Alexandra Hunter shares her thoughts on a still-controversial subject
Words Alexandra Hunter
Twenty months in to my parenting journey, I look at my beautiful little boy and all I want is for him to be healthy and happy with a full tummy. He won’t eat vegetables; he never has. I sometimes try to ensure he has a balanced plate of food that’s both homemade and nutritious and more often than not it ends up in the bin. Normally, I just do what’s easy and what he eats: baked beans with his processed fish fingers. He’s happy, I’m happy because I’m relaxed, and the plate’s empty at the end of the meal. I know this aversion to vegetables won’t last forever and as long as he’s eating and looking healthy – with enough energy to exhaust me and run around at the playground – I don’t worry that he isn’t getting his five-a-day.
The early days of feeding my child were a different story. I always thought I would be able to breastfeed. It never occurred to me that I might not. Society ingrains it in us – we are expected to breastfeed, it’s natural to breastfeed, we should all breastfeed. My antenatal class demonstrated clearly, with carefully knitted breasts of varying sizes (who is it who knits those?), exactly how the baby would latch on. No other options were discussed in any detail and I assumed I would have no problems.
My beautiful baby arrived and from day one he wanted to be fed all the time. Literally, all the time. He lost weight initially but we’re told that’s to be expected. He was latched onto me for most of the day and most of the night for months and he barely gained any weight. Neither of us slept much.
I remember lunch with my NCT friends and our tinies about a month in – they fed their babies in a few minutes and put them back in their prams, complaining of leaky boobs. My boobs never leaked and my baby remained latched on for the duration of the meal. He wasn’t getting enough food from me and I couldn’t see it.
I tried so hard. I made the oat cookies (who knows how on so little sleep). I bought the supplements that encourage lactation. And I pumped like crazy, getting a few millilitres for hours of effort and retiring to bed crying, feeling like a failed dairy cow. I felt I was failing my perfect little boy.
When I went for the three-month check, the nurse was worried about Seb’s weight, and referred me to the paediatric department at the local hospital.
I got home from the check-up and got Seb ready to leave. As we were walking out the door, his nappy exploded (of course it did), so I rushed him back upstairs and tried to deal with the poo covering his legs, torso, babygrow and changing mat, as well as my arms. Having finally got him dressed again, I left for the hospital. It was the consultant who kindly pointed out that I had poo on my face. That just about sums up that period for me.
That day, I was told to start using formula to feed Seb, and although it made me desperately sad at the time, I did as instructed. Sure enough, my baby started gaining weight, sleeping for longer and looking healthier. I, too, was able to sleep for longer between feeds and that meant I was happier. And, as we know, a happy mum means a happier baby.
Mums are not failing if they can’t feed their babies via their own bodies. It matters that babies get what they need, not how they get it. If you choose not to breastfeed, that’s your choice and others should respect that.
If I had my time with my baby again I would have stopped making us both suffer much sooner. I thought I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t. I have always trusted my instincts, but in my sleep-deprived, hormone-addled state, I allowed society to tell me what it thought was best for my baby. We know what’s best for our beautiful babies – and we shouldn’t put additional pressure on ourselves. Just keeping a tiny alive and happy is a tremendous achievement. If the baby’s full of milk from bottle or breast, excellent. Tick “feeding” off the worry list.
Feeding a baby is still such a difficult topic to discuss – and it shouldn’t be.