The aim of this series is to get beyond the mother-blaming which goes with the abstract way breastfeeding is pitted against bottle feeding to show that, in reality, it is a lot more complex. Mothers usually use whatever methods seem right at the time to do their best to feed their babies, often in the face of a tremendous lack of support and an absence of shared wisdom, or even interventions from health professionals which are experienced as unhelpful.
If you would like to contribute to this series, please send in 200-700 words about your own experience feeding your baby to email@example.com. Submissions can be published anonymously.
When I gave birth to my daughter in the morning, she was placed briefly on my chest, then taken away, checked and weighed while my episiotomy was stitched up, and soon returned to me so I could breastfeed her for the first time. She latched on and sucked for 45 minutes. And, after we had put some clothes on her, fell into such a deep, peaceful, motionless sleep that a few hours later I asked my partner to get someone to come and check if she was ok. “Baby’s tired! She’s allowed to sleep” was the perfectly reasonable response from the midwife who came.
By late afternoon another midwife asked me to fill in a feeding chart. When I said I hadn’t fed her since she was born, the woman looked shocked and explained that newborns needed to be fed every few hours. I felt a mix of confusion, surprise, panic, fear. I expected a baby to cry when it was hungry. Why hadn’t I thought to feed her? I was already a bad mother. I immediately tried breastfeeding, but she wasn’t interested – probably due to sheer exhaustion – so I had to express milk. The first few days breastmilk is called colostrum. It is thick and yellow and densely nutritious, so the baby with its tiny stomach (the size of a marble) only needs a little to get by. But expressing colostrum isn’t easy. I sat on the hospital bed squeezing my nipples while the midwife showed me how to draw the slow-forming golden droplets into a syringe to feed my child.
In the middle of the night we moved into another bedroom and I asked the midwife on duty about feeding. He offered to give my daughter formula, if we were worried that she wasn’t getting enough milk. We accepted, but she firmly refused a bottle (this never changed – bottle teats and dummies were spat out as if we’d insulted her intelligence with such a poor excuse for the real thing). The midwife reassured us that she seemed alert and well.
At home I slowly gained confidence that she was drinking enough milk. With each pee and poo, with each successful weigh-in and new dot on the growth chart, I started to believe she was getting what she needed into her system. But breastfeeding was really hard. To have a little creature painfully sucking on one of the most private bits of my body was strange enough, but she would only do it for a few seconds before coming off the nipple and arching her neck back, or looking up at me and starting to cry because she wanted more. And I would think – well, why did you stop then?! She would feed-stop-feed-stop for a few minutes until she was about satisfied, but an hour later she’d want to eat again.
I talked to midwives, to health visitors. Some saw this pattern as problematic, others were more sanguine. Everyone said something different. I made sure she was comfortable, lying flat, I checked her latch was good. I waited two hours between feeds so she’d be really hungry and eat more steadily, but it just meant she was miserable for the second hour. This was how she wanted to feed, twenty-four seven, for the first three months (after that her feeding began to settle). And because I didn’t want to constantly expose my breasts while she fed, I didn’t really leave the house that whole time.
What is political about this, you might ask, one personal story of breastfeeding? Everything, I would answer. The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Our society is deeply uncomfortable with women’s bodies doing anything other than meeting men’s desires, and this is particularly true of breasts. If I hadn’t grown up in this place, understanding that my body was being surveyed and assessed all the time, even fully clothed, I doubt I would have felt so unhappy about possibly revealing my breasts in public to feed my child. I was lucky that I had the time and space and support network of friends and family and a wonderful partner to basically sit indoors trying to breastfeed my daughter for the first few months of her life, without succumbing to isolation or stress and simply giving up.
On the other side of the coin, the NHS also fails to treat women as competent, adult human beings, with its simplistic advice to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months. There is mounting evidence that solids should be introduced earlier, to avoid mineral deficiencies and reduce the risk of food allergies. It seems the inaccurate guidance is patronisingly designed to encourage more women to breastfeed for longer, on the assumption that very few people will actually follow it fully.
It is such a shame that the NHS does not trust women with the facts. Because they are that: breastfeeding is great for babies, it is free, and most women can do it, given the right information and support. And it can absolutely continue while a baby starts solids. If the venerated institution of our National Health Service cannot accept the complexity of breastfeeding and treat women as grown-ups, what hope is there for the rest of us? How can we get past the adolescent misogyny that refuses to accept breasts in any other role than propped up, expectant, in a lacy bra? As the poet Hollie McNish puts it, “in this country of billboards covered in tits” why do some people think it such a problem to glimpse a flash of particular flesh while a woman feeds her child? Why is that so threatening? Earlier this year a breastfeeding woman was asked by a member of staff to ‘cover up’ in an outdoor courtyard of the cultured, metropolitan space of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It happened in the middle of World Breastfeeding Week. We have a long way to go.
Photo: Torbein Rønning
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