How are families supposed to decide? How can they truly make an informed decision with all this infighting? Who do they trust and turn to? Do they believe the media hype? The so-called expert? Huff Post? Who is telling the truth?
Nobody would breastfeed if they genuinely thought it would risk their baby’s life! Yet, as a species, we’ve been breastfeeding for hundreds of thousands of years. Sure, people sometimes struggled. Of course it wasn’t always easy. And yes, sometimes they didn’t make enough milk, so a friend or family member stepped in. But they definitely breastfed longer than 8 weeks. And they definitely weren’t writing blog posts about how awful it is.
As a lactation consultant, the stories sadden me. Not because of the statistics. I care for mothers. Not numbers. And I know that the mothers who reach out for help aren’t breastfeeding because they care about numbers either. I’m sad because I know that when breastfeeding doesn’t work out, women and families are sad about it. Yes, sometimes these feelings are messy, uncomfortable, and sometimes people have regrets, anger or disappointment to deal with. That’s important to deal with, compassionately and empathically and practically. But let’s not get side-tracked from what matters.
Of course statistics matter. They matter on a global and public health level. Knowledge of stats helps us to make sure that funding goes to the right place, the right areas are researched, and resources is diverted where they make the most difference. We need to know what the public health priorities are. But to the individual, statistics are almost meaningless. For example, we know that statistically, children who are breastfed are significantly less likely to become unwell. My youngest daughter, who has been breastfed for 4 years and counting, has childhood leukaemia. A statistical anomaly. Will this mean I stop teaching health professionals that breastfeeding significantly reduces the risk of childhood cancer? Nope. What about the formula fed baby who has never once had a tummy bug or ear infection? Of course some babies stay healthy. But the statistics suggest that this is an anomaly too. Once we start getting into stats, we lose the focus of the individual. It’s about the mums who want to breastfeed, but find it difficult. Not the stats.
You see, I have never, ever come across a mother who I have pressurized to breastfeed. Women seek me out, not the other way around. “Sure”, I hear you say, “But what about the pressure within the NHS to breastfeed?” Well, of course, the NHS as a public health serving institution is going to promote optimal nutrition, and evidence based best practice. Of course, not everyone employed in the NHS is an expert on breastfeeding. I have heard stories from both sides though, of the pressure and lack of good information.
Women who are formula feeding sadly tell me that they desperately tried to pump, surrounded by posters declaring the superiority of breastmilk, with nobody skilled enough to help them achieve what they wanted to achieve.
Women who are breastfeeding sadly tell me that the solutions they were offered to get over their breastfeeding problem were not breastfeeding solutions, but bottle feeding solutions.
I vividly remember a midwife coming into my room and asking me how breastfeeding was going with my eldest. I told her it was great (it wasn’t actually, but I was too proud to admit that I, the fellow health professional, was struggling with soreness). She left the room and came back 30 minutes later to bombard me with the discharge paperwork (why do they do that?!). Without any preamble, she asked me if I was sure I wanted to exclusively breastfeed, and did I want some formula to go home with ‘just in case’. I kid you not. This was 7 ½ years ago. In South West London.
The pressure is on both sides. Pressure to breastfeed. Pressure to bottle feed. Pressure to be led by the baby. Pressure to get your life back. Pressure to achieve stuff. Pressure to be the best. The trouble is, pithy statements like ‘happy mum, happy baby’, aren’t as simple as they sound. It’s just not that easy.
When mothers want to breastfeed and make it work, that’s great.
When mothers don’t want to breastfeed, and make it work, that’s great.
When mothers are let down by their support systems, maternity units and community care, and the end result is stopping breastfeeding earlier than planned…… That’s a tragedy. These aren’t statistics – they’re people. Let down people. Sad people. They cling on to the ‘happy mum, happy baby’ statement, or feel that they need to defend their decision. They bury their hurt and disappointment, or sometimes it comes out as bitterness or anger. You can’t tell me that’s a 'happy mum'. I don’t buy it. I've met them.
Amy Brown’s book, Breastfeeding Uncovered, talks about the complexities of parenting and motherhood in a society swamped with advice and information, and poor advice and misinformation. It’s a compelling read. I guarantee you’ll be on your high horse after reading it. She makes the point that there are a lot of really bad reasons why women are let down along their breastfeeding journey.
But again, it’s not like any breastfeeding advocate is bothered by the statistics. Women can carry their hurt about their breastfeeding experience for years. That’s not ok.
I want to urge anyone who has had a disappointing experience breastfeeding their child to seek support and help to move on in a way that doesn’t bury and disguise their disappointment under a mask of anger and resentment. Find a breastfeeding counselor or lactation consultant, psychotherapist, good friend or supportive family member to listen to your story. Nobody can make it ok, but you can feel better about it.
When women come to me for support following stopping breastfeeding, I make several suggestions:
- Understand what happened
- Forgive yourself and others
- Allow yourself to grieve
- Arm yourself with information for next time, including having a plan
- Learn how to bottle feed with love
- Appreciate your mothering experience
- Focus on forming a close attachment to your baby
- Give yourself permission to try again, with an open mind
- Seek support from the right professional