal act and help normalise and celebrate breastfeeding.

I love the fact that Leanne's journey started from her own limited experience of the many ways in which women feed their babies, because my own experience was the same, except from the opposite end of the spectrum. Although I knew (vaguely) about breastfeeding, I didn't really see much of it before having my own child. Despite my mum being a childminder when I was young and then working in a couple of nurseries in my early twenties, I only came across a handful of breastfeeding mums and it certainly wasn't seen as "the norm". So when I decided I wanted to breastfeed my own baby, I didn't know what I was doing!

Unfortunately, for me, my breastfeeding journey was far from easy and a lack of local support led me to giving up at 3 months, after weeks of uncontrollable pain for both me and my baby. Even at the time I knew how different our experience could have been, had better support and awareness been available in my area when I needed it. My own research allowed me to discover that the problems we were having with constant blocked ducts and a screaming baby who was fussy, fought at the breast, colicky and constantly hungry all came down to oversupply. But knowing what the problem was and trying to overcome it without support were two very different things. 

I tried to access support locally, but it just wasn't there. I contacted my health visitor and went to the breastfeeding cafe, but was simply told the latch was fine and my baby was "just fussy". I distinctly remember standing in my kitchen at 2am in floods of tears as I realised that we could not go on like this, hoping it would calm down after 6 weeks of sheer hell. I had come to dread each feed and my relationship with my baby was suffering - we had to stop. I recently reread the blog post I wrote at that time and it breaks my heart that we had to make this decision, because it felt like my body had failed. And no mum should ever feel like that!

And this is why I think Leanne's work is so incredibly important. We need to start talking about breastfeeding in a much more open and inclusive way, because by not doing so we are missing out on opportunities to support mums in feeding their babies in the way that they choose. If a mum wants to feed her baby formula, then that is great, but if a mum has no choice but to feed her baby formula even though she desperately wanted to breastfeed and the support she needed wasn't there, then that is a problem.

The Diverse Experiences of Breastfeeding Mothers

Image courtesy of Leanne Pearce

I have a friend who struggled at the beginning of her own breastfeeding journey because she didn't produce enough milk. Thankfully she received amazing support and with the help of a Supplementary Nursing System (SNS) she went on to feed both her boys successfully. Hers is just one of the many different stories I have come across that show the vast diversity of ways in which breastfeeding can and does occur. Here are a few more...

"I was keen to breastfeed, but I was induced early because there were concerns that my daughter was failing to thrive. She was 5lb 4oz at birth, and this led to difficulties. However, despite being fed by tube for a couple of days, we did make it work thanks to my stubbornness and determination." - Kate @ www.refinedprose.com

"I bottle feed my daughter and have come across many different experiences from people looking down at me for using the bottle and others who can see that the bottle is handy especially for sharing feeds with a partner. What people don't know is that I did try and Ava just didn't want to latch. I found it hard in hospital that because I bottle fed I had less support than if I was breast feeding." - Jessica @ beautiesandthebibs.blogspot.co.uk

"Breastfeeding for me has become less about feeding & more comfort. It's healed so many tears & helps calm my son instantly. I'm not saying it was always easy & there were times when I hated the pain & inconvenience, like making sure I have an easy access top & not drinking too much wine! But the pros definitely outweigh the cons." - Ali @ muminanutshell.com

"I had two polar opposite experiences of breastfeeding. With my daughter I was a mess. I had a very traumatic birth and my daughter just wouldn't latch. She would only latch with the aid of a nipple shield which then resulted in a lack of supply. Now, with my son, I have successfully breastfed him for 7 months and our journey is continuing now even though I've returned to work. With a clearer head, being slightly more educated, and the support of an utterly amazing midwife & health visitor, I have had the most beautiful experience feeding my son (even with a rather painful cracked nipple on week 2!!!). I'm very passionate about breastfeeding, but also pro-choice. With my daughter formula was a lifeline. I was able to bond with my daughter and feel better about myself. I would never judge a mum for how they chose to feed their child, but I would always offer any help and advice (if they want it) when it comes to breastfeeding as it can be a tricky ride!" - Kay @ www.mummyburgess.co.uk

"I have been very lucky that all seven of my children latched from the minute they were born and I have never had any problems, I now work as a breastfeeding practitioner and support mums during the antenatal and postnatal period and it makes me realise how fortunate I was that all of mine fed easily. Each woman that I help is a true inspiration with some of the difficulties they overcome." - Mandi @ www.hexmumblog.com

"The first couple of days home from hospital with Lucas, I cried and believed I would never get the hang of breastfeeding. My midwife told me not to worry and just give him a bottle. Thanks to a local support group, a volunteer came to visit me and supported me through it. I am now still breastfeeding and Lucas is 13 months." - Jenni @ www.chillingwithlucas.com

"I breastfed both my girls and had different experiences with them both. When my beautiful Alice arrived I couldn't get [her] to latch on. Two years later my gorgeous Holly arrived and she was placed on my chest for skin to skin time, a few minutes later she started wriggling around and I realised she was trying to latch herself onto my breast. At home with Alice I wasn't sure if Alice was feeding properly and she kept falling asleep on the job! Feeding Holly I felt a lot more confident. My next challenge was how to feed Alice when we were out and about, I was very uncomfortable about having to breastfeed in public... In fact, I never did. I felt so much more confident feeding Holly and having a toddler as well, I had to go out a lot more. I think on reflection of my two breastfeeding experiences, for me it came down to confidence in knowing what I was doing and also determination that I was not going to give up at the first hurdle." - Laura @ www.dearbearandeany.com

"I planned to breastfeed but Marianna was on NICU for the first few weeks being tube fed. I was asked if I wanted to express, but I was on so many different drugs it wasn't something I was happy to do. I never understand why people are so judgemental about how we feed our babies - all that matters is that they're being fed! We're really lucky these days that we have other safe options, it's so sad looking at old coroner's reports, etc - the infamous Wynne Baxter said that babies might as well be fed on tin tacks the stuff they were getting was so bad." - Jessica @ www.babiafi.co.uk

"I've had no support from anyone with breastfeeding. I found it difficult to start off with but persevered alone because I'm not one to ask for help. I fed my eldest until she was 18 months, when she stopped naturally, this coincided with my milk changing before I had my youngest. I'm still feeding my youngest who is 2 in May, but even my family don't know because I know they judge me for carrying on so long." - Natalie @ plutoniumsox.com

"As a hesitant first-time mum, how I would feed my child was not upmost in my mind. However, it seems I took it for granted that I would breastfeed and that it would just happen. Our first latch was fantastic, but our journey quickly went downhill with each feed. I had lots of support but not the support I needed to make it work. I descended into a desperate and sad mother on the edge. Every comment about how I'd done my best and how I should give up spurred me on to try harder. We combi fed, and fed for hours on end but the rot I was in worsened. I eventually reached out to LLL, and also got in touch with an NCT lactation consultant that was recommended to me. I dared to dream we could make it and I was willing to do whatever it took. Hours of daily pumping and direct feeding filled our days for weeks on end. Meeting with other breastfeeding mums at monthly LLL meetings were helpful, and reading the bimonthly LLL breastfeeding magazine, Breastfeeding Matters, inspired me on our journey. Eventually, my hopes were realised, we made it. We continue to feed on request today, more than 2 years after we started. I don't know when our last latch will be but I'm not looking forward to it. I am so thankful for all who helped me along the way. I find breastfeeding intriguing, and I have a heart to support other mums on their journey." - Mo @ adventuresofanovicemum.co.uk

"My daughter has lots of allergies and really struggled to gain weight. Before we knew about her allergies I was put under a lot of pressure by the hospital to switch to formula to help with weight gain - we now know that formula could have killed her! (Not formula bashing - I mean due to her severe allergies!) Luckily I had a great HV and breastfeeding support group and with changes to my diet (she reacted through breastmilk) I was able to successfully feed until she self-weaned at 16 months." - Janet @ www.mummysmonkey.blogspot.com

"I have four children and I have breastfed two, formula fed two. My first two are twins and when they were born early I had one in SCBU and the other at home with me. I couldn't split myself in two, I couldn't express the amount needed, and formula saved my sanity and their lives. My 3rd daughter I had a huge amount of problems and 'quit' breastfeeding many times, we overcame it though and she was still being breastfed at 2 years. My son I have breastfed exclusively and there have been really no obstacles. Neither formula nor breastfeeding made me a better Mother but in each situation one or the other helped me be the Mother I needed to be. And hell, the babies got fed!"  - Nat @ handfulofhalfpennys.co.uk 

As you can see, there are so very many different ways in which mums feed their babies. These are just a small selection of experiences and yet they express so much. What I find most interesting is that there is a real need for better awareness and support for mothers, so that they can find a way that works best for them and their baby, without feeling any guilt or shame. Which is why, when I introduced Leanne's work and the idea for this post in a blog support group, the response was incredible. I think the reply below sums it up beautifully...

"There is not enough support for breastfeeding mums especially from onlookers and society in general. There is no war between bottle and breast, that is self made, both are beautiful ways to feed your baby no way 'better' than the other. No competition when it comes to nurturing your child. I breastfed both my children and extended breastfeeding with my second. The first time I felt very overwhelmed and embarrassed feeding in public and I should never have been made to feel that way. This is why beautiful art like this is so important. A creative way to not only normalise but portray breastfeeding in a different light making it more acceptable to many people. Her art work is just beautiful and so detailed." - Tanita @ www.justmotherhood.com

"A creative way to not only normalise but portray breastfeeding in a different light making it more acceptable to many people," don't you just love that? And it is exactly the kind of reaction that Leanne is hoping to inspire through her work. In a world where breastfeeding mothers are pressured to cover up so as not to offend others we need to normalise this very natural process. And when breastfeeding photos are being reported as "unsuitable" on social media, we need artwork like this that invites us to examine our own reactions to it and discuss what it is that makes us so uncomfortable.

Encouraging Healthy Dialogue - Let's Keep Talking!

Breastfeeding mothers have so many different stories to tell, and it encourages me that with the support of passionate and talented people like Leanne, their stories are being given a platform. Because until we start talking openly about this, breastfeeding mothers will still come under fire for everything from feeding in public to feeding for too long. But more than that, mothers who wish to breastfeed but find it difficult will continue to experience a complete lack of support and find their choices limited to "stick it out yourself or switch to formula". And that isn't fair.

Which is why it is so exciting to see Leanne's work and hear all about her achievements so far and plans for the future. Her work is currently being showcased at a University local to her this month, and will be displayed at a local hospital in September. Leanne explained to me that where she lives (the North-East of England) breastfeeding rates are rather low, so she is keen to contribute to raising awareness in her area through her work. However she is also very keen for her work to travel nationally and internationally, which I would love to see too, wouldn't you?

She has had prints made of her work and is creating a proposal for a larger scale project which would enable her to work alongside healthcare professionals who support breastfeeding mothers and mums-to-be. Her idea is to work with the mums, documenting their experiences through her portraits, and then sharing their stories through exhibits in doctors surgeries, hospitals and healthcare centres. The overall aim is to help educate and encourage dialogue about breastfeeding.

If you like what Leanne is doing and want to support her work, please do check out her website to find out more and give her a big shout out across your social media channels and to all the mums in your area. And if you can offer financial support to the "Breastfeed" Project, you can do so by visiting Leanne's online store and checking out the items there. Let's keep the conversation going...

With thanks to Leanne for contacting me about her work and allowing me the privilege of sharing it here. And with many thanks to all the bloggers who shared their own experiences so honestly and openly for this post. 


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