Recently I overheard two mums in the park discussing how someone in their mothers’ group had her ten-week old baby on formula. Cue: gasps of horror! The tone of this conversation (read: bitch session) was condescending and judgmental. Their transparent lack of support and sense of superiority was appalling. Breastfeeding is neither heroic nor, mandatory. Mothers should not be shamed for feeding their baby, from nipple or teat.
The chorus of “breast is best” is echoed everywhere. And with good reason. No one would dispute the countless benefits of breast-feeding, and breast is certainly the best “first choice” but formula is a fine second choice.
Breastfeeding, when it works, is a lovely experience. It’s intimate, facilitates bonding and everyone knows the health benefits are unmatched. But it’s not always the “best” option if breastfeeding involves ongoing struggle, or it compromises a mum’s mental health. Too often, enjoyment of new motherhood is eclipsed by pressure and expectation.
A new study, just released by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne shows the pressure to breastfeed is impacting on the mental health of new mothers. The findings suggest that women who have trouble breastfeeding may be more likely to develop post-natal depression and give up nursing their babies before the recommended six months.
My breastfeeding journey
I enjoyed breastfeeding my firstborn though it didn’t come easily. I struggled with cracked nipples, poor attachments and a low supply. But my determination was fierce and with the help of a lactation consultant I was able to persevere for close to 12 months. Back then, I had time to express in order to boost my supply, and having only one baby meat that I had small pockets of time where I could rest. And everyone knows that rest is an essential requisite to milk supply.
My experience with my second-born was fraught from the get-go. She thrashed about at my breast and screamed her little lungs out; it was stressful and exhausting for us both. I felt anxious before, during and after each feed. It was horrible and it inhibited bonding. Eventually she was diagnosed with silent reflux and our Pediatrician suggested we put her on a reflux formula, which I did, but not without some reluctance. But ultimately I felt that in our case, breast was not best. A fed baby was best! Feed times became infinitely calmer and we were able to enjoy these precious moments.
I desperately wanted my third experience to be enduring and stress-free. I wanted to be the mum who breastfed with ease and I placed pressure on myself to “perform” because I thought she was my last baby. But again I had trouble. A severe post-partum hemorrhage interfered with my milk production from the beginning. Still, I persisted, enduring blistered nipples and painful attachments. An unhelpful maternal health nurse told me my nipples were apparently too big for a decent attachment. Her words stung more than the burning attachment. I felt like a failure. My inadequate supply failed to sustain my baby who struggled to put on weight. My pumping attempts produced pitiful results, and with two other children to look after, I simply couldn’t manage it. I topped up with formula and soon after my baby made it crystal clear she favoured the teat over my nipple!
The World Health Organisation recommends babies are breastfed exclusively to around six months of age, with the gradual introduction of appropriate solids and continued breastfeeding up to two years of age. And we need to ensure that women are given the compassionate support (note to the maternal health nurse who nipple shamed me) to aid breastfeeding. But, mothers need to be supported however they feed their babies because the pressure around breastfeeding can potentially damage their mental health.
To the women in the park who condemned a fellow mum for formula feeding: The shame is on you. A woman who bottle-feeds her baby is not inferior to a mother who breastfeeds her baby. So much of a mother’s self worth is tied up in her performance as a mother. How a mother feeds her baby is not a measure of her performance. It’s so much more than that. Guilt is unhelpful and unnecessary, and shame is unjustified and abhorrent.
Did you breastfeed? How did you find it? Have you ever been breast or bottle shamed?