Lies, Damn Lies and Breastfeeding Workshops.

Arg. We hate 'SHOULD'.

There’s that ‘should’ again.

Are you pregnant? Have you been to any breast-feeding workshops yet? Well, you’re in for a treat! Let me give you a little preview.

I went to two breast-feeding workshops when I was pregnant. One was run by the NHS at the hospital I gave birth in, the other was part of the (otherwise excellent) NCT antenatal course my husband and I had booked onto. They were very similar. Well, one was more awkward and strange than the other, but that’s another post entirely. The information they gave was almost exactly the same and was arranged into two distinct halves. First half: why breast is best (and, implicitly, formula is bad). Second half: why breast-feeding is basically a lovely, easy thing that is natural and instinctive and great.

Hmm, you may well know where I’m going with this.

At the time these workshops seemed pretty helpful (though one was totally odd, will have to post about it now I’ve mentioned it twice). The workshop leaders demonstrated how to get a good latch and all that so I felt pretty good about it. You know, before I actually had a baby.

Before I go any further, and before I am bombarded by ardent breast-feeders, nothing I am about to say should discourage a woman from trying to breastfeed. It is obviously a good thing to do, for all kinds of reasons. So if you are doing it then hurrah! That’s not what this is about.

So, breast is best. Well, yes, that is the research based conclusion that has been drawn over some decades. I think the idea that the milk produced by the human body, tailor-made by nature, is superior to anything even the cleverest of us can manufacture seems pretty reasonable. My problem is that everyone at the breastfeeding workshops was already at a breastfeeding workshop. They had chosen to sit in an uncomfortable chair, for two hours, in the evening, whilst heavily pregnant. This may be a clue that they are already intending to at least give breastfeeding a good go.

But no, half of the workshop (over an hour in both cases) was devoted to listing the benefits of breastfeeding. We had to take it in turns to give a reason why breast-feeding is important. You know, like school.

“Yes, Mary, that’s right, your child is less likely to become obese.” “That’s right, Brian, children who are breastfed are less likely to get ear infections.”

Irrefutable fact???

I feel this may be slightly exaggerated.

Good, well, thanks for that.

We then had to share reasons why you wouldn’t breast-feed. At one of the workshops (the weird one) I said “Well, some people might want to drink and smoke.” This was not well-received. Not at all. The breastfeeding coach turned to me wide-eyed and said “Breast milk with alcohol and nicotine is still better than formula.”* I muttered something about this is not being a personal reason, just an example. Then I stared at the floor for about five minutes.

In fact, the whole ‘reasons why not’ section was definitely just an exercise in refuting any statement we made. At one point during the NHS workshop the midwife leading it had a five-minute exchange with a woman about how it was possible to find comfortable nursing bras for every size.** The woman had already been all over trying to get a fitting that didn’t give her back ache, but that’s no excuse.

Any way, you would leave those rooms with no doubt in your mind that breast-feeding was the far far far far far superior option for the health of your child and your bonding relationship.

The second section, basically a ‘how to’ could have done with borrowing some time from the pro-breast feeding drilling because it lacked detail and, frankly, any relation to reality. But here’s a quick round-up:

1) The main reason women give up breast-feeding is lack of support (so we did a bit about how our partners could support us, fair enough).

2) Breast-feeding is natural and the baby knows what to do. Cue video of a newborn baby pretty much latching themselves on to their mother. Lots of cuddly moments and mums saying how happy they were that they breastfed.

3) A little demo of different breast-feeding positions, with photos and a very light doll that bears little to no resemblance to the weight and shape of a newborn baby.

4) Constant reminders that it shouldn’t hurt if you get it right. It’s all about the latch ladies. And you do not need nipple cream. No no no.

I shall stop here to briefly mention that in an unscientific survey carried out by myself it was found around 97% of women, those who continue and those who don’t, find breastfeeding pretty darn painful for a good few weeks, even months.

This is omitted from the information given, as is any mention of the serious issues that can arise from breastfeeding.  I heard nothing about mastitis or any painful infections that could occur. Nothing about blockages in milk ducts. Nothing about the sheer exhaustion of being the only person who can feed your baby. Nothing about other ways to soothe your baby so that you don’t feel like they are constantly stuck to your boobs. Nothing about how a traumatic and/or physically taxing birth and recovery can effect your milk supply. Nothing about the fact that for this reason and others some women’s milk doesn’t come in at all, or not sufficiently for your baby to be satisfied; that was my problem and I had no idea it was even a thing until 4 weeks in.

So, generally sort of informative but not particularly helpful. The main reason I say this is that if you have any of the issues I’ve listed above, or one of a thousand other reasons means you can’t/decide not to breastfeed then you feel like utter crap. I suppose they want to keep it positive in order to encourage us all to try. But if you encounter any problems (and most do) the memory of these workshops becomes utterly discouraging.

Here are the messages you have been given: Your baby is less likely to develop all kinds of health issues if you breastfeed AND almost everyone can breastfeed if they give it a good try and have support. This, my friends, is the combined moral of sections one and two.

Now, let’s flip that around: Your is baby is more likely to develop all kinds of health issues if you don’t breastfeed. If you’re finding it difficult you’re probably not trying hard enough or you just need more support.

Oh, hello guilt attack of the highest calibre, what an depressing surprise!

When my son was 4 weeks old he was still below his birth weight. I just didn’t have enough milk. And I felt like a failure. I couldn’t feed my child. Except that I could, I just had to do it with a bottle and some powder. And you know what? It was the Health Visitor who actually advised me to make the switch. After months of midwives insisting it was the last resort, another healthcare professional actually recommended formula feeding. In 2 days by son put on 300g and had exceeded his birth weight. After this she said to me that I could decide what I did from here on in: breast, formula or combination. Mostly importantly she added “Whatever you decide, no harm will come to your baby.” The magic words.

“No harm will come to your baby.” And it hasn’t, he is such a happy healthy bundle of fun and light. He is the proof that formula is fine.

So, you know, if you don't give your baby breast milk, it's probably because you don't think they deserve the best start. Yeah, that'll be it.

So, you know, if you don’t give your baby breast milk, it’s probably because you don’t think they deserve the best start. Yeah, that’ll be it.

By all means promote breast-feeding. Educate those who don’t feel confident. Involve partners and provide support. This is all great stuff. But maybe, somewhere in all of this, remember that some women decide that breast is not best. Not in their circumstances. They don’t decide this out of ignorance or neglect. They aren’t lazy or uninformed. They still desire, and will maintain, a close bond with their child. So maybe somewhere amongst all the unnecessarily pushy advice there could be one small disclaimer: whatever you decide, no harm will come to your baby. 

Or how about this: Breast is best, but formula is fine! That is surely a research based slogan? Not sure the NHS will be adopting it any time soon though.

The way in which advice is delivered can have major psychological effects on mothers. Surely if I’ve noticed this then so has someone who can influence the way we provide parent education? The best gift you have give a baby is a happy mother; not one stripped of all confidence, feeling guilty and doubting herself. So maybe it’s time for a change. Who’s with me?

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What was your experience of breast-feeding support? Wonderful? Terrible? Leave a comment below, go to my facebook page, or tweet me @aafew 

* I reckon this is probably not true.

** This is more likely to be true but, again, probably not.

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14 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies and Breastfeeding Workshops.

  1. GREAT Post, and this from a daddy! My wife went through all kinds of what you mention, ducts, mastitus, but to her credit she stuck to it, but we also added formula milk into the mix. We were both formula babies, and we turned out ok. As you say there is lots of good, but it is not the only way, we had this one-sided issue with as well, from both types of advocates. Being informed is not a bad thing, it means you are better prepared for the issues, should they occur. The same discussion on natural birth vs other options. We had various discussions with various people, usually pro, or should I say very very pro, one side, then we tried to talk amongst ourselves and putting it all on the table, trying to find the correct solution for us. My concern in the beginning was for my wife, and after for the best of our child and my wife, the people who matter. I still get a little worked on this, but we are at 13 months and he is doing great, no issues of any kind, and not raised on any one method either.

    • Thanks! Yes I think it’s the one-sided advice that’s the killer. Combination feeding is sometimes the best option, but not recommended by either camp. I did continue to breastfeed my son a (very) little until 3 months and if I’d been open to that option earlier perhaps I would have continued both for longer! Sounds like you guys have been able to find the right balance for your precious boy. And it’s nice for you as a dad to be able to feed him too now and then.

      • A nurse recomended it as a top-up. It helped to take the pressue of my wife and gave both of us time to rest/sleep, but also helped me settle in to take over as prime caregiver by 4 months, when she started traveling again, he got bottled breast and formula milk. The argument of bottle will stop a baby from wanting to breastfeed also did not hold for us, as when she decided to stop, due to weeks ahead of traveling a few months later, her last feed was an emotional but special feed, falling asleep in her arms after 30 min of feeding.

  2. So true! I actually breastfed my son til he was 20months (just at bedtime for the second half of that time) and so would count as a “success” in their eyes but I totally agree with you. It really hurts to start with and That’s Normal. This myth that you’re doing it wrong if it hurts is rubbish, there just is a pain barrier you need to get through and then it’s fine. If they were honest about this I think more women would stick with it for a while longer rather than thinking there was something wrong with them and stopping. Also agree the time spent on brain washing was tedious and unnecessary. Evidence shows most women at least want to give it a try. More time spent on managing the exhausting nature of being completely inseparable from your baby would be awesome and sensible tips on combining breast and bottle to achieve some kind of sanity would have been fab. Took me ages to realise I could do a bit of both and that was fine. Love your slogan!

    • Thanks Liz! I totally agree that women would be more likely to stick at it if they were fully aware of the realities. I think there is some idea that they need to be really positive to encourage us to give it a try but actually that’s just a little bit patronising. And when it goes wrong it makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Feeling like a failure is not what a new mum needs!

  3. This is such a good post!

    I don’t have many good things to say about my NCT class but our breast feeding session was actually really good. The teacher told us up front that it is bloody hard and we would all be convinced we couldn’t do it at some point. My baby turned out to be a dreadful feeder, just not interested, lost weight, sent back to hospital etc etc. but because of what the teacher had said I was able to grit my teeth and push on through, in the end we got the hang of it. (Although with hindsight a bit of mixing would probably have been sensible given just how exhausted I was)

    Second time I actually got one of those babies who wiggles to the boob for a feed as soon as they are born (even though it was by planned c section) and she never looked back which just goes to show how very different every baby is. Oh but it still hurt like hell for weeks I mean think about what’s physically happening of course it gets sore!

    I do wish they would give up on the relentlessly positive propaganda. I suspect it often does more harm than good and it’s bloody annoying! I once had to wait 2 hrs to see my obstetrician (2nd baby). The waiting room had a pro breastfeeding and natural birth video playing on loop. By the time I saw the doctor my normally low BP was so high I was taken in for monitoring!

  4. I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I found the one sided advice so annoying and really detrimental, it made me feel awful and really didn’t help with the practicalities of being a Parent. We weren’t told how to sterilise a bottle or had any mention of pumping – was a total waste of time really.

  5. Oh yes – and I believe we touched on this very subject at the restaurant the other day. I wrote a similar post a while back too and I think you have filled in any gaps I missed! Hooray for those people who are out there to reassure us that no harm will come to our babies based on our feeding decisions. Hallelujah! 🙂 Thanks for linking up to #thetruthabout X

  6. I’m a breastfeeding peer supporter and occasionally appear at breastfeeding workshops to offer a view that is somewhere between mum and hp. I always say that the first eight weeks are tough. It’s important to be honest. But after eight weeks, when breastfeeding is established, supply settles down and the baby is more efficient at feeding, it gets so much easier.
    It frustrates me that we still haven’t got this balance of encouragement, information and support just right yet. I’m pleased to see that the Unicef Baby Friendly status now includes support on bottle feeding to promote bonding and showing mums how to make up a bottle correctly. I’m very pro breastfeeding; keen to raise awareness of the benefits and make it as much of a cultural norm as bottle feeding (I’m the author of ‘Mummy Makes Milk’), but I’m also incredibly pro choice. I can’t stand the thought of a mum struggling to breastfeed and hating every minute, that’s not what parenting is about.

    • Oh and when I say ‘after 8 weeks everything gets easier’, I mean generally, in a totally normal breastfeeding relationship with no issues on either side (such as tongue tie, my own problems with vasospasm or your supply issues). And there will undoubtedly be other challenges to come: teething, returning to work, nursing strikes, thrush, mastitis, blocked ducts and stopping at a time to suit you both to name just a few. Anyone who paints breastfeeding as a problem-free option is being very naive. It can be rewarding and beautiful, but it can also be bloody hard!!

    • Great comment! Groups like NCT say they can’t include ANY info on formula because they follow WHO guidelines. But, like you say, the continued importance of skin-to-skin contact, hygiene etc are areas that women are really under-educated on.

  7. It annoys me intently that health care professionals are still telling people that if the latch is right it doesn’t hurt – this is not true. After my own painful experience and research, I discovered that there are many women for whom breastfeeding is intensely painful at the beginning. I had a lot of support and consulted many breastfeeding support nurses – who all confirmed our technique was correct – but still had intense pain whilst feeding for the first two weeks (at which point it went almost over night). But because I was always told that it shouldn’t hurt if you’re doing it right, it just left me feeling useless and confused.

    I’m always honest about breastfeeding – I truly believe in its benefits and that it is worth persevering with, both for mother and baby, but it can be extremely hard work, occasionally painful and a big undertaking. I believe in it, but I also believe it’s not the best thing for everyone. I completely agree we need to encourage and help mothers to continue breastfeeding, but painting some misleading idyllic picture of it, does no one any good in the end. Honesty and support should go hand-in-hand with encouragement and understanding when it come to baby feeding, or any aspect of child rearing for that matter.

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