Well it’s been a while since I had time to blog – turns out the early months when they fall asleep every hour wherever you left them, even if only for 20 mins, is the easy bit and when they’re awake for hours they need constant entertainment, and feeding, visiting doctors because they’ve got a peculiar rash or their poo looks funny and settling for naps etc and there’s v little time for doing the washing and cleaning your own teeth let alone pontificating online!
Anyway the latest news that mothers from deprived neighbourhoods in Sheffield are going to be paid to breastfeed in a new trial has got my rant hackles rising again – potentially causing controversy with some of my friends, but applause from others who feel guilty they weren’t able to manage this apparently-hallowed experience of nourishing their baby from their own bosom.
First things first: I did breastfeed for six months. I hadn’t been sure I wanted to, worrying I’d find it ‘icky’ but I gave it a go and after a few false starts Evelyn got the hang of it (I’m not sure I ever did!) and it wasn’t as unpleasant as I’d thought. I did found it hard though and extremely stressful. Evelyn was always too inquisitive to see what was behind her and often too impatient to have a full feed and I found it difficult to not worry when she wouldn’t feed and trust she’d get what she needed. I has mastitis twice. I was shouted at by an imbecile in a cafe for being ‘disgusting’ and ‘offensive’ for feeding my baby in public (rant hackles rose then too and an argue not ensued). I never found it a nirvana-like experience as some claim. And yes I think I bloody well deserve a medal for it and I was glad to see the back of it if I’m honest – though I’m still a little sad I didn’t get to have one last nice feed because the last few were such a struggle that the transition to bottle happened much more speedily than I’d planned.
And I totally ‘get’ the push to encourage more women to breastfeed. I buy into the breast is best theory. I really do. But I don’t buy that formula is the devil’s food. I know that formula producers have a reputation for underhand marketing methods in third world countries, and yes it is abhorrent to push breast milk substitute onto populations who can ill-afford it and have a free, more nutritious source, available in their own breasts. But we are not in a third world country and that doesn’t make formula itself bad for those who willingly choose it for whatever reason – from they don’t like the idea of breastfeedng to they physically aren’t able to.
I do believe that breastfeedng should be encouraged, but there is a whole world of difference between encourage and push down people’s throats to the exclusion of any other sensible advice.
I am middle class and in my social circles breastfeedng is probably the norm. I certainly felt pressure to breastfeed and was the only person in my NCT group to admit that I wasn’t sure I wanted to, even if others found it wasn’t for them when it came to the reality. Most mothers I know at least tried it. But many failed for various reasons – lack of supply, plagued by blocked ducts and mastitis, babies not thriving etc. Others gave up before six months because they had to go back to work or were afraid to leave their house in case their baby needed a feed in public. I was publicly humiliated and shouted at by one imbecile, and alternately congratulated by a lovely well-meaning lady in Waterloo station (needs must with a wailing baby) but really I’d have rather been ignored so I could pretend everything was normal and I was just waiting for a train. There are countless reasons why women don’t breastfeed or give up. And the trend seems to be to castigate women for not being Mother Earth once we have babies – even if for our non-child-bearing years we’ve been expected to live up to entirely different ideals. I even feel guilty having made the celebrated six-month mark that I went onto bottles – I now feel the urge to shout at strangers in cafes that I did breastfeed her until she was six-months! Ludicrous. There really should be more balance.
My experience was that not one midwife or health professional would offer any advice whatsoever on formula feeding, so scared were they of not toeing the party line of ‘breast is best’. There is next to no information about combination feeding – a valid choice for many who may want to breastfeed but aren’t always able to or who want to continue some breastfeeding when they return to work for example, but for whom expressing isn’t practical (it takes bloody ages and even I in my privileged position of being able to take a year off work couldn’t muster the enthusiasm or the time to do it for long). As a result of this ‘oh that would be a decision for you, we can’t advise you to give top-ups’ attitude when I sought advice for my poorly jaundiced – and it turned out starving because my milk didn’t come in properly for five days – five-day-old daughter resulted in her being hospitalised and nearly requiring a full blood exchange. Of course as soon as doctors get in the picture, out come the formula bottles and the road to recovery – and you feel like a failure because all the advice and literature is shouting ‘breast, breast, breast’ and you ignored your own entirely sensible instinct.
So I don’t think offering monetary reward to mothers in demographics less likely to breastfeed is the answer at all. There are a million and one other things that £200 could help those families with that would have a greater impact on their wellbeing rather than demonising formula feeding even further.
Or perhaps that money could be spent on providing better practical and professional support actually in hospitals to get people started breastfeedng (what little help I received felt like assault and I didn’t see a breast-feeding specialist at all in my two-day stay ); or in providing better help once you go home (breastfeedng cafes – you must be joking, I couldn’t get myself out of the house for a trip to the shops for months let alone for a one hour slot the other side of town!); or educating idiots like the imbecile who verbally abused me, or the cafe owners who stood by and did nothing while he did it, so that people don’t feel ashamed or intimidated to get their norks out in public for feeding.
Or maybe they could just train midwives to have a more balanced approach to providing advice to new mothers when they’re at their most vulnerable and lost and haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. Maybe that would help all mothers feel just a little bit more supported, and a little bit happier whatever decision they come to regarding feeding. Just maybe.