During my midwife and doctor visits when I was pregnant I was often asked, “are you planning to breastfeed?” I always answered yes, it did seem strange to me though that it was any of their business. I hadn’t ever thought of doing anything other than breastfeeding and it wasn’t until I was pregnant that a new message started edging it’s way into my worry radar (like a pregnant woman needs any more).
“Breastfeeding is hard,” “Breastfeeding is very difficult, lots of women fail.”
I was determined not to be one of those women (the failed ones). I researched how to position a baby best, watched videos and felt ready for when my little one arrived. I had knowledge. As I edged closer to the birth along came the propaganda.
“Breastfeeding is magic milk, it will cure cancer!”, “Breastfed babies are more intelligent and healthy.” What kind of mother would withhold something so incredible from their child, I wondered. At the time I had a colleague who was a bit further along than me, she had already decided to formula feed her baby, she wan’t even going to try. Through my judgey glasses I was appalled, yeah she has diabetes and is worried about her own health, but what about the health of her baby! If breast was best, then what was formula feeding? Don’t we all want to do what’s “best” for our child?
Then along came Curly. It hurt a little on one side at first, and when the milk came in I spent a night with cabbage leaves plastered to my giant watermelons. But baby got the hang of things soon enough, so it seemed. By about day 6, I was sitting on the couch at my in-laws, surrounded by older fussing woman. “I’m just so glad she feeds well,” I remember saying “I feel sorry for women who can’t breastfeed.” High up on my horse I surveyed the landscape and smugly looked down at my healthy feeding baby.
In a matter of days I certainly came crashing down from that height (you can read about it here). My baby went from a healthy happy breastfeeder to a critically sick heart baby. Rushed to the Perth children’s hospital I had to express milk for about four days before I could even attempt feeding my little girl again. And when I did, it was a amongst a juggle of wires and drips. After her surgery I had to consider the great big scar that went from her should blade to under her arm (they thankfully didn’t have to do open heart). But Curly was tired easily and she screamed and screamed whenever we tried. I kept trying, topping her up with bottles of expressed milk, which she guzzled hungrily. Once out of the hospital I thought things would improve, away from the meddling and conflicting advice of the special care nurses. But she would struggle to feed and gradually stop wetting her nappies, so back to the bottles of expressed milk I would go. Six weeks old and she still hadn’t reached her birthweight. At this point I was so desperate for her to get healthy and put on weight. She still had a very narrow aorta and only putting on weight was going to help it grow bigger and stronger. The trauma of our hospital stay was starting to hit home, I was expressing full time (every three hours with a single breast pump), but with all the stress and anxiety I was barely able to pump any milk, let alone find adequate time to cuddle and bond with my daughter. We tried so many things, from syringe and cup feeding, to nipple shields and tubes, we even had her tongue-tie snipped.
At one point I remember phoning the breast-feeding association headquarters in Perth looking for support, I explained the situation and the tongue-tie clip, the nurse brusquely explained that it could be weeks before baby got the hang of feeding. That sent me over the edge, I was living in a personal hell of worry and anxiety and now I was being told this could go on indefinitely. I started to question my preconceived notions about formula, I just wanted to feed my baby, finally with the blessing of H and mum I gave her a bottle of formula. She was a different girl, happy, calm, sleeping well. I became a better mum, happy, calm and also sleeping well. I even started venturing outside of the house and seeing people again. It was like a huge weight had just been lifted off my shoulders and thrown away. I could finally feel assured that my daughter was getting the sustenance she needed in order to grow healthy and strong.
I grieved for a long time at not being able to breastfeed. I became angry at the pro-breastfeeding messages out there, to me they seemed almost militant in their propaganda, I felt so guilty and everything I read about breastfeeding was telling me I had failed my daughter. Each poster of a skinny, beautiful mum casually breastfeeding her baby with one arm whilst sipping a cappuccino with the other, her tiny breast barely showing and the tagline “Breastfeeding is what we do”, would disillusion me even further. Where were the pictures of what breastfeeding really looked like for the majority of women, these brochures and posters were no better than glossy women’s magazines that parade size 6 woman as the norm. It was yet another event in a growing line of things that I hadn’t planned for and couldn’t control, my miscarriages, a difficult birth, heart surgery, and now a baby who couldn’t feed. Despite formula being the best thing for my daughter, even then it was still a long journey until she could confidently drink what she needed from a bottle (but that’s for another post).
In my anger I began to research the realities behind the broad claims of breast milk as a wonder liquid. What I found was very little convincing science on the topic. Statistical data that didn’t take into account significant confounding factors. Most concerns were to do with access to clean, fresh drinking water – of which I’m blessed to have an abundance of. I already found myself bonding much more with my daughter since relaxing with bottles so that was never an issue. I had my own university education on my side as far as statistical outcomes for her own intelligence and academic ability. As a family we eat a heavily plant-based diet with fruit, vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts – as such statistically she has health on her side.
I learnt that Breast isn’t best.
That everyone’s situation calls for different measures. I didn’t opt for second best, I did what I could in the circumstance I had been handed, that was my best. When I grieve the loss of breastfeeding now, I grieve only for the loss of an experience that I would have liked to have as a woman. Nothing more. Because in reality, I’ve lost nothing. And when baby number 2 comes along, I’ll certainly give it another good try.
It’s been a very personal journey and changed much of my perceptions. I will no longer judge another mother on how she chooses to feed her child. I’ve learnt to be critical of “research” and “new findings” presented by some internet blogger or the media. I like to track down these “studies” people refer to and learn how they really came by their data. This has also helped me in other areas of child raising, making informed decisions rather than from knee-jerk reactions to badly reported study abstracts. I try to keep an open mind to learning, but I’m very quick to dismiss what I perceive as fear-mongering and guilt inducing advice. I think my experiences have made me stronger…I hope.