The media were up in arms last week, as the story broke that 27 year old Emily Slough had dared to breastfeed her eight month old daughter Matilda in a public place in the middle of Rugeley, Staffordshire.
Not that this would normally have made the national news – on this occasion it became a huge story as an unnamed member of the public was quick enough to take an unsolicited picture of Emily and her daughter from across the street, then thoughtfully posted it on a Facebook page, accused Ms Slough of ‘letting your kid feast on your nipple’, and labelled her a ‘tramp’.
Cue the predictable social media storm which inevitably follows any stupid thing anyone does online these days. Within a few short days, mass protests were taking place around the country as mums publicly breastfed their babies in force to support the rights of breastfeeding mothers everywhere – the right to feed their baby anywhere without prejudice, ridicule or humiliation.
This shouldn’t still be necessary. But even in these relatively relaxed times where most public establishments would state that they are happy to allow breastfeeding on their premises, there is still the feeling that some would really prefer you to do it elsewhere, lest you send the other customers running in horror from the small person having lunch. Organisations may be more accepting of the practice, but there are still plenty of individuals who feel inexplicably queasy at the whole idea of nature’s nutrition, and would rather you feed your baby in the toilets, or just never leave the house, so that they don’t have to see your depraved act for themselves. The attitude of our Facebook-posting friend will not be an isolated one.
When it comes to breastfeeding, which seems to be constantly shrouded in a cloud of controversy anyway, mums are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Women are told from the second their pregnancy test shows positive that breast is best, and that breast milk alone is all that your baby could possibly want and need. Filled with the perfect combination of nutrients and packed with immunity-building antibodies, any other option would be akin to feeding your newborn with a bottle of Coca-Cola. Who would possibly consider a synthetic, man-made alternative?
Well, I would, actually. Because it should be my choice. And a lot of women don’t actually feel like they have one.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful ideal, but not something all women find easy or appealing – a viewpoint that breastfeeding advocates find difficult to understand. If breastfeeding was that simple, there would be no need for community peer support groups, or infant feeding coordinators, or specialist hospital nursery nurses to help new mums get the hang of this apparently most natural of practices.
Midwives and maternity services do their utmost to promote breastfeeding as the best and healthiest option for babies, and they rightly should as there are undeniable benefits to it, particularly very early on, but this should be done sensitively in such a way as to provide alternative options to women and allow them to make a personal choice they are happy with, and more importantly, not to punish themselves if they find breastfeeding too hard. An unsatisfied baby and a stressed out, worried mummy do not make for a good combination.
It breaks my heart when I read stories and comments from mums who feel they have somehow failed their baby by not succeeding at breastfeeding; that they have not been able to provide the best for them; that they are being negatively judged by breastfeeding mums for relying on formula instead of what nature intended. However bad breastfeeding women have been made to feel by not being accepted in a public place, or by the odd disapproving look of an onlooker, imagine how it feels for those mums pulling a bottle filled with formula out of the changing bag – somehow appearing more acceptable to passers-by, but being maligned and judged by their peers, and racked with guilt that they have gone against the advice of their maternity care providers in not giving their baby the best they could.
I tried to breastfeed; I intended to – but I just couldn’t make it work. With a new baby born at 37 weeks, and only a few grams over the threshold for low birthweight thanks to the growth restricting effects of pre-eclampsia, I was feeding my son on a hospital postnatal ward for four days after he was born. Like clockwork, every three hours, day and night, I was woken by the nursery nurse who would help me get him attached, and would leave him to have his fill. He was also supplemented with ready-made formula after every feed to ensure he was getting enough nutrition as he was so small.
I was given an electric breast pump on the ward to try and encourage my milk flow, but I found it difficult to use, noisy and hugely uncomfortable. I was worn out after a traumatic delivery and sore enough already without feeling like a cow attached to a milking machine. I couldn’t use it.
Once at home, I persisted with breastfeeding but Joe just never seemed satisfied with it. His weight had dropped and we had a real concern he wasn’t feeding enough. He would suckle contentedly but would cry with hunger just a short time later and we were convinced something was wrong. Almost in desperation, we gave him a little bottle of the formula he had been given in the hospital that we had brought home with us. He drained it dry and slept like the proverbial baby.
From that moment on, he was formula-fed; I continued to put him to the breast every day up to about six months of age, but it was for comfort more than anything else, both his and mine. I loved the closeness it brought, it eased some of the guilt, but knew I wasn’t giving him much. He needed his bottles. And in the face of everything we are told about the pitfalls of formula, he thrived. He put on weight steadily and at three and a half is now a healthy height and weight, and is an intelligent and lively boy who is rarely ill. Not bad considering I couldn’t give him ‘the best’.
The very formula brand that satisfied my son so well has to advertise its own product on TV with the disclaimer that ‘breast milk is the best food for your baby, and nothing compares to it’. No other type of product has to tell its potential customers that they are the second best option available. But this is how formula feeding mums are made to feel. Letting the side down. Settling for the mediocre. Not concerned with the wellbeing of their child. This is neither fair nor right.
From a purely scientific perspective, the huge amount of sometimes questionable research into breastfeeding available on the Internet cannot conclusively prove all of the lauded benefits and there are a couple of interesting articles here and here among others that cast doubt on whether some of the claimed good effects can be attributed to breastfeeding alone.
Ultimately mums are damned by the moronic individuals in society who think breastfeeding is something which should be conducted behind closed doors and damned by the judgmental attitudes of those who think formula feeding is something to be ashamed of. Is the latter viewpoint really much better than the first? Being holier than thou about infant feeding is in my opinion just as bad as being ignorant about it.
It is not up to me how other women choose to feed their baby, or indeed how they have to. It is none of my concern. No mum should feel guilty, or judged, or have to put up with the disapproving stares of others, regardless of whether her baby has a nipple or a bottle in its mouth. Mums need support and acceptance as they find their way with their little one – and if members of wider society won’t provide this, we need to help each other, not turn on each other.
At the end of the day, love, not milk, is the most important nutrient of all.