Mean Girls: Breastfeeding Bullies

I read a story today that made me feel so sad. It was titled “If I had given him just one bottle, he would still be alive.” It doesn’t require a genius to take an educated guess at what the story was about and how it ended. More than just a tragic situation, it resonated so strongly because this could easily have been me or any other mummy out there. This article had been shared around the internet in numerous places and most of the comments underneath were from women expressing similar struggles with breastfeeding and the poor advice they had received. It is a little alarming to be honest, and rather concerning how this advice is being delivered across the board by health professionals.

It made me think back to my own experiences around the subject of breastfeeding.

When my daughter was born, I was enthusiastic for breastfeeding. Like many other parents out there, I had “Breast is Best” drilled into me at all the antenatal classes and let’s face it, what mother wouldn’t want the best for her child? I had however read that it was common to have difficulties with it initially and packing a tin of formula in the hospital bag as back up wasn’t a bad idea. Thankfully my pre-baby, sensible brain did just that.

The first twenty-four hours after her birth was great. She slept and seemed to latch on OK. I was all ready to announce myself winner of the Best First Time Mummy category.

The next twenty-four hours were horrible. She wanted to feed constantly and I was sure the dairy had run dry. The midwife told me not to worry and persevere. By that evening, my nipples were raw, my baby was screaming with hunger and my heart felt heavy as lead.

The midwife thought she had a poor latch and asked if I felt any pain. I didn’t feel any pain, I was in bloody agony! I was just about ready to amputate my own breasts. She tried to help by forcefully pushing my baby’s head against my boob and squeezed my throbbing nipple hard. All I could think about at this point was that breast definitely wasn’t best and YouTube can take all those lah dee dah breast crawling babies, and F right off! As the back arching and screaming continued, the midwife chose that point to leave with some helpful advice, keep trying. By 1am, my baby had been screaming for almost four hours straight and I was sobbing alone in my room (the shrieking little monster doesn’t count). The remnants of my sensible brain could take no more and sent me out of my wet, snot covered bed to retrieve the tin of formula.

After four days of formula supplement and expressing, my milk came in and life was dandy. All that pain for four goddamn days, barely amounting to ten ounces of formula. The worst part was the sense of failure I felt as I shuffled to that reception desk to beg for some sterile water. Instead of bursting with happiness to cradle my contented newborn, I was in the depths of depression by my second day as a Mama. I kept my dirty little secret just that, smiling whenever people asked and even though I had heard similar experiences among both friends and strangers, I was convinced that the fault had been all mine. Breast is Best. Persevere.

Exactly fifteen months later, I am back in that same hospital bed, lady flaps akimbo as a second little person emerged. But this time I felt different, I had graduated from the Mama school of hard knocks; my little Medela and tin of formula were at the ready. The next morning, a lactation consultant walked in on me while I was expressing and she immediately pounced. I explained that little O had some trouble latching and I would rather he was fed than struggling while my milk was coming in. She told me that was absolutely no excuse not to keep trying, I must persevere (that word again) and how did I think I would possibly manage to express with a toddler at home. I firmly explained to her that this is what was going to work for me and the most important thing was that he got the nutrition he needed. The fact that he was getting my breastmilk from a bottle with a formula top up every so often was more than good enough. This only seemed to incense her further and she launched into another round of attacks, concluded by asking why I didn’t want to bond with my baby. Seriously?!

Even with bottle feeding and formula supplement, my son had trouble regaining his initial weight loss, which was over the 10% mark, and despite which we were still discharged from hospital. My paediatrician insisted that he was monitored daily until he showed steady weight gain, and it was only then that I realised how dangerous the situation could be. Dehydration in newborns can be fatal.

I’d like to think that neither of my babies were ever in any critical danger and should they have been, my maternal instincts would have kicked into action. Mothers are supposed to have a natural sixth sense, right? I’m not so confident about that now.

No one has ever disagreed that breastmilk is the best food for babies. Millions of years of evolution has resulted in the perfect formula produced by mothers to feed their young. Mother Nature is an amazing thing. Hands down. It is what we, as a society, have subsequently formed around this that not only angers me, but also gives a heavy sense of foreboding. There seems to be a group of breastfeeding advocates (a minority I’d like to hope) who are dishing out horribly unhelpful advice and employing nothing short of bullying tactics. Breastfeeding bullies.

When did breastfeeding suddenly become a guided missile tracked on vulnerable new mums? To be able to successfully breastfeed has become a status symbol, proof that you’re a successful mother, and those who cannot are automatically written off as bad/lazy/incompetent mothers. I always try to remain gender equal but I have to admit, shamefully, that this one is almost entirely a woman’s war. Ladies, why are we doing this to each other? To take part in this war, we’ve all been through those pregnancy months and know what it feels like to cradle our newborn. We also know that what we need most in those first weeks are words of support and encouragement, acceptance and understanding. It is not easy and we are all doing our best.

There is a big difference between endeavouring to feed your children fresh, organic meat and vegetables as part of a balanced diet, to stubbornly insisting on not ever feeding them anything but. Imagine withholding a cupboard full of perfectly good, non-organic foods from your starving children and insisting that they must survive on a cupful of organic soup per day. Ignoring their pitiful cries and ever shrinking frames. It’s unthinkable. Preposterous. And yet …

No one should ever have to feel guilty for feeding their babies in order to allow them to thrive. We need to set an example for our sons and daughters, to act with kindness, show compassion and do what is best for others, which may not be the same as what you consider to be the best. Let’s unite and put an end to this bizarre war.

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