"There's nothing more wonderful than to breastfeed," gushed a schoolfriend of mine when she'd heard that I'd had a baby, "particularly in the middle of the night when it's just the two of you. It's the most amazing bond." Guiltily, I reflected back on the three measly weeks that I'd spent feeding my newborn, Max, what the LaLeche League [a voluntary group that encourages mothers to breastfeed] dubs "liquid gold".
I must be a bad mother, I thought, as I prepared his afternoon formula. But I had to admit it: my overwhelming sensation while breastfeeding had been the polar opposite of "amazing bond". More than anything else, I had wanted my body back.
Like everyone else, I was pressed into service hours after labour. On no sleep, I was admonished by Midwife A to feed him every three hours for 15 minutes on each breast. Midwife B revised that to 20 minutes every two. Midwife C snuck in a few bottles when he wouldn't stop crying. And Midwife D admonished her and told me to nurse Max "on demand".
The truth is that a newborn will nurse up to 12 times a day for weeks, if not months. If - as in my case - he takes up to 45 minutes each time, that's one hour on, one hour off. All day and all night.
The every-two-to-three-hours schtick is just something they tell you so that the weaker ones won't panic. As first-time naifs, however, my husband and I believed the hype. So I dutifully sat in my "breastfeeding chair" while my husband earnestly filled in what time it was, what breast I was feeding on, and the duration of the "feed". Other checklist items included whether I'd "heard swallowing", the number of "wet diapers and stools" since the last feed and the "amount of milk pumped".
Doing 10 to 12 feeds a day made me so restless that I was reduced to studying a German vocabulary book balanced on my knees. I was also chronically cold and hungry (both apparently common), my back felt permanently hunched over, and I had never felt so lonely in my life.
All of this would have been bearable if only Max had regained his birth weight by Day 14, which babies are generally supposed to. As it was, Midwife E, who was doing the home visits, would blow in every few days, weigh Max, and tell us that he hadn't gained enough.
I hated every every humiliating moment of it, and will never forget Max's dear, anxious little face as he looked over at me bursting into tears. Still, this was no time for bonding: I was so worried that he wasn't Getting Enough that I associated him almost exclusively with feeding. The fact that my breasts were both leaking and engorged was just a bonus. And don't get me started on pumping.
Nevertheless, Day 15 finally dawned, and Max's doctor recommended that we top up every breastfeed with a bottle. What a bully idea, I thought. Forty-five minutes breastfeeding, another half-an-hour bottle-feeding, a few good pumping sessions thrown in for good measure, and I would officially be doing nothing else. "I think I'll forget the breastfeeding," I told the doctor, who didn't look surprised. So my husband went out to buy the kit, and as I watched him feed the baby for the first time, I experienced a sense of liberation.
But then the guilt started. Everyone feels guilty when they stop breastfeeding - and even if they soldier on, they often end up self-censoring nightmarish experiences. Remember my schoolfriend of the "amazing bond"? Well, when I caught up with her at a reunion in Canada last year, she admitted that breastfeeding "didn't work" for the first five months, during which time she suffered from cracked, bleeding nipples, as well as an internal yeast infection. Still, she kept at it for a year and, now pregnant with her second child, she says she will probably do it again.
Why? Because it's "natural". But so, until relatively recently, were unprotected sex and high death rates for women during childbirth - but I don't see anyone wanting to turn the clock back in these areas.
The other big one, of course, is that it's "best for baby". But is it? The three major health benefits, according to Dr Yehudi Gordon in his book Birth and Beyond, are: "(1) A baby who is genetically prone to allergies, including eczema and ashthma, may avoid them or manifest allergic reactions later if breastfed - and they may be of reduced severity; (2) breast milk may reduce the risk of sudden infant death; and (3) exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months may reduce the incidence of serious childhood disease, including diabetes, leukaemia, bowel and liver disease."
That's it? Check out all the "may"s in there. The truth is that, except for infants in "high-risk categories", the benefits of breastfeeding aren't actually that substantial and taper off significantly after four to six months.
If society is going to promote breastfeeding so much, women ought to start talking about it far more. Instead of breezing into breastfeeding, as I did, without fully grasping the strains involved, women should receive unbiased information during pregnancy and be encouraged to debate whether, for example, formula isn't actually on a par with breastmilk these days.
However, surely it's dangerous to claim, as Dr Gordon does, that " breast milk is tailored to your baby's needs and changes from day to day... It contains everything your baby needs to thrive." Au contraire, a German nutritionist told me recently. Many breastfed children, she said, are brought in to her "half-starving". Purely anecdotally, she added that breastfed children suffer from more allergies. It's also downright unfeminist to encourage women to go back to work after having children and then assume they're going to breastfeed, and if not breastfeed, glibly suggest they use a breast pump.
Freed from the tyranny of breastfeeding, I, for one, could begin to relate to Max as a little person, and he was happier and fuller. Perhaps breastfeeding has been the worst-best solution for women for centuries, but now it's time to move on.
Breastfeeding: the facts
The Government and the World Health Organisation recommend that mothers exclusively breastfeed for at least six months
Although 69 per cent of women breastfeed at first, a fifth of these give up within the first two weeks, and a third within the first six weeks
The most common reasons for giving up are the baby rejecting the breast, pain and insufficient milk
A survey by the University of Kent found that on first bottle-feeding their babies, a third of mothers felt guilty, nearly a quarter worried about what their health visitor would say and a fifth worried about the effect on the baby's health
Nearly three quarters felt relief that their baby was being fed and pleasure to find a solution that made things easier
78 per cent of mothers aged 30 or over breastfeed, compared with 46 per cent of teenage mothersReuse content