So, inevitably, as soon as the media have finished telling us all how to give birth it’s time to start instructing us on how to feed those born as they should be babies.
Before I go on I want to be quite clear – I’m not anti-breastfeeding, far from it. I near as damn it exclusively breastfed both my girls for at least 14 months each. At times it was exhausting and excruciating but ultimately I’m very glad I did it. Even if all the health benefits were removed it is still cheaper than formula, less faff than sterilising bottles and you can’t forget to take a boob with you when you go out for the day. I absolutely agree that there should be more, better and more consistent support for mothers who want to breastfeed. But I also think that support needs a reality check sometimes. If trying to breastfeed is placing a huge strain on a mothers physical or mental health then there are times when it is better for everyone, especially the baby, to say that bottle would be best.
This last point came to mind last week with the tragic story of a Mother in Bristol who walked out of hospital one night with her newborn baby, both were found dead the following day. The press suggested that she had stopped taking medication for mental health conditions so that she could breastfeed. I have no idea if that is true, whatever happened it’s a heartbreaking story and the causes were no doubt complex, I really don’t want to speculate further than that. But as the news came out that day a number of people on twitter began to relate their own experiences of being advised or coerced into stopping important medication so they could breastfeed. Sometimes with terrible long-lasting effects for their whole families. The self-abnegating mother, sacrificing her own health for that of her child is a nice romantic story, but in reality the health of the mother is utterly interwoven with that of the child and when all we’re talking about is the potential for a few less infections for a few months, in a country where we have access to antibiotics and top quality medical care, sometimes, breastfeeding just isn’t worth it.
So we have a tricky balance to make. How do we encourage those who want to breastfeed without stigmatising those who don’t or can’t? Well, perhaps we could start by normalising breastfeeding, by just making it completely and utterly ordinary.
And that brings us nicely to the whole Claridges-Napkin-Farage-#Ostentatiousbreastfeeding media opinion-fest.
The bottom line (covered by a nice long skirt for the benefit of that midwife) is that there are benefits to breastfeeding, but in the context of a developed nation they aren’t huge. If women want to breastfeed then it’s worth the NHS investing in helping them but it’s also important that women know it’s not that big a deal. It’s lovely for the individual mum and baby, for the rest of society – meh. The problem is it will always be a big deal when any hint of a breast being used for something non-sexual is splashed across the press and open season for idiot commentators (I’m aware I’m perhaps putting myself in that category right now). It will also continue to be a big deal if we go on haranguing mothers with piles of unproven claims about the wonders of breastmilk and holding it up as some magical, perfect act of motherhood. If only women could breastfeed in public without comment, and do the same with bottles, if only it was just as ordinary as changing a nappy or giving your toddler a hug when they fall over, then perhaps we could stop damning women whatever they do. Breastfeeding is neither glorious nor grotesque, it’s an ordinary everyday thing, or at least it should be.
*The other often quoted benefit of breastfeeding is that it aids bonding of mother and baby. I’ve not included this as I’ve never seen any research either way on it. If anyone has some please let me know. Personally, I’m doubtful that the mother-baby relationship really suffers because of bottles. I also have to admit, when breastfeeding I rarely spent all those hours staring in dewy eyed adoration at my babies. With a good arrangement of cushions or a sling, breastfeeding is almost hands-free, so I was generally on twitter/facebook and/or watching boxsets of Downton Abbey. Not terribly bondy but it got me through the utter tedium of it all. It was the times I used a bottle that I actually concentrated, that seems to require about 3 hands!
** For the benefit of non-UK readers the Sun is a national newspaper which has a daily, topless,” page three girl”.