I had expected the pressure to breastfeed, but the pressure to formula feed took me totally by surprise. I wish that everyone was given enough support to be able to decide how to feed their baby, because that pressure only makes you feel crap, it doesn’t change what you do. Let me say here that I agree that fed is best, that babies need feeding and breastfeeding isn’t for everyone or possible for everyone. When the baby was born I was taken to have emergency surgery. In my absence my partner was strongly encouraged to give the baby formula. They didn’t know for sure that I’d be back. I’m grateful the baby was fed.
Then on the postnatal ward I was expecting the nurses and midwives to badger me about breastfeeding. My friend had warned me about the nurses who had roamed the postnatal ward when she gave birth, guilt-tripping new mothers who were struggling to feed through the pain. To be honest I was keen to breastfeed and I was looking forward to getting a pat on the back from them. But I didn’t know how to help the baby latch on. And the first thing they said to me – before even saying hello – was ‘you should give that baby formula’.
I lost count of the number of people in the six months that followed who told me to give the baby formula. This is even though the baby was gaining weight in line with the NHS and WHO charts, and was significantly larger then average. Nurses, midwives, health visitors, well-meaning relations. I had one elderly relative tell me that formula feeding is ‘so convenient’. Not as convenient as sticking a baby up my top, I thought. Now people have started asking if I’m still breastfeeding, and how long I intend to continue. I don’t answer, I just tell them the recommendation from the WHO is to two years. People look shocked and horrified. I love it.
I wanted to breastfeed and I’m stubborn. And I am not 100% sure how the steriliser works. I can see why only 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed to six months. Guilt-tripping women doesn’t work. To breastfeed you need support, you need confidence, you need to know that your boobs might not feel full but they’ll feed your baby anyway. You need a family and partner who will support you. And you need to drink a lot of water and eat a lot of food.
I’ve been so lucky, there is a fantastic breastfeeding support group less than mile from where I live. The first couple of weeks were so painful – I know they say it’s not meant to hurt if it’s working, but in my experience it worked and it hurt for the first couple of weeks. I went to five support groups, different ones each day, and I still go to my favourite one regularly for advice and support. Some days just having a cup of tea when I couldn’t manage to make one for myself made a big difference to my week. When I first turned up I was exhausted and scared, on the verge of tears with blistered, cracked nipples, anaemia, sore stitches and a five day old baby and it was so encouraging to see the women who had stuck with it and made it work.
We couldn’t have managed without the support of the group, and I wish that everyone had access to support like that. I was so scared that I wouldn’t manage to breastfeed, as it was a big deal to me. It taught me one of my first lessons of parenting, which is that a lot of people have a lot of opinions, I’m going to ignore a bunch of them, and kindness is very important.