Breastfeeding - A Case for Middle Ground

14 September 2012
So BabyG recently turned one, and I achieved a milestone I never thought I'd reach - one year of breastfeeding. I never thought we'd make it, and according to conventional wisdom, we shouldn't have. We've broken every rule in the "how to establish successful breastfeeding" book. BabyG had a little formula in hospital when my milk didn't come in and he was dehydrated (astonishingly, there are mothers who would prefer, if their milk was slow to come in and their child was dehydrated, an IV drip to formula); I regularly pumped breastmilk which he was given in a bottle so I could get out for a few hours from the time he was three weeks old; and most damningly of all, at six months and at the end of my rope with exhaustion and PND, I decided to start comp feeding with formula, only doing one or two breastfeeds a day, figuring "if he weans...what the heck, we've had a decent run". Well, now that BabyG is one, we've stopped the formula according to feeding guidelines for a child his age...and he's still enjoying breastfeeding. In fact, without the formula he's having a few more feeds a day. None of this has done him any harm. He's never had more than a slight runny nose, he's slightly ahead on his milestones, formula has failed to damage him in any of the ways reputed.

So why am I telling you all this? As I've said, I've gone against all the conventional wisdom on breastfeeding - and without doing so, I doubt very much I would have stuck with it at all. The conventional wisdom advocates an all-or-nothing approach. Turn to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, or a lactation consultant, or the breastfeeding section of most parenting forums, and you will receive the same advice - any formula will cause lasting damage to the baby's gut bacteria; bottles and dummies will cause nipple confusion and breast refusal; pumping and giving expressed milk interrupts the establishment of feeding; and, most damagingly of all, that breastfeeding is a natural art practiced by all mammals until lost to us in modern society - almost any woman can breastfeed successfully as long as she has enough support and just wants it enough, does all the right things, tries hard enough. (And surely any loving mother would be willing to try hard enough?). Interestingly on the idea of breastfeeding being something instinctive and natural that only modern women have lost the knack of, in hospital as I desperately tried to feed BabyG I wondered aloud why I was struggling when female mammals do it automatically. The midwife replied that it's not always easy or natural, and in the wild, lots of baby animals die because their mothers can't feed them. And in the pre-formula days, without a wet nurse or family member who could breastfeed, so did a lot of human babies.

Anyway, faced with such a rigid and exhausting list of rules, it's no wonder so many mothers give up and decide to drop breastfeeding all together. It's one thing to know in advance of having children that you'll not have time to yourself for years, quite another to have been stuck in the house for weeks and feel unable to leave the baby with your partner for a couple of hours whilst you go to the gym or get your haircut. Let alone to feel your body is no longer your own (coming off the back of a possibly difficult pregnancy) or even come to secretly resent your child for the constant demands on your body and soul. And it's even harder when you hear of the mothers who smugly boast they breastfed their child on demand until 26 months and if you loved yours, surely you could do it too. So they give up, and turn to full time formula feeding in a fit of guilt and resentment. All of the choices I made - early EBM, comp feeding - I could find no information on, no support, only a sense that I was doing a terrible thing for my baby but I had to for my mental health. It turned out, however, that what I was doing wasn't so bad for him at all.

Surely we can find a middle ground. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Health authorities promote exclusive breastfeeding till six months as the golden standard, and it is - we can all agree that breastmilk is the better nutritional option for babies than formula. But surely any breastmilk is better than none? In the current climate of the dos and do-nots pitted against each other, considering that the majority of women want to breastfeed, surely it is better to create a climate that supports women to achieve a level of breastfeeding they feel comfortable with, rather than pursuing the all-or-nothing mantra? As I've written previously, the current guidelines aren't working in terms of increasing breastfeeding rates, and the usual reaction of doing more of the same is not a helpful one. Women and babies (and their stressed, supportive partners and family members) deserve more practical, real world support than this. I can't be the only one who's broken the rules and breastfed to tell the tale. It can be done.

1 comment:

  1. is there any science that shows harm to children longer term that get no breast milk for whatever reason, and instead spend the 'no solids' months entirely on formula?


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