Breast-feeding: birth, boobs and bad advice

December 3, 2012 by
Guest blog   3 Comments

If you’d asked me 18 months ago whether I believed the old adage “breast is best”, I’d have answered with a resounding “yes”.

In May last year I was eight months pregnant with my first child and naively assuming that breastfeeding was as easy or instinctive as any other bodily function – both for mum and baby.

Neither did I know how utterly humiliated and inferior I would be made to feel when it just didn’t work out for me and I had to utter the F-word: Formula. Or that hundreds of other women went through the same experience and began motherhood feeling complete failures.

My milk never ‘came in’, to use the technical term. My boobs never ballooned or got sore, and I never needed a single one of the breast pads I dutifully packed in my hospital bag to deal with the apparently inevitable overflow which never happened.

I was kept in hospital for a week after my son’s birth, in order to “establish breastfeeding”. To be honest, if my husband Reece hadn’t put his foot down on day seven I’d probably still be there because although by then it must have been blindingly obvious to everybody that it just wasn’t happening, I was continually told to “keep trying” – as if I could somehow squeeze out my missing milk if I simply concentrated hard enough.

My bruised bosoms were squeezed, massaged and pumped to within an inch of their lives, and my screaming newborn son Harrison had my nipples rugby tackling his tonsils for half an hour or more every three hours, night and day, in a gruelling “feeding schedule” designed to get us on the road to lactation.

After a trip to Intensive Care when his blood sugars became low (because, guess what – he wasn’t getting enough milk from me) I was finally offered some formula by a paediatrician. The effect was almost immediate. Our baby’s breathing calmed, his skin changed colour, he slept.

I however was on the naughty step. I had “ruined his stomach lining”, I was told by the duty midwives, and more to the point was “on a slippery slope” – to what, I’m not sure. The fact that I’d quite possibly also saved his life was not even mentioned.

As time went on their rebukes got worse and their contempt less disguised. My milk remained stubbornly notable by its absence and I was then accused of “giving up” – as if I was somehow choosing not to be a walking fountain of breastmilk.

What was happening was practically impossible, I was told, because “only 4%” of British women are physically unable to breastfeed (I still hear this figure bandied around and yet nobody I have spoken to has ever been able to tell me from which research study it stems).

Nobody in the hospital talked to me about anything other than breastfeeding. The only reading material provided was a glossy booklet about breastfeeding and how great it is. There was even a poster about it on the back of the toilet door. I was distraught. I felt weak and vulnerable and convinced that I had already ruined my little boy’s life.

One day we had a visit from a “lactation consultant” who stuck her head around the door and basically told us to starve Harrison all day in order to kickstart everything. God only knows why, but we gave it a go. Within 12 hours he was almost back in IC again. We never saw the consultant again which is probably a good thing. I would quite probably have emptied a newborn nappy over her head.

When we finally got home I started writing down what had happened, simply because I couldn’t believe it. Also I suppose because I’m a journalist and while breastfeeding had beaten me, storytelling was one skill I still had.

Slowly, I began talking to others and discovered new mums up and down the country had been battered by breastfeeding bullies, that they were upset and dissatisfied by the ‘support’ (or lack of) they received and in some severe cases, put off having future children as a result.

With their permission, I gathered their stories. I also spoke to academics like Dr Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at Kent University and Joan B Wolf, a professor at Texas A&M University who have looked long and hard at the “breast is best” mantra and argue that the evidence is flimsy – in countries where the drinking water is clean at least. I even plucked up the courage to interview the Royal College of Midwives about why midwives can be so bolshy in their bedside manner when breasts don’t play ball.

I did this between feeds, while Harrison was asleep and when my husband could step in for an hour or so – and realised that a book was very slowly taking shape.

Then, in October this year, UNICEF released a report claiming, among other things, that if more British women breastfed it would save the NHS £40m a year. I howled and started a blog – and was overwhelmed once again by people getting in touch to say they too wanted to take a stand against the relentless pressure women are subjected to.

The book is out today. It’s been incredibly hard juggling motherhood, a career, my marriage and my sanity at the same time as becoming an author but I said all along that if it helped just one new mum feel less alone in a breastfeeding battle lost or won then it would all be worth it. And I believe I’m on the right track – a few days ago I received this tweet: “I found you and your blog on Twitter when I needed to… it really stopped me entering another depressive episode. So thanks!”.

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3 Comments on "Breast-feeding: birth, boobs and bad advice"

  1. Barbara Hunter February 20, 2013 at 8:20 pm · Reply

    Your article on breast-feeding brought back horrors from more than 30 years ago. I HATED breast feeding from day one. I had a Caesarian delivery and therefore was sore and tired. I am very fair skinned and my boobs hurt like hell without a baby clamped to them. Apart from all that I detested the feelings breast feeding caused. For the sake of both of us I turned to a bottle and we both thrived. No 1 son is now a hulking six footer and didn’t seem to suffer from being bottle fed. When my daughter was born three years later I did not even try to feed her myself. Most of these midwives have never had children of their own and simply talk the talk. It’s time that women were allowed to make their own choices without being bullied and intimidated.

  2. Kayleigh October 17, 2014 at 12:27 pm · Reply

    It does sound like you had a terrible experience but you seem to be attaching your experiences to a rapidly expanding demographic. Supporting mothers regardless of their choice is good, I don’t want anyone shamed. But at the same time I can’t help but assume that breast feeding *is* the best choice where possible. It’s free, it’s what our body is designed to do, it’s created especially for the baby. If this was an article about your experiences then I’d understand but you start linking to Unicef and getting mad at them but you don’t cite why. How do you know breast feeding won’t save money? You offer no evidence other than personal problems, which isn’t the same thing.

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