How can we stop mums feeling guilty about not breastfeeding?

Midwives have been told to support bottlefeeding among mums in a major shift in attitudes, the Royal College of Midwives announced this week.

It says mums should not be guilt tripped over choosing not to breastfeed and is encouraging midwives to be supportive of mothers, however they choose to feed their baby.

Chief Executive Gill Walton said: “The RCM believes that women should be at the centre of their own care and as with other areas of maternity care, midwives and maternity support workers should promote informed choice.

“If, after being given appropriate information, advice and support on breastfeeding, a woman chooses not to do so, or to give formula as well as breastfeeding, her choice must be respected.

“We recognise that some women cannot or do not wish to breastfeed and rely on formula milk. They must be given all the advice and support they need on safe preparation of bottles and responsive feeding to develop a close and loving bond with their baby.”

I have a few thoughts about the announcement, but first a little background from me.

I could not breastfeed my first baby. I tried and tried until we were both in tears, but we just couldn’t get the latch right.

I felt so guilty, like such a failure, that I then exclusively pumped for her for more than 20 weeks. It was a slog and almost like a punishment I gave to myself for letting my baby down.

Now that I have a happy and healthy three-year-old I realise now how silly it was to get so very bogged down in the issue of breastfeeding, and yet we do. Because in the early weeks with a baby it’s pretty much all we are doing day in and day out. Feed, feed and feed some more.

Now back to the RCM announcement.

I met VERY few midwives who were militant about breastfeeding.

Of course it came up in every conversation I had with them, but most had the attitude of: “We don’t care how you feed your baby, as long as you feed your baby.”

The problem with breastfeeding and new mums is that it only takes that one negative comment to make us think badly about ourselves and question our decision.

It’s rather like when we hear something negative about our appearance, or are told we have cocked something up at work. It doesn’t matter how much we try to focus on the good, the single negative comment seems to fester and dominate.

Therefore it only takes one midwife, nurse or lactation expert to tut loudly and ask “but don’t you want what’s best for your baby”, for us to feel like we are doing the wrong thing.

The fact of the matter is we ALL want what’s best for our babies. That’s a no-brainer. Which is why the “breast is best” advertising slogan is so bloody hurtful.

Breast is best, so anything less is not the best. Bottle feeding is not best, so you’re not doing your best for your baby.

That’s the message we are sending to mothers with the endless rhetoric about breastfeeding. It’s so damaging, no wonder many women cite not being able to breastfeed as a key cause of post-natal depression.

Researchers at Liverpool University studied the experiences of more than 1,600 new mums in 2016. Among the 890 who did formula feeding, 67 per cent reported feeling guilty, 68 per cent felt stigmatised and 76 per cent felt the need to defend their feeding choice.

Research carried out by The Priory found that 80 per cent of 1,000 parents surveyed believe breastfeeding problems fuel depression.

I can’t ignore the studies out there about breastmilk being good for babies. But formula is NOT bad for babies by comparison. Babies grow, thrive and go on to live completely normal lives on formula. Babies like me, who had not one drop of breast milk. I have no allergies or eczema or any other long-term health worries, apart from an addiction to chocolate. Can I blame that on formula?

You can’t pick the breastfed babies out of a crowd, they are not a super human race.

Why oh why then can we not just shut the fuck up about it and let every mama make their own decision?

It’s because, unfortunately, the World Health Organisation does care a whole lot about breastfeeding.

The UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe.

Although most new mothers try it initially, less than half are still exclusively breastfeeding when their baby is six weeks old. This drops to about one per cent at six months.

It’s because of these figures that the breastfeeding advertising campaign is still on the march and why UK mums will still continue to come up against major pressure to breastfeed.

So what can we do for pregnant mamas, and what can they do for themselves, to avoid piling the guilt on when it comes to breastfeeding?

Think about how you want to feed your baby, but don’t pin all your hopes on it. Every baby is different. Plan to breastfeed and read up on how to do it. Not every baby gets it right away and sometimes mamas just decide they don’t want to carry on. And that is totally fine.

Stop telling mamas it’s natural. It wasn’t natural to me. It was easier the second time around, because I knew a lot more about breastfeeding from my earlier experience.

Stop putting mums into two camps, the breastfeeders and the bottle feeders. We are all feeding our babies, surely that is all that matters.

Delete the phrase “breast is best” from every single pamphlet, book, article and poster. It’s one of the worst things a vulnerable mother can read.

However you feed your baby is up to you. This is a matter of choosing between a bottle and a boob, not between right and wrong.

Have you struggled with breastfeeding your baby? Did you choose not to breastfeed, or couldn’t? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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