I find myself compelled to jump on the breastfeeding debate bandwagon.
According to the NHS website “more than 73% of women in the UK start breastfeeding and 17% of babies are still being breastfed at 3 months.” The question shouldn’t be why do 27% of women choose not to breastfeed their babies in the first place, it should be why do 56% of women stop breastfeeding within 3 months?
Noah was breastfed exclusively until he was five months old, when I started weaning him. I continued to breastfeed him until his first birthday. When I was in the postnatal ward after Noah was born, I was in a room with three other women who, like me, had not been able to go home soon after giving birth. I had to stay in hospital because I had surgery to manually remove pieces of my ruptured placenta. The woman in the bed diagonally opposite mine had to stay in hospital because she had given birth at 31 weeks and her baby was in Intensive Care. The other two women had to stay in hospital because they had not yet been able to successfully breastfeed their baby. I listened to the midwives trying to support these two women when their babies were crying out for milk and I could hear the desperation in the mothers’ voices. I felt relieved that although I was bruised, torn, scraped out, broken, weak and completely unable to walk across the room, my Noah was what my midwife had called a “breastfeeding superstar”.
So imagine my dismay when, less than two weeks later, the Health Visitor rocked up at my house, weighed him and dropped the bombshell that he had lost a pound and two ounces, going from the 75th to the 9th percentile in ten short days.
“Have you thought about topping up with a bottle?” she asked.
“I don’t want to give him a bottle,” I insisted.
She looked concerned. She asked me to feed him so she could see if he was latching on properly. Although the prospect horrified me, I obediently bared my boob in front of her and fed him.
“He seems to be latching on okay,” she said after she had peered at my boob from several different angles. She still looked concerned. “I want to see you again tomorrow,” she said.
“Tomorrow?” Tomorrow seemed urgent, drastic.
“Bring him to the hospital and I’ll squeeze you in. I want to make sure he doesn’t lose any weight overnight.”
What had happened? I hadn’t had much of an appetite since giving birth. I had barely slept: not only was Noah awake most of the night, but every time I closed my eyes I re-lived my labour experience. I was taking (or rather forgetting to take) four different types of tablets. And I had been told that babies fed every three hours, so I hadn’t believed that Noah was really hungry every time he was screaming his little head off and therefore, possibly, hadn’t been feeding him enough.
Between the moment the HV left and the moment I saw her again the next day, I fed Noah constantly. When she weighed him the next day, he had put on three ounces. The HV was pleased. “There’s nothing wrong with your breast milk,” she said. Then she smiled and said it again: “There is nothing wrong with your breast milk.”
I had a reprieve.
From then on, I fed him whenever he screamed. He’d feed for about an hour every other hour so pretty much all I did was feed him. At about six o’clock he went into a zone of constant screaming. Up to this point, my husband and I had spent our evenings passing him back and forth like a hot potato, frantically trying to distract him from whatever was bothering him. But now I just fed him. I sat on the sofa and fed him for three hours until he eventually went to into a milk coma. I ate my dinner, feeding him with a tea towel draped over his head.
But he stayed in the 9th percentile. Every time I took him to be weighed, I felt like I was sitting an exam and I was terrified I would fail – actually fail at motherhood. Because he stayed in the ninth percentile and didn’t drop any further down the scale, the health visitors weren’t concerned.
But to keep him in the ninth percentile, I had to accept that my life was now just about breastfeeding. If I had to go out, I would feed him before I left home to try and avoid him screaming in the back of the car ten minutes later. I frequently had to pull over when I was driving and feed him. My Mum was troubled. Apparently, breastfeeding me had been a breeze: I was one of those babies who fed every three hours. Well-meaning friends and relatives (mostly relatives as I was avoiding my friends, worried about what they would think of my constant feeding) told me to “put him on the bottle”.
Never, ever, ever tell a breastfeeding woman to give her child formula. Let her make that decision for herself.
Before I had Noah, I had heard of babies who would not breastfeed. My sister, born three years after me, wouldn’t take to the breast. I had heard of women expressing all the milk for their baby because the baby wouldn’t breastfeed and they didn’t want to give it formula. Before I had Noah, I had no understanding of the physical, mental and emotional agony some women (lots of women) go through because they cannot breastfeed.
When Noah was three months old, I took him to an osteopath and discovered that his jaw was out of line. A few presses from the osteopath’s magic fingers and had Noah shot back up to the 75th percentile by the time he started weaning at five months old. There really was nothing wrong with my breast milk. I felt vindicated.
People told me that Noah was small because of my breastfeeding. People told me Noah didn’t sleep because of my breastfeeding. I breastfed him anyway. This friendly advice didn’t change my mind, but it did make the whole experience more stressful than it already was.
The truth is, I didn’t stop breastfeeding because I didn’t really have to – I didn’t have mastitis; I didn’t have particularly sore and cracked nipples; my son’s weight gain was “satisfactory”; I didn’t have blocked milk ducts. Breastfeeding was demanding. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. But it wasn’t impossible. For some women, it really is impossible and it breaks these women’s hearts that they can’t feed their baby.
I often see things on Facebook from pro-breastfeeding sites which list the benefits of breastfeeding. These health benefits may have been in the back of my mind, but they weren’t the reason I wanted to feed Noah this way. For me, my body was producing milk for my son and I wanted to feed it to him. Pro-breastfeeding propaganda really annoys me because the focus is wrong. I wish someone – an NCT rep, a midwife, a health visitor, a nurse, absolutely anyone – had told me before I had Noah that breastfeeding would be hard. I wish someone had prepared me for the fact that some babies nurse all the time. I wish someone had told me that for breastfed babies, their mother’s milk is their comfort and their sleep prop as well as their food. I wish someone had told me how difficult it is to leave the house without your breastfeeding baby.
I have issues with some of the claims made about breastfed babies. First of all, if you were breastfed as a baby, you are apparently less likely to be obese. This claim mystifies me. Of course, some people put weight on easier than others. Some people have bigger frames than others. Some people genetically have big thighs or tend to carry more fat around their middles. Is this because they were not breastfed as babies? Or is it because all of our bodies are different, just like our hair colour and eye colour are different? I am not a medical expert, but to me it is blindingly obvious that people become obese because of their relationship with food. End of.
Another claim that is well bashed about is that a breastfeeding woman burns 500 calories more than a non-breastfeeding woman. That may be true but, in my experience, this extra burn of 500 calories doesn’t make you lose any more weight. Maybe breastfeeding makes you hold on to your fat more because it is needed to produce the milk. All I can say for sure is that my extra weight didn’t start to shift until Noah started weaning.
If you are breastfed, you are likely to have a higher IQ, you are likely to suffer less from colds and infections, eczema and childhood illnesses. So if you choose to feed your child formula milk, you are putting your child at risk of being less intelligent and more ill? Isn’t that like saying that we should all live in bungalows because your child has more chance of falling out of an upstairs window if you live in a house?
And here is my main point.
This is a picture of the most brilliant person I know:
This is my sister. She was formula-fed. She left school with only As and A*s on her CV. She has a first in English and in French from Warwick University. She did a Masters in Education and got the highest mark. She was made Head of English in her third year of teaching. My sister has the Midas touch. Is she sickly? No. Was she a sickly child? Not at all. It was me (the breastfed one) who suffered with constant ear and throat infections as a child, until my tonsils were taken out when I was six. I am the one with eczema. If there was a runt of the pack, it would be me. Not that I am a runt, of course.
I am not a medical expert. But for what it’s worth, this is my opinion. We know breastmilk is good and what nature intended. What we don’t know is why something that is so natural is so hard. Jamie Oliver (although I love you my Essex homie) don’t focus on the 27% of women who choose for their own personal and justified reasons not to breastfeed at all. Focus on the 56% who have to give up.