Be­fore she had her daugh­ter Erin, breastfeeding seemed like a no-brainer, but, like many mums, the re­al­ity of the nurs­ing ex­pe­ri­ence turned out to be very dif­fer­ent for Siob­han O’Con­nor. Here, she tells of the guilt, the breast shaming, the looks and the

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - FOOD FOR THOUGHT -

‘It’s nat­u­ral that your baby will crawl up to your breast and suck away,” pro­claimed the mid­wife at my an­te­na­tal class. Af­ter a lengthy in­duc­tion process fol­lowed by an emer­gency cae­sarean, a med­i­cal team swooped in to latch my baby girl on to the breast. Whacked out of it on mor­phine and an epidu­ral, it’s a blur; hardly Mother Earth stuff.

Be­fore I had my daugh­ter, Erin, I was de­ter­mined to breast­feed. The ben­e­fits of breastfeeding were too nu­mer­ous to ig­nore. It seemed like a no-brainer. I just wish some­one had told me that it’s harder than labour, and it doesn’t work out for ev­ery­one.

The risk of pneu­mo­nia, cold and viruses is re­duced in breast­fed ba­bies and the like­li­hood of your baby de­vel­op­ing longterm con­di­tions such as type 2 di­a­betes, coeliac dis­ease and Crohn’s dis­ease is also less­ened. Breastfeeding low­ers your baby’s risk of sud­den in­fant death syndrome (SIDS) and of con­tract­ing child­hood can­cers, while it has also been shown to re­duce the chances of both mother and baby be­com­ing obese in later years. An as­ton­ish­ing ben­e­fit of breastfeeding is that when­ever your baby has symp­toms of a sick­ness, its saliva is ab­sorbed by your nip­ple, and your body then pro­duces the an­ti­bod­ies nec­es­sary to fight the sick­ness, and streams them into the breast­milk. They don’t call it liq­uid gold for noth­ing.

On pa­per, it sounds so nat­u­ral. It sounds like the only op­tion any woman would choose, but that’s not al­ways how it hap­pens. It’s ev­ery mother’s right to feed her baby the way she chooses, be it breast, for­mula or pump­ing. And while, of course, we should be sup­ported if we choose to breast­feed, we should not be chas­tised or breast-shamed if we choose not to.

In the mid­dle of one of her Lon­don con­certs last year, Adele spoke out on this tricky topic.“It’s fuck­ing ridicu­lous,” she said to the crowd, “and all of those peo­ple who put pres­sure on us, you can go fuck your­selves, al­right? Be­cause it’s hard. Some of us can’t do it. I man­aged about nine weeks with my boobs . . . some of my mates got post-natal de­pres­sion from the way those mid­wives were talk­ing. Id­iots.”

Closer to home, colum­nist Amanda Brunker has spo­ken up about how tough breastfeeding was for her, and she wasn’t thanked for it. She was also slammed for say­ing, “Hon­estly, folks, any child that can ask for the breast, (and that has teeth!), should have moved on to drink­ing from a cup, be­cause the sight of tod­dlers be­ing breast­fed un­set­tles me”.

Brunker, the hon­est TV babe, spoke of her ag­o­nis­ing weeks try­ing to feed her older son, Ed­ward. She said, “He cried con­stantly and got skin­nier ev­ery day. It wasn’t un­til I broke down emo­tion­ally, with feel­ings of fail­ure, and stuck a bottle in his mouth that he set­tled. He was fi­nally full and con­tent, as was I.”

Amanda’s hon­esty was met with hate mail from other moth­ers, as­sert­ing their right to breast­feed if they chose to. To boob or not to boob gets ev­ery­one in a tizzy to the point that it’s al­most taboo. You’re damned if you nurse, and you’re damned if you don’t.

My per­sonal re­solve to stick with the breast when it comes to feed­ing my eight­month-old daugh­ter has met with many ob­sta­cles along the way, some from so­ci­ety and some from health­care pro­fes­sion­als.

“If you want to breast­feed, you’ve got to keep ring­ing that hos­pi­tal bell,” ad­vised a sea­soned mother in Holles Street. The mid­wives were ex­hausted and bleary-eyed from an over­load of bells chim­ing hun­dreds of new moms like me beg­ging them to come to their aid but this other mother made it clear that I’d need the mid­wives’ help if I was go­ing to suc­ceed.

Very quickly, I got used to strange hands shov­ing my nip­ple into my baby’s mouth. On night two, I was shat­tered, my body ached, and I was fac­ing my first breastfeeding hur­dle. A mid­wife asked me if I wanted four hours’ sleep, say­ing she’d give my baby a top-up. The lure of some sleep was just too great, so I suc­cumbed, and Erin was given some for­mula. The next day, guilt con­sumed me, and I told the mid­wife I would re­turn to breastfeeding, even though the idea of quit­ting was at­trac­tive, and the dull pain of latch­ing on my baby was hell.

With your new, first baby, you feel ut­terly useless at the start, as both you and your child are learn­ing how to do it. Nat­u­ral, my back­side! Ire­land has one of the low­est breastfeeding rates in the world, with barely half of all Ir­ish women hav­ing ever even tried it, com­pared to up to a 90pc rate in other de­vel­oped coun­tries.

What’s hold­ing us back from get­ting our boobs out to feed our ba­bies?

Is it an in­trin­sic sense of shame, hark­ing back to old Catholic Ire­land? Find­ings pub­lished in the jour­nal state breastfeeding rates are higher in ar­eas where the pro­por­tion of Ro­man Catholics is lower.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) rec­om­mends that women breast­feed their ba­bies ex­clu­sively for six months, and then par­tially un­til the child reaches two. In Aus­tralia, if you are hav­ing trou­ble breastfeeding, you can check your­self back into the ma­ter­nity ward for a few days. In the UK, for­mula is not even stocked in some hos­pi­tals. I men­tioned re­cently to a friend that I might con­tinue feed­ing Erin un­til she’s a year old, and my friend re­coiled in hor­ror, say­ing, “But, but . . . she’ ll have teeth!”

One of my breastfeeding bat­tles was with an un­likely foe my pub­lic health nurse. She was con­sumed by Erin’s weight gain; you’d swear the child was leg­endary boxer Cas­sius Clay. She kept show­ing me how my baby was per­form­ing badly on the cen­tile (growth) charts, as if my milk was mak­ing her ema­ci­ated. I felt like a big, fat fail­ure. I was told to pump an ex­tra 180mls of breast milk a day, and if I couldn’t, then I should give a for­mula top-up. Pump­ing milk is a soul-de­stroy­ing ex­er­cise that makes you feel like a cow. In my case, I couldn’t pump the re­quired amount, as at that stage my milk was not es­tab­lished. I had no op­tion but to give Erin some for­mula. Feel­ing bam­boo­zled by it all, I hired a lac­ta­tion con­sul­tant, only to dis­cover that giv­ing for­mula and skip­ping a breast­feed was fur­ther di­min­ish­ing my milk sup­ply.

BMJ Global Health

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