Breastfeeding remains one of the most controversial topics out there but as a midwife I can honestly say that while breast milk is the most natural option and has many benefits, it is not always the best option. In fact the very idea that breast milk gives baby the best start in life, is in my opinion, nonsense, because this statement only stands when breastfeeding works for mother, baby and her family. (And when she actually enjoys it).
It sounds scandalous to even write it down, and that’s because breastfeeding is often seen as a concept rather than a very real, and very individual and personal experience between a mother and her child.
Take it from me, breastfeeding is not a black and white issue.
Natural = normal
Breast milk and breastfeeding are seen as natural, and that’s exactly what they are, and like many things in nature, there’s a lot of unpredictability. Giving birth (whether vaginally or surgically) will help kick start the release of the hormones that are involved in the production of breast milk – on paper everything has been designed biologically to work out perfectly. Except it doesn’t always go to plan.
Just as not every mother has a straightforward vaginal birth simply because she has a uterus and a vagina, not every mother with breasts and breast milk is able to or wishes to feed her baby from her breast.
Breastfeeding is something that mothers and babies have to learn and there can be all kinds of challenges that often seem – and if no adequate support is on hand – prove insurmountable. From tongue tie to mastitis, having a premature baby or multiples, breastfeeding can easily add stress and extra difficulty for new mums, depending on their circumstances. Yes it’s natural, but it’s rarely simple.
Latch learning, listening to baby’s drinking sounds, burping, expressing, checking your baby is gaining weight, dealing with raw, cracked and bleeding nipples, painful breast engorgement and infections – breastfeeding brings a lot of challenges with it. Although the rewards can be great, being able to breastfeed successfully requires a lot of help. To have the best chances of breastfeeding success you need complete family support as well as support from the health care professionals around you and not every mother is lucky enough to have the ideal scenario.
Support for everyone
Support really is one of the most important things a new mum can have – regardless of her feeding choices. No matter whether a new mum is breastfeeding, bottle-feeding or mix feeding, she should be supported at every step. Having a baby is hard enough without judgement from the ‘milk police.’
Mums who are unable to breastfeed or who choose not to, should never be made to feel negatively about something that is so personal. Making breastfeeding a public argument is simply not helpful to any new mum (or baby!).
What about breastfeeding bliss?
One of the reasons why there is such breastfeeding pressure on mums, is the fact new motherhood is so closely linked with the image of a nursing. In fact, a lot of expectant mums I work with have a vision of breastfeeding that’s at odds with the reality. They imagine a baby contentedly suckling while they look down lovingly, instead of the rollercoaster of feeding challenges I mentioned before.
The reality is that this type of enjoyable breastfeeding or breastfeeding bliss as I like to call it, is something that doesn’t come until much later, when all the hurdles have been surmounted.
The problem is that women are not taught enough about what to expect – from pain, fatigue and even despair and the emotional, physical and hormonal turmoil that often comes with breastfeeding. Mums who want to breastfeed need support to get them through the hard days so that the vision of breastfeeding bliss can finally happen.
Respect for personal choice
We are entitled to our personal preferences and choices as long as they don’t betray the rights of others and yet if a mum choses not to try breastfeeding, she is often singled out and judged. There can be all kinds of physical or emotional reasons for not wanting to try breastfeeding, and every time these reasons are incredibly personal and powerful.
If a woman prefers not to breastfeed or can’t, she needs to be supported in her choices and helped to choose from the other safe feeding options that are available. At the end of the day, forcing someone who doesn’t want to breastfeed her baby to do so, would not be giving her baby the best start in life and it wouldn’t be good midwifery either.
On the flipside, whenever I work with a client who freaks out about the idea of breastfeeding her baby but really wants to, I will support her to get there. When I work with a client who is purely trying to breastfeed her baby because she feels bressure (breast feeding pressure) but it is completely damaging her experience of being a mum, then it is my job to explain to her that there are safe other options out there.
The bottom line
Babies in developed countries where there is access to clean water, do not need to be breastfed in order to lead healthy and fulfilled lives. And while no one will contest the nutritional benefits of breast milk, it’s far more important that babies are fed, loved, kept warm and sheltered and that their mother feels supported and confident.
If that means breastfeeding her baby, then great – I will fully support her. If that means formula feeding, then great – I will fully support her. And if that means mix feeding, then great – I will fully support her. And so should everyone else. So the answer to the question, should every woman try to breastfeed her baby, is no. The milk police can go and do one. Not your baby? Not your breasts? Not your choice.
Image Credit: Austin Birth Photography