Breast is best. Breast is best. Breast is best. If I had a pound for every time a health visitor repeated that phrase ...
The benefits of breastfeeding – to the NHS, to mums, dads, and, not forgetting, infants – are rammed home to new mothers, and now we have the latest study to add to the pro-lactation lobby, “proving” that mother’s milk improves both IQ and life outcomes.
According to a study of 6,000 Brazilian babies from 1982 onwards – published in The Lancet – those of us who are breastfed are more likely to turn into intelligent, well-educated and higher-earning adults. And the longer you are breastfed for, the better your prospects.
While I have no problem with the study per se (it takes into account family wealth and maternal education and was conducted), these kinds of figures, and the headlines they produce, are wont to be totally skewed in order to pressurise new mothers – not to mention make those mothers who can’t breastfeed, or decide not to, feel ashamed of themselves.
What none of these studies or news reports ever seem to acknowledge is quite how difficult breastfeeding actually is. I’d challenge anyone to sit for hours at a time with a needle sticking in their nipple, which is how it feels. For the first three weeks of my son’s life (and having been awake for most of them) every time my hungry newborn clamped his jaws on my areola I cried out in pain. But in my hormone- and anxiety-filled state I didn’t question that this was how it was and drove myself to keep going, responding as he hungrily batted my shoulder with his head in apparent starvation. I assumed this was all part of the maternal sacrifice.
Arriving in tears to a breastfeeding support group, I found that there were other mothers who were facing similar challenges and whose babies also appeared not to be immediately thriving. We felt like failures. Our bodies weren’t doing what they should.
Around 69 per cent of mothers breastfeed their babies at birth, but this falls to 23 per cent at six weeks – and for a very good reason. It is tough. It is a slog. Breast pumps and helpful partners/family notwithstanding, that new life is as dependent upon its mother as it was when it was in the womb. And that urge to feed – to nurture – plays to the most basic, animalistic aspect of our human selves. What you don’t realise until later is that the baby has to learn to breastfeed, as much as the mother has to learn to hold him correctly to promote the best latch.
These studies, while useful, carry an implicit criticism of anyone who fails to succeed in breastfeeding. Which is ironic considering that while we’d all like to think we’re doing the best for our bambinos we’re stuck between the Earth-motherish pressure to be constantly attached via a teat to our sprogs, versus the “Put it away, dear” mentality – thank you, Nigel Farage – which suggests that breastfeeding is embarrassing and dirty. When you’re sleep-deprived and clueless about babies anyway, that is enough to drive a normal person to drink (how dare you, you’re breastfeeding!)
I’m happy to have persevered with breastfeeding, eventually becoming so attached (no pun intended) to those cosy hours with my baby that I didn’t give it up until he was 16 months old (how many IQ points is that?). But that was a personal choice and I wasn’t submitting to external pressure. I’d defy anyone to do it because they were told to. The oxytocin hormone which promotes milk supply is the same one we produce when we’re in love. Try making that with a gun to your head.