by Joanna Cates (guest writer)
It’s difficult to know how to start a post about breastfeeding. I feel like people read the first few sentences of any article on this subject to know which side of the breastfeeding-fence the writer sits on before deciding whether to bother reading on. If it supports their views they’ll read it. If it doesn’t, they won’t. Simple.
Well not simple actually, because my views are kind of paradoxical. On the one hand I think breastfeeding is a wonderful thing. This might sound strange but when it works I think it’s really rather beautiful. The idea of a mother nourishing her baby with her own body is incredible. And yet I also think feeding a baby formula from a bottle is equally great.
When I see a woman feeding her baby it’s like there’s a maternal switch inside me that is flicked on. That archetypal image of a baby suckling at its mother’s breast stirs up in me a range of deep-seated feelings to do with nurturing and love.
And I’m definitely up there with the more passionate defenders of a woman’s right to breastfeed wherever, and for as long as, she wants. After my wedding it incensed me when I heard people making derogatory comments about how my sister sat and breastfed my four month old nephew as I walked down the aisle. Quite honestly, I couldn’t have given a flying monkeys. In fact I was massively proud. I believe that if a baby needs feeding, its mother should feel able to feed it wherever she is and whoever she is with. End of story. I am similarly irritated when I hear people commenting in a disparaging way about how a woman they know is still breastfeeding her 2…3…4 year old. Frankly I don’t care. That’s their business. Heavens, if I’d been able to breastfeed (I’ll come on to this later) I’d have probably been so excited I would have carried on until my children left home.
Given this information about me, it probably isn’t a great surprise to know that I intended to breastfeed. It’s difficult to overstate quite how much I wanted to do so actually. When things got tricky, to say that I would have given my right arm to be able to feed my babies myself is probably stretching it a bit. But I would have seriously considered sacrificing a finger or two.
Now I have already implied that I wasn’t able to breastfeed, but this isn’t strictly true. I was able to – a little bit. A very little bit. My body did make a very small amount of milk, and to say that it didn’t would not be correct. It would be more accurate to say that I wasn’t able to exclusively breastfeed (not if I wanted my babies to regain their birth weight and continue to grow anyway – something that is highly recommended if they want to survive).
I don’t want to bore you with the details (it’s a long and very emotional story) but basically with all three of my daughters I have had to supplement with, and eventually switch to, formula. The common theme for all three was a complete and utter failure to gain weight despite constant ‘feeding’. And in case you are wondering, no, this was not because they were tongue-tied. We checked.
At six weeks my second daughter was still 6oz below her birth weight, my husband was out of his mind with worry and I was out of my mind with my obsessive determination that I WOULD breastfeed. I still have photos of her at that time and she looks like she’s starving. Actually, that’s because she was. Another theme with all three of them was the literally constant crying (unsurprising given how hungry they must have been).
During my pregnancy my breasts never became tender. After my babies were born they never really swelled and so I suppose my milk never ‘came in’. My milk supply was pathetic, despite resting, eating, drinking. Believe me – you name it, I did it. I even took Domperidone with my third daughter in an attempt to stimulate my milk supply. (I know – weird – taking a drug to try and do something that’s natural). I was so terribly angry with my body for letting me down I can’t even tell you. And it was my body that let me down because I had about as much support from my family and professionals as it is possible to have. Now people may take issue with me saying that my body let me down. Well quite honestly, this is how it felt. Don’t get me wrong – I love my body and I’m incredibly grateful to it. Some things it does very well. Getting pregnant? Fine. Being pregnant? Great. Giving birth? Pretty awesome actually. But breastfeeding? Crap.
What I have learned in the course of my attempts at breastfeeding is that there are people who are simply not able to exclusively breastfeed. Now for some reason there are many advocates of breastfeeding who find this difficult to comprehend. Or maybe they just don’t want to acknowledge it.
As someone who wasn’t able to herself, I’ve often been made to feel like I should have tried just a bit harder. I’ve met women who made so much milk they could have fed ten babies, and the look on their faces when I tell them that I wasn’t able to breastfeed as I didn’t have enough milk is one of utter incomprehension. They aren’t meaning to be unkind but the concept of a poor milk supply is completely unfathomable to them.
In those first few weeks as my daughters’ weight dropped further and further below their birth weight, people would encourage me to just keep going and just feed wherever and whenever. Now I recognise that for someone with a milk supply that is even remotely sufficient that this is good advice. But when your milk is trickling out like blood from a stone and you have a hungry baby screaming constantly for food, it’s a horrible, horrible feeling.
You are told to just keep putting her to your breast, but deep down you know that there is nothing there. Your baby needs food and you have nothing to give it. Not once in all my months of attempting to breastfeed did any of my three daughters ever ‘finish’ a feed. They would stop because there was no milk there and they would fall asleep because they were exhausted from sucking – but not once were they ever full and satisfied after a feed.
Looking back now at that time in my life where I tied myself up in knots over my difficulties with breastfeeding I sometime wonder, was I right to worry? Generally speaking I do agree that breast is best in that it’s free and not buying formula means less formula boxes going into landfill.
But what are the actual, scientifically-proven long-term benefits of breastfeeding (and therefore risks of not breastfeeding)? Given all three of my daughters have largely been formula fed, I feel I should be prepared for what my body failing to produce enough milk has predisposed them to. Cancer? Diabetes? Asthma? Low IQs? At the moment my daughters are three of the brightest and healthiest kids I know, but maybe those who believe that there are long-term health risks associated with not exclusively breastfeeding know something I don’t?
So finally I get to the really controversial bit because, while I think breastfeeding is wonderful and beautiful and incredible (as I said at the beginning), I also think that the supposed benefits are somewhat overrated.
It seems to me that the focus on breastfeeding is excessive and that for some children, the milk they have in the first year of their life may actually be the highest quality food they ever get – even if it’s made from the dreaded formula.
Rather than this obsession over breastfeeding it seems to me that there should be far more focus on the diets of toddlers and young children. Because at the end of the day there are women (and I am one of them) for whom exclusively breastfeeding is not possible. Buying and cooking healthy food however should be within the realms of possibility for anyone though. I mean, let’s face it – a bag of carrots is cheaper (and lasts way longer) than a bag of crisps in most instances.
By writing this article I sincerely do not intend to discourage anyone who is struggling with breastfeeding. The early months of breastfeeding can be challenging for many, many different reasons. I write purely about my own experience of having a very poor milk supply. There may be those who doubt their milk supply when actually it is adequate and I hope that I do not undermine the confidence of people such as this.
I write it more for those who have watched their baby fail to gain weight for week, after week, after week. I write it for those who know in their heart of hearts that their baby is hungry and that he needs more than they have. I write it for those who want so badly for it to work out and who think that if they just keep trying a bit harder that it will all come together.
To those women I would say you are doing your best. There is so much more to being a mum than breastfeeding. There are an almost infinite amount of things that you will be able to do with and for your child in the future that will make this episode seem like a dim and distant memory. If parenting is an ocean, breastfeeding your baby is just one teaspoon of water in that ocean.
For those still not convinced that there are women who are not able to exclusively breastfeed perhaps they should check out the link to the article written by Dr. Alison Stuebe https://bfmed.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/how-often-does-breastfeeding-just-not-work/. As she points out, ‘Lactation is part of normal human physiology, and like all other human physiology, it can fail.’