Breast Is Still Best

Author Ellie Stoneley-Gradwell talks to Pete Stean about the creative process behind ‘Milky Moments’, her popular new children’s book featuring illustrations of breastfeeding, and her own personal journey as an older mum:

I reflected on lots of the books that Hope was given when she was born. Most of them had images of people feeding children but they were always being bottle-fed. It was never breastfeeding.

Ellie and her daughter Hope reading from Milky Moments

I just thought to myself: “If my daughter is going to grow up in a society where breastfeeding is considered normal, children need to see it around them”. That’s where the initial inspiration for ‘Milky Moments’ came from.

I found the illustrator first, which is very unusual. Jess was serving me cheese over the counter in local farm shop deli in Cambridge, and there was a beautiful picture on the wall behind her of some vegetables and I said “Wow, what a lovely picture!”. It turned out to be one of hers!

Over a period of time we got to know each other and I asked whether she could paint the cover of a book I was considering writing. I discovered that we both had a strong belief in breastfeeding and that she wanted to contribute, so that led us to thinking about an illustrated children’s book.

The next step was to find a publisher. In the end I approached Pinter and Martin, who had published ‘The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding’ and some other books around women’s health and childcare. I thought: “If they don’t take me nobody else will!”.

I called them and this poor chap picked up the phone, and I just burst forth and started talking: “I really need to come in and show you these pictures!” I said. Eventually he interrupted me: “Come back to me next month” and hung up. I did call them back a month later and it all went from there.

Early on I approached the La Leche League — they’re the international organisation that supports breastfeeding women — for some advice. When I called, by some amazing coincidence the person on the other end of the phone turned out to be Rachel O’Leary, the woman who had supported me in hospital when I was struggling to breastfeed my daughter.

Along with her colleague Justine she was very helpful, but they insisted on getting the anatomical detail absolutely right:

“You’ve got that nipple in the wrong place, the head’s too high, you’ve got the position wrong!”.

Poor Jess — she stoically repainted and repainted and repainted. It became a real labour of love for both of us — neither us had a penny to rub together so we fitted it in between paid work. I usually ended up working on it in the middle of the night when Hope was asleep.

When the book launch in Cambridge finally came around I heard the publishers say that they’d already sold 20 copies, and I thought: “Really? That’s not very good”, but he said “No. That’s fantastic right at the start”. Apparently the average new book only sells 450 copies in its first year.

Milky Moments from Pinter & Martin

I have to say I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the response from mothers and from fathers. I’ve also been amazed by the number of people who said it made them cry — in a good way!

Like the lady who sent me an email yesterday — her husband was reading it to their three-year-old and he’d ended up breaking down when he got to the page where there’s a picture of a baby ill in a neonatal intensive care unit. The text on that page reads ‘mother’s milk will make you strong — you’ll be home soon’. Apparently he looked up at his wife, tears in his eyes, and said: “This is just what it was like for us”.

People have also contacted me to say that it’s great that something which is perfectly normal in their lives is actually depicted in a book, because they haven’t had that before — you see I also showed toddlers and slightly older children as well. In the book it goes up to 4 or 5.

For example, there’s a little girl standing up and breastfeeding at playgroup while mom talks to some friends. My own daughter did that just this morning, and that picture is based on a photograph of us when she was two and a half — it’s important for people to remember that breastfeeding isn’t just for infants.

I do have huge sympathy for women who feel under pressure from friends and family to stop breastfeeding, with their mother-in-law or their grandmother saying: “Oh you’ve done it for a few weeks — that’s enough”, and I have huge sympathy for any new mother that wants to breastfeed but can’t.

I admit, I did combination feeding until Hope was four or five months old, but she suddenly started refusing bottles — I was terrified. What would I do? How would I cope? In the end I went to a breastfeeding drop-in group — it was one of the most frightening things I have ever done.

I walked in and there were five women sitting there, looking exhausted, harassed and miserable. There were a couple of husbands and boyfriends there too, looking a bit like spare parts and not knowing what to do. But they were very earnest — the moms were shoving babies’ heads around and hoiking breasts here, there and everywhere!

I nearly turned tail and ran, but I thought better of it and stayed — I’m glad I did. It transformed everything — I left there feeling so capable, so confident. Hope and I have never looked back. Take the last time I went through an airport for example, baby in tow.

The staff asked “Where are all the bottles and things?” and I just pointed at my breasts and said “I don’t need them!”

Now I’m drafting the first few chapters of a book about being an older mum — Hope, who is three now, was born when I was 47. I know older mothers are often pilloried in the press, or called selfish and all the rest of it, but I am one and I’m very blessed. I have a remarkable daughter — we have great fun together and I hope we’ll be together for a long, long time to come.