Breastfeeding and Shame
Jennifer Lipman explores why breast might not be best for new mothers.
It is five days after my son’s birth. The temperature is in the thirties. I am sore, sleep-deprived and hormonal, prostrated, boobs exposed, nipples agony, trying every which way to get him to drink. He is sobbing, hungry and exhausted, as am I. We’ve been at this for hours.
A midwife – a supposedly supportive presence – tells me everything I’m doing wrong. He wails some more. Perhaps, I say, we should try a bottle. She’s horrified as if I’ve just suggested giving him a cup of cyanide.
Nearly five months on, and my son is thriving. I didn’t give up breastfeeding immediately, but persevered, through the pain, through his screams. At ten days he had lost almost 10% of his body weight, so we added formula top-ups.
Stopping breastfeeding at 11 weeks was the best decision I made as a parent in those early weeks. It’s a sentiment echoed by many, from those who like me simply couldn’t make it work, to those who found it painful or became ill, or who plain didn’t want to.
But as the NHS would have it, I’m a bad mother.
Breast is best, as doctors, nurses and midwives drum into expectant mothers ad nauseum; advice that continues at every post-natal check-up or appointment. “Giving nothing but breast milk is recommended for about the first 6 months of your baby’s life,” stresses our health service, adding that that formula does not provide equal protection from everything from Sudden Infant Death (SIDs) to leukaemia.
This mantra pervades everywhere. My antenatal class was advised that bottle-fed babies would be more prone to obesity and criminality. Formula packets carry health warnings, like cigarettes; as if keeping your child alive by an alternative means is degenerate behaviour.
I’m not a doctor. Undoubtedly there are health benefits to breastfeeding, although arguably many are concentrated initially when the milk contains immunity-boosting colostrum. And there are other advantages too; cost, and that in some countries a sterile environment is not guaranteed.
And some women love it. I have friends who had plentiful supplies, whose babies took to it quickly or settled in after a bumpy start, or who found breastfeeding easier than worrying about filling bottles. Women who could comfortably feed on the tube or in a restaurant. Or those who found pumping a good solution, expressing milk so their partners could share the load.
At the same time, there are plenty of benefits to not breastfeeding, and I wish the NHS was more willing to discuss them. We don’t look at adults and know who was or wasn’t; plenty of exclusively breastfed babies end up unwell, while most formula-fed ones flourish. While breastfeeding may be a good, even desirable choice, we need to stop pretending it’s right for everyone and shaming those who take a different route. There’s more than enough guilt associated with parenting as it is.
We also need to look holistically. Milk is a big component of a baby’s first months, but good parenting is about far more.
For starters, contrary to beatific images of a Madonna and suckling child, not every woman can. One of the things my antenatal friends and I were most surprised by was how difficult breastfeeding is. Painful, yes. Time-consuming, sure. But not doable? We had no idea.
Little discussed outside of new parent circles is the thriving trade in lactation consultants; a symptom of the fact many women need help. Several friends had tongue-tied babies who couldn’t latch; others had weak supplies that no amount of pumping could boost. As one mother said, given how tough it is, it’s a wonder humans have survived.
With my son, every time was an interminable battle. He would look lustily at the bottle and disinterestedly at my cleavage. He could latch; he just didn’t want to. Every time was a feed only I could do; a night wake up only I could attend. No ability to go anywhere without him; little option to recuperate or even do some mild exercise. There was never a question of being able to feed in public.
I lost count in those weeks of how frequently I cried; bawling that I was harming my child because he preferred formula. And, worse, resenting him for not playing ball just when we should have been bonding. The guilt ate me up.
I constantly felt a failure, as many in the same boat do. But even if you can easily breastfeed, the pressure it places on women is enormous. In the early stage, babies can feed every hour. Your role becomes milk-giver first, productive human second. As one friend who had an emergency caesarean observed, her body had endured so much, and to top it off she was trying to milk herself “like a cow”.
The beginning of parenthood is a physical and emotional minefield. You are perpetually exhausted, in constant charge of an irrational and incredibly fragile small human. For many women, their partners are swiftly back at work, leaving them isolated amidst a new reality.
Post-natal depression affects some 10% of women. Telling mothers they are somehow lacking if they choose a bottle – or the corollary, expecting them to breastfeed 24/7 for six months – is hardly going to reduce their susceptibility.
In Britain, we are fortunate our maternity leave system allows for women to exclusively breastfeed. American friends talk of pumping in their offices while getting back into the swing of their career. Yet not all women want to stay home or can make it work financially. Making mothering a binary choice; either you stop working and breastfeed for six months or you let your child down by returning to the office, is incredibly unhelpful.
Equally, it’s critical that parenting is a shared responsibility. But if babies cannot be apart from their mothers, where do fathers fit in? The early stage of parenting is a significant relationship pressure point; you go from two to three, from having time for you as a couple to little alone time at all.
Yes, men, can give expressed milk, but why should father-baby bonding be contingent on mothers finding time to pump?
For weeks, I felt I had to justify the bottle to other parents, as I would a takeaway over a home-cooked meal. I was embarrassed as if I was wearing a badge that shouted ‘inadequate mother’. Yet when I stopped breastfeeding I felt this enormous sense of relief, a surge of control that I hadn’t experienced since he was born. Everything became so much easier.
Society places enormous pressure on mothers. If breastfeeding works, fantastic. But if it doesn’t, it’s time health professionals stop making women who don’t feel like failures. Fed, not breast, is best.