Breast may be best, but bottles aren't the end of the world . . .
A 'Superfood for Babies' report praises breastfeeding, writes Anna Maxted – but what about those who can't do it?
Published 21/02/2013 | 06:00
We all go a little mad preparing for our first baby. My husband stayed up till 1am, painting murals on the nursery wall. I commissioned curtains; they have to be gauzy, I told the bemused seamstress, these curtains must flutter in the breeze for the baby.
My quest for maternal perfection persisted beyond the birth; my son barely met his father before being introduced to my nipple.
I threw away the free formula sample I'd been sent. Ten days in, the community nurse visited. "You're not making enough milk," she said. "He's lost 10pc of his body weight." I cannot express the shock and self-loathing I felt, the sense of failure. I couldn't fulfil the most basic duty, of providing my child with nourishment.
It's a shame, then, that 'Superfood For Babies', this week's sobering report from international charity Save the Children – which recommends that formula milk packaging should carry huge, cigarette-style health warnings – is being publicised in First World countries. Its message: 95 babies could be saved every hour worldwide if new mothers breastfed immediately after birth.
This information is essential in Third World countries, where babies die because mothers are pressurised into feeding them harmful alternatives, like coffee, ash, sugared water, if they can't produce enough milk themselves.
There, health workers are encouraged to market breast milk substitutes to vulnerable mothers. But it is inappropriate for example in the UK, where 81pc of new mothers try to breastfeed – up from 76pc in 2005. Neither the health of those who opt for formula nor their babies will be improved by public shaming.
Clare Byam-Cook, former nurse, midwife, and breast feeding counsellor, and author of Top Tips for Breastfeeding, says: "I understand the importance of promoting breastfeeding in developing countries, but babies dying in the Third World have nothing to do with babies being formula-fed in Britain.
"Lots of mothers don't produce enough milk. Not just a significant minority – loads. In the old days, mothers who didn't produce enough milk either went to the village wet nurse and begged for milk, or they had malnourished babies. It's not a modern problem," says Byam-Cook.
"Just because breastfeeding is natural, that doesn't mean it works perfectly for everyone. My local dairy farmer has his prize dairy cows, but he also has some that produce so little milk that he slaughters them, because milking them is a waste of time. Their inability to produce milk has nothing to do with not being committed to breastfeeding or not having a good enough diet – they're all in a field, munching away – it happens in the animal world."
Yet there is little public acknowledgement of this fact, which makes mothers feel wretched. I'd attended NCT classes, read my Penelope Leach and knew what was due to my baby.
I was so susceptible to expert opinion about the evils of formula that even though my child was skinny, starving, screaming at my empty breast in the black of night, I refused to feed him a bottle.
Finally, one morning at 2am I called the hospital for advice; the midwife shouted down the phone to give him formula. My husband drove to an all-night chemist and bought the offending article. The baby drained 200ml of cow's milk and fell asleep, sated.
I, meanwhile, was hysterical. I hired a lactation consultant, who instructed me that all mothers make enough milk, I must try harder. Our plan involved me rising at 5am to express. Fenugreek tea would stimulate supply, so I drank it till I reeked.
It was a miracle that my son learnt to smile, in our tense, breast-obsessed household. Kathryn Rawe, policy adviser at Save the Children and one of the authors of 'Superfood for Babies', says the report "recognises that women who can't produce milk do need formula".
"But in developing countries, breastfeeding is a life or death matter," she continues. "The campaign is about empowering women who don't feel able to make a choice about feeding their children, and about getting breast-milk substitute companies to act responsibly.
'I have 20 cartons of formula milk on my desk, and the labels (that breastfeeding is ideal) are tinier than a postage stamp. As products cross borders, we need a standardised message."
Of course – but when I was forced to go "suboptimal", as the report has it, I felt shame and guilt, even as my baby grew chubby and happy on formula. Such is the psyche of the neurotic new mother, who believes perfection is possible and that to be a good parent she must attain it.
The 'Superfood for Babies' report is of global importance. It reminds us how lucky we are in the First World to know that breast is preferable, and to have a choice about how we feed our babies. But let's also remember that, sometimes, mother knows best.