Is breastfeeding really best?

Mum of five Aileen Hickie says mothers should not be bullied into breastfeeding if they don’t want to

Aileen Hickie

Breastfeeding is one of the sacred cows of modern parenting. The "breast is best" mantra has lost none of its emphasis or militancy and the breastfeeding mafia has grown in strength and numbers over the years.

Breastfeeding causes women to judge other women. Women, be they relations, friends, acquaintances or complete strangers, seem to feel strangely comfortable interrogating new mothers as to whether they are breastfeeding or not. And if not, then why not?

No other aspect of parenting engenders the same amount of tut-tutting or even open criticism of those who either cannot or choose not to breastfeed.

Yummy mummies and other over-achieving middle class women seem to think, quite arrogantly, that it's their God-given duty to inform the sisterhood that breastfeeding is a requirement that brooks no excuses. Indeed, not just a requirement, it is the ultimate badge of responsible parenting. Shame on those who put a bottle of prepared feed anywhere near their precious bundle of joy.

It is as though formula is the devil's milk, only invented for second-rate mothers. With those standards, it won't be long before those women will be feeding their children sugary drinks and fast food and then a diet of endless television, a Facebook account and other steps on the slippery slope of bad parenting.

The difficulties of being a mother mean that women need the support and approval of their peers. Yet those who don't breastfeed can be made to feel inadequate and guilty by those who can be called 'breastfeeding bullies'.

From midwives and other trained professionals in maternity hospitals to the disapproving mothers at the school gate; all fall into the category of breastfeeding Nazis.

The women who choose to breastfeed believe their child will get the most nutritionally balanced diet from birth and build its immune system. It may help their post-baby weight loss, too. Fair enough.

Other women choose to formula feed for many other reasons, some physical and some psychological. There may be difficulty in getting their baby to latch on, inability to breastfeed, post-partum depression or issues of self-consciousness about breastfeeding in public. There may be a need to get back to work quickly or other family considerations that mean the time commitment for breastfeeding is not an option.

Surely whichever method a woman chooses is best for her baby; if the mother is happy and comfortable then it is likely that the baby will be happier and less stressed. Stress is far more detrimental to a baby's well-being than not breastfeeding. A child can be clever and healthy without mother's milk.

How a woman feeds her baby should be a personal choice. It should not be questioned or criticised or the subject of negative feedback, no matter what path a woman decides to take.

While some breastfeeding advocates undoubtedly put too much pressure on women to breastfeed, similarly there is a certain segment of women who try to push women to bottle-feed. And wrong information -- such as that the baby is not getting enough milk and isn't satisfied or that breastfeeding ties you down too much -- can also be given.

Paradoxically, the organisations that give the most support to mothers who want to breastfeed place the least pressure on wavering mothers who are trying to weigh up the pros and cons of breastfeeding or bottle-feeding.

The La Leche League of Ireland is a voluntary organisation that provides information and support to women, but only those who want to breastfeed. They do not actively recruit mothers. Instead, their help and experience has to be sought by mothers -- which is how it should be.

It was during a pre-natal class at my maternity hospital 12 years ago that I first encountered pressure to breastfeed. I was seven months pregnant with our first child and had not fully thought through how I would be feeding my newborn. But I still remember with blinding clarity the tone and insistence of the midwife that I, and the other pregnant mums in the class, would be breastfeeding -- make no mistake about it.

Thinking I had no choice, I learned all the necessary information and techniques -- as far as possible, as I didn't actually have a baby yet! I bought the breastfeeding bras, front-opening pyjamas, breast pads and everything else I was told I would require.

My issue was mainly about breastfeeding in public -- or even in front of just family and friends. I knew I could just stay indoors but neither did I want to be tied to the house for six months or more. I also needed to be back in work when the baby was about six weeks old -- not on a permanent basis, but I would need to be in work periodically because of the nature of my job.

It was my mother, a former midwife herself, who finally addressed the issue, advising me not to breastfeed unless I was 100pc comfortable with the idea as she felt it would be more damaging to the baby if I was stressed. She had bottle-fed four healthy children and I remembered as a child seeing a tin of formula on the kitchen windowsill to feed my younger siblings. It is still a pleasant image and reminds me of a happy childhood.

Once I had decided not to breastfeed, it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I faced the labour and birth with new enthusiasm. Once my eldest child was born there was one last attempt made by a hospital midwife to get me to breastfeed. But to no avail and my baby girl had her first bottle when she was an hour old and sucked happily on that and every one thereafter.

We have since had four other healthy children and they have all been bottle-fed and all were hugely contented babies. Some slept and some didn't as is the case with all babies. They got their share of childhood illnesses but no more than breastfed babies I know.

Am I happy that I opted not to breastfeed? Absolutely. Would I condemn another mother for choosing to breastfeed? Of course not. Everyone is entitled to their free choice without being made to feel guilty for it.