I was lucky enough to have a really straightforward labour with our first son. But it was what happened over the subsequent 12 weeks which came flooding back to me when I read the news articles about breastfeeding and GCSE results this week.
For those who haven’t seen the headlines, articles stated “breastfed children get best GCSE exam marks” and “kids breastfed for at least a year are 38% more likely to get As”.
The study underpinning these articles, of 5,000 children born between 2000 and 2002, suggested longer periods of breastfeeding in infancy were associated with “better education outcomes” at age 16.
Researchers said that after adjustment for socioeconomic markers and maternal cognitive ability, in comparison with children who were never breastfed, those who were breastfed for longer were more likely to have a high pass in their English and Maths GCSEs, and less likely to fail the English GCSE – but not the Maths GCSE.
Breastfeeding is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and is probably the thing I’ve felt the most (unnecessary, I now know) guilt over in my life.
I always say to people that my nipples and my son’s mouth “were not a good fit”. Despite spending hundreds of pounds on a private tongue tie release, lactation consultants, nipple shields, breast pumps and more, it took over three months for me to feel comfortable doing it.
I was exhausted, stressed and resentful of my beautiful baby because I was in so much pain. My husband, family and friends could see I was struggling and were amazing at reminding me of the importance of my mental health and that formula could be given at any time.
I continued breastfeeding until our baby was around seven months old and then switched completely to bottles of formula and never looked back. It was undoubtedly the best decision for all of us.
I can count on one hand the number of friends who took to breastfeeding naturally and didn’t experience physical or emotional trauma. We’ve coped with everything from mastitis, restricted diets due to baby allergies, slow baby weight gain and feeling touched out and trapped.
With the lack of breastfeeding support women get in this country both prior to, and after having a baby, it’s frankly a miracle so many women do it at all.
Every mother wants to do the best they possibly can for their baby and the benefits of breastfeeding are well known – it can prevent a range of serious diseases in both mums and babies.
But Unicef estimates that only around 24% of babies in England are still being exclusively breastfed at six weeks old. This will be for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, plus issues such as siblings who need attention, careers or medical conditions.
I appreciate that this Unicef figure is low and that research into the benefits of breastfeeding is important, but reading headlines that say children who were breastfed do better in their GCSEs just makes my blood boil.
It’s another way of making mothers feel guilty about the choices they’ve made, without taking into consideration all of the obstacles involved.
Yes, I’m sure there is a correlation between those who are breastfed getting good grades, but there will have been a huge number of other factors involved, too. The home a child grows up in, family wealth, their parents’ intellect and of course, the school they attend will all have an impact on their academic success.
The research did take some socio-economic factors into consideration but headlines reading ‘Breast really IS best’ are damaging. This is the last thing a sleep-deprived new parent needs to be reading.
Blaming a child’s academic ‘failure’ on a decision made 16 years earlier when the parents would have made an informed choice – and the right choice for them at that time – about how they fed their newborn just piles the pressure on new parents.
Parents already carry so much guilt about every decision they make for their child. At the end of the day, ‘fed is best’ – and that’s what we should be reminding mums and dads right now.