It was 2am in the middle of winter and I was shivering on the couch. The quiet of the night was interrupted by the rhythmic whirring of my electric breast pump. Looking down I saw that, as usual, barely any milk had accumulated.
I could hear my husband in the next room desperately trying to coax the baby to drink a bottle of expressed breast milk. I had only just breastfed him but, due to my low milk supply, he was still hungry.
When I used to imagine myself breastfeeding (which I frequently did when I was pregnant) I always pictured myself sitting serenely in a rocking chair, lovingly staring down at my full and content baby. Sadly, this picture was far from the reality.
“Fed is best”
“Just give him formula”
“I formula fed all my babies and they turned out just fine”
I can’t tell you how often these sentiments were uttered to me. They were said by well meaning friends and family, trying to comfort me. People could see that I was struggling, that I was exhausted, that I needed help. And so they gave me the advice they thought was best.
When I went to the GP in search of professional breastfeeding support and encouragement, he literally shrugged as he said “oh well, fed is best anyway”, signalling the end of the discussion.
With one brief phrase I, and all my hopes and dreams of breastfeeding, had been dismissed.
Being told ‘fed is best’ did not help me. It only served to make me feel alone and unsupported in my breastfeeding goals. It emphasised to me how few people really comprehended just how important breastfeeding was to my baby and I.
I am not just talking about the proven health benefits of breastfeeding.
For me, breastfeeding was a powerful symbol of my role as a mother.
My son was born very prematurely. I had not been able to carry him to full term. I had not been able to deliver him naturally. I had not even been able to care for him myself for the first 3 months of his life (whilst he was in the NICU). Breastfeeding felt like my last saving grace; a chance to salvage some of my former hopes and dreams of maternal normality.
In this act, I was sustaining and nourishing my child, both physically and emotionally. I was meeting all his needs and filling him with my love.
Breastfeeding gave me an overwhelming sense of contentment and joy. Whilst feeding, my baby was completely content, secure in my love and protection. In these moments, my baby and I were connected. It was a bond like no other.
Despite all the challenges we faced, I was desperate to have a successful breastfeeding relationship with my son. What I needed was help achieving these goals, not for these goals to be dismissed.
In Australia, statistics show that over 90% of mothers initiate breastfeeding but that only 15% of babies are exclusively breastfed to six months. This highlights that there are many women, like me, who want to breastfeed, but are not receiving the support and encouragement they need to achieve and maintain breastfeeding.
I want to make it clear that I am not anti-formula feeding. I recognise the value in the expression ‘fed is best’, when it is used appropriately. I think it acts as an important tool in absolving unnecessary guilt associated with formula feeding. I feel strongly that women should be fully supported and encouraged to make whatever choice they feels is best for themselves and their baby.
But terms such as ‘fed is best’ should not be used to dismiss the importance that breastfeeding holds for some mothers.
In the end, I did have to give my baby formula. In spite of my best efforts to increase my milk supply, I was unable to produce enough milk to fully meet my son’s nutritional needs.
Thankfully, with the help and encouragement of a certified lactation consultant (and support from my incredible husband) I was able to maintain breastfeeding whilst also giving formula feeds. My lactation consultant provided me with much needed validation that my desire to breastfeed was reasonable and achievable.
I know that there will be women out there reading this that are currently struggling to maintain breastfeeding. To those women, I want to say this: I understand how deeply you covet a breastfeeding relationship with your child. I want you to be validated in the knowledge that this goal is not unreasonable or self-indulgent. Do not let anyone dismiss your breastfeeding goals.
There will also be mums out there that, in spite of their best efforts, for a multitude of reasons, are not going to be able to breastfeed. To those mums, I want to say this: forgive yourself this perceived failure. Because the truth is that you have not failed. You did your best and now, perhaps, it is time to try something new. It is ok to give yourself permission to stop, to rest.
At the end of the day, only a mother knows what is best for her baby and her body. All she needs from everyone else is to respect that decision and offer support and encouragement along the way.
You may also like to read ‘BREASTFEEDING MOTHERS: SET UP TO FAIL‘.
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