Breastfeeding: Is breast always best?
Breastfeeding. Probably one of the most controversial topics that you can write about on a blog about motherhood. I recently found myself part of a dinner table discussion over the pros and cons of breastfeeding. It seems that this is a topic where everyone has an opinion (including those who have never even tried to breastfeed themselves). Some time ago I had promised to share my own breastfeeding journey with you and I will do that, but I just want to say before I do that this story is my own journey and every new mother will have a different journey. I’m not saying that any particular method of feeding a baby is best. I strongly believe that as parents we must follow the path that fits in best with the needs of our own family, so whether you breastfeed, bottle feed or mixed feed (or whatever else you decide to do) know that I’m not here to judge. In my mind fed is best and I share my own story only with a view to helping other mums who may well be going through some of the battles that I had with my own babies.
To give you a bit of background, the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for babies up to the age of 6 months, with continued breastfeeding along with solid foods up to (and beyond) the age of two years. In terms of health benefits, research suggests that breastfeeding assists a baby’s early development and protects babies against a range of illnesses (see World Heath Organisation website: www.who.int).
My breastfeeding journey
From practically the moment I was pregnant I found myself being passed a multitude of pamphlets, websites and magazines all about breastfeeding and why breastfeeding would be the best choice for my baby. Like many new parents I was of the view that breast was indeed best, and it really did make sense to me to go down that path, after all, this was what my body was designed to do right? Well for me it seemed perhaps not.
Throughout my first pregnancy I was firmly of the belief that my baby would be exclusively breastfeed for at least the first 4-6 months of his life. The thought of needing to formula feed hadn’t really crossed my mind. The information that I had before me explained how breastfeeding would work. I had it in my mind that soon after my baby was born I would pop him on my breast and he would be off, happily feeding on a readily available source of super nutritious breast milk! All of the information that I had been provided with up to the point that my son was born suggested that this natural process would just happen and we’d be away laughing. We were not.
Despite regular feeds, in the days after my first son was born he lost a substantial amount of weight (most babies lose some weight, but Oliver’s weight loss was outside of that normal range). He was extremely unsettled and wanted to feed constantly. I was told that he needed to be fed more often and to just keep on feeding. This, I was told would increase my milk supply and things would improve. Again, they did not and with all of that constant feeding I was left with incredibly sore, cracked and bleeding nipples (probably too much information for some, but something I think you should be aware does happen). I was exhausted, I was sore and my baby was starving and yet I was told to keep on because this was best for my baby. So I did just that.
At about 3am on day three or four I was completely exasperated and called a midwife, who again said just to keep feeding, feeding, feeding. In complete desperation I asked what else I could do, to which the midwife replied…”there’s always the ‘F’ word”. The F word? What the….oh…Formula. Now, all I had been told for the last nine months was that breastfeeding was the best option for my baby, and boy did I feel like a failure just at the thought of giving my baby formula. So what did I do? I kept feeding (well, trying to). A breast pump was brought in that I could use between feeds to try and increase my milk supply further, and little by little my milk did increase. But not enough. My baby was starving, I had hardly slept in about a week and in the end I had to give in and supplement him with formula. I was absolutely devastated. Nothing had prepared me for failing to provide the most basis need of my infant son, but at that point what he needed was food and that was what I had to do.
In hindsight, I should have relented earlier and just given him the formula, but I really did feel that I was letting him down by doing this. And since having been through that experience and now having spoken to a number of other mothers about their experiences of breastfeeding, it seems I am not alone.
Reflecting on my experience now I really do wish that there had been more information out there to help me understand the realities of breastfeeding and to properly prepare me for that journey. There is so much information given to expectant mothers on how to breastfeed and why breastfeeding is best, but really very little on what options are available to you if you find that breastfeeding is a struggle. Yet, having now spoken to other mothers about these very issues it would seem that many of us do go through these feeding battles, feeling like we are failing our babies and with very little support.
On a more positive note, I do want to share what happened to me in the weeks after leaving the hospital that busted a breastfeeding myth that I had heard, and also to tell you a bit about my breastfeeding experience with my second son…
One of the reasons why I was so opposed to giving Oliver formula was that I was of the belief that if I gave him formula that would be the end of my breastfeeding journey. I had understood that once he took the formula my milk would slowly dry up, and I would lose the breastfeeding bond that I dearly wanted to experience. For me this was not the case. I continued to breast feed and to supplement with formula for the first few weeks after we came home. I also continued to pump milk between feeds and slowly but surely my milk supply did increase and by the time Oliver was 6 weeks old I was able to exclusively breastfeed him (and continued to breastfeed him until he was 15 months). It took a lot of effort to continue that pumping (and it may not be the right choice for you), but for me it was worth it to be able to continue that breastfeeding relationship that I had hoped for. So, I want you to know that even if it is really hard to start with, for some of you it may be possible to still breastfeed even if you do have to supplement with formula in the beginning.
The other thing I wanted to tell you was that just because you have troubles with your first baby, doesn’t mean you will with the second. My breastfeeding experience was so different the second time around. Actually, it was pretty much the opposite: I had milk straight away, and lots of it! It wasn’t sore either. So, again, don’t feel like because it didn’t work out for you the first time it isn’t worth giving it a shot again.
If you do decide to breastfeed there are a number of items that you can buy to make your life as a breastfeeding mum that much easier. Here are some that I would recommend.
Proper breastfeeding clothes
Having proper breastfeeding bras and clothes makes breastfeeding that much easier (and with the right clothes, that much more discrete). Get yourself fitted for maternity bras. Having a comfortable maternity bra makes a world of difference. Also try and get some comfortable tops with easy access (I found clothes from New Zealand company Breastmates were fantastic).
This was recommended to me when my first son was a few weeks old, and boy did it make a difference. I wish someone had told me about this straight away, as it really helped to heal up the sore nipples. This is a must for the baby bag, especially for the first time mother (I found that I didn’t need it the second time around).
Lanolin breast pads
I found these to be really great and more gentle on the breasts than the disposable varieties. I used Lanowool breast pads and found them to have great absorbency as well as being gentle on sore nipples. You just rinse them out in the shower and hang them up to dry and they are good to use again and again.
Herbal remedies to boost supply
Some may say this is an old wives tale, but when I was struggling with milk supply I was told to give Fenugreek a go. I purchased both Fenugreek capsules and breastfeeding tea and I’m convinced that this helped to boost my milk supply. There are also many lactation cookies out there which contain ingredients said to assist in improving milk supply.
Most maternity wards will have a breastfeeding consultant available to talk to if you. If you are having trouble with breastfeeding speak to your midwife or doctor and they should be able to refer you to someone who can help.
Whatever your experience with breastfeeding is, know that you do have choices, and you must make the right choice for your family irrespective of what others think.
All the best.