What if Breast Isn't Best?

I was exhausted, depressed, utterly obsessed with making it work and insanely jealous of the women who made it look easy. I asked every woman I knew who had children about breast feeding and was surprised but also heartened to discover that I wasn't alone. My new world of parenting was littered with devastated women who eventually, with heavy hearts, had to throw in the towel...

This blogpost will probably be very contentious, not least because the subject matter divides women (and men and experts from varying fields) and inspires extreme emotion but I'm going to go ahead and say what I came to say, and I'm going to capitalise it, just to make my point crystal clear.

So, despite what the "experts" say and despite what you might read both online and in print, NOT ALL WOMEN CAN BREASTFEED. it's not always a case of SUPPLY AND DEMAND and sometimes, in fact, more often than we ladies are led to believe, WE SIMPLY DON'T HAVE ENOUGH MILK TO FEED OUR BABIES DESPITE OUR BEST EFFORTS.

There, that's my frustrations dealt with, now I can tell you why I feel this way....

My son was born by elective caesarean section on 27 March this year because he was breech. The first night he spent outside the womb, he screamed and screamed and screamed as I desperately tried to satisfy him with the teeny tiny droplets of colostrum that I was producing but to no avail; in the end, in the wee small hours, he was taken away from me and given a bottle of formula by one of the midwives on duty.

Before he was born I had read all the books about breastfeeding and I knew it might be challenging, but at no point did I consider the fact that I simply might have no food to offer him. So, anxious in the extreme, I spoke to the lactation consultant at the hospital the next day.

I have to admit, warning bells did go off when she arrived wearing sandals that belonged back in 1974 and a "knit your own yoghurt" attitude to match. I told her that I had no colostrum, that Hunter was starving and that my milk might be days coming in due to having no triggers provided by going into labour naturally. I also told her the midwives had persuaded me to give Hunter a bottle of formula to settle him.

She pursed her lips at the last snippet of info and I knew what was coming...She told me that "if baby is hungry enough, baby will work for that colostrum" and that I risked "nipple/teat confusion" by continuing to allow him formula in bottles. In essence she implied that the harder he sucked on my dry breast, the greater the chance that my body would start making an abundance of what he needed and he would eventually be satisfied. I was crestfallen and thoroughly frustrated. Hunter continued to scream for food and for a second night, I was persuaded by the midwives to give him a bottle of formula.

In the meantime, after consulting the Google Gods, I decided (with my partner's blessing and support) to feed Hunter his formula in a "sippy" cup so he wouldn't get used to the ease of a bottle and reject my breast when my milk finally made an appearance. The next seven (yes, seven) days were the longest, most frustrating days of my life as I fed my newborn son with a ridiculous little cup that poured most of his food down his chin. And then when my milk finally arrived, I was mortified to discover that I felt no 'let down', that it didn't pour forth easily to my son and that he still seemed very hungry after feeding on both boobs and I still had to top him up with formula.

So I went on a one woman mission to Make It Work. I consulted local breastfeeding drop-in centres, books, friends, the internet and any other resource I could lay my hands on in a bid to discover how I could maximise my milk-making. For the next few weeks, I variously tried lots of skin to skin with my baby, relaxing as much as possible, taking fenugreek supplements, pumping morning, noon and night, starting with a hand pump and graduating to a hospital grade Medela electric pump (which was absolutely fantastic and did manage to extract every last bit of milk I had to give) however, at the end of a pumping session, I was always a little disappointed to only be able to fill a bottle half way. From both boobs.

And I was never able to express a feed for Hunter outside of what I was giving him myself since there just didn't seem to be enough there. Anyone who ever said that breastfeeding was easy and convenient clearly never had a supply issue, or any other of the myriad issues that can occur for that matter...

I tried, I really, really tried. Feeding time was a total mission. I was exhausted, depressed, utterly obsessed with making it work and insanely jealous of the women who made it look easy. I asked every woman I knew who had children about her breastfeeding experience and was surprised but also heartened to discover that I wasn't alone. In fact, I'd say about half of the women I spoke to had had trouble in some way, shape or form with breastfeeding.

From not enough milk, to too much (and a nasty case of mastitis that needed hospital treatment), from sore, cracked nipples infected with thrush, to tongue tied infants who couldn't get the latch right no matter how hard their mothers tried. My new world of parenting was littered with devastated women who eventually, with heavy hearts, had to throw in the towel...

I lasted 12 weeks before one of my best friends told me that I had given it my best shot but I was getting the worst of all worlds, feeding Hunter myself, unable to hand him over for supplemental feeds lest my meagre supply should dry up completely and yet still having to sterilise bottles and make sure we had formula wherever we went for his "top ups".

I cried when I eventually decided that she was right and it was time to let go. I really felt like I had failed. Failed to get my supply up to meet Hunter's demands, failed as a new mum and failed yet again at something I really thought I would be good at, since I had worked so hard at being prepared to do it. It was just one huge #fail.

The breastfeeding zealots would have us believe that giving our children formula is tantamount to child abuse and that the companies that make that formula are money grabbing businessmen, intent on exploiting women like myself, when the simple truth is, formula is really fantastic these days.

God only knows where we would be without it: right back at wet nursing, which of course, is simply and with no fuss or guilt, what you would do centuries ago if you couldn't or wouldn't breastfeed your children. There were no breastfeeding "associations" back then implying that you "didn't try hard enough" to make it work; just other women, with more than enough breast milk to go around. (until the beginning of the 20th century, the aristocracy always used wet nurses to feed their babies, and Anne Boleyn was the subject of much court gossip for allegedly wanting to feed the future Queen Elizabeth herself).

Anyway, I digress. The point I am trying to make is that the most important thing is that our babies are fed. How they are fed is secondary. There is no disputing that breast milk is best for your child in the early weeks after delivery but if you find that you cannot breastfeed for one reason or another, then give yourself a break. Ignore the zealots and concentrate on enjoying those precious first few weeks with your new baby, goodness knows it passes so quickly.

One day, I hope to have a brother or sister for Hunter and next time I will not make the same mistakes again. Of course, I will try and give any subsequent children the very best start in life but to me, that means a happy, relaxed mum, and a happy, relaxed and satiated baby and if my boobs work next time, fantastic, but if they don't, I will mourn it and move on. I will not feel guilty and I will not feel any pressure to Make It Work. Ladies, I suggest we all do the same. It's time to say that sometimes, Breast isn't necessarily what is Best....

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