Why ‘fed is best’ and ‘breast is best’ are NOT helpful statements (Margo)

This is Margo’s breastfeeding journey and it really sums up why ‘breast is best’ and ‘fed is best’ aren’t what pregnant mothers need to hear. Informed is best? Yes. Supported is best? Even better. For without the right kind of support, knowing that breastmilk is best simply isn’t enough, but being told  that ‘fed is best’ when you really want to breastfeed isn’t what you want to hear either. When you’re exhausted, depleted and vulnerable, support is what is needed. And, as Margo attests, not just for the first few weeks… 

‘When I was pregnant with my first, I knew I was going to breastfeed. Mostly because my I was a breastfed baby, and I just thought that’s how one did things, but also because in every baby book, birth class, midwives advice and motherhood groups online, that was the gold standard. OF COURSE you would want to breastfeed your child, you want the best for her, don’t you? IF YOU DON’T BREASTFEED you are literally setting him up for a life of failure, and you’re a failure as well. I guess no one actually said the second, but it was certainly implied. At my birth class, the nurse actually had a chart with all the wonderful things breastmilk contained and another chart with all the not-so-wonderful things that formula had. The breastmilk list was about three or four times longer that the formula one, and she explained that many of the things in mother’s milk could simply not be replicated by formula companies. All of us ladies made eye contact. Breast was expected, then? Good to know.

I was lucky that my first breastfeeding experience was generally positive. I know that many women do not have a good experience, and this leads to so many issues. My mum actually told me that she hated breastfeeding (and got a wicked case of mastitis) but did it for six months because my father told her it was the best nutrition for a baby. My girl, H, had a good latch, ate well, gained weight, so it definitely was a good thing for her. For me, it was a lot more complicated. Although the act of breastfeeding was going well, I had a hard time feeding in public. I was consumed with fear that people would say mean or horrible things to me, and that I’d burst out in tears, or scream at them in anger. It led me to being housebound quite a bit. Also, cluster feeding was terribly taxing. Every evening for months I would be on the couch feeding almost non-stop. Normal infant behaviour, of course, but something we – as a society – are no longer geared up for.

During this time, I was a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding. No sweat, right? For a breastfeeding mother it was extremely stressful. H did not want to take a bottle. Any bottle. We tried for months trying to get the combination right, and finally, she took a Playtex bottle from my mum. My husband couldn’t feed her, she flat out refused. One night I was out at the bachelorette dinner, and called home to check in. I heard her crying and my mum said she wasn’t taking much milk. I decided to cut the evening short and go home to breastfeed. One woman (who had no kids) piped up and said (smug), “Well, if the baby is hungry, she’ll eat. You don’t need to go.” I was livid. Thankfully, another woman who had a baby a bit older than mine was there (her baby also refused bottles) and she quickly put her in her place.

After six months went by, I was starting to introduce solids. It got better. Nursing felt more comfortable, especially because, as time went on, I was doing it less.

However, if my second child had been my first, I almost certainly would have given up on breastfeeding. M was not a good feeder. The first six weeks I was in excruciating pain. Her latch was shallow, and as hard as I tried to use strategies that worked with H, they only sort-of worked with M. Every time I would feed (especially on the right side) I would scream in agony. I knew that breastfeeding got better so I literally just tried to hang on in the early weeks, and got some help from the midwife, but I only got through it because of the support of my husband and mum. If I’d had no support I would have stopped.

Then, when M was around three months old, things got worse. She also didn’t take bottles (which didn’t seem like a big deal this time around, as I wasn’t a bridesmaid and no major events were coming up) but she started to refuse to breastfeed unless she was in a calm, dim room. I think she was starting to notice her surroundings and was so distracted by everything that she wouldn’t eat. I was stuck like a prisoner at home – if I went out for more than an hour with her, she would get hungry, wouldn’t eat, and then scream because she was hungry. I needed more help from my family, as my older girl became jealous that I was with the baby so much and had horrible temper tantrums. M then decide that she preferred to be fed lying a certain way, which gave me a great deal of back and side pain, and even visiting a lactation consultant didn’t do much. It was a tough time. However, again, that magic six month mark was passed, so solids were introduced, and things eventually started getting better. I also noticed that my mood improved when my milk supply decreased, it was almost like a cloud of sadness was hanging over me both times when I was exclusively breastfeeding.

So, breastfeeding can be wonderful but, without proper support, those first six months that you are advised to exclusively breastfeed can be extremely challenging, if not impossible. My major issue is that most everyone: the WHO, the medical community, midwifes, hospitals, public health emphasize ‘breast is best’ and point out all the benefits to the baby but what is talked about less is the mother and the need for support. Of COURSE there are benefits, but it seems that, even if a mother is exhausted, in pain, depressed, and has become a shut-in, feeling alone and depressed, she is expected to continue breastfeeding. Maybe it would be better if those things were also addressed. And they’re not really, not as they should be. Public, workplace and government support and peer-to-peer breastfeeding acceptance is where we need to go as a society, if women are really to feel that ‘breast is best’ – for themselves as well as for their baby.’

Margo, writing for The Mother Side x

Check out the ‘Breastfeeding’ section listed here for details of where to get advice and support.

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