I’m going to be honest with you; I was hesitant to write this one. However, as it is coming to the end of breastfeeding week, I wanted to share my personal experience and some thoughts and observations with you. Originally, I had planned to write a pretty generic piece about the anatomical aspects of breasts and breast milk production as well as the milk’s constituents. However, I figured that during this week plenty of others would be doing the same thing. So instead of joining the chorus, I decided to veer off course slightly.
The Nature of Natural
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.John Muir
As some of you may know, I became a father for the first time at the end of last year. Along with all the usual highs and lows of parenthood, I fell into a perilous trap I hadn’t anticipated – the assumption that because something is natural, it must therefore be easy! In retrospect it’s a ridiculous notion; along the same lines of the use of the term ‘natural’ on products and potions marketed as an indicator that it’s “good” for you – arsenic is natural, but not that good for you!
My eyes were first opened to this when my wife and I attended a breastfeeding session with the NCT. It was here I was quickly disabused of the notion that, barring any medical issues such as tongue-tie or lactation insufficiency, it would all be plain sailing. To give the NCT credit (which it must be said I can’t do often – but that’s another topic for another post) their breastfeeding session was very informative, highlighting potential issues, tips on how to handle them and of course the promise of further peer to peer support at breastfeeding groups. So we duly did more reading on the topic and tried to prepare ourselves for the big event.
Battles with Beelzebaby
Along comes my son – after a long labour, some dicey moments and an emergency caesarean – a healthy, if not very happy about his entrance into the world, baby. My wife, still shaking from blood loss and numb from the waist down, managed to do skin to skin contact and with the help of two midwives, attempted to get him to latch on. He continued to scream the place down. After advice from a paediatrician and finally getting him to settle with some non-nutritive suckling, we tried again. Same result. As it was now quite late, after leaving the recovery room I was unceremoniously shown the door while my wife was left to try again on her own. Would he latch? Like hell he would!
Enter a night shift midwife, who got frustrated with my crying son and tried forcing his mouth down onto the nipple, causing him to scream even more. The next day, a lactation consultant came to visit the ward and spent 30 minutes with my wife – success! He latched for a few seconds, not a lot but a start. A pump was provided so we could at least try to use some expressed milk. Although frequently used, we were only able to produce a little. After 2.5 days of almost constant crying, unable to get a latch, and a worrying lack of wet nappies, a healthcare assistant brought some ready-made formula and a teat to try. Success – at least he was feeding! This will give us some breathing space to redouble our breastfeeding efforts – or so we thought.
They were both discharged with a clean bill of health after 4 days, although he was still refusing to breastfeed. Maybe the comfort of home and a more relaxed atmosphere would help? Maybe sharing a nice warm bath together might get him feeling a bit peckish? Nope. We tried so many different positions that would put a yoga expert to shame. We tried nipple shields, a latch assist, a number of pumps (including renting a hospital grade one). We had a visit from the NCT breastfeeding counsellor, who also got frustrated with his crying and told my wife to give up. My wife visited numerous breastfeeding support groups, some more helpful than others. Called the Breastfeeding Network helpline and the NCT Breastfeeding helpline. But all to no avail. It was one of those situations where we had tons and tons of resources and theory, had spent weeks researching but very minimal practical assistance. We investigated hiring a lactation consultant to come to our home, but although we’re very fortunate to have been able to try all the above ‘technical’ solutions, we just couldn’t afford to go that route.
To be fair, one of the groups were very supportive and showed promise at getting some hands-on help. Then boom – pandemic lockdown!
Can’t Feed, Won’t Feed
Why am I sharing all of this, I hear you ask? When researching anything online to do with babies, you will eventually tumble down the rabbit hole of forums. Where names like ‘mumsnet’. ‘babycentre’ and ‘netmums’ will eventually chill you to your very core. Here we tend to find two factions, the militant pro-breastfeeders and the disgruntled anti-breastfeeding mob which I’ve generally found to be more reactionary, coining the phrase “fed is better” in defiance. This is of course comparing apples and pears as no one is seriously arguing that starvation is a viable option – at least I hope not. When asking for advice about anything related to formula feeding such as brands, bottles and teats, you will inevitably come across aggressive comments where the sole intention is shaming the poster because they dare feed their child anything but breast milk (liquid gold as they put it). But hey, I guess that’s the nature of internet forums – there’s always someone shouting that you’re doing something wrong. However, I kept noticing a lack of advice on more official channels for those who either cannot breastfeed or choose not to for whatever reason. Even the WHO and UNICEF tend to present breastfeeding as an all or nothing concept. So how does this framing of the issue affect the women who cannot or do not wish to?
Now at this point I should point out that I am a big advocate for breastfeeding. The slogan ‘breast is best’ isn’t wrong. Colostrum and breast milk are by far the most ideal source of nutrition that you could give a baby. It is species specific, contains many useful ingredients such as enzymes and immunoglobulins (antibodies) which help to protect the baby from infection while their immune system develops and protects their digestive tract helping to avoid vomiting and diarrhoea – which no doubt saves lives all over the world. Breastfeeding also helps to protect the mother, lowering risks for certain conditions such as breast and ovarian cancers as well as osteoporosis. Wherever it’s possible, I would recommend it in a heartbeat.
So, what if despite your best efforts you cannot breastfeed? Well the main options open to you are to express milk and feed using either a bottle or a syringe (another hotly debated topic for the anti-bottle mob) or if you cannot produce milk, make use of a milk donation service. There is also of course, first milk formula (cue spooky dramatic organ music). Despite some common opinions and misconceptions, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with formula as a source of nutrition. Does it contain all the benefits of breast milk? No, of course not. But just because it isn’t the ‘best’ choice, doesn’t automatically make it a BAD choice. However, for the stauncher pro-breastfeeding supporters it has effectively been reduced to a false dichotomy, either breast or nothing! Oftentimes followed by babbling about “Big Pharma”, “chemicals” and “poisons” which we can safely ignore. While breast IS best, the concept shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat people over the head with! Although catchy, I think the phrase is starting to have a negative impact.
Everyone’s a critic
Rewind a few months to a couple weeks before Christmas 2019. My wife is sitting in a café with our newborn son, close to where I work. He starts giving the “feed me” chorus so she takes out his bottle and attends to his needs. Cue older woman spying them from across the café. Slowly she approaches before standing over my wife (and oblivious child) and with a sneer asked in a condescending tone “Why aren’t you breastfeeding? It’s better for your baby you know…”. My wife, never usually short on words, was taken aback and just said something about it not being for a lack of trying. Mercifully on this occasion, the stranger retreated with a disapproving stare.
Why did this woman feel the need to approach a stranger and berate her for feeding with a bottle? Does she think she’s doing some good deed by ‘enlightening’ those around her that you shouldn’t be bottle feeding? Is shaming the best way to start a conversation? Was this remotely any of her business? The thing that I have observed time and time again is that these types of people rarely consider the reasons why people may not be breastfeeding and it really blows my mind that the default position they take is that the mother in question must be lazy or just uninformed. Congenital anomaly, lactation insufficiency, double mastectomy, undergoing chemotherapy – would you be comfortable lecturing these women for bottle feeding?
Now of course, breastfeeders don’t escape the scorn and derision of strangers for daring to breastfeed in public. I once witnessed a young woman sitting in the Botanic Gardens being publicly shamed for breastfeeding her infant within sight of other human beings. The older lady in question didn’t think that kind of thing was ‘proper’ and made her husband uncomfortable (who incidentally looked more embarrassed by his wife than anything else). My personal view has always been that anyone who is offended by the human body, has some serious issues. However, if you are deeply offended by the sight of a breast or a nipple, a simple solution is to not look at it! If you don’t stare at the breastfeeding woman your chances of seeing anything reduce quite dramatically – trust me.
The problem is choice.The Architect
Finally, we come to those who may be physically able to breastfeed but choose not to. I’ll confess that in years gone by, I was confused and concerned by this – if you could, why wouldn’t you? I mean, breast is best right?? But with age comes at least a modicum of wisdom – hopefully. Society spends a great deal of time telling women what they can, can’t, should and shouldn’t do with their bodies. We really don’t need to add this to the list of things people berate women for – especially since the chastisement predominantly comes from other women. It seems obvious that we should always be supporting bodily autonomy. In the UK, educational opportunities by healthcare providers and information regarding the benefits of breastfeeding are provided during pregnancy, as well as a plethora of official online resources, so that the mother can make an informed decision. However, that decision should then be respected – even if we disagree with the final reasoning. Again, the assumption of laziness or ignorance completely dismisses the agency of the women who choose to not breastfeed. Who are we to say that they are wrong and MUST do something, just because we may personally disagree with their choice. There are many reasons someone may not be comfortable breastfeeding, the most obvious if they have suffered some sort of trauma such as being a victim of sexual abuse.
Critics may point out that the health and wellbeing of the baby is paramount. While I agree with this in principle, the mother’s health and wellbeing can’t be completely dismissed. Indeed, the physical and mental health of the mother will have a direct impact on the wellbeing of the child.
I have seen first-hand the misery, exhaustion and decline in mental health caused by the pressure to breastfeed when unable to and I’ve spoken to others who have suffered due to the unwanted attention and scorn laid on by perfect strangers for not fitting their ideals. With feelings of inadequacy, being broken, shamed by strangers, that they’re somehow letting down their child because they can’t give them ‘the best’ and even questioning their very womanhood – we are doing a disservice to these women. This detrimental effect on mental health should be more widely addressed within breastfeeding educational discourse.
The bottom line is that it’s hard enough being a parent. Faced with innumerable choices and challenges one of the first things you learn is that no matter what the topic, there is never a clear answer. The options are usually presented as black or white, when in reality everything is shades of poop. Why are we making life more difficult and trying to shame fellow parents into believing that our choices, are the only choices?
As we close out another World Breastfeeding Week, I would like to suggest that in preparation for next year, we begin to re-frame it. By solely focusing on the ‘celebration’ of breastfeeding and extolling its numerous virtues, we are actively excluding a great swathe of women who are suffering immeasurable grief at their inability to engage in this act. We’re leaving them out in the cold, with many being treated with contempt and outright cruelty. In my view, this week should be about awareness. Awareness of why breastfeeding is a great option for feeding your child. Calling for increased investment in practical support offered to families through public organisations, such as the NHS. But also, awareness that there are many women who have struggled with it or don’t wish to do it – and that it’s OK! You are not less of a mother; you are not broken. Just like everyone else, you’re doing what you judge best for your child and yourself. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.
TL;DR: Yes, breast is best. But acknowledging that it isn’t always possible and recognising bodily autonomy are equally important. Be kind to each other!
A final note about my wife
I have to say something about the determination and indomitable spirit of my wife. Throughout this journey that we have embarked on together, I couldn’t hope for a better mother and partner to raise my child with. My heartbreak at seeing the toll that this pressure has taken on her is nothing compared to the trials and tribulations she has had to undergo. Having stood by her side as she endured pregnancy, an incredibly difficult labour and emergency caesarean, months of breastfeeding battles and the usual battleground that parenthood is – I have no doubt about one thing. My wife is a fucking warrior!
Here are some links to resources and information that we found useful in our quest for feeding our baby!