Let’s talk about my breasts, because I know you want to. You recently announced that breastfeeding was “the next big thing” when asked by LBC what was next after your successful and admirable campaigns with school dinners and sugar tax etc. The only problem is breastfeeding, and the inevitable breast vs bottle debate that follows, is not the ‘next big thing’ but the ‘are we seriously still discussing this thing’. It’s been done. Overdone even. After 10 years of having babies and parenting, I’m bored of hearing about it and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
Now before you start thinking I’m anti-breasts or ‘oversensitive’ as The Independent claims, I want you to know that I think breasts are awesome. I breastfed both my boys and plan on breastfeeding the third, who is due imminently. I have no issue with getting them out in public either and totally agree that women who choose to breastfeed should be supported and allowed to breastfeed wherever the hell they want to. I guess you could say I’m pro-breastfeeding, and that would be half true. You see I’m also pro-bottle feeding, because above all, I’m pro-choice.
My breastfeeding journey with my first was rocky to start with, which I think is pretty typical. When I say rocky, I mean pretty fucking painful. My left nipple, just so you know, actually split so bad I could lift the top of it up and off. I continued to feed my baby through gritted teeth because I had been told ‘breast is best’ so many times that I was left believing there was no good alternative option. But anyway that was a long time ago, my nipples healed, breastfeeding got easier and I moved on to the other parenting hurdles.
Many years later I had my second son and this time it was easy to feed him from the start. What I had not anticipated however was that when I got pregnant with my third, whilst still breastfeeding, that my milk supply would dry up. I had exclusively breastfed for 6 months without any trouble and I had fed my first son for a full 12 months, I had not considered that my breasts would ‘fail’ me now. I assumed I had breastfeeding nailed. But little by little my breasts stopped filling with milk and I lost that let down sensation. Hours would pass between feeds and whereas before my breasts would feel full, they stopped ever feeling full and worst of all, my baby’s nappies got drier and drier. Politics aside, breastfeeding is above all else intended to provide hydration and nutrition, right? So what happens when your baby is becoming dehydrated and malnourished because the milk just isn’t there? Clearly breast is most definitely NOT best in a situation like this.
In the end it was a Doctor who told me to stop and give my baby a bottle. She told me that my body couldn’t grow another baby and produce enough milk at the same time. Now some Mums can do this; they can breastfeed all the way through their pregnancy and then tandem feed afterwards, but like everything in life, we are not all the same. My body was struggling to do both so I gave my baby a bottle and immediately his nappies started feeling really heavy with wee again. I felt terribly guilty. Not because I had stopped breastfeeding but because I hadn’t noticed how dry his nappies had become. They had got slowly less heavy over time and it was only after giving him a few big bottles of milk and feeling the weight of the nappy afterwards that I realised how dehydrated he must have been. I felt guilty that I had not noticed and had needed a Doctor to tell me.
Of course I was disappointed that our breastfeeding journey was cut short and that he got less time at the breast than his brother. Whenever a decision is taken out of your hands, it’s frustrating. I like to be in control and had expected to be able to choose when I wanted to stop feeding, so that was a little upsetting but in the scheme of things really insignificant.
Now I’m sorry if I’ve bored you with these nostalgic tales but my point is that breast is not always best, even if, as you say, it halves the chances of you getting breast cancer! My experience is just one reason why it’s not but there are millions of reasons and situations where breastfeeding is more damaging than it is beneficial. Sometimes it’s not best for the baby and sometimes it’s not best for the mother. It’s not just physical reasons either but psychological ones too. A mother’s psychological wellbeing is paramount to her being able to mother well and if breastfeeding threatens that, then it’s simply not worth it. Especially when we have a perfectly good alternative in formula (and thank goodness that we do).
Now the final thing I wanted to say is also probably the most important so please stick with me. I want you to understand that promoting the ‘breast is best’ message (with all good intentions I don’t doubt) is not only inaccurate because breast is not always best (as explained above) or ‘easy’ as you claim, but this message can also be really dangerous. I don’t mean dangerous because a load of angry oversensitive formula-feeding women will want you hung, drawn and quartered (although this is probably true) but dangerous because I’m not sure you fully understand the risks of promoting breastfeeding. In publicly promoting the ‘breast is best’ message you are reinforcing the dynamic whereby bottle feeding is pitched against breastfeeding and seen as, at best, inferior and, at worst, an inadequate way of nourishing and caring for one’s baby. This makes any mother who has wanted to breastfeed but has found they cannot, for whatever reason, feel like they have failed to do the best for their baby before they have even had a chance to get started.
The results of a large scale study published in 2014 looking at the relationship between breastfeeding and post-natal depression, found the group most at risk of developing depression were those that planned to breastfeed but then were not able to. The good news was that those who planned to breastfeed and were able to, were least likely to experience post-natal depression. The group who did not breastfeed but did not plan to, were in the middle. Now why do you think this might be?
It can’t simply be that bottle feeding increases the risk of depression because the results showed it was more complex than that. The group that planned to breastfeed but could not were over twice as likely to experience depression than the group that bottle fed but had planned to. It seems plausible and highly likely that those who planned to breastfeed but could not struggled because they had bought into the ‘breast is best’ message, they had committed to it physically and emotionally, probably bought their overpriced feeding bras in preparation etc etc. But then they found it wasn’t as straightforward as all the breastfeeding advocates had made out. That’s got to come as a bit of a shock, right? And when you whole-heartedly believe that breast is best and breastmilk has all these great benefits, what the hell do you do when it doesn’t work out? Nobody has spoken to you about the benefits of formula so you can only assume that it offers none of the benefits of breastfeeding and by feeding your child with a bottle, they are going to be obese, stupid and sickly, all of the things breastmilk supposedly protects against. So now how do you feel when you have no option but to bottle feed them? Pretty shitty.
Now I know depression is far more complicated in every way than just feeling shitty but this feeling of not being able to deliver has got to be a major contributing factor. Which means it’s so important that women understand they have options. And good ones at that! Breast may be best in many situations; where mother wants to breastfeed and baby can be breastfed and they are supported in this decision and her milk comes in and its not causing any physical or emotional harm or pain. But equally it’s important than women understand breast is not always best. Sometimes bottle feeding is best. And when bottle feeding is best, be that for whatever reason, then isn’t it brilliant that we have the option to provide hydration and nourishment to our babies in this way. And no woman should ever feel guilty about this or worry they are not doing a good job.
The bottom line is, if you’re feeding your baby (whether with your breast or a bottle), you are doing a mighty fine job and nobody should ever dispute this.
I’m all for empowering and supporting women in their choices and strongly believe women should be informed, but let’s not focus solely on singing the benefits of breastfeeding. They have been sung many times before. We can debate the benefits of breast (of course nobody should be silenced) but let’s not forget also the benefits of bottle feeding. We need to support all women and be sensitive to those who wished to feed but could not, because not everybody is as lucky as you and Jools have obviously been; not everybody will find breastfeeding easy.