Yesterday yet another story hit the news about the latest research that proves the old adage “breast is best”. This time, apparently, we’ve discovered that breastfed babies have fewer behavioural problems than their formula-fed peers.
Good. Great. The Mums who successfully breastfed their child(ren) can smile, safe in the knowledge that they’ve done the best they could for their kid(s). The mums-to-be who are researching the best way to feed their newborn will nod and say “of course I’ll breastfeed”. Then there’s the Mums like me. The Mums who desperately wanted to breastfeed. Who tried. Who endured midwives at the hospital grabbing their breast and shoving it into their newborn’s mouth in order to get them latched on. Who cried whilst they expressed, consoling themselves that the pain and sleep deprivation were worth it in order to get any small amount of breastmilk into their baby. Who had to make significant, life-changing decisions about how to feed their newborn whilst still recovering physically and emotionally from the birth itself!
I’m an intelligent woman. I know breast is best. I attended my local NHS and NCT breastfeeding classes. I prepared myself as well as I could. But when the time came, I couldn’t breastfeed. I couldn’t get the geekdaughter to latch on by myself. The midwives answer to this was to grab my boob and shove it into her mouth to get her started. They would inevitably then say “there you go”, and walk out of the room, and pretty much the minute they did this, the geekdaughter would unlatch and start crying. She showed signs of jaundice within 24 hours of birth because she wasn’t getting anything from me, and it was clear from all the crying that she wasn’t happy! We introduced mixed feeding whilst I struggled to get her to latch. I expressed tiny, pitiful amounts. Every time the shift changed I got a new midwife with new ideas and advice, and I just got more and more confused.
I remember distinctly a conversation with one of the midwives who was trying to help me get the geekdaughter latched. “I particularly want to breastfeed” I said “because my husband has loads of allergies and I want to do everything I can to prevent those being passed on to my daughter”. “Oh” said the midwife, in a rather blasé way “I’m pretty sure they’ve disproved that particular piece of research now”. I could have cried (and probably did when I was alone later).
The first two weeks of the geekdaughter’s life are a bit of a blur now, but suffice it to say that she never breastfed. She had some expressed milk from me and a lot of formula. Everyone and his wife felt qualified to give me advice – even the physiotherapist who came to treat her feet which were slightly twisted when she was born (positional talipes) asked me how I was feeding, and when I told her “mixed” she blithely assured me I would easily be able to get her back to exclusively breastfed soon.
Finally I took the decision that a relaxed mum with formula-fed baby was infinitely better for both the geekdaughter and me than a stressed mum and baby trying to breastfeed, and gave up the expressing.
When I was pregnant with the geekson I was asked multiple times how I would feed him. I always answered honestly – that I would try breastfeeding again, but I would never drive myself as demented as I did the first time around if it didn’t work out. And that’s exactly what I did. I had three different midwives help to try get the geekson latched on after he was born, and he couldn’t. I saw the same problems as I’d seen with the geekdaughter – although he tried for longer than she ever did! So we started him on the formula.
On the whole I’m perfectly well-adjusted about this. But on those days that the news is full of the latest bit of research promoting the benefits of breastfeeding, I start to wonder.
Is this all a carrot to encourage more breastfeeding, or a stick for those of us who failed to breastfeed (for one reason or another) to beat ourselves with? And the more I think about it, the crosser I get. Why are we as a society pumping money into this kind of research, when the money would be so better used in providing practical support to those who want to breastfeed but struggle? Surely we’ve proved enough that breast is best? But all that research isn’t worth a damn when you’re the one crying over your baby’s head because you can’t provide the nourishment they need. I don’t know if I’d have ever been able to breastfeed. But I’ll tell you what would have helped. Midwives who had the time to stay with me whilst I tried. Midwives who had the time to teach me how to latch my baby on by myself. Advisors who could impassionately talk me through my options and help me make informed choices.
So if you want to improve breastfeeding success rates, stop hitting us with the research stick, and find some kind of carrot instead!