The minefield of discussing breastfeeding

I am a member of a number of online discussion forums, and recently the subject of breastfeeding seems to recur frequently. Most of the comments are utterly lacking in judgement, yet in every discussion someone has said that they feel judged for not breastfeeding.

It is a hugely controversial issue. It brings out the worst in people. Many breastfeeding mothers seem to view themselves as better parents somehow than those who formula feed, when in reality a huge number of factors have a bearing on the health and wellbeing of a child. Many formula feeding mothers are hugely defensive, and seem to feel themselves on the back foot, rising to defend themselves at the first hint of negativity.

The issue, really, is not about breastfeeding or formula feeding. It is about what makes a good parent, and I think that is why the debate becomes so heated. The inference made from ‘breast is best’ is ‘parents who breastfeed are best’ and this is simply not true. Whether you breastfeed or formula feed is, at the end of the day, only one factor in the wellbeing of your child. Far more significant, I think, is the motivation behind your choice. In some cases, choosing formula can be a symptom of our own selfish hearts. In others, it is the most loving choice.

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There can be no doubt, first of all, that ‘breast is best’. It has been proved in numerous studies that the benefits of breastfeeding are massive, for both mother and baby. The longer a mother breastfeeds, the greater her protection against breast cancer, for example. On an entirely superficial note, breastfeeding in the early weeks stimulates the womb to contract and return to normal size, and in the long-run it further aids weight-loss by using up the excess calories consumed in pregnancy (unless, like myself, you are giving in to your daily cravings for chocolate, ice cream and cake, in which case I will have to breastfeed triplets for two years in order to lose the weight …)

Breastfeeding also gives numerous advantages to baby, but apart from anything else, it is free, it is natural, and it is tailored to your baby’s needs as he or she grows, and according to the time of day. Once you are through the first few weeks the process is hassle-free, with no sterilising and no worry about whether the milk will go off or has been out of the fridge too long.

Aside from all this, breastfeeding stimulates powerful hormones in both mother and baby which aid bonding and build a profound and natural connection with very little effort.

Lastly, it is an amazing excuse to sit down for half an hour regularly through the day when your body most needs the rest.

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Formula, on the other hand, is second best, and I think all mothers who have done any research on the subject know this. To my knowledge there are no studies proving that formula is better than breast milk; the best formula companies can offer is an adequate substitute. I have even read one article which gave convincing evidence that formula can actually damage the very sensitive guts of babies.

Now I know that already objections are rising in your mind, so please stay with me. On the forums, a host of mothers complain of feeling judged any time breastfeeding is advocated, because they were unable to breastfeed and feel guilty.

Let me stress that there is a world of difference between a mother knowing breast is best and trying to give it to her baby, but finding that her body does not cooperate, and a mother who knows breast is best but still chooses formula because it is more convenient to her and suits her lifestyle (or because she thinks breasts are for sex not feeding babies).

Again on these forums, some mothers advocate that what matters most is the mother’s right to choose, and I have to say I find that abhorrent. The mother’s ‘rights’ should not take precedence over a child’s needs. A child needs breastmilk. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (which I will outline in a moment) breast is best for the child, and that should be our guiding principle.

I refer you back to an earlier post when I put forward a principle for making parenting decisions – what is the most loving thing?

If breastmilk is best for the child (and World Health Organisation guidelines state that every child should be fed breast milk for the first six months, then ideally supplemented with food until 2 years of age), then that is the most loving thing.

When it becomes unloving is when the mother’s health is compromised to the point that it affects her ability to care for her child.

So, as a dear friend of mine recently said, “When I had blood coming out of one boob, and pus coming out of the other, I realised it was time to stop.”

And as I experienced through three months of mixed feeding and expressing for an hour and a half, six times a day … sometimes a mother’s body just does not cooperate, and the guilt and exhaustion from trying to provide the best is simply not worth it. With formula my son stopped wasting valuable energy trying to drag milk from my unwilling breasts (he was premature and every calorie counted); he simply drank his milk and fell asleep, waking to a mother who was not exhausted from expressing, nor guilty and depressed from being unable to feed her baby.

In some situations, ‘the best’ stops being breastmilk and becomes formula, and ultimately only the parents can decide. It is up to them what the most loving thing is for their family, and if that is their goal then there is no place for judgement.

There is also no place for guilt. So if, like me, you are a reluctant formula mummy, you can listen to advocates of breastfeeding without feeling judged – you know, after all, that breastfeeding is best. That is why you tried. You can even be an advocate of breastfeeding yourself. You can also offer sympathy and encouragement to the mothers who feel they have failed when in fact they have often done their best and simply had no choice in the end about formula. I used to feel guilty, but now I am grateful that the option of formula existed for us.

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A final thing that comes through in many of these debates is the appalling lack of support for breastfeeding mothers. There seems to be an assumption that because it is natural it is easy, when for many women this is far from the truth. Mothers, especially first-time mothers, will need a great deal of support in order to breastfeed successfully. In my next post I want to give an account of my breastfeeding experience, to show that it is far from easy, but definitely worthwhile, and to give tips to mothers who are struggling.


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