I have a friend who I’ve known for nearly 14 years. We got to know each other when our first children were tiny. We share photos and stories. We share a similar sense of humour. When we were bleary-eyed with baby days, we were often in touch several times in 24 hours. I know that if I were to ask her for advice and support, she wouldn’t hesitate, and she’d be honest and helpful.
But of course, because why would I be mentioning her in this article otherwise, we’ve never been in the same room. We’ve never met. She’s a friend in my pocket, in my phone and sometimes on my laptop (although that needs really big pockets).
If you’d told me twenty years ago I’d spend more time talking to people each day I hardly ever meet (and many people I will never meet) than ‘real life’ friends, I’d be very very worried.
But for many new parents in the 21st century, it is completely and utterly normal. These are the friends who live all over the world. You find them in nooks and crannies on the internet and you both recognise a kindred spirit and you hang on to each other when things seem shaky. The original forum/ group might sometimes have long gone but the connection hasn’t.
There are hundreds more online semi-mates who you bump into in your Facebook group or forum and you share information and stories. There are the faces you recognise, the admin you trust and the mothers you offer to support and encourage at 3am.
Online informal support is not going to be a substitute for real life groups and face-to-face sessions. Does anyone really need to spell that out? And I’m talking about real humans, not even ‘bots’ who read out bits of websites at you. No mother really thinks that when she has damaged nipples and she knows the latch isn’t right, Cassie from Swindon writing twenty words is the answer ahead of the lactation consultant she can call tomorrow or the trained breastfeeding counsellor at the group three miles away.
But you know what, Cassie is there at 11pm when you are praying your baby doesn’t wake up because you are in so much pain you just can’t face another feed. And she’s followed moments later by six other people who were in your shoes just a few weeks ago.
Cassie can link you to a video which has some great suggestions and she knows that this matters to you. This is a group that listens to what your goals are and when you say it’s important to you that you make breastfeeding work, they get that. They are there for the lows and the highs. Your group is a place where you can celebrate, and your team are happy for you. You can share what really matters to you with joy.
Here are 8 things that make online breastfeeding support extra great:
1. People who listen first and ask more questions.
When a mum says she’s uncomfortable, you ask more. Does she mean her nipples? Her breasts? Her back or her shoulders? What has she tried so far? What does she think might be happening? Of course, not every mum supporting online is a trained breastfeeding supporter, but some principles apply to everyone who is offering help. Great people ask for more information.
2. Knowing that your experience is not everyone’s.
It can really be tempting to talk about ‘what worked for you’ straight away but first, we start with what does that person want and need.
3. Knowing that this is a conversation with a lot of vulnerable people eavesdropping.
The person who started a post might not even be the person who benefits the most from it. They may be too shy to start a conversation or someone who searches on the group weeks and months later. They may be people who don’t know the lingo so a lot of ‘DD’ and ‘DS’ and even the occasional ‘IYSWIM’ and ‘AFAIK’ can be off-putting and isolating.
4. Knowing what you don’t know.
I have been known to literally cheer when I see someone saying, “I’m not sure” and signposting somewhere else. Three cheers for the person who says, “there could be an underlying issue we can’t identify here so why don’t you talk to X”. And a wet raspberry to the person who just says, “pump more,” or “It sounds like you definitely have thrush.” You don’t know someone’s mental health or their physical health. You don’t know someone’s support network. You may not be aware of something that someone trained is aware of.
Who do you refer to? With any medication question, it can be the drugs in breastmilk service run by the Breastfeeding Network. https://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/detailed-information/drugs-in-breastmilk/. The answers might be on the drug factsheets or you can email or send a Facebook message.
It might be someone needs a breastfeeding support group. They can be found through the ABM page, the Breastfeeding Network page or simply by googling someone’s town and ‘breastfeeding’.
The National Helplines can be invaluable. Their volunteers will be trained to ask the right questions.
National Breastfeeding Helpline – 0300 100 0212
Association of Breastfeeding Mothers – 0300 330 5453
La Leche League – 0345 120 2918
National Childbirth Trust (NCT) – 0300 330 0700
They might need a lactation consultant (lcgb.org) or a private tongue tie practitioner (www.tongue-tie.org.uk).
They might need to go back to their GP or their midwife or their health visitor.
5. Reading what other people have already said.
Hooray, for the person who says, “I can see someone earlier said, Y and I just want to add Z” and wet raspberry to the person who just repeats what’s been said an hour earlier. If you’ve got time to read the original person’s question, you’ve got time to read at least some of the comments already there. You might be missing a big twist. Perhaps someone earlier asked some questions and learnt something crucial and your contribution might not be reinforcing what is helpful. Sometimes it’s better to step away and write when you do have time to reflect more carefully. It’s better to say, “I’m sorry I don’t have time to read all the comments, but I just wanted to say that I’m sorry you are having a hard time,” than to post a suggestion without reading a chunk of conversation and missing something important. Yes, it might take time to load comments on your phone. Still better to wait and brownie points for the people who take the extra few moments to find out what’s going on, so they can offer proper informed support.
6. People who are kind.
They know that the first job is help someone to feel supported. They might not agree with an earlier comment, but they manage the situation with an emotional intelligence that means the original poster doesn’t feel like she’s in the middle of a squabble at a time when she feels vulnerable. They know that new parents get stressed and people can misread tone on the internet and they give people the benefit of the doubt and ask before making assumptions. They are kind enough to give of themselves and try and help.
7. Fab admin.
Three cheers and then another three cheers for the admin of Facebook groups and online forums. They are the people who know when it’s time for a conversation to end. They know when to gently raise an eyebrow when the mother worrying about milk supply is told to eat lactation cookies and drink lots of water. They know when to link to the right article and signpost to real life when someone else is simply saying, ‘not to worry’ about a baby not putting on weight as we might hope. There’s a team that look after each other. No admin gets to the point of feeling burnt out and there’s a very careful rota system. The reason why the breastfeeding charities don’t tend to run their own online support groups is because the burn-out is a huge problem and when a volunteer who’s been trained for sometimes two years plus burns out, that’s a huge loss. Being an admin is a big responsibility. Once you are known to represent a particular organisation, it becomes an actual legal responsibility. Even without that, you are taking on responsibility for the health of the most vulnerable. You need a team who look after each other. Great admin makes a safe space. The best admin knows they might have more to learn because ANYONE worthwhile in this world knows they have more to learn. Without them, thousands and thousands of new parents wouldn’t get the help they need. Thank you, online admin stars.
8. The ‘specialised’ groups.
The one for breastfeeding twins and triplets, the one about relactation, the one with people breastfeeding older nurslings, the one that contains your team who get exactly what you are going through and when you found them you felt like you were home. Yay for the people that thought to start them and yay for the people who hang around even after their own experience ends to support those who might be struggling.
Online breastfeeding support can be magic. It can inform us and encourage us and direct us to the right information. It can connect people and be the ‘village’ we’re told so often we need to raise a child. In a local breastfeeding support group, what would be chances have been that you would have found someone with this shared experience?
Friends in our pocket can help us get is through the day. Just raise an eyebrow at anyone who claims we can do without the support that doesn’t fit in your pocket too. Families need it all.