Breastfeeding – why all the guilt?

I’ve become quite a fan of the Huffington Post – perhaps it is the lazy in me that enjoys the ping of an RSS feed, not requiring me to have to go to the newsagent.  I love information/articles/opinion pieces arriving on my computer without my having to go looking too hard.  However, in the past couple of days a Huffington Post article has really troubled me and I keep thinking about it.  For anyone who hasn’t seen Sarah Cawood’s post I attach it here,

Sarah Cawood is a new mother.  It just so happens that she is a “celebrity” one, so perhaps her voice can be heard a bit louder than some others.  But, what she is writing about is a mother’s challenge – the challenge of bringing her baby into the world and feeding him.  And therein lies my question, “Why all the guilt?”  Breastfeeding is and remains one of the most contentious and emotive issues.  In a recent discussion amongst breastfeeding peer-supporters I was made aware that 93% of the world’s countries don’t have a choice regarding feeding their babies.  It is assumed that they will breastfeed.  And perhaps in those 93% of countries the women have grown up surrounded by family and friends who also breastfeed – perhaps it is regarded as entirely normal.  Sadly that is not the case here.  Our society has deviated from the community sense that we once had – we don’t live and spend all our time with our extended families – we don’t learn at the knees of our mothers/aunts/cousins/grandmothers any more.  We also live in a society pervaded by images of sexualized women – the media and advertising industries have a lot to answer for in terms of women feeling uncomfortable about their bodies and altering the way in which we think of our bodies in relation to our babies.  But, more than that, often our experiences of being breastfed were minimal or tainted.  I meet so many women whose own mothers had a “bad” experience.  My mother was one of a generation who was told to feed her baby on a strict 4-hourly routine.  It went tits-up (excuse the pun) for her with a failing milk supply and very high stress levels.  For a long time we lost the knowledge that we intrinsically knew, and it has taken a very long time to learn it again.  As with birth there are all too many horror stories out there.

My own take on it is that women need support – as a Breastfeeding Network Peer Helper I volunteer on the postnatal ward at a London hospital and sit with any women who have asked for help.  I sit with them for as long as they want or need.  There is no time limitation.  I will observe a feed from the start to end.  I don’t force my knowledge on them and I hope I am not perceived as a breastfeeding “Nazi”.  I have spent time learning about breastfeeding and coming to a conclusion that adequate preparation, knowledge about the physiology of birth and feeding, and discussion about fears/expectations goes a long way.  I am able to support a woman’s choices as long as I know that they are informed – and by that I mean with up-to-date, research-based evidence.

Who knows why Sarah Cawood struggled to breastfeed.  I can come up with speculations, but that is neither helpful to her or to me – there is no way of confirming or denying those ideas.  It sounds as if she surrounded herself with support from every angle, and in the end had to make a painful decision, which I hope she finds peace with.  I worry for those women who don’t have the support, who don’t know where or how to access it, for those women who feel alone.

Is breast best?  In basic terms it is – it is what a baby is born expecting to receive – it is the milk that the pregnant mother produces for her newborn to continue to help her baby grow and develop in the outside world.  It contains the right balance of nutrients, plus the immunity benefits, protecting against and preventing difficult-to-treat disease.  It’s best for Mum too – protecting her against disease, helping her body to recover from pregnancy and birth, boosting her feel-good hormones and often preventing postnatal depression.  It is a valuable bonding experience.  However, if it isn’t going well it can be unbelievably stressful and difficult – an anti-bonding experience for some.  And, difficult decisions have to be made sometimes.  A woman/couple have to make the decisions that are right for them and their situation and I am not entitled to be judgmental about that – it is not my situation to judge.

We come back round to marketing again.  Sadly, the UK did not sign up to the WHO Code in the1980s, a code that recommended that there not be any advertising of breastmilk substitutes (including anything related to feeding, such as bottles, pumps, sterilisers etc).  And, for that reason we have a lot of advertising campaigns in existence for follow-on milks and “hungrier baby” milk – the only reason for their existence being a cunning marketing ploy to make mothers aware of products.  We have many different brands of formula milk to choose from.  It turns out that two of the major brands are made in the same factory by the same people to a government-prescribed “recipe”!  Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful that formula milk exists – that women have an alternative should things be problematic, and that we have a safe means of preparing it (as opposed to women in some third world countries), but I loathe the manipulation of people.

Recently TIME magazine put a beautiful 26 year old woman on the front cover of its American edition breastfeeding her three year old child and it caused a furore.  The image was regarded as sensational and controversial.  And, I suppose that brings me back to my original point.  Isn’t it sad that we have become so removed from what women do to feed their babies?

Some good links: