It goes without saying that every mother wants the best for her baby. It also goes without saying that most educated women know that breastmilk is indeed the best form of nourishment you can give your child. But time and time again we hear health workers, politicians and journalists commentating on the unsatisfactorily low breastfeeding rates in this country.
The pros of breastfeeding are obvious. It is free, (compared with £10 a week on formula for 12 months – £500), natural (there are stories of crushed fish bones in formula, incidents of glass shavings in the powder, the possibility of Salmonella, who would want to risk giving that to a newborn) and also we have breasts and nipples…What else were these appendages made for? Surely we were not given these accessories solely for the enjoyment of men? No, like bulging cows udders and saggy dogs nipples, they were made to feed our babies!
I think I speak for a lot of women who spend their first pregnancy trying to imagine what their baby might look like, and how being a mother might feel. One image we all have in our head is that of a new mother staring blissfully into her newborn baby’s eyes whilst he suckles on her breast as nature intended!
Many of us assume, (and why not?) that breastfeeding will be something very natural and beautiful. It will be an act that will help us bond with our baby. It may be difficult at the beginning as we master the various “holds” and overcome the bleeding nipples and bouts of mastitis that we have all heard about. Along with the babygros and newborn nappies, we purchase breastfeeding bras, breast pads, special nipple creams, breastfeeding support pillows, hot and cold compresses, breast pumps, storage bags and books on the subject to help us should things not be as simple as we hoped.
But, what if, despite all the gear, and a good idea of how it all should go, you just CANNOT do it? What if, you have all the knowledge you can gather, all the support you can muster and ALL the will in the world and a strong strong inbred determination that NO formula shall pass your child’s mouth and you STILL cannot do it? What if you meet with and speak to experts for weeks and weeks, you try every tip you have been given and you fork out for Osteopathy in the hope that this is all down to your baby having a cricked neck on account of your tight bump and a fast labour and STILL you cannot feed this little human who is dependent upon you for survival? WHAT THEN?
What if you cry every time you feed him because it hurts so much. What if your skin crawls every time he cries because you know he needs feeding? What if you feel like throwing him across the room every time he latches on and sucks? What if you sit there, breathless, curling your toes in pain as tears run down your face because all you want to do is give up because this does not feel natural or beautiful and you are not bonding with your child, infact you are starting to dislike him for giving you so much pain?
What if you are so confused because you thought that labour was meant to be the painful bit, and infact, you pushed a human out of your little vagina a few weeks ago with only a few yelps and definitely no crying.
Everyone tells you to give up breastfeeding. Your husband says “You have done amazingly and I will support you if you want to stop.” Your friends and family echo these comments, even the Health Visitors who are getting concerned about your mental state. Everyone gives you examples of babies they have known that have been fed formula and lived to tell the tale!
But, you know that formula = poison and only bad and lazy mothers give it their babies. Everyday is a mental battle. You wake, determined that today shall be the day you will crack it! You dream that you will find some, as yet, unknown “hold” and the baby will latch on without pain and suck. And then you can be like the serene lady in the picture you have seen staring lovingly into your baby’s eyes whilst you lie back, content that his immune system is being strengthened with every suck, that your emotional bond is deepening and that your child shall never develop eczema or diabetes.
This does not happen, and yet again you writhe in pain (like a million deep paper cuts sprinkled with salt) as the little one tries to fill his tummy, and then possets a mouthful of red milk, stained from the blood from your bleeding nipples. So you think “ENOUGH!!!!… I have to stop this madness. I am crying too much, my husband thinks I am depressed, my sister does not want to see any more photos of my decimated nipples, my family cannot bear to see me looking so bloody miserable, my friends cannot take any more moaning and my poor baby is not getting the love and attention he deserves from me because right now I cannot bare the sight of him and his hungry bird mouth that is causing me all this pain”
And so this is how the mental battle continues…your breasts are full of milk! The milk designed for your baby, to help him grow and protect him from various nasties. But you cannot get it into him without excessive pain, or a breast pump. Anyone who has tried to pump exclusively whilst maintaining a semblance of a normal life and their own sanity will know that it is very very difficult and requires additional sacrifices. To maintain supply, you need to pump as many times as your baby feeds, 8 times a day for us, including twice in the night, making both sleep and socialising very difficult. Socialising, although not top of the list for many, is the one thing that kept me sane with a difficult baby. I was not prepared to sit at home all day so I could pump, feed, sterlise, pump, feed, sterilise, (repeat ad infinitum). And if/when the second baby comes along and the breastfeeding problems are identical, then attempting the above with a demanding 21 month old in tow is nigh on impossible.
So, what did I do? I gave up! (at 16 weeks with Wilf and 10 weeks with Gus) Even now, it gives me a lump in my throat to think about that. I failed both my sons in the most basic of ways. I couldn’t feed them properly. But, the pain I was enduring, combined with a lack of sleep, alien hormones whizzing around my body and the simple matter of adjusting to a new life with a new human just proved to be much. Something had to give and I felt like it was either my sanity or the breastfeeding.
I asked a neo natal consultant if this was a first world problem? Was I not tough enough, was I giving in too easily? What would have happened if I lived in a hut in the third world…would my children have starved to death? She laughed…”No…you would live with your mother, aunt, granny and sisters and they would either support you every day/hour until you cracked it, or they would feed the baby themselves like a wet nurse.” Although irrelevant to my life and family set-up here in the UK in the 21st century, this image still gives me comfort and hope for others who are struggling.
My advice to any mother who is struggling to breastfeed, is to try your hardest, seek help, spend some money on buying/hiring a decent pump and anything that you think might make things easier, but do not continue to your mental detriment. There is no point imploring you not to feel guilty about giving up, because sadly, society and our raging hormones make that almost impossible, but if you have given it your best then please do not dwell too much on something that is beyond your control.
N.B…. despite their time on formula, my boys do not have eczema and are not often ill and I am pleased to report that as soon as I stopped breastfeeding, the bonding began (coincidence? Maybe not?) and my skin no longer crawls when they cry! Nor did I ever throw either of them across the room, despite the urges when the pain was at its worst!
You may like the following articles
This brilliant article by Charlotte Young, IBCLC “How to Prevent and Treat Sore Nipples”
Also by Charlotte Young, IBCLC “Mixing Bottle and Breast, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing”
By Claire Byam-Cook, SRN SCM “Nipple Shields”
By Hanna Rosin “The Case Against Breastfeeding”