The very mention of the breast versus bottle debate unleashes unlimited contention and passion in the modern motherhood arena. The “breast is best” campaign powerfully promotes the numerous benefits of breast milk, or so-called “liquid gold”, over formula milk and the World Health Organisation “strongly recommends” exclusive breastfeeding for baby’s first six months.
Yet the statistics paint a different picture. The HSE-commissioned National Infant Feeding Survey conducted by TCD in 2009 found that only 2.4% of Irish mothers are following the WHO’s advice. The average initiation rate was 50% and with 35% stopping within two weeks and only 19% still breastfeeding exclusively at three months, low uptake and short duration characterises the breastfeeding landscape in Ireland.
Mastering the Mechanics
It’s the latch that’s the catch! Perfecting this correct positioning of baby to the breast – the famous “fish lips” – is a fest of fumbling, foostering, frustration and failed attempts before gradually getting the hang of it with plenty of patience, practice and perseverance. The problem is that by the time the milk comes in on day three and before nursing is well established, new mothers are pretty much left to their own devices.
Even celebrity mum of one, Courteney Cox conceded that, “It took a lot of persevering through the early weeks because my daughter didn’t latch on properly and it really hurt, but I’m happy I stayed with it because not only do I have a special bond with my baby, it’s easy now, and is extremely healthy.”
Amidst the haze of hormones and in the absence of information and intensive tuition in those vital early days of breastfeeding, rendering the whole experience too painful, too hard, too stressful, too exhausting, and too time-consuming, is it any wonder that women exorcise the big-boobed ghost?
Perhaps if we knew the plain truth about the possible pain and the difficult dynamics in advance, the situation might be different. But new mothers tend to feel embarrassed about not being able to do the “most natural thing in the world” and are often somewhat shy about seeking support. However, breastfeeding is a learned and not an instinctive behaviour and, once this is acknowledged, invaluable help is at hand from several accessible sources. National organisations such as Cuidiu and La Leche League, local breastfeeding support groups, lactation consultants, the HSE, public health nurses, hospital helplines, GPs/practice nurses and paediatric doctors are all sympathetic to the plight of a nursing mother’s needs.
The No Camp
Over 4,000 species of mammal all breastfeed their young so why is it the exception rather than the rule in Ireland’s human society? There appears to be a multitude of reasons why new mums don’t or can’t breastfeed, from a lack – or perceived lack – of milk supply, busy lifestyles, certain inhibiting medications, and fear of excluding the partner from sharing the burden and the bonding process.
Sometimes the reluctance to breastfeed is psychological – younger mothers in particular are resolute that the sole role of their boobs is for sex. Mind you, Helena Bonham Carter claimed to be “providing a real service” to her two kids, professing, “After carrying around your boobs for so long, it’s nice to know they have an actual purpose.”
Another stakeholder in the no camp is the formula manufacturers whose unrestricted advertising to our parents’ generation all but made bottle feeding the standard. Coupled with this is the fact that, according to research, the maternal mother plays a huge part in determining whether a woman breastfeeds or not. My pal Wendy admits that she hardly even gave it a second thought, “My Mum bottle fed us three girls and it worked well for her so I didn’t see why I should change a winning formula, no pun intended!” In order to re-establish the tradition of breastfeeding, the promotion of first baby milk (as opposed to follow-on milk) is now legally banned in Ireland. This includes advertising and any type of in-store promotion, such as giving reward/loyalty points on formula milk.
The media also has to accept some responsibility for influencing cultural trends, and should increase the visibility and discussion around breastfeeding on TV and in print. Role models could constructively adopt the mantle, especially for the younger generation; hats off to Miranda Kerr who recently posted photos of herself breastfeeding two-week-old Flynn on Facebook!
There’s definitely a social stigma attached to public displays of breastfeeding, with both the purveyors and the purveyed feeling awkward and uncomfortable. It takes a good dollop of self-confidence to nurse amidst the masses and those who are self-conscious will simply stay in safer confines. The mere idea of it puts people off breastfeeding altogether while a woman in a recent BBC3 documentary understood it to represent indecent exposure of an illegal nature!
The G Factor: Guilt
Apart from the physical features there is the emotional turmoil created by the breastfeeding behemoth. For mothers who choose not to nurture the natural way, I suspect it’s impossible to avoid some sense of guilt, maybe not innate but rather instigated by others, particularly by the “lactivists” who adamantly advocate breastfeeding. While Jenny respects those who breastfeed, she told me, “I don’t appreciate the brainwashing that goes on; there’s no right or wrong, just what’s right for you personally and therefore what’s best for your baby.”
Then there are the feelings of guilt, shame, regret and failure haunting those who have tried their best but for one reason or another decide to quit while they’re ahead. Charlotte’s story is a good example: “I really wanted to breastfeed and managed it for a week before getting mastitis. Apart from the excruciating pain, I didn’t have the emotional strength to continue and even though I knew I’d done my best I still felt a huge amount of guilt.” She feels there should be more peer support among breastfeeding mums who can offer hands-on help rather than technical advice to each other.
Though these other mums, consciously or not, can be the worst culprits of compounding the sense of failure on the already guilt-ridden individual. A recent Sunday Times feature headlined as “breast-is-best zealots load mothers with guilt” seems to sum it up pretty well.
As far as the pro camp is concerned, no matter how long you’ve breastfed for and how much the rational side of you says that it’s ok to call time on it, you can’t help falling prey to pangs of guilt for not continuing that bit longer. Rather than proudly declaring that you successfully breastfed for whatever amount of time it might be, you find yourself qualifying why you finished. And in lots of cases, that one final feed goes on for days because it’s drummed into you how every single session counts.
Albeit to different degrees, when it comes to breastfeeding we poor women are pretty much damned if we do and damned if we don’t!
What do you think? We at Haute Mama would love to hear from you about your experiences or thoughts on this subject…