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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Breast is Best, but Mothering Means More

According to media reports, a public health white paper for England and Wales to be published later this week will encourage employers to do more to enable new mothers returning to work to breast feed their babies.

I appreciate that there is much to be done to ensure the safe delivery of this little bundle of policy joy, which at the moment is not much past the ecstatic point of conception. Not least what is to be done with said baby in-between breast feeding breaks; since dropping it off in reception for a quick leaf through The Economist can only be a short term solution. But it does seem to be, in principle at least, a good thing.

I don't intend to list all the benefits of breast feeding, since by now they are pretty well rehearsed. Suffice to say, it sometimes feels like it cannot be long before we discover that breast fed babies have cuter dimples, prettier toes and quite lovely singing voices.

With that in mind, I want to be VERY clear about my support for breast feeding at the outset, because I am now about to say what can sometimes feel like heresy; that for some women breast feeding may not be the right thing - and that's okay too.

Some women give up breast feeding because their employment circumstances make it difficult, some because their husbands don't like it, some because their mothers purse their lips and disapprove. Some give up though simply because it can be painful and exhausting and bloody hard work.

I do not have a personal axe to grind here. I breast fed my daughter, though not exclusively, till she was six and a half months old. I had a lot of help at the beginning and "established" feeding quickly and painlessly. I loved feeding my daughter. When I stopped feeding her I cried and cried because feeding your baby yourself can be one of those joyous wonders of motherhood that makes all the tiredness, trauma and weight gain worthwhile. For the avoidance of doubt then, BREAST FEEDING IS A GOOD THING.

But it is not the only thing.

I have a number of friends whose experiences with breast feeding were not as happy as mine. One of my closest friends had terrible pain from feeding when her son could not latch on properly (due, it transpired, to a "tongue tie", a minor mouth problem which was not picked up initially). I remember visiting her and seeing her distress every time the baby needed to be fed. The combination of the physical pain she endured and the constant reminder that she was not able to fulfill her baby's basic needs really took its toll. Feeding, or rather the inability to feed, assumed an enormous significance. It became the thing that defined their relationship.

She attended a breast feeding clinic every week and was constantly supported and encouraged by midwives who told her of course she could feed and it would all come right. And she would listen and smile and go home and cry and dread the next feed. Eventually a kindly health visitor took her aside and told her in hushed tones that perhaps she had done all she could and that really it was time to try something else. My friend says the feeling of relief at having been given permission to stop was immense.

She and her husband were then spirited away into a broom cupboard to be given advice about formula as if it were a dirty little secret. The whole experience was difficult and distressing and spoke of a system which seemed to focus on the benefits of feeding to the exclusion of other aspects of parenthood. (My amazing friend then went on to feed her son exclusively on expressed milk, before successfully establishing breast feeding when he was several months older. She's a better woman than me. )

Breast feeding is promoted, rightly, as one of the most important ways of bonding with your baby. But if feeding is not working out, it has exactly the opposite effect. The fact of being unable to feed your baby becomes all-encompassing; making bonding with your child in other ways nigh on impossible.

Finding the right solution is not helped by the fact that it is such an emotive issue, often presented in divisive and caricatured terms. On the one hand there are the tree-huggers who sit around brushing each other's hair and playing the mandolin while breast feeding their infants; on the other hoop earring wearing feckless mothers who force feed their offspring bottles of vimto.

It's also a tricky one in terms of the gap between the benefits described in the literature and one's own experience. The convenience of breast feeding for example is often emphasised in promotional material. Well yes. It was very convenient for night feeds and if you were stranded in traffic jams. But it could also be enormousy tying and if, like me, you had bosoms like the Hindenberg, not actually that easy to do comfortably and discreetly.

I'm not trying to diss the science. I breast fed my baby in large part because I have faith in science, even though I don't understand it, and the science told me I should. But if I'm really honest it's sometimes difficult to square that with the evidence of my own eyes.

I see children that were born at the same time as my daughter every day of the week. Their health, happiness and intellectual ability appears to have nothing to do with whether they were breast or bottle fed. I know that this is personal and anecdotal - but it's a very powerful experience. Many people just don't see the science translated into every day life; and the health professionals and policy makers have to get better at acknowledging that.

No-one should be deterred from breast feeding for cultural, social or economic reasons. Women who breastfeed their babies should not be thrown off buses, out of cafes or into coal cellars lest their brazen need to nourish their child should throw the populace into paroxysms of embarassment and/or lust.

But equally motherhood should not be defined by which teat your baby drinks from. Yes, breast is best, but mothering means much, much more.


  1. Good post. I would say one thing though, re. your friend with the tongue-tied baby and any other mother having trouble breastfeeding: DO NOT RELY ON MIDWIVES OR HEALTH VISITORS. Some of them are the absolute nuts, but most know diddly squat about overcoming nursing problems. Get yourself on the phone to the La Leche League or a qualified lactation consultant/breastfeeding counsellor.

    This is something that's often missing from the 'breast is best debate'. Yes, breast is best. No, formula is not the devil's work. Yes, ultimately mothers should choose and not feel bad about their choices. But the UK's approach of telling all expectant mothers that they really should bf, and then failing to offer them any sort of specialised support in the crucial post-birth period, is failing.

  2. Great post. I too believe breast is best, but sometimes it just doesn't work out and the important thing is making that acceptable and helping rather than tutting at mothers who just can't make breast feeding work.


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