Why it's time we were honest about our expectations of breastfeeding
The pressure to breastfeed has some mothers beating themselves up when it doesn't work out. Kathy Donaghy says no one should feel like a failure for deciding to bottle feed
Published 14/11/2013 | 21:30
When it comes to feeding your newborn baby, the battle of the breast versus the bottle is turning into a milk war in some circles.
Of all the many ways new mothers are judged, whether or not they breastfeed or not must be the most harsh.
Having come through labour (and it's not called labour for nothing), exhausted and drained, I believed the hard work was over and now I could relax and just feed my son as nature intended. The reality could not have been more different.
Breastfeeding my first child was not easy. In fact with hindsight it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. Experts of the lactation kind were called in to perfect the "latch", thousands of soothing cups of tea were drunk. The divorce lawyers were almost called in when in one of many moments of frustration my husband said: "Just give him a bottle".
When it all became too much, I handed my much loved baby son over to my mother while I took a break, had a good cry and tried again at this "most natural thing in the world".
Eventually it clicked and it did become the experience I had read about and hoped for and I breastfed my first son for a year.
When I look back I don't regret breastfeeding him but I do question the pressures that existed. Why was I so hell bent on breastfeeding? Who would have been critical if I had simply given him a bottle?
The pressures, quite simply, are coming from other women, for whom breastfeeding was straightforward. They're coming from health professionals who are not always supportive enough. They're also coming from interviews with celebrity supermums who credit breastfeeding with an overnight return to their pre-pregnancy selves.
As a new mum, I had bought into the "perfect mother" scenario in which I saw breastfeeding as the only option. To be honest I would have felt like a failure if I hadn't. The breast is best mantra I kept hearing wouldn't let me even think about an alternative.
Of course the research literature is there to back up the many health benefits of breastfeeding. There is also the sweetest joy that comes from nursing your baby. These are wonderful things.
But I sometimes wonder if breastfeeding has not become a middle-class obsession that dictates that you are somehow less of a mother if you don't breastfeed for at least six months and exclusively at that.
Many women I knew were devastated at the fact the breastfeeding experience they had hoped for was not to be. They beat themselves up on a daily basis for giving their new baby a bottle.
I met some women along the way whose obsession with all things breastfeeding was not healthy, including one who lambasted me for allowing my son to be fed a single bottle of express milk while I had a night out with my husband.
Another breastfeeding "guru" told me that boys who were breastfed were less likely to end up in prison. This is the kind of half-baked nonsense you end up listening to from people who are otherwise quite sensible.
I also encountered women who had negative experiences with health professionals. One mother, exhausted after giving birth to her child, had her husband bottle feed the baby so that she could get some sleep. The health professional told her the baby would never go back to the breast because the child would now have "nipple confusion".
After catching up with some much needed sleep and with a mixture of bottle and breast, this mother continued to breastfeed her child until she went back to work when the child was just short of a year old.
Being made to feel bad about not breastfeeding or not being purist enough about it is not going to help increase the rates of breastfeeding.
And it would appear highly unlikely that the UK initiative which will see shopping vouchers go to new mothers if they sign forms declaring that they have breastfed their child will work either.
From this week, new mothers living in parts of Yorkshire and Derbyshire will be offered £120 in vouchers for high-street chain stores like Argos, Debenhams and Poundstretcher and supermarkets Tesco, Asda and Morrissons, if they sign forms declaring that they have breastfed their child for six weeks with a further £80 at six months.
It seems to me that in tackling low breastfeeding rates it might make more sense to invest in post-natal support for women.
Ireland continues to have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world – only 55pc of mothers are feeding their babies this way when they leave hospital and by three months this has dropped to almost 39pc, according to the latest figures.
Perhaps it's time we stopped heaping pressure on women to say that as soon as they give birth they must breastfeed for six months. I breastfed my first son for a year but was happy to move on to bottles after two months with the second. It just wasn't working out great and it suited all of us better.
It's time to have an honest discussion about our expectations of breastfeeding. Women need to start with being honest with themselves and then being honest with one another about their experiences. There's just no point in being made to feel like a failure if you don't breastfeed.
I know what helped me on my journey to happily feeding my first child and then my second child was the support of other women. As well as my amazing mother, I had three good friends who had their first babies in or around the same time. We would meet up at various cafes in Dublin and swap stories about our journey so far. We exchanged tips on everything from breastfeeding to getting back to exercise.
Those non-judgmental conversations gave me the courage to continue to believe in my decision to breast feed.
Now these first babies are big boys and girls going to school. What will we tell them of their babyhood? Just that we did our best for them in every way.