Happy Breastfeeding Week everyone! Because, yes, that's a thing. And never has such an allegedly “natural” part of life been so steeped in negativity and controversy. As it's Breastfeeding Week, there has been an influx of media attention on the subject, with the overarching theme seeming to be frustration and misunderstanding. New mothers feel frustrated and misunderstood; experts feel that breastfeeding in general is misunderstood, which is frustrating to them; and some people STILL can't seem to get their heads around this whole breastfeeding in public thing. Despite the fact that we are relentlessly told that breastfeeding (or not) is the ultimate personal decision, every fucker out there has an opinion and will jump at the chance to tell you their thoughts on the matter.
I had my first baby in February of this year and, unbelievably, I'm still breastfeeding. I say "unbelievably" because I never saw myself as the “breastfeeding type.” Unlike many expectant mothers, I didn't have super strong feelings one way or another on the subject. But it felt like everyone I spoke to was either vehemently anti-formula and determined to breastfeed at all costs, or convinced that breastfeeding wasn't for them. I had been told relentlessly in antenatal classes that breastfeeding gives babies “the best start in life” but I didn't want to put all my eggs in that basket in case it didn't work out that way. Because here's the thing: it often doesn't work out that way.
Once a baby is born, the pressure is ON to start breastfeeding, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. A couple of hours post-labour, I was the most physically and emotionally exhausted I've ever been in my life and my baby soon made it known that she was hungry.
I held her in my arms, imitating the serene picture of the nurturing mother I'd seen on TV. I brought her to my breast, gently guided her to my nipple...aaaand it didn't work. She wildly thrashed around and the closer I pulled her, the more agitated she became. Cue the panic: I had a hungry baby, I was very tired and emotional, and this sudden feeling of inadequacy right out of the gate was the last thing I needed.
Before long, a very kind but businesslike midwife came to my hospital bed to literally MILK ME. What I didn't understand at the time is that there is no milk at that stage. Yeah, fun fact: the milk doesn't show up when the baby does, one of the first cruel lessons of motherhood. And the baby is really mad about this supply-and-demand discrepancy.
So I had a complete stranger wringing out my swollen breasts only to eke out a few teeny tiny droplets of something called colostrum (basically pre-milk) which she then scraped into a syringe and dribbled into my screaming baby's mouth. All the while I sat questioning whether I would ever be able to perform even the simplest maternal tasks, since I had stumbled so spectacularly at the first hurdle. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I had in mind.
I spent a total of five days in the hospital, for which I am forever grateful. I was able to ask questions and get advice from the amazing NHS midwives and doctors around the clock, but I found myself completely overwhelmed by the incessant chat about breastfeeding. I was having a very hard time doing it and the constant stream of personnel with conflicting advice, passive-aggressive accusations (“Think baby is hungry!”) and stern looks almost sent me over the edge.
The moment that changed it all, though, happened at around 3am on my third night in hospital. I was at the end of my rope: my milk still hadn't “come in” and I constantly worried my baby was going to starve. I was sore, exhausted and disappointed, and positive that I was failing my child. She was crying (I probably was, too) and one of the overnight midwives came in and said “Would you like to give her a bottle of formula?” This sounds silly, but up until that moment the pressure to breastfeed was so intense that it didn't even occur to me that there was another option. It was as if that midwife handed me a golden ticket, a free pass to a few hours' sleep without the stress of a starving child playing on my mind. In that moment, I would have paid a million pounds for that bottle.
So I gave my baby the formula, we both went to sleep and, in the weeks that followed, things got easier and I was able to breastfeed. I stuck with it, obviously because I wanted to give my baby “the best start” but also because (truth be told) I was tired and lazy and it eventually became easier to stick her on my boob at 4am than to sterilise a bottle, boil the kettle and mix up a batch of formula. And now I'm part of the 1% of the population in the UK still exclusively breastfeeding at six months, all because I made the choice to supplement with formula in the early weeks when I needed it most.
So many women and their babies struggle to participate in this supposedly “beautiful” and “natural” part of the lifecycle, and all the well-meaning information out there actually stacks up to make us feel like failures. An oft-repeated (and false) statistic, presumably meant to calm anxious mothers-to-be, is that “only 1-5% of women are unable to breastfeed.” There are many different scenarios that cause a baby to be unable to breastfeed: insufficient milk supply, tongue-tie (where the baby is born unable to latch), illness and good old-fashioned pain, to name a few.
As new mothers, we are sternly warned that formula is inferior to breastmilk and that “topping up” or supplementing with formula will cause a chain reaction that will result in your body ceasing to produce milk. Now, I know it's different for everyone but I have to say I had no problem whatsoever, and in fact the supplemental formula feeds in the early days gave me a much-needed break (mentally and physically), which in turn gave me the energy to keep trying to breastfeed. I couldn't have done it without them and nothing that I've read even mentions this as an option.
The moral of the story is this: I believe everyone needs to lighten up a little. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and other health experts wrote a letter to The Guardian this week, in which they lamented the low breastfeeding rates in the UK and attributed them to a number of factors: ambivalence about women's bodies, underestimating the value of breastmilk vs. formula, lack of education, societal perception, etc.
All that may be true, and I certainly agree that “barriers need to be overturned” but honestly, I can't help but feel that if there weren't such intense pressure – such an “all or nothing” attitude towards breastfeeding – so many more women would be open to it. As an independent working mother, I know the thought of being completely tethered to a baby for six months with no alternative is truly terrifying, and the idea that breastfeeding makes it impossible for a partner to pitch in at all with feeding is a tough pill to swallow for any feminist. For me, the flexibility I had even just knowing formula feeds were an option and that my baby would accept them totally saved me, especially when my husband offered to administer them.
As you go about your day today, take a look at your friends, colleagues and partners. Can you tell who among us was formula-fed and who was breastfed? Didn't think so. Of course breastfeeding has its amazing benefits. Of course we need to educate people, eliminate stigma and encourage breastfeeding. But can't we be a little more flexible about it? To all my ladies out there who are struggling, panicking or feeling the pressure, I say: do it your way. Give yourself some flexibility. Take control and do what's right for you, your baby will thank you for it.