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…If you’re not into reading about that stuff then look away now!  This is, to be honest, a self-indulgent post.  (Hmmm, are any blog posts not self-indulgent? Discuss…)  I’ve decided to write it, and I plan to write as honestly as I know how, because I have this stuff on my mind.  I’ve never quite resolved the rather difficult birth experience I had with my daughter, never quite come to terms with failing to be able to breastfeed her and as we hope to have another child (though that’s proving to be, once again, a slow process) I thought it might do me some good to get this stuff out of my head and somehow resolved.  I’m looking for a bit of catharsis, and you, my friends, are about to bear witness if you want to.  If you don’t want to get inside my head that much, and feel there is such a thing as too much information (you’re right) I recommend you exercise your ‘get out of jail free’ card and click on someone else’s blog instead.  There have been some letters and articles in the press recently, and intermittently over the years, which relate particularly to the issue of breastfeeding, and I need to sort that out in my head . So that is, as the post title suggests, the main topic here today.

 

 Everyone knows, or should know by now, that breast feeding is the best way for a baby to be fed.  The World Health Organisation says

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is the ideal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family and the health care system. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age.

There’s not much to argue with there really.  It’s the way women (female mammals even) are designed to nourish their young.  There is no more natural process, and yet I have been all too aware that we as a nation are not so good at this:

UK breastfeeding rates

The Office for National Statistics performs its Infant Feeding Survey every five years. The figures from the 2005 survey were published in March 2008. The 2005 figures show some significant improvements from the 2000 survey. Key findings were:
  • The proportion of babies breastfed at birth in the UK rose by seven per cent.
  • Initiation rates in both Scotland and Northern Ireland rose by eight per cent and those in England and Wales by seven per cent.
  • Scotland, which showed the greatest increases in the prevalence of breastfeeding at ages up to nine months in 2000, appears to have stabilised in 2005, with a small increase in the rate at four months and no increase at six and nine months. By contrast, the other countries show an increase at all ages.
  • Overall, only 35 per cent of UK babies are being exclusively breastfed at one week, 21 per cent at six weeks, 7 per cent at four months and 3 per cent at five months.
  • In 2005, for the first time, figures for Wales were separated from those for England. This will enable each country to see their individual progress at the next survey in 2010.

(from Unicef report released in 2008)

So, the UK sucks at breastfeeding (ha, no pun intended).  So when I, an expectant mother 5 years ago, contemplated breastfeeding I knew 1) it was something I planned on doing, I didn’t seriously consider not breastfeeding my child 2)there was some reason most mothers didn’t breastfeed their children in this country.  As a community education worker, working in a family centre, I was very aware of the various health education initiatives there were around this as well as having the chance to see for myself what the mums in my professional as well as my personal life were doing in this regard.  (Not quite in line with the statistics, I actually know and knew then quite a number of people who would breastfeed exclusively for long periods, less than those using formula but not significantly so).
Anyway, my daughter was born a little more than 4 1/2 years ago now.  It wasn’t the easiest of births, there was quite a lot of medical intervention – much more than I had anticipated being possible, short of having a caesarean.  One of the consequences of this was that in the hours immediately after she was born I was pretty out of it, pretty feeble.  Even now, that first night is not really ‘there’, just snapshots and sort of flashback moments.  Is this, I wonder, part of the reason why my daughter didn’t manage to ‘latch on’ successfully at first?  Or when I tried again later?  And with increasing urgency, later again. 
The midwives taught me hurriedly how to express some of that early crucial milk, called colostrum, and my daughter was fed it in a little tiny cup, like a medicine cap with a lip to it, so future attempts at breastfeeding wouldn’t be damaged. This was to us as new parents just so strange.  Well everything was strange, and we were reeling from the experience, but the idea of feeding our tiny brand new daughter from a miniature plastic cup just seemed surreal.
This soon became the relentless cycle of the days to follow.  I would attempt to breastfeed my daughter, she would wriggle and cry or just turn away.  I would then hook myself up to an industrial milking machine (breast pump, but big enough to cope with a dairy herd, it seemed), spend ages getting milk out then torturously feeding it to her (and sending the rest off to be saved for other feeds) via this minute cup.  Bear in mind she was hours then days old, and I had no remote experience of anything approaching this, had snatched an hours sleep here and another there, but as I also had a ‘colicky’ baby most of my time was spent shushing and pacing and rocking and soothing and eventually crying along with her.  Within the space of 12 hours of being a mother I had failed to do the one ‘natural’ thing I had really really wanted to do for her. 
I got lots of support, lots of intervention, lots of advice from the midwives, doctors, breast feeding specialists.  But nothing, literally nothing made any difference.  My daughter, for no apparent reason, would not breastfeed.  After not very long there was some concern about her health, that Iwasn’t producing enough milk (even now that part is hazy) and whilst it was good I was expressing milk for her to take in her little cup, it was getting to the point I needed to supplement that with formula milk.  This felt like a huge deal, something there was no going back from.  Actually that was exactly how it turned out in the end.  But my daughter did well on the formula, although my husband spent a fortune in Mothercare buying all the previously unwanted formula-feeding gubbins we’d not even considered buying.
 
We remained in hospital for 6 days all in all, trying to get breastfeeding going.  I had all sorts of strange interventions which were deemed worth trying.  I can’t think of another time I felt so disempowered, so at the mercy of the will and control of others.  I remember sitting in a little room at 2 or 3am with a well-intentioned midwife taping tiny tubes to my breast and nipple then squirting my previously expressed milk through the tubes as I positioned my daughter to try to feed yet again.  (The idea was to show her this was how she was meant to get her milk, she’d never managed to latch on, maybe she just thought my nipples were buttons or something) What happened instead was I ended up covered in my own milk, tears pouring down my face, my baby crying because she was hungry, the midwife getting  increasingly brisk and shrill. 
When the midwives finally got me to concede defeat after 6 days, I went home, and continued the pattern begun in hospital.  Feeding was an endless round of trying to breastfeed, feeding, expressing, sterilising, making up formula, nursing a colicky baby and then starting again.  (I might have got the order wrong, and even missed out a stage or two…it’s a bit blurry).  We kept this up for 6 weeks, then my breastmilk just dwindled away and we were left with formula. 
If I’m truthful I was ashamed.  I was ashamed to be seen feeding my baby from a bottle, ashamed to have given up so soon (although I did everything I could to keep my milk going, I tried and tried to breastfeed…see how I still need to justify myself even now?!) .  I longed for the intimacy and bond inherent in breastfeeding your child.  I longed too for the convenience and simplicity of breastfeeding as opposed to the tedium and timeconsuming nature of preparing formula feeds.  I realise that may be a romanticised picture of breastfeeding too – I’ve known enough mothers who have felt utterly bound by a child that just wants to breastfeed all the time. 
It troubled me for a long time about what would have happened to my daughter if she’d been born somewhere where formula wasn’t available.  What happens to children whose mothers can’t feed them, or children which can’t/won’t take to breastfeeding?  Well I know now that there are very ancient examples of bottles used clearly to feed babies, so perhaps they were given cows milk or similar.  Or another breastfeeding mother, a wet nurse, would take them on.  Or they would simply die from malnutrition…
So it bothers me that the debate about breastfeeding is so simplistic.  Because the reality for some mothers, like me, is that it was a painful journey away from our plans and hopes, and towards a second-best choice that we ultimately had no choice but to take.  My daughter wouldn’t breast feed.  I got lots and lots of support from professionals whose job it is to sort that out.  Receiving that support was a double-edged sword, of much needed help and advice, combined with a sense of ‘if it still doesn’t work after all this, it’s your fault not ours’ (not ever said, just how I feltf) She still wouldn’t breast feed.  Literally not even try.  I didn’t need anyone to make me feel guilty, I’d already internalised enough of the breastfeeding argument to do that myself.  I find it difficult to believe my particular situation was unique but equally I hear few voices that echo a similar story.   That’s why I’ve written this, just in case someone else is having or has had the same experience and wants to know they’re not the worst mum in the world because they couldn’t succeed at breastfeeding.  Now my daughter’s older, I’m coming to realise if that’s the worst thing I fail at as a parent I’ll be doing an amazing job.
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