Alexandra Hunter on the pressure to breastfeed and why mums know best.
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. There is pressure to 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 pumped like crazy, getting a few millilitres for hours of effort and retiring to bed crying, feeling like a failed dairy cow. On reflection it was definitely bad for my mental health.
When I went for the three-month check, the nurse was worried by Seb’s weight, and referred me to paediatrics at the local hospital. I got home from the check-up and got Seb ready to leave. As we were walking out of 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, baby grow and changing mat – as well as my arms. Having finally got him dressed again, I left for the hospital with my tiny boy. 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 our 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 but I wasn’t. I have always trusted my instincts, but in my sleep-deprived, hormone-addled state I allowed society to make me feel pressure to breastfeed and tell me what it thought was best for my baby. We, as mamas, are the ones who know what’s best for our babies. Just keeping a tiny alive and happy is a tremendous achievement. If the baby’s full of milk from bottle or breast, excellent. Feeding a baby is still such a difficult topic to discuss – and it shouldn’t be.