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.”
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.
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?
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.