Ask me about the greatest sadnesses of my life so far, and – right up there with the deaths of several people dear to me – will be my failure to successfully breastfeed my babies.
If that sounds dramatic, it feels even more so. When you are riding the postpartum hormone rollercoaster and realise, to your utter devastation, that you are not producing enough milk to adequately nourish your child, you feel bereaved: robbed of a magic you had been assured that ‘almost all mums’ can experience.
The big breastfeeding fail has befallen me twice.
Both of my children were large – born above the 99th centile – and both of my pregnancies and birthing experiences were far from ‘standard’. Maybe postpartum haemorrhaging (in the case of my son) or delivery by caesarean section (with my daughter) can help to explain why my body simply didn’t play ball.
Perhaps Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is to blame. I was diagnosed with this in my 20s, and some studies have linked it with low breast milk production.
The truth is, I’ll never know for sure why I couldn’t breastfeed in the way that I’d planned. In any case, I simply couldn’t provide what my significantly hungrier-than-average newborns needed.
All I’d heard during my first pregnancy was that pretty much every woman could breastfeed, and – without tooting my own horn – I wasn’t really used to being shit at things.
Thanks to the relentlessly positive promotion of breastfeeding, I hadn’t ever contemplated failing at it – so when it didn’t work (when I didn’t work), I felt as though I’d been hit by a lorry.
Formula milk is not toxic to babies, but you could be forgiven for thinking it is.
We all know that breastfeeding is associated with an array of positive outcomes. There are great reasons why it is promoted as the best possible choice for both mums and their children. There is also a compelling case for restricting how formula milk companies can advertise their products.
That said, do any of us really believe that banning pictures of babies from formula powder packaging will inspire more women to breastfeed? Is it really necessary to put formula in the same category as cigarettes when it comes to supermarket promotions, as was the experience of the woman in this national newspaper story?
Under the law, formula milk feeding cannot be presented as equivalent or superior to breastfeeding in promotions of any kind. Yet formula will keep your baby alive in the absence of breastmilk, and will help him or her to grow and thrive (as I can personally attest). Isn’t that some kind of equivalence, however imperfect?
Meanwhile, literature about breastfeeding is always designed to encourage it – not simply provide the facts.
Amid information about the health benefits of mother’s milk, you are unlikely to find any acknowledgement that many women – including those who go on to exclusively breastfeed – find it difficult for periods of weeks, not just days.
Nor is it easy to find clear information on how pre-existing medical conditions, and interventions such as caesarean sections, can affect a mother’s chances of breastfeeding successfully.
As a feminist, I can’t help feeling that there is something very patronising – not to mention counterproductive – about all of this.
It is as if women are not trusted with the truth – as if, by refusing to properly acknowledge the challenges so many women face when trying to breastfeed, organisations such as the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and the NHS believe those hurdles will disappear.
According to the NHS’s own statistics, while 73% of women breastfeed their children from birth, only 17% of babies are still exclusively breastfed three months later. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce from this that a vast swathe of women want to breastfeed, but struggle to do so.
When my daughter was born in 2016 I breastfed her on demand, day and night, and she seemed generally settled. On day four, though, I began to suspect she wasn’t getting enough milk.
She was not producing wet nappies with enough frequency, but I heeded this NHS advice: “Try to carry on breastfeeding if you can. Introducing bottles of formula milk can fill up your baby’s stomach so they no longer want to breastfeed as frequently. This then reduces the stimulation for you to make more milk.”
The following morning, after our five day check up, a deeply concerned midwife sent my baby and me to hospital.
A paediatrician effectively ordered me to give her formula milk, took blood samples from her and told me the brutal truth: she was hungry and thirsty. I have never felt so ashamed.
Within 24 hours of giving her bottles as well as what little breastmilk I could muster, she had put on weight and we were sent home.
I had approached formula milk as though it were a poison that would destroy my last chance of breastfeeding a baby. Instead, it brought my child back from the edge of illness, sated her thirst and filled her empty belly.
We need to celebrate and promote breastfeeding without shying away from the reality that for an awful lot of us it is hard, may take time to get right or may ultimately need to be topped up, or replaced altogether, by formula feeding.
We need to treat women like adults – not raise the unrealistic expectation that breastfeeding will be easy, or stoke fear that the alternative choice, formula milk, is (by comparison) harmful.
Formula milk is, scientifically, not the best choice for babies. Nor is it the first choice for many women who, within a few months of having their children, go on to use it.
Unlike our current discourse around infant feeding, however, I am entirely confident it is not toxic.