On Infant Feeding, Hurt Feelings and The One Thing Which Might Have Helped Me To Breastfeed

On How To Help Women Breastfeed (And Why We Shouldn't Judge Them If They Don't)

World Breastfeeding Week was earlier this month and, in the parent blogging arena, the same thing happened which always seems to happen: lots of people wrote about their experiences of breastfeeding; lots of people wrote about their experiences of formula feeding; and then lots of people started getting defensive.

Some women who breastfed felt that they were being accused of smugness; they felt that formula feeders were attacking them for showing off.

Some women who formula fed felt that they were being accused of selfishness; they felt that breast feeders were calling them bad mothers.

And lots of people started making statements about what "everybody" feels and "nobody" thinks, when what they really meant was "I and the people I know".

The thing is: yes, there are people out there who are vocal about how terrible they believe one or the other approach to be, but they're mostly loitering in social media comments sections; it's rare that I see them write a blog post.

Generally, when a woman is writing about how she fed her baby, all she's doing is telling her story.

Because that's what mothers do.

We tell each other our stories of giving birth because we're still processing this enormous thing which happened to us; we tell each other our stories of sleep deprivation because we're still figuring out the best way of getting through it; we tell each other our stories of infant feeding because - whichever method we ended up using - it took us what felt like a long time to settle into a rhythm which worked for us. We tell these stories because we're trying to make sense of them in our heads and we tell them to other mothers because, most of the time, they more or less understand.

Sometimes we tell these stories online.

I understand women wanting to write about successful breastfeeding. I didn't manage it myself, but I've seen so many women I know struggling with the early days (and the later nights and the return to work); persevering is a huge achievement - there may be pride or there may be amazement or there may be a whole host of other emotions, good, bad and all equally valid, and it's normal to want to write about that. It's also normal to want to tell other new mothers "it got better for me; I believe it could get better for you".

I understand women wanting to write about formula feeding. I understand why World Breastfeeding Week, in particular, causes women to do so - I do understand why a lot of people think it's inappropriate timing ("Positive stories only! We're trying to promote breastfeeding not scare people off!"), but I do find the week-long barrage of success stories a bit of a punch in the gut; it makes sense that World Breastfeeding Week stirs up old sorrows or regret or guilty relief, and that women sit down and try to work through those emotions in a blog post. It's also normal to want to tell other new mothers "you don't have to suffer, if it's not what you want".

Telling our stories does not mean we're saying that other people's stories are any less important than our own. It does not mean we're saying that other people are wrong to make different choices from ourselves. We're not talking about other people's actions and experiences (unless we expressly say that we are); we are talking about ourselves.

Even in the notoriously tactless comments section, a lot of people don't intend to hurt the blogger's feelings by talking about their own, very different experiences; they're often just going "Oh, oh! Let me tell you what happened to me!"

* * *

My personal story of switching to formula feeding is brief but still causes me pain. 

I am completely happy with how formula feeding worked out for our family - it had enormous benefits for both Steve and for me, our child is strong, smart, healthy and kind, and every time - Every.Single.Time - I listened to other mothers talking about breastfeeding I felt like I'd had a lucky escape.

But the short journey to the formula feeding decision was stressful - I felt undermined by the paediatricians who wouldn't discharge from Matilda from the neonatal unit until I could prove she would get enough milk (formula feed or leave her behind in the hospital?); I felt threatened when they told me that, if she lost weight, she would be immediately readmitted; I felt like a failure as a mother because my child couldn't stay awake long enough to keep herself alive; and I felt attacked by all the men (always men) who felt the need to tell me how easy and important it is to breastfeed.

Those pains are all still there, to some degree. In fact, they're there to such a degree that a large part of me doesn't even want to attempt to breastfeed, second time around. I do plan to try, but I also worry what it could mean for my mental health if it doesn't all go smoothly. Women who start off breastfeeding but stop early on have a higher risk of developing postnatal depression than women who either breastfeed successfully or bottle feed by choice - the studies don't examine why that's the case but, for me, starting off motherhood feeling guilty, paranoid and like I was an incompetent mother because I couldn't feed my child was not a great place to be; I made a conscious choice to stop before my emotions spiralled any further downwards.

* * *

There is a fantastic amount of support out there for women who want to breastfeed and are in the right emotional place to ask for it.

If you can bring yourself to pick up a phone and tell a stranger, "I'm struggling", there are helplines.

If you have the confidence to let somebody into your home to see what you're doing, there are specialists who can come and visit you.

If you are organised enough to bundle up your newborn baby and take them to a breastfeeding group, there are places you can go to chat to other parents.

I don't like phone calls; I couldn't cope with any more constructive criticism; I wasn't brave enough to take my howling, hungry newborn on a long bus journey which would end in a public place. Perhaps next time around I'll be in a better place to cope with these things. Last time around, I was not. Formula was the right choice for me.

* * *

But you know what would have helped? 

Not a bunch of strangers, no matter how empathetic or highly trained or well stocked with nipple shields; what would have helped was Steve getting a decent amount of parental leave.

When he was there with me, I could cope. Just about. I could attempt to breastfeed and burst into tears, knowing that somebody who loved our child and who I completely trusted would hold her and feed her her formula, while I fell apart in the corner. I knew he would hug me afterwards, tell me he supported me regardless, and give me the strength to have another go later.

Sending him back to work after his statutory two weeks paternity leave (plus one week of holiday leave - whoo, lucky us) took away that safety net. I could not face falling apart without him; I was scared of what that could mean for our baby and I was scared of what that could mean for my mental health.

Perhaps, if the government wants to drag the national level of sustained breastfeeding up to something they can feel proud of, they should start by considering not just how many leaflets they can heap upon the lactating mother but on how they can enable the other parent to help. The UK has a very low rate of sustained breastfeeding; it also has one of the least generous parental leave policies - to me, it seems obvious that the two things go hand in hand.

New mothers are coming out of a world in which they feel capable and confident - they're good at their careers; they spend all day surrounded by workmates; they contribute financially; they have friends they see in familiar places; they know how they fit into their own and other people's lives. Then, suddenly, they find themselves left alone all day (or week or month) with a new baby they're not entirely sure they're able to look after - I mean, god, they can't even get the kid to drink some milk - and we expect them to pull themselves together and soldier on.

And, let's not forget: two weeks is also the point when the mother's care is handed from the community midwife she has (hopefully) bonded with and come to trust to a health visitor she has never previously met.

It's no wonder women feel unable to cope with - not just breastfeeding, but - the assorted challenges of early parenthood.

We need to ensure that new mothers have people around who they know and love and trust, who can support them for more than just a couple of weeks after the birth and, then, for more than just a handful of sleep deprived hours after they finish work.

Or, at least, I think it could have made a world of difference to me.

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