It’s not something I’ve admitted to publicly before, but I am one of the many mothers who found breastfeeding an absolute nightmare, at least first time round. In hindsight, I’d say my problems with breastfeeding were the main reason behind my depression after my first daughter was born.
Depression is something else I’ve never admitted to before. It was never actually diagnosed at the time and I certainly didn’t talk to my health visitor about it, although I’m pretty sure she suspected. I lied my way through those set questions they ask new mums to gauge your mental state in an attempt to look like I was coping.
But I wasn’t coping with breastfeeding and as a first-time mum, anxious to get everything right, to do it by the book and do it naturally, that just about destroyed me. That and the lack of sleep from constantly trying to feed a starving baby at all hours of the day and night who just wasn’t getting enough milk from me. And the pain of my sore, cracked, bleeding nipples. And the sheer bloody guilt that I just wasn’t a good enough mother. It’s nearly a decade ago but those feelings are still so very real, so very raw.
A few days after my first baby was born we were readmitted to hospital because my daughter was losing too much weight and it was clear we needed help. Hats off to the midwives at St Michael’s in Bristol for all the support they gave Jessie and me in trying to conquer the breastfeeding battle. I had a constant stream of midwives in attendance showing me the best way to support my baby during feeding and how to get her to latch on – each one’s advice however quite often contradicting the last. I was hooked up to vast, industrial-looking pumping machines and milked like a cow. They didn’t seem disturbed by the pitiful amount I was producing. Talk about committed to the cause. They were sticking wholeheartedly to the ‘breast is best’ mantra and there was no question of me giving up the good fight.
Looking back though, I really do question whether the fight was worth it.
After a few days I was allowed back home with Jessie. The feeding had improved but only marginally. I would still dread every feed and wince in pain throughout each one. I hated myself for not being able to do it. Occasionally, I’d hate my baby for not being able to do it. Then I’d hate myself for hating my baby. And most of the time I hated my husband and all men in general for never having to breastfeed.
I kept this up for six weeks – possibly the longest six weeks of my life. Then I was passed on from the midwives to the local health visitor. And she uttered those miraculous words, “Why don’t you try her with formula?” And from that point on our lives were magically transformed. My daughter rapidly went from a scrawny, scraggy thing, permanently bright red from crying, to a calm, chubby-faced, chubby-thighed bundle of bubbliness, who slept for longer than a couple of hours at a stretch. Because she wasn’t hungry!
I fed her a combination of breast milk and formula until she was six months old and while I never felt guilty, because I could quite clearly see she hadn’t been thriving until we’d introduced the formula, I always felt something of a failure as a woman and as a mother because my own body and my own milk just weren’t seemingly good enough.
That’s why I really wish this new book, Guilt-free Bottle Feeding, had been around back in 2005 when I was going through all this. It really would have made such a difference to have heard the alternative perspective that yes, breast might be best, but formula is a pretty bloody fantastic alternative option for those women who don’t go down that route for whatever reason.
‘Breast is best’ has to be one of the catchiest marketing slogans ever. It’s short, it’s pithy, it rhymes. It’s certainly a lot easier to remember than, ‘breast milk is better than formula, but some of its touted benefits probably come from the act of breastfeeding, as well as simply the type of parenting provided by mothers who choose to breastfeed, and formula is also a nutritionally complete way to feed your baby, so don’t sweat it too much’. (Guilt-free Bottle Feeding, Chapter 2 – Why bottle feeding won’t make your baby fat, sick or stupid)
Guilt-free Bottle Feeding – Why your formula-fed baby can be healthy, happy and smart is written by award-winning former BBC presenter Madeleine Morris and paediatrician Dr Sasha Howard. The publishers stress from the very start it is not an anti-breastfeeding book. But rather it is an anti-guilt book. It tackles some of the myths around infant feeding, revealing how many of the benefits of breastfeeding have been oversold to parents in the West, and shows guilt-wracked mums they have not failed their babies by giving them formula.
Morris and Howard provide a balanced and long-overdue alternative to the simplistic message that ‘breast is best’, showing that despite the huge pressure women feel to breastfeed, it is perfectly possible to raise happy, healthy and smart bottle-fed and mixed-fed children. The book brings together easy-to-understand scientific fact and research with case studies of real mothers of all backgrounds and walks of life who did not exclusively breastfeed for a multitude of reasons, all told with genuine warmth and humour.
One of the case studies I found most interesting came from one of the authors of the book, Dr Sasha Howard, herself a medical professional with heaps of ‘experience’ of breastfeeding. Despite having received a ‘comprehensive education about the practicalities of breastfeeding’ and helping numerous new mothers getting ‘a good latch’, she still felt ‘utterly bewildered’ by her own first experience of breastfeeding. Her experience seems to mirror my own in terms of never seeming to have enough milk to sate her child, the agony of cracked, bleeding nipples, and chasing her tail ’round an endless circle of feeding, expressing, expressed milk bottle top ups, and feeding again’.
Howard ‘succeeded’ in managing four-and-a-half months’ exclusive breastfeeding, but since then has asked herself many times, ‘Was it worth it?’ She says…
With all I have learned from the evidence and literature surrounding the benefits of breastfeeding, I do not think I would put myself, or my baby, through that again. I would try to breastfeed and I would do so exclusively if it works for my baby and me next time. But if it doesn’t, I would be happy to reach for the formula in the knowledge that it is a balanced, informed choice I am making and that formula and a sane mother might just be a far better combination than breast and a slightly exhausted, slightly mad, resentful one. It seems a pretty sensible choice to me, both as a mum and a doctor.
I so wish I had read that first time around.
I’m pleased to say that with my second time daughter, Mia, breastfeeding was much easier – and even enjoyable. Who knows the reasons why. Perhaps I was a little more relaxed the second time. Maybe my expectations were a little more realistic and I was just ‘easier’ on myself and my desire to be the ‘perfect’ mother. But I think the fact that I knew formula was always there as a fantastic alternative was a real help.
If you’re having issues with breastfeeding and resisting the ‘temptation’ to bottle-feed because you feel that’s not what ‘good’ mothers do, then I’d definitely recommend this book to you. As I say, I really wish it had been around when I was in that position.
Guilt-free Bottle Feeding is published by Crimson Publishing priced £10.99.
Disclosure: I was sent a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes. No money exchanged hands and all opinions expressed are my own.