Tuesday 30 December 2014

Is breast always best?

Photograph: Justin Paget/Corbis, The Guardian
I'm currently sat breastfeeding my six week old baby. This comes somewhat of a surprise to me because I fully intended to formula feed him from day one, and would have done so had he not fed well from the offset. The first skin to skin in the hospital was like something out of an NHS 'how to breastfeed' DVD, all that was missing was the new age pan pipe music playing in the background. If this had been my first ever attempt at breastfeeding I would perhaps have been ignorantly less understanding of mothers who chose to formula feed.

My firstborn, however, had the feeding instinct of a baby seal eating breakfast at The Ritz. He was a far cry from what the health professionals told me I could expect – I was in pain from day one and my baby screamed at my breast every feeding time but I was told that was simply part of the 'learning curve'. After weeks of pain and bleeding, a breastfeeding support worker, two midwives, a health visitor and a call to the doctors later, all that could be concluded was that my baby was just extra hungry. They seemed happy that he was putting on weight and therefore my pain was secondary – insignificant, even. Looking back maybe I didn't emphasise just how much pain I was in, but I was a first time mum and what did I know? This was the first revelation that mothers were expected to put their needs on the back burner to do what was 'best' for their baby at literally all costs. 

The next couple of months were tough and the night feeds, unbearable. I would meet up with other mothers who seemed to be enjoying breastfeeding and it made me feel hard done by. Why couldn't I enjoy it too? On top of this, the pressure to carry on breastfeeding was high, with every health professional telling me not to give him any formula whatsoever. They patted me on the back for persevering, telling me what a good job I was doing, while I wallowed in self pity and resented feeding times. This was not the bonding experience I was promised. I carried on for nearly four months until I couldn't take any more and I sobbed as I gave him his first bottle of formula, led to believe it was on a par with feeding him arsenic. He guzzled it back happily and he seemed contented for the first time ever but this did not stop me feeling guilty or judged by a huge percentage of mothers and health professionals. 

I had many reasons for not wanting to go through the anguish of having another child but breastfeeding was high up on my list. It sounded a pathetic reason not to have another baby – 'you can always bottle feed,' they would say. Of course I could, but I was all too aware of the connotations of that decision once my darling baby had arrived. Deciding to bottle feed baby number two, however, was something that I felt I had to do for my own sanity, knowing how reluctant I am to quit anything once I start. I drip fed my decision to close friends and relatives early so that they were prepared for my 'reckless' parenting choice. I even spent a whole afternoon researching medical papers on breastfeeding and formula feeding and was surprised by how manipulated the facts are by health professionals. I concluded that formula, although secondary, was still a pretty healthy alternative to breast milk and I didn't have a problem with feeding it to my baby because, for me, the pros outweighed the cons.

When my second baby was born I realised that my experience the first time around was far from normal. I now understood what it meant for breastfeeding to be a bonding experience – I had no pain whatsoever and he fed like a dream. This time around couldn't have been more different from my first experience but those dreadful memories of feeding my firstborn came to the forefront of my mind all too soon. On my first night in the hospital I could hear the sobs of a lady in the bed opposite me as she attempted to feed her baby. He screamed unless he was at her breast and so she called out for help from the midwives because she was exhausted and in pain. They told her there was nothing she could do except to feed him formula. By the second night this poor woman was beyond herself and a midwife took the baby and fed him to give her a break. "I've failed my baby!" she cried. This lady was already feeling bad enough as it was, but the next morning a midwife came to me and reeled off the 'facts' about breastfeeding, one being that giving ANY formula would destroy all the good work the breast milk had done. The lady in the bed opposite overheard and burst into tears.

I'm not sure why women are presented with such an 'all or nothing' attitude to feeding. Sure, exclusively breastfeeding means that the baby has more protection against illnesses, but any breastmilk still passes on antibodies to the baby. No one will tell you that for fear of the unquestionable NHS guidelines. I have no idea why formula has become such a taboo when it is so readily available in hospitals and has had years of medical research to improve it. The pressure on women to breastfeed is unfair. I was led to believe that formula feeding was the selfish option, as though women were solely thinking of their own convenience and not giving the 'best' to their babies, but this is a totally unfair conclusion that leaves already vulnerable women feeling hopeless. We are expected to put our physical health over our mental health, as though we should be perfectly able to function on three hours sleep a day and take any pain and difficulties on the head. 

My experience of breastfeeding this time around has not come without it's difficulties, but because of my first experience I was not prepared to go through that again. After a week or so my baby had oral thrush and I was in excruciating pain feeding but I was quick to get help when I had problems and had no issues with introducing formula when the pain got too intense. I felt like I was coping really well and was pleased I had manage to breastfeed against the odds, yet when I told health professionals I was combination feeding I was met with disapproval. Despite me telling them it was working really well for me and my family I still received a list of reasons why combination feeding is a no-no. 

Now let me tell you what that disapproving attitude does to mothers – it makes us feel like failures. It makes us either 'give up' or carry on with breastfeeding out of duty and not love. When I exclusively breastfed my firstborn I was told I was doing 'ever so well' but I would like to suggest that this phrase is highly unhelpful for both breast and bottle feeders. I was not doing well at all, my mental health was at an all time low and reeling off NHS guidelines was doing nothing to appease me. What was insinuated was that I was doing well to suffer; well to give up on sleep; well to squash my relationships; well to forget about my own wellbeing; well to become a martyr. Clearly, I was not doing well at all. Of course, no medic will ever tell you to go give your baby formula to give yourself a break, but once a mother has made a decision to do so this should be respected. If a woman feels supported, she is more likely to listen to advice and try again if she feels able. What I am saying is that mental health needs to be more carefully considered when new mothers are fed information.

This time round I am told it is a 'shame' I've had to introduce formula. Well let me tell you it is neither a shame nor something that I had to do; it came out of a place of freedom and self respect; one that has enabled me to carry on breastfeeding where I would otherwise have stopped; one that has enabled me to spend time with my other child so I am not constantly stuck in a chair feeding, prioritising my baby over him. It's ironic that now I've upped the breastfeeds again because it's easy and convenient (both entirely selfish reasons) I get a pat on the back for it. Well, I deserved more of a pat on the back the first time around when I introduced formula in order to restore my mental health and relationships. Don't let anyone fool you that formula feeding is always the easy option – a decision that goes against the grain takes a lot of guts and no woman would ever make that choice if she felt her baby was at harm.

So I'm here to tell you that you're doing well whether you formula feed or breastfeed because no doubt your choices have been deeply considered. Neither should have to jump to their defence but instead be encouraged to support one another. What is 'best' is not only about physical health but mental and emotional health too. Only you will know what is best for your family.

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