MOTHER KNOWS BREAST
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
‘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