We have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world with just 49pc of babies being exclusively breastfed when leaving the hospital. By 12 weeks, just 16pc of babies are exclusively breastfed. The WHO is working towards a global rate of 70pc of babies exclusively fed by their mother's breastmilk by 2030, and so they should.
Breast is best - we know this from the research and the public health messages. It benefits mother and baby, it gives the baby the best nutritional start. When it works, it is the most natural thing in the world, but when it doesn't, it can be quite hellish. The combination of hormones, lack of sleep and the sense of personal failure that struggling with something promoted as the most natural, primal, intuitive thing can be quite devastating.
One of the first decisions I made when I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter, was to breastfeed exclusively. I had read all the research about the benefits and I was determined to make it work. When my daughter arrived, I had a close friend who coached me through the excruciating, agonising first few weeks. Don't give in and give her formula, she told me. One day the pain will just go.
The pain lessened after a few weeks and had disappeared entirely after about six weeks. I fed her exclusively for nine weeks - except for the occasional pumped bottle of breast milk, at which time I introduced a bottle of formula one evening when, probably in the middle of a growth spurt, I just couldn't face another feed. I felt shame but I needed that break so I continued that nightly bottle thereafter. About six weeks later, I introduced another bottle of formula at lunch time and by about 22 weeks, I finished breastfeeding entirely. I was sad, and a bit disappointed with myself for not getting to six months as an exclusive breastfeeder, but I was also relieved.
My second daughter was born five years after the first and I looked forward to breastfeeding her, assuming that it would be no problem at all. I was planning on feeding her exclusively for as long as I could. This was my chance to redeem myself. After all, I had done it before and broken my boobs in, so as to speak... I couldn't have been more wrong.
The pain was so much worse this time - and she wouldn't latch for more than two or three minutes at a time. After three days of torture, still in hospital, I asked for a little bit of formula, just to calm her down and after drinking an ounce or so, I was able to try feeding her again. I did this once a day and managed to establish feeding, or so I thought.
As soon as I left hospital, it all fell apart. I couldn't cope with the pain and I really didn't want to give her too much formula as I had been told over and over that exclusive breastfeeding is essential to establish supply. I conceived her through IVF and she was born via C-section so I was determined to do this one organic thing for her. I felt bad that she had missed out on the benefits of a vaginal birth and I was terrified of compromising her gut bacteria further.
It was Christmas week and I had no public health nurse visits so I booked a private lactation consultant, which cost an absolute fortune (double what I paid for a private visit to a paediatrician). She checked the baby for tongue-tie, and ruled it out. She weighed the baby and said that she wasn't putting on enough weight and gave me a schedule for supplementing with formula and told me to hire a hospital-grade pump. This cost about €100 a month. I was also given a prescription for an antibiotic nipple cream as at this point I was cracked, bleeding and blistered.
A week later, I paid for another private consultation with a different consultant. I was still in agony despite changing latch and trying every possible position.This time, I was given the name of a craniosacral therapist (€60 a visit) and a number for a surgeon who specialised in tongue-tie. I was so tired, and so worn out and so upset, but I was determined to persevere.
(I was so desperate that I went to the craniosacral therapist a few times, despite my misgivings that it isn't backed up by scientific evidence - the baby seemed to like it but it made no difference to the latch or the pain; I made and cancelled the appointment with the tongue-tie surgeon.)
When I finally got to see the public health nurse (there had been a mix-up with my file and I didn't see her until well into January), she expressed amazement that anyone was ever worried about the weight of the baby and she told me I was doing a great job, whatever way I wanted to feed her. I wanted to hug her.
I kept going with the pump and eventually - when she was a few months old - I was feeding my daughter exclusively with breast milk - using just one breast, as the other remained extremely painful.
While my experience with my public health nurse was and continues to be amazing, I feel that the messages from the HSE, and from advocates - both official and self-appointed - should be more sensitive and balanced and take into account that for a lot of women, breastfeeding isn't that straightforward. Advice on breastfeeding, be it from midwives in the hospitals or consultants, can be contradictory and confusing for those of us who, despite trying every conceivable latching technique and position, still find the process painful.
We need a lot more research and clarity on things like tongue-tie. I found my experience with diagnosing tongue-tie nebulous and a bit unscientific.
When I look back at those early weeks now, putting myself through all that seems quite insane. I come from a family of five, some of whom were breastfed and some who weren't, and we are all fine and healthy.
I don't regret breastfeeding - I loved the closeness and the convenience and I continued until my daughter was a year-and-a-half, but I regret all the money I spent and the time I spent in absolute agony, and I do wonder whether it was worth that amount of pain.
Health & Living