Recently the community midwives have stressed me out about the baby’s size and my blood pressure being too low and my blood pressure being too high. I hadn’t had a look at my notes for a while so I looked through and reassured myself that everything was fine. My BP was fine, the scans showed good growth, and my consultant was happy.
(edit: in the UK we hold our own antenatal medical notes – it’s this document I’m referring to)
I started reading back through the booking-in questionnaires and remarked to BabyDaddy that their mental health assessment had involved asking me if I’d had PND after I had Ted and then ticking “no” to all of the others.
Next I noticed the section entitled Feeding Your Baby: It’s Your Choice and got really angry.
There are two pages in this section so you’d expect one page to be dedicated to breast-feeding and one to bottle-feeding. I guess it kind of is.
In case you can’t see that photo clearly enough the first page and a half extols the virtues of breastfeeding and the final half a page details the disadvantages of formula feeding.
How exactly does that arm women with enough information to make a choice? Unless the choice is between ‘Doing The Right Thing’ and being a terrible mother by poisoning your baby with unnatural substances against its will.
I’ve spoken before about the pressures on women to breastfeed and the shame felt by those who can’t or don’t.
I’ve been told – unsolicited – by a woman in a breastfeeding support group that I should have told my consultant “where to go” when I had to stop breastfeeding Ted because of my epilepsy medication. Never mind that I didn’t even speak to my consultant about it but made the decision for myself following careful research. Never mind that her assertion that “no medication” can prevent breastfeeding was nothing more than an ill-informed fallacy. Never mind that it was none of her damn business.
I was told by the health visitor who came to see me after Ted was born that combination feeding would prevent him from being able to latch on properly, despite the fact that it was combination feeding that gave me the best chance of being able to breastfeed at all. Never mind that he had a tongue-tie that made latching on so incredibly painful that I would cry. They wouldn’t snip it because they didn’t think I’d feed for long enough. Which I didn’t, so I guess they won.
I was told by the community midwife who asked why I was weaning Ted off breast milk after only three weeks that it didn’t matter how drowsy he was, that I had too much of a “natural latch” to “give up” so soon.
I was desperate to feed Ted myself and I felt ashamed of myself when I stopped. I thought I’d failed my beautiful son, the one person who depended on me entirely and who I should be able to provide for without a second thought.
The fact that breastfeeding is promoted in the NHS is a good thing. Breast is best and I’m not disputing that. I’m still desperate to feed this baby myself and have already arranged to stay longer in hospital so the epilepsy nurses can come and monitor baby at regular intervals and help me to do the best job I can.
But the way we talk about breastfeeding – and also the way we talk about bottle-feeding – needs to change.
There was really no need for me to feel the way I did when I couldn’t feed Ted. I would have felt guilty whatever happened because that’s part of the job, but the health professionals around me should have supported me. I was a brand new mum who felt like she was letting her son down and all they did was to alienate me and stop me feeling like I could go to them with any other concerns.
Even if I had been able to carry on I don’t think I would have been prepared anyway. Nobody talks about the realities of breastfeeding. You see posters of rosy-cheeked mothers feeding plump babies and you read that it’s the most natural thing in the world, but why aren’t you told that it can hurt, that the baby won’t necessarily know what to do (and neither will you), that you’re going to have to do it constantly, that your nipples are going to hurt, that you’ll leak milk at the slightest touch… I don’t think it would put women off. We’re told the worst things about childbirth but we still have children! I think we’re more likely to ask for help and persevere if we already expect that we might need to, rather than feeling like we’re doing something wrong and quietly slinking off into a corner with a bottle and hoping no one challenges us on it. (Excellent breastfeeding tips here).
I understand why breastfeeding needs to be promoted and I definitely think we all need to shout about it if we want attitudes to change in society, so women feel more confident in their right to do it wherever they need to and more comfortable in sticking with it.
But I really don’t think dividing women into two camps – those who breastfeed and those who don’t, and by implication those who are doing their best for their babies and those who aren’t – helps anyone. Telling me all of the bad things about formula isn’t going to change the reality of my breastfeeding experience: it’s just going to make it harder for me if I can’t do it.
The title of the section – It’s Your Choice – clearly doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s not a choice at all. Whether it is or it isn’t there seems to me to be no reason to put more pressure on women at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives than they already put on themselves.
This time around my choice is not to listen. I’ll ask for help from the people who can understand my position. I won’t listen to the judgements of the people who can’t.