Monday, 7 November 2011

Breast is Best?

It is a truth that one would expect to be universally acknowledged:  breast is best.  However, sometimes, for some mothers, it is not.  

BabyB-B's first feed
Before I go any further, I should lay my cards on the table.  I am a bona fide, card carrying lactavist.  I am loud and proud about breastfeeding BabyB-B.  I believe wholeheartedly that breast is best.  I believe babies should be breastfed on demand.  I believe they should be breastfed for at least their first year.  I encourage expectant mothers to give it a go.  I offer words of encouragement to those consider giving it up.  I like to think my encouragement is gentle and without judgment because I remember all to well the overwhelming pressure I felt to give my unborn baby the "best start in life" and the massive internal struggle when faced with days of sleep deprivation, mastitis, thrush and blocked nipples.   

I have some very dear friends who bottle feed by choice.  Some breastfed for a few weeks or months.  Others not at all.  All of these mothers are feeding their babies and all of these mothers at one point in time have felt judged for the method by which they do so.  When asked who they felt judged or pressured them about their decision the answers were:  lactation consultants, society and other mothers.  

Feeding BabyB-B after her brief stint in the nursery
It should come as little surprise that lactation consultants encourage breastfeeding.  After all, they are in the business of breasts and feeding with them!  My personal experience with lactation consultants is that they offer amazing guidance and support especially in those early few weeks when I was jumping the hurdles that my body decided to throw at me both physically and mentally.  One mother's guidance and support is another mother's judgment and pressure.  A lactation consultant is probably not the person to see if you are, however deep down and secretly, hoping for reassuring words that it is ok to stop breastfeeding.  Why would a mother after such reassurance see a lactation consultant?  I suspect because of the societal expectation that a mother will breastfeed.

Societal expectation and judgment is an interesting one.  Primarily because the judgment of society is also one of the main reasons mothers choose not to breastfeed.  The sexualisation of breasts plays a massive part in a mother's decision not to breastfeed.  It seems our society is so caught up in breasts as sexual objects that it is often forgotten that they are, in fact, designed to feed and nourish our young - but this is a topic best left for another day.

During my pregnancy I was asked quite frequently whether I would breastfeed.  My answer was, invariably, "If I can".  Why such an answer?  Because I felt an enormous pressure to breastfeed even before BabyB-B came along.  When mulling over how I would feed my unborn child I recalled a long past event where my mother and her friend were discussing a new mother's decision to formula feed her daughter.  Words like "selfish" and "lazy" were bandied around.  I also recalled an acquaintance who suffered through months of thrush only to "fail" at breastfeeding.  Sadly this acquaintance did not receive adequate support in establishing breastfeeding and thrush was only diagnosed when she had determined that breastfeeding was not best for her mental well being and her bond with her son.  When pregnant with her second child the trauma of breastfeeding her first filled her with fear of being deemed a failure by society the next time around.  My answer, "If I can", protected me from being considered selfish or lazy, but also contemplated a scenario where breastfeeding may not work.  It was my get out of gaol free card.  I would appease society by giving it a go.  This seems to be the attitude that many new mothers have - "I will try breastfeeding because everyone expects me to".  So how was it that I managed to exclusively breastfeed BabyB-B until the age of 6 months and continue to breastfeed her as she starts baby-led weaning?
In a bubble with my baby after a feed at three weeks

In the grips of post natal depression, breastfeeding was the one thing I had, that I could do and I was not going to let go of it.  I approached breastfeeding with an obsessive determination to make it work.  I was convinced that if I didn't breastfeed BabyB-B and she took a bottle people would take her away from me because I was not coping.  The people taking her away were DaddyB-B or her grandparents.  Their intentions were to take her for a few hours so I could rest.  I clung to demand feeding because, although I was convinced my beautiful and perfect daughter would be better off with someone else, I could not fathom being parted from her for even half an hour.  When breastfeeding my little bundle, notwithstanding the mastitis, thrush and blocked nipples, I felt (and still feel) enveloped in serenity.  Breastfeeding for me is the ultimate act of bonding.  

Sleepy feed at three months
So what of the mother who feels pressured to breastfeed when doing so is making her feel miserable, overwhelmed and judged.  Could breastfeeding be damaging her bond with her baby?  Could it be preventing her from enjoying her child.  The answer, put simply, is yes.  In such circumstances it would be difficult to argue that breast is best.  What of the mother who chose not to breastfeed at all?  Is she any less bonded to her child because she feeds by bottle?  Of course not.  My experience of mothers who choose to bottle feed their children is that these mothers absolutely love their children and are well and truly bonded.  I've been told by these bottle feeding mothers that no matter how at peace they are with their decision to bottle feed, they remain nervous in the face of their harshest critic:  the breastfeeding mother.  

Breastfeeding mothers have been described to me by bottle feeding mothers as:  smug, self-righteous, disapproving and judgmental.  My personal philosophy is to try to avoid making another mother feel judged because of her decision to bottle feed her child notwithstanding the fact that I remain steadfastly of the view that breast is best.  Bottle feeding does not mean she loves her baby any less than I love my breast fed baby.  Who am I to judge a bottle feeding mother?  Particularly when I do not know the circumstances.  It could be that the mother who is bottle feeding her child is doing so because breastfeeding presented an insurmountable hurdle and her much loved baby was failing to thrive.  She may have gone through the pain and rejection of breast refusal.  She may be torturing herself because for whatever reason breastfeeding just did not work out for her.  It is not my place to judge.  Nor should it be the place of any breastfeeding mother to judge.  

However, in defence of smug, self-righteous, disapproving and judgmental breastfeeding mothers, I will query whether the mothers who simply choose not to breastfeed and feel judged by breastfeeding mothers are really judged or whether it is their own self doubt at their decision coming through.  In accordance with my philosophy of not making another mother feel judged for her decision, this is a query that will likely remain unanswered as I will not be posing this question to any of my bottle feeding mummy friends.  
Finally feeding again after refusing to feed during a bout  of gastro

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