Last week was World Breastfeeding Week, and yet again there are reports that the UK has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Breastfeeding is one of those topics that any blogger should be terrified to write about. It is so controversial, so politicised, yet it really shouldn’t have to be so complicated.
It’s controversial because mothers are routinely shamed for “not trying hard enough”. But the reality is, women are just not supported enough. There is so much pressure to breastfeed without an adequate support structure in place. Breastfeeding seems to be about NHS quotas and targets these days; but, you can’t expect more women to breastfeed without supporting them properly.
I’m writing this as a woman, who has one child who was formula-fed after two weeks and the second who went from combination feeding to eventually being exclusively breastfed. I don’t feel shame for how I fed my children because I know I tried my best both times around, and I don’t care about judgment from others because nobody knows my experience apart from me. But my experience of being a first-time mother was so different from doing it the second time around.
The guilt and shame started during pregnancy, when in an NHS ante-natal class, a group of nervous first-timers were fed the mind-numbingly stupid idea formula was akin to giving your baby McDonald’s. This is the last thing a first-time mother needs to hear; it is not helpful and most women know the benefits of breast milk versus formula.
The nightmare continues after birth: the midwife (who in some cases, has no real personal experience of her own) expecting you to feed, feed, feed all night without a break, and that’s after you’ve just spent a good few hours, maybe even days, bringing a human being into the world. It’s relentless.
Breastfeeding is hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise. When we are pregnant, we are often told that breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural experience that will come easily to us, that we were made to do this, and made to feel that it is our God-given purpose as women. We imagine ourselves as glamorous as the super-model, Gisele; feeding while glowing like a Goddess, while simultaneously being pampered by a team of hovering beauty experts. And then, our babies are born, and reality hits home. I’m not going to go into the gory details, but you all know what I’m talking about. We persist, and sometimes it works; other times, we try and try and it doesn’t. And that’s okay.
When I couldn’t breastfeed my first child, I went through a period of mourning because for a long time, I did wonder if I could have done more, even though I knew deep-down that I had made the right decision. I took time to read Suzanne Barston’s book, “Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t.” Barston is the writer behind the formula-centric blog, Fearless Formula Feeder. The book explains that for various reasons, not everyone can breastfeed, and women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it.
Like it or not, formula isn’t poison. Formula fed a generation, and many of us are here (healthy and happy!) because of formula. Let’s not forget that many women also had wet nurses, so clearly, not everyone was miraculously able to breastfeed a hundred years ago.
If women weren’t made to feel that feeding their baby was an exclusive choice between pure poison or nature’s golden milk, then maybe they wouldn’t put so much pressure on themselves to feed.
Breastfeeding is tied to hormones and stress. When you are anxious, you produce adrenalin, which can affect your production of prolactin, the hormone that is trying to help you to produce milk. Nursing can help to reduce stress, but there are also some studies which show that physical and mental stress can cut the flow of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for stimulation of milk ejection (milk letdown) . If oxytocin is low, this can affect your supply of milk.
In simple terms, relaxation is really important for a breastfeeding mother. So maybe, just maybe, if formula was presented as an option to fall back on, more women would be able to relax and try hard to breastfeed, without the psychological fear of not filling up their baby’s tummy.
Because many women want to breastfeed. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they are human. Motherhood is bloody difficult. You have to do whatever it takes to survive, to get through one day after the next, to keep going, and pick yourself up every time your child doesn’t eat, or refuses to sleep, or throws the mother of all tantrums in public. If that means giving some formula to help you survive, so be it. If women don’t want to breastfeed, or want to mix-feed, let’s not shame them for their choices.
I truly believe that if a happy mum means a happy child. Motherhood is messy and complicated, and the happiness and intelligence of your child rests on far more than just the milk you feed them in the early years of their life.
But the real crux of this post is to ask why more women don’t breastfeed, and I think part of the reason is the overtly sexualised culture in the UK. We seem to have forgotten somewhere down the line, that breasts are intended for feeding babies and that is their primary function.
Why, in the 21st century, is there so much controversy about public breastfeeding? A couple of years ago, the luxury hotel Claridge’s came under fire for insisting that a baby breastfed at afternoon tea was covered up with a napkin. Yet, this is the same country where up to 2015, newspapers would routinely publish totally uncovered breasts on Page 3. The practice was only dropped two years ago. Lingerie models are on display in every public shopping centre that sells underwear, but God forbid, that we see a tiny bit of skin for a millisecond while a baby latches on. And you could always, you know, not look.
We need to remove the stigma around public breastfeeding, because this is partly the reason why women stop. Because our society doesn’t prioritise the baby’s needs, and because there are some who would give more importance to their discomfort over the sight of a woman nurturing her infant. It is not always easy to find a private space, and although, legally you can breastfeed anywhere, women are often made to feel uncomfortable with public feeding.
As a society, we need to give more importance to the needs of the child and to increase the importance of the family. Not only are breastfeeding rates low, but England also has some of the unhappiest children in the world. Across the pond in Europe, the culture is centred much more around family life and the needs of children in particular. It’s something the UK could certainly learn from.
Breastfeeding has a whole host of additional health and social benefits for babies, and it would be somewhat naïve to deny this. But rather than judgment, shame and pressure, let’s make it easier, not harder. The culture needs to change to boost women’s confidence and give them the support they so vitally need to achieve successful breastfeeding.